Washington, DC

As I looked out of the back window of a Lyft as I crossed the Potomac, it was the first time in my entire life that I got to see Washington DC in person.

I immediately laughed.

So much marble. So much pomp and circumstance. A city carved from stone standing as a beacon made to look like the Greeks designed it over two thousand years ago?

It was all a bit nonsensical at first glance.

What first popped in my mind was Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. It looked almost fake, like a movie set.

Everything in marble, designed to last for thousands of years, looking like it was always there, but largely built when the country had barely formed.

And where did they get the money? Could you imagine today if a developing country was in a prolonged war, then won it unexpectedly, and proceeded to build an opulent capital city out of the finest materials before they’d barely developed their first laws or established their banking system?

Ooooooh right. Free labor is how they did it. Funny I never heard this in my history classes growing up.


The National Museum of African American History and Culture was incredible. You have to reserve tickets online at 6AM to get in the same day but it’s a really great set of exhibits in a beautiful building.

The museum’s basement begins with a story I’ve never heard examined before, the prehistory of American slavery, from the 1400-1600s and how Europeans gradually built the slave trade.

The rest of the exhibits didn’t go as hard as the Whitney Museum did, but I walked with an afternoon tour and it covered the highlights of how gruesome slavery was and how much money it made and how it continues in many ways today.

The first few floors are pretty heavy, so it was good to see the upper levels of the museum celebrate black culture in many different facets.

When you leave the African American museum and you head to the National Gallery of Art next door, there’s a bunch of shaker furniture on display but after you’ve left a heavy exhibit about slavery, it’s kinda difficult to muster up appreciation for silly rich people stuff like fancy ass chairs.


By the way, the weekend we were in DC, there was a 100,000 strong motorcycle rally for “freedom” and you’d see old guys in leather vests walking around literally everywhere, but I never saw any of them at the MLK memorial or at the NMAAHC. I wonder why…

The Metro subway in DC was incredible. We happened to have a station right next to our hotel and getting all over the city was fast and easy. Every time we arrived at a station a train was no more than 4 minutes away. The only subway I’ve ever used that was this reliable was the London Underground. I’ve never experienced an American subway system that was so quick, easy, air conditioned, and beautiful. Also? I’ve NEVER been on a subway before that told you which side doors would open just as you approached each station. It was so human and so handy.

It’s a gorgeous subway from end to end, and it was really impressive and yet another reason why it reminded me of a foreign country’s system. I’ve never seen anything like this in America before.


The many memorials were incredible across the board, but I think the public doesn’t quite understand them when they’re first built and gets mired in criticism about where they were placed and how they might look, but that all goes away after they’ve been around for a couple decades. I remember controversies around several of them when they debuted but they’re revered now and I have no doubt the new MLK one will fall into the pantheon of celebrated works on the mall.

I got to visit the White House and it was a really weird experience. First off, you’ve got to find the secret gate entrance for visitors, then you have to wait in a long line for multiple levels of security screening. It was clear about half the people there were reluctantly visiting like me while half were definitely fans of Trump and happy to be there.

It was a trip to look at the buildings and know you’ve seen those same places in breaking news before. Oh that’s where he did the weird handshake with the French guy. Oh that’s where he did the stupid burgers for college football players. Oh, that’s where Obama would do the state of the union.

It was weird to be there during a large protest and be on the other side of the gates for it. I was glad to get away from there as fast as possible.

Also, I bet he hates seeing this prominent Bill Clinton portrait every day.


The portrait gallery was amazing.

I remember a wave of sadness hit me after seeing the Barack Obama portrait. It’s so beautiful and as bright and brilliant of a painting as the man is, and to think that he presided over Washington for eight years and now the shitshow clown we currently have gets to follow him—it was just a bit depressing to think we went from the best to worst so quickly.


The Air and Space museum kinda sucked because they’re going through such a large renovation, so it felt like only about half of the collection was on display with lots of boarded up rooms and hallways due to construction. I was happy to be reminded that the Wright Brothers were not only bike shop owners but also made a few bikes and they had one on display that would look at home at any current National Handmade Bike Show.

A highlight of my whole trip was getting a personal two hour tour of the Holocaust museum and the exhibit about how America reacted to Hitler, the war, and the holocaust from the creator of the exhibit. We got to learn why each display was selected and why it was there and how it related to the larger story along with the transitions between exhibits. Of course, viewing it today, it was easy to make parallels to current news, but the exhibit was created in 2014 and connecting the japanese internment camps to the ones you see today in El Paso, or the rhetoric found in headlines and speeches of Hitler that mimic a lot of the ways we talk about immigration in 2019 was entirely left to the viewer.


