The Last Shuttle Launch

If it wasn’t clear, I didn’t take this picture.

Reading this week:

  • The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

I saw the last launch of the Space Shuttle! Not recently of course. Avid fans of space will know that the last time a Space Shuttle was launched was back in 2011. Astute readers of this blog will also know that I have been in New Haven recently because of grad school, and haven’t gone anywhere at all because we’re not supposed to leave New Haven. That has left me with a dearth of things to write about (my super amazing girlfriend (hi!) suggested I write about cats, a suggestion I callously tossed to the wayside, though maybe I could have combined these topics), so I think I will dig through the unpublished annals of my personal history to come up with some things to write about. Thus, today, I am talking about the last Shuttle launch.

To set the scene, it was way back in the halcyon days of 2011. I had, just that May, graduated from the Naval Academy. Upon graduating the Naval Academy, the Navy guarantees you, after your four years of hard work, 30 days of leave. This is nice! There was some special name for it. Guaranteed leave or comp time or something. The name is bugging me. Some people, like the very eager newly-minted Marine 2nd LTs, decided to forgo this leave and jump right into training. Not I! No siree, I took that leave. Plus Nuke School didn’t start until like September anyways. I spent some of that summer in a stash job (the Navy needs to justify your paycheck or whatever, so they “stash” you in a job somewhere) at an officer recruiting office which was both low-stress and illuminating, but for my big vacation I decided to uh, go big. Specifically, I decided to go to Brazil so I could see the Amazon rainforest before it all disappeared.

I did not watch the last launch of the Space Shuttle from Brazil. I watched it from the Kennedy Space Center, which is where they launched Space Shuttles from, but you see it was all part of the same trip, which is why I bring it up, and also some foreshadowing that the next couple of weeks probably will be about Brazil, or what I can glean from the pictures, at any rate. Anyways! I think this was my grandma’s idea (she lives in Florida), or else my aunt and uncle’s idea, who are the kinds of hip and cool people that would come up with the sort of idea to go see the last launch of the Space Shuttle. I was rather excited at the prospect of seeing a Space Shuttle launch. I, being at times uncreative in my youthful interests, used to be a big fan of space, and had even gone to Space Camp when I was younger. And since this was gonna be the last chance to see one, it seemed like a cool thing to do.

I had nothing to do with the planning of this portion of the trip, and was therefore carried along somewhat bewildered at it all, the same way I imagine the various animals they’ve sent to space must feel. The crowd for the launch included my grandma, my dad (who was coming to Brazil with me), my aunt (the three people just mentioned are pictured above), my uncle, and myself (neither of us pictured above). Apparently, to see a Space Shuttle launch, you show up very early, which is why it is dark in the above picture, which depicts us showing up very early. We set up chairs and a blanket to claim our spot on the lawn of the Kennedy Space Center, and fell asleep again.

By later in the day it had become much more crowded. To justify the ticket price, I suppose, NASA put on a whole morning of events for us to watch. They hauled out some astronauts that weren’t flying that day to talk to us about like, space and stuff, and a jumbotron that displayed interesting facts and stuff. One thing I remember being particularly perplexed about was them droning on and on about how impressive the commander of the Shuttle mission, Christopher Ferguson, was, specifically due to all the time he had spent in space (if I’m doing some math right from his Wikipedia profile, 27 days). Meanwhile, they were like, oh yeah and Sandra Magnus is flying too. This is perplexing because Dr. Magnus there, due to a stint on the International Space Station, had spent (again if I am doing some math right) 143 days in space!!!!! A friend of mine tried to argue that ISS time was less impressive than Space Shuttle time, but I’m Team Magnus all the way.

There was some tension that morning because there was a chance that the Shuttle might not go to space that day, which I suppose is always a chance when it comes to these things. Those coy people at NASA also like to amp up the suspense by pausing the countdown at various intervals. But eventually, the Space Shuttle launched! That was really cool! It looked like this:

Please admire the guy closest to the camera, who is my dad, praising the Space Shuttle as the super cool thing it is (as an aside, during nuke school, they tried to emphasize how smart and stuff we were by saying that nuclear submarines were the most complicated machines on the planet, except, they admit in a touch of modesty, the Space Shuttle). I know that picture isn’t very illuminating, so I prepared a closeup:

So that was super neat! As you have gleaned from the pictures, we weren’t particularly close, so the noise wasn’t particularly Earth-shattering or anything, but it was pretty cool! And now I can say I saw it. Having been at the Kennedy Space Center since the wee hours of the morning, at this point we went and saw the rest of it. I had been before (both during Space Camp and like, other times), but rockets are