I so quickly got used to every museum being free. I remember going to London and being amazed that museums didn’t charge admission, but once you’re in DC and enjoying museum after museum after museum and there’s no charge for it, it just makes sense. You’ll never think of a completely different way to look at something until you get to experience it, and then it seems bananas we don’t do it everywhere. Why not use an endowment or sponsor or any way you can to keep a museum free and open to the public for all to enjoy and be educated? After a week of free museums, it’s going to feel weird to pay for a ticket at one in the future in other cities.


Food was expensive as fuck! Our group of three ate at a variety of places, from cheap pizza/italian to sidewalk cafes to fancy seafood joints. The bill for lunch or dinner at just OK places was frequently $60-70 with no alcohol. One lunch we splurged and it ended up costing $110 for fairly decent seafood but not what I’d expect for the money. This was all in the central district, so I’m sure it’s a bit of a tourist tax going on.

An outlier was going to an Eritrean/Ethiopian restaurant, buying a variety platter bigger than our table, buying a beer, and having the entire bill be only $22. I tipped $10 because they deserved it and it was frankly too cheap for such incredible food.


I’ve always wanted to visit DC and before a month ago, I never had the chance.

Actually, there was one chance where my fourth grade class all got to go to DC and I asked my parents but they didn’t have the money to cover it so I sat and read books at the school library for a week while my classmates enjoyed seeing government in the flesh. I resented my parents for years after for denying me this experience, but I never had the chance in all my travels as an adult to check out DC.

So it was great to finally see where laws are made and where people work in government and those kooky stone buildings that hold it all in.

What an utterly ridiculous but unforgettable place.

The Portland Thorns template

The Guardian asks “Are the Portland Thorns the ideal template for a women’s football club?” and it’s such a fucking no-brainer that every year I go to Thorns games I wonder why the entire women’s soccer league in America doesn’t use them as a blueprint to copy.

My shot from last Sunday’s Portland opener

Thorns games are well-attended, always setting records in the league (last Sunday’s game I went to had a new league record 19,000 people). They’ve got a good team, but lots of other teams are good too, but have a fraction of attendance and support from fans (some teams get as few as 2,500 fans to show up).

Currently, the North Carolina Courage are the best team in the league. Let’s look at where they play.

Portland’s park at the top looks like a cross between a classic mid-tier city baseball stadium and a european soccer stadium. The Courage look like they play at a well-funded high school.

I’ve thought about this and Portland’s success boils down to a few key, simple concepts that can easily be replicated elsewhere.

1. Have both a MLS men’s soccer team and a NWSL women’s team in the same city to pool the two fanbases. The Portland Timbers are a big draw and so are the Thorns and there is plenty of crossover fans between the two. Soccer fans can enjoy both teams and games, but don’t cut your fans in half by putting a women’s team in a weird city with no corresponding base of soccer fans, and the same goes for the men, don’t expand to a non-soccer town with just one team, and make sure there are good college soccer teams in those cities too. Honestly, the NWSL and MLS should work together on this and only approve expansion cities that pair up teams to the same place, so one can help support the other and vice versa.

2. Share the men’s MLS team stadium with the NWSL women’s team. When you build a soccer stadium, both teams should share it. The Portland park is incredible, and the Timbers and Thorns switch off who gets the Saturday game and who gets to play on Sundays. That’s how every other city should do it.

Here’s where the Seattle Reign FC women’s team plays:

And here’s where the Seattle Sounders men’s team plays:

That’s messed up. This should be the rule: Two teams, one city, one stadium.

3. Add more women’s teams in obvious places. San Jose has a MLS team and a stadium but no women’s team. How can this be? This is totally bananas, given the huge population of fans in California and that Santa Clara University is nearby and was the subject of a whole film about women’s soccer. There’s definitely a big fanbase ready to embrace a new team there and it boggles my mind there’s nothing in San Jose and nothing in Los Angeles, which gets TWO mens teams. Anywhere there’s a strong women’s college team and an existing MLS team should be a good candidate for locating a pro women’s team.

Honestly, that’s all there is to the Portland Thorns’ success. Granted, Portland doesn’t have any pro football or baseball teams, but it has two top-tier women’s soccer programs at Portland State and U of Portland and they share a stadium with the existing MLS team.

Every other city and team in the MLS and NWSL could work like this and really draw the crowds to women’s soccer, which it goes without saying clearly outperforms the men’s US team in international play and deserves bigger salary caps once they start attracting bigger crowds by pooling fans and resources.

How to take better photos

A friend recently asked me how they could take better photos.

First off, it’s better to think about making photos instead of taking photos. Where you choose to point a camera, how you zoom in and frame it, and at what time of day are all choices you make that influence the final shot. So it’s making, not just taking.

My main advice is often something like “go take 100,000 photos and then you’ll be good by the end of it” but while practice certainly helps, directed practice is better. Don’t just take more shots for the sake of more shots, try out different factors each time, make every shoot a set of experiments to get you more familiar with the possibilities. Find out what works and what doesn’t, and follow rules so you can later break them.

Never stop experimenting.

So my tips on how to take good shots boil down to three things:

  • Light
  • Framing
  • Processing

Light

I had an epiphany when I was reading photo.net sometime in the late ’90s (it appears photo.net was sold off and changed greatly, but I think it was this old tutorial at Philip Greenspun’s site that opened my eyes). I liked Greenspun’s tutorials because they aren’t too focused on tech or lenses or f-stops directly but more about philosophical approaches and timeless advice on capturing a decent photograph no matter what device you’re using.

Much of getting a good shot is knowing how to deal with light. And Philip’s tutorials on light made me think more about it whenever I went out to take photos. Often I’d experience a moment and think “this looks amazing, let me get my camera” and I’d capture it, but I often revisit a place at several points in a day, like early morning, midday, and during “golden hour” just before sunset. On vacation, this means visiting a same spot 3-4 times to try and get a good photo. And then there are the familiar places near me that I’ve visited for years and years, at all times of day, hoping for just the right combo of light and clouds. There are trees and signs along bike rides that I know will look amazing in a shot someday but I haven’t captured yet and it might take three or four more years to get it right.

So yes, the best advice for getting better at photography is taking lots more shots all the time, but when you do it, notice how light plays with your subjects and try things at different times of day, with different lenses, with different lighting. If you want to try something bold, take a photo of the same tree every day for a month. Then try a shot of it for every hour the sun is up, then look back at them to see which worked the best and why.

Once you understand how light plays with a landscape or a portrait subject, you’re well on the way to getting better shots. There’s only so much VSCO or Lightroom can save, but if you can capture good lighting first, you’ll have a good photo even if you do nothing else right.

Framing

Once you know how light plays with a subject, framing your photo (and later, cropping) are your next areas to focus on when practicing.

The rule of thirds is a bit of a cliché, but when you’re shooting landscapes or candid photos it really does make for more compelling photos. Perfectly centered, symmetrical shots only work for certain subject matter and settings, while for most photos centering a subject makes it come out boring.

Waterfalls are a great example. Everyone wants to take a photo of a waterfall in the center of the frame, but it’s almost always more interesting if you shift the waterfall to one of the sides and put the horizon line/top of the waterfalls at the top 1/3rd.


Get low. Taking photos where the lens is five or six feet above the ground tend to come out boring because we’ve all seen that view before. I shoot most landscape photos at about belt-buckle level. I crouch down, shooting two or three feet above the ground to get a new perspective and make a more interesting photo.


Cropping is a skill you’ll pick up only after years of editing photos. For the first ten years I was taking lots of shots, I rarely ever cropped and tried to get everything framed perfectly in the viewfinder. Then as the rise of things like Instagram and mobile devices proved, getting things narrowed so your subjects appear “larger” on small screens became a skill I practiced for years, and now I almost always shoot a photo slightly wide on purpose so I can crop the best shot out of it later.

Processing

I’ll admit I don’t get too hung up on post-processing my photos, but ten years of iPhone filters and twenty years of photoshop before that certainly influence me and it’s a good skill to develop (no pun intended) to make your shots the best they can be. Basically I find a workflow in the smallest set of steps that get my photos to a better place as quickly as possible, so I can prep a photo in an instant, then post it and move on.

I’d urge everyone to experiment with all your options (try out Lightroom, VSCO, etc) until you settle on a look you like, and feel free to ask photographers doing something different that you enjoy for any tips. I found out blue filters do wonders for cycling shots and it’s a thing I would have never tried unless a friend shared his process with me.

I’m incredibly lazy and I don’t like to spend too much time on processing, but if it’s your jam, go with it. Shoot RAW and adjust histograms all day, and try out the hundreds of photo apps out there that can help streamline processing. I optimize for speed and convenience, but I often wish I spent more time on post-processing.

So that’s all there is. Pay close attention to these three main areas whenever you’re shooting photos. Tweak one of them each day, and return to places day after day to try more new things. Eventually, you’ll figure out how to make better photos and what works and doesn’t for you, and someday you’ll arrive somewhere for the first time, grab a quick shot, and it’ll look amazing even without days of shooting, all because you put in the work and know how to tweak your surroundings to help you get great shots.

Tips on industrial strength WiFi for normal people

I live in a ~2,500sqft house built in 2005, and it’s given me nothing but problems when it comes to wifi. My home office (where internet enters the house) is at one extreme corner of the first floor and no matter what I tried, the second floor’s opposite end of the house never could quite get decent WiFi signals.

For years, I tried various Netgear and Linksys WiFi base stations and Apple AirPort Extremes and I tried range extenders and powerline ethernet and early mesh networks with additional Airport Express points upstairs.

A few years ago when eero came out, I bought a set of three the day they debuted. At first, things were great, but when one point couldn’t see the other two momentarily, the whole thing would collapse. I started rebooting the points periodically to maintain decent wifi, but still I’d get dropouts every so often where you’d have a good connection to a point that couldn’t see the other two, so you’d have perfect wifi but no internet.

After a year of eero, I gave up and tried out Google’s WiFi mesh product, and it followed the same pattern. Even with four points (two per floor), getting decent enough wifi upstairs continued to be a problem, and my 200Mbps connection in my home office would end up being 10-20Mbps speeds on the upstairs floor (in between weekly dropouts where one point upstairs would fall off the network completely).

I finally decided to fix this once and for all.

Talking to friends with bulletproof home networks, they all relied on ethernet drops in every room along with a wireless access point system like those from Ubiquiti, which is a common system in offices, at conferences, in schools, and other public places with hundreds to thousands of people using them.

I didn’t want to go down the enterprise WiFi path at first, so I decided to convert my unused phone lines to ethernet to see how that could improve things. It took some tweaking, but I even got my Google WiFi home system to recognize the “ethernet backhaul” connections, but it didn’t improve WiFi speeds much, as Google’s WiFi continued to rely on the network mesh to spread the connection, ignoring the fast wired connection on each point. So my backroom would still putter at 15Mbps.

As a last ditch effort, I tried Ubiquiti’s home prosumer version called AmpliFi, wiring up two Amplifi HD access points, one on each floor setup in the “ethernet backhaul” configuration, but after hours of tweaking I could not get the first unit to properly connect to a network (I flashed the firmware to the latest, cloned the MAC address on the original router, and still, nothing). I returned them for refunds.

Finally, I gave in and bought a Ubiquiti UniFi system. This is no small feat because it takes some research to get right and I spent the last couple weeks reading forums and guides and watching tons of YouTube videos before compiling my own shopping list and checking that against what friends had in their homes.

I’d say this is a gold standard system for needs like mine, where I have 7 rooms with ethernet jacks and a fiber optic internet connection that terminates in a simple ethernet cable:

  • Ubiquiti Security Gateway (USG) which acts as your router/DHCP server/firewall that hands out IP addresses to everything
  • Ubiquiti CloudKey which is a tiny linux server that runs the monitoring software for your network, accessible from outside if you ever need to change something remotely
  • Ubiquiti 8-port switch with PoE (power over ethernet) on all 8 ports
  • 2 x Ubiquiti AC Pro WiFi Access Points (they come in half a dozen versions but the Pro model is fine for most uses) and I bought 2, one for each floor of my house

You have to buy all these parts to make it work. There are ways to skip or substitute others, but go with what’s easiest. In total this should run you about $700, depending on what packages Amazon offers.

Keep in mind there are cheaper options. At the lowest cost, you could just wire up two Ubiquiti AC Pro points and leave your routing to your existing network setup. This would run about $250. You could also save about $100 by going with Ubiquiti’s cheaper 8-port switch with only 4 PoE ports, bringing the full system down to about $600.

So with my equipment in hand, I watched a ton of videos, but this one is a great for its simplicity.

It’s still not perfectly simple, as you can skip some of the network changes he makes, but overall you can see how easy it is to make your connections in a configuration like this:

I took the ethernet coming off my fiber connection, plugged it into the USG, then ran a wire to the switch, then plugged in the CloudKey on an ethernet port in a room I wasn’t using. I plugged one AC Pro wifi point downstairs in my living room facing the backyard and one upstairs on the opposite end of the house. The great thing about PoE on every port is you can plug in an access point anywhere and not need a wall plug of any kind, since it gets power from ethernet.

I logged into the various administration screens as directed by the video, and updated the firmware on all devices. After about ten minutes of updates and basic configuration, everything was up and running perfectly.

Ubiquiti products are like swiss army knives with 10,000 blades. They’re incredibly flexible and can support almost any configuration you can imagine and if you just search for your specific need, and it’s fairly easy to find answers from someone that has done what you need before (I had to port forward for outside access to a media server that took some extra tweaking). Imagine it’s like a wifi system designed by people that use StackOverflow to look everything up.

I briefly tried Ubiquiti’s stuff out 5-7 years ago and it’s gotten way easier to configure, understand, and monitor, but you still have to do a bit of research after you get it set up. If you get stuck, it’s not too hard to find local computer IT help you can hire with experience on Ubiquiti devices since it’s so widely used.

On the positive side, once you have things set up, they’re good to go since there are tiny stable linux servers underneath it all. I am seeing perfect wifi in my house, and the room at the far end of my second floor that gave me so much grief is running over 150Mbps speeds now and I couldn’t be happier with this all.

It’s fairly expensive stuff for home WiFi, but it’s bulletproof, and reliable enough to be set-it-and-forget-it. Every year for the past 14 I’ve lived in my house I’ve spent a couple hundred bucks trying out all kinds of solutions but I wish I went with this sooner.


NG-11 Space launch trip day 2

Morning Facebook Live Q&A session
NASA’s Near Earth network antennas (these are the mobile ones)
Near Earth Network antenna that dates back to Apollo 11
the C-130
The crew
Cargo door
From inside the door
Even C-130s have WiFi on them
The C-130’s nose
The NASA Social group from inside the cockpit
The line of tripods
The launch begins
Launch continues
The rocket leaves the plume

Day 2 was the big one and all signs pointed to everything going smoothly with perfect weather conditions for a launch later that day.

We started our day with a presentation and Q&A with retired astronaut Robert Curbeam, then we made our way to a telescope array where satellite data is beamed down continuously and we talked about the challenges of working with so much data.

Our last day trip before we trekked to the launch site was to visit an airfield and hanger. A highlight of this was when a C-130 cargo plane landed in the middle of our tour, and both the director of the airfield and the pilot jumped out and opened all the doors and waved us over to check out every nook and cranny. A cargo plane is a pretty specialized thing and it was great to see the cockpit and the cargo bays.

Finally, with the 4:46PM launch time, just before 3pm we started making our way to our launch viewing site. All morning, we could tell the roads were jammed near the NASA visitor center where the public was encouraged to go to see (it was maybe 4mi from the launch site). By the afternoon every road into the area was choked with traffic, and luckily we had back roads and special entrances to get onto Wallops Island.

By the way, if you’re not in a NASA-led group, I did notice the post office we passed just as we entered the facility had a really clear view and just an hour before launch maybe 30 people knew about it and were parked there. It’s here on Google Maps and from what I could see in the bus, it had a direct line of sight to the launch pad.

We got to our spot about 2 miles from the launch pad with a good clear view of it. NASA was kind enough to setup an event tent in the middle along with some bleachers and they even had wifi in the tent (cell networks were all jammed so this was a relief).

Every photographer ran off the buses into the marshland and people all stopped along a line where the ground was dry enough and stable for tripods. I grabbed a spot between tripods for my own camera, and setup my old Canon 5Dmk3 with a 70-200mm 2.8L lens on a cheap tripod I bought at Best Buy the night before.

At first I was a little freaked out, because my test photos of the rocket on the pad were showing up as blurry, but it was the effects of heat over 2 miles of land. Everyone’s zoomed in view was a little wavy. I was also worried because everyone in my group was running 600mm lenses and a lot of people had multipliers to get in tighter at around 1200mm.

I worried 200mm wasn’t enough, but in the end with the big sensor, I got perfectly fine shots of the launch I could crop down tighter, plus I didn’t have to precisely follow the rocket to keep it in frame of a zoomed in view. I’ll even go out on a limb and say you don’t necessarily need the 600mm+ zoomed in hardware, since I checked out the shots from others in the group and they suffered from the same heat effects and slight blurs as mine.

Finally, the time got closer and closer and then suddenly it was about to happen. I wrote up all my overwhelming feelings here, but even though I was warned, the weirdness of seeing the rocket launch but not hearing it for 10-15 seconds was a trip. Then the sound was louder and sharper than I thought it’d be. I must admit for the first 30 seconds of the launch I was 100% focused on getting photos, but once the rocket left the pad and the plume, I stumbled backwards and just laid down on the ground to watch it continue to climb. I kinda wish I could experience a launch without a camera to fully experience it, but maybe someday.

Afterwards, we slowly made our way back to the bus and then we were dropped off. The roads were still slammed in all directions heading out, so I headed back to my hotel and tried to find dinner. At the fourth restaurant I checked, I got a table and some seafood, and finally I attended the NASA TV press conference that night before finally heading to Washington DC for my last day of the trip.

This trip was fantastic, it was a life-changing event that I’m incredibly thankful for getting the opportunity to witness. The NASA crew was incredible throughout, giving us tours and talks and answering questions and being incredibly accommodating.

I would implore anyone wanting to experience this to follow @NASASocial and the main NASA accounts on Twitter. Every couple months they open signups for future launches and their program runs like a well-oiled machine after dozens of these launches. Keep in mind you do have to pay for all your travel and time, but if you’d like to help NASA get the word out on all your social networks, they may just approve you.

We have liftoff

Everything since October 1957, when Sputnik streaked across the sky, has led to where we are today.

Sputnik led to our own satellites and then to vehicles that could hold animals, then people, then we could orbit the earth then we could orbit the moon, and then we could land on the moon. And then we made rockets that were reusable, and we kept flying. We used a science research station in Antarctica to test the possibility living on the moon. Or on Mars. And then we use the International Space Station to test the limits of how long we can survive in space for those longer trips.

Everything in spaceflight is an iterative experiment. Each new flight does a few new things for the very first time while also testing possibilities so future missions can create their own firsts.

Every flight builds on the shoulders of all the flights that came before it. It’s a slow process, but it works.

Gravity is a hell of a thing. Conceptually I knew a 50 ton rocket pushing 7600lbs up into the air would take a lot of thrust, but it’s not until you’re standing a couple miles away watching it happen that you realize just how much thrust it takes. 

Light travels much faster than sound, so you hear T-minus 3, 2, 1, and then you see a blast of smoke and then you see the rocket rise and then you see the flame, and being two miles away, it takes about 12-15 seconds for the blast at the speed of sound to reach you. For a long moment your eyes deceive your ears and you wonder if any of this is real. Then you hear the sound. Then you feel the sound.

I’ve never heard a sound like this before in my entire life. I don’t know if it is millions of tiny sonic booms compounded together, but it sounds like a rocket powered zipper ripping the sky apart down to its basic particles. It’s incredibly loud, and you feel it in your chest. And it’s entirely odd, since nothing sounds quite like it.

It was almost overwhelming to watch tons of equipment rise off the ground and shoot up to the air until it disappeared completely. It’s a triumph of science, an 11th flight that built on the previous 10, along with every previous flight of the past 60 years that NASA has existed. It was also a triumph of mathematics and astronomy and engineering and loads of other disciplines.

Rockets are a concerted, collected effort. Dozens of different agencies work together with hundreds of private companies and suppliers. Space programs from half a dozen different countries worked together to assemble the thousands of parts that formed it. And still, it all worked.

As the rocket left the ground I couldn’t help but feel I was witnessing a pinnacle of human achievement and knowledge, not only raising a seemingly impossible amount of mass off the ground but up into the sky where it was set to converge with a bunch of people floating in a box that itself orbits the Earth every 90 minutes. Imagine the math required to get that right.

We sent a rocket up with food, supplies, and experiments and it will be in astronaut hands in a day and a half. That’s fucking incredible.

Watching the launch made today one of the top 5 days of my life.

NG-11 space launch trip: day 1

Entrance to a rocket testing lab
The testing lab
A typical payload on a small rocket, tons of sensors and telemetry
The machine shop’s work, all of it was beautiful
Me next to the NG-12 rocket being built
The Horizontal Inspection Facility
Inside the HIF, with people for scale
The garage door at the HIF
Launch pad ready for tomorrow
The NG-11 on the pad
Presentations throughout the day
Thinsat tiny satellite
Press conference for NASA TV
photographers setting up for the big launch tomorrow

Yesterday, I flew to Washington DC, then drove about 3.5 hours to get near NASA’s flight facility at Wallops Island, Virginia, where they occasionally launch rockets. I lucked out on this trip many times over:

  • This facility has the closest viewing area to the launchpad of all the Florida, California, and Texas launch sites
  • This is the first daytime resupply launch in ages (the last one was at 4 in the morning)
  • They’re testing out a bunch of new equipment I got to see
  • The weather looks to be about perfect for tomorrow

The NASA Social team has been incredible. We’ve gotten into places few get to see, everyone treats us like royalty, and the whole thing runs exactly on time as set on our itinerary.

We started with a quick get-to-know-everyone meet and greet, then got a private bus trip to a NASA rocket machine shop and testing facility. We got to see where they do bench tests, centrifuge tests, and the smaller scale rockets they test payloads out in before they go into full-sized rockets.

The machine shop was incredible, it smelled amazing, mostly of metal shavings and the sound was an incredible cacophony of white noise from the giant lathes that was really quite relaxing. There were lathes that could spin six to eight foot high pieces of solid aluminum.

Next, we visited the Horizontal Inspection Facility (HIF) where they assemble the fuel stages and propellants as well as pack the payloads. They do it all sideways (and they can now spin them like a hamster wheel so you don’t have to reach up to put stuff in) for weeks and weeks packing it just so, then deliver it to the launchpad while still sideways. Then it’s raised up. They can fit two full sized rockets in the HIF so we got to see the next rocket being assembled.

There was new tech being tested on tomorrow’s mission, which was a new nose cone design that can be popped off and on easily. This means they can hold off to the very last section (less than 12 hours before launch) when loading the very last bits of payload. This allows them to test out perishable experiments that can’t sit for weeks inside the HIF garage. Tomorrow’s launch features 40 mice testing out the tetanus vaccine, which is only possible because they can be loaded live into their payload boxes just short of the launch.

The total payload of tomorrow’s flight is 7600 lbs, and it’s 50% a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and 50% science experiments. One of the other cool new things on this payload was a bunch of drone robots to help maintain the ISS. Previously, the occupants of the ISS would do periodic spacewalks to check on their cooling systems, looking for any ammonia leaks. Once this payload arrives, they’ll have essentially giant Roomba drone bots that will continuously check the ISS for leaks with their own ammonia sensors, so the astronauts can work inside instead.

I learned that rockets are standardized in size and shape so all the agencies and countries can work together on the same thing, kinda like a train track having a certain gauge so everything works together. But, technology keeps progressing faster, miniaturizing components to the point where standard rocket payloads can fit a lot more stuff.

The coolest thing we saw was the Thinsat, a tiny (about the size of my hand) ~$10k rig of equipment that can be released and orbit the earth for 5 days while continuously recording data. Virginia’s space program is releasing dozens of them as STEM projects for Virginia schoolkids, who each got to pick out what they want to measure and put in their own Thinsat, and all the data will be public and shared among schools.

I can’t wait for the launch tomorrow and I sincerely hope it goes off without a hitch. I’ll be taking more photos and posting them tomorrow night if all goes well.

If you ever get the chance to attend a NASA Social event, by all means do it. Follow @NASASocial on Twitter, where about once a month they announce applications for upcoming launches. If you can take the time off and fly out to wherever the launch is, apply and get a spot!

The wisdom of the twitter crowds

After years of putting it off, yesterday I finally rounded up all the change we leave around the house in jars by doors where we drop our keys as well as the inch of change in the center console of my truck that have all been collecting for years. It filled a canvas shopping bag about 1/4 full and weighed 21.1lbs total.

I was curious what random people on Twitter thought, so I posted a tweet asking people to guess, along with a photo.

I got about 200 guesses and if you look at the distribution, there are a couple interesting things to note.

The guesses seem randomized, but the cluster around $250 are the guesses of a highly educated crowd that googled how much a pound of change weighs, which is around $12, so 21lbs puts you right around $252. I said I noticed a lot of quarters and I think people slid it upwards to $275. There’s of course a bump around $420 because it’s fun to joke about (on the other hand, 21lbs of pure quarters is about $425).

Even with google, the distribution is pretty nice and aside from the weird cluster around $700, it’s mostly a clean bell curve. My favorite guesses took the average price of a pound of change with some quick distribution of coins based on my photo, like this guesser’s chart.

The final result at my bank’s coin machine (they don’t skim any off you like coinstar) was $244.93. Hilariously, the two closest guesses out of the 200 were both my coworkers at Slack (I never mentioned this tweet at work, they both randomly found it). Brook Shelley won, but Lynn Wu was closest at only $1.07 away, but she was over and Bob Barker rules, so Brook won.

Anyway, it was a good bit of fun and I’m impressed how close people were to the mark. If you want to play with the data, here’s a quick spreadsheet you can make a copy of and if you were wondering I made the frequency distribution grouping in $25 increments with a simple use of the FUNCTION(range,classes) operator in Google Sheets.

Converting phone lines to ethernet in newer homes

My phone wires in a closet before / after conversion

I live in a house built in 2005, and when we got rid of our landline around 2012, I knew I wanted to try converting all our unused phone jacks in the walls to ethernet someday. After 7 years of thinking about it off and on, I finally got it done today. I should have done it ages ago.

There’s a ton of info on the web, but a great deal of it is from people in IT or who worked on networks, or electrical engineers, and it took a while for me to get acquainted and wade through all the jargon. I’ll try and keep this simple.

  1. Unscrew one of your phone jacks in the wall to see what kind of wire is behind it. If your house was built or renovated after the year 2000, chances are you have cat5, cat5e, or cat6 wires and there should be labels printed on the casing of the wires. (if you do see cat 5 or 6, you’re solid and it’s an easy conversion. If you don’t, it’ll be a lot tougher as new cat6 cables will need to be run in place of the phone lines)
  2. Find your phone/tv/wire drop in a box in a closet or in your garage. All those phone lines terminate somewhere and you have to find that panel or box. Make sure the cable casings all say cat 5 or 6 on them.
  3. My phone lines were in a bundle with a few wired to each other. One of the wires was from my home fiber connection into the house.
  4. Pay an electrician to get separate the bundle and convert each cable to ethernet. They’ll need to split out the original 8 wires in each, in the correct order and into new ethernet plugs with special crimper.
  5. Buy a simple network switch from someone like Netgear with enough ports for every cable you connect to it. Once all the ethernet plugs are attached to all your cables, connect them all to your network switch (for a simple setup, you can skip a “punchdown block” and just use a switch).
  6. Have an electrician go to each room with a phone jack and change out the old phone connections with an ethernet adapter.
  7. Once complete, test that every jack when connected to a computer is transferring at gigabit speeds (the switch will show two lights on each port).
  8. Plug any routers and wifi points into your new ethernet port for faster networking.

Empathy and Invisibilia

The new episode of Invisibilia is at times both incredible but ultimately, frustrating to me.

It starts with an interesting premise: a new producer, Lina Misitzis, is given the task of cutting a raw interview into a small story as a test, but the hosts are shocked at the difference in tone of her work when compared to their own version of the story they produced concurrently.

Much credit to the host, Hanna Rosin, for having the humility and courage to consider the possibility that maybe her existing team got their version of the story wrong, and allowing for the question of whether or not Misitzis’ story got closer to the truth.

From there, they play NPR’s full story about a sympathetic interview with a former “incel” and the moment he realized he could change. It’s a classic redemption story, much like the ones I’ve heard about ex-Klan members and those that left cults or restrictive churches before on NPR.

Then they play the full version of the new producer’s story, and it tells a different tale. She doesn’t cut out parts of interviews that cast the subject in a bad light, and those same interview clips take on entirely new meanings when a fuller picture emerges.

Rosin then goes all-in on how NPR hosts typically approach stories with unlimited empathy, how putting the listeners and viewers into the shoes of their subjects is their bread and butter. She brings on an expert to talk about the importance of empathy, and disturbing trends in empathy decreases in younger people, and how a world without empathy would be a terrible place.

It’s at this point that I started to get a little upset about this episode. It quickly felt like a Boomer/GenX vs. Millennials moment where younger people are being blamed for being more reserved or careful with doling out their empathy. It feels like Rosin sets this up as a strawman argument, where if you can’t have total empathy you must have none, and that younger generations were well on their way to ruining society by making it free of empathy.

I wish the show recast its glare on the story prepared by existing NPR staff. Why did they cut out parts of the interviews where the subject downplays the feelings of his ex and underplays the danger he was putting her in? He says a lot of terrible things that ended up on the cutting room floor because it didn’t fit the narrative. To me, that’s the real story the new producer uncovered.

Why can’t the show’s hosts talk about a middle ground—one that I myself have come around to—which is offering strangers the benefit of the doubt and full empathy as a default, but also knowing when you are met with someone truly toxic (like the subject of the episode’s story) that it’s quite alright and downright healthy to completely cut off, shut down, and/or avoid them. Instead, they go further on a tangent about how being selective with your empathy (like people do with politics) leads to tribalism, but honestly it sounds childish and ridiculous.

The more the episode progressed, the more I was in support of Lina Misitzis’ take. The subject of their interviews is a truly awful, abusive person who committed many crimes that he consistently downplayed. He hadn’t changed his retrograde views on women at all, his story wasn’t a classic redemption story, and NPR’s traditional coverage style was sugar coating it and in the wrong.

At the very end, they give the show’s subject one last chance to come clean, with a quick interview featuring hosts of both versions of his story, and he makes it perfectly clear he didn’t change much, that he was just trying to repair the damage his actions caused in his own life, and that he’s only interested in making life easier for himself. It ends on this discordant note.

I love Invisibilia and I love the broad range of stories in past episodes, but the way Rosin and staff treated this one feels really off, leaving me feeling uneasy and dissatisfied with lingering questions they never fully answered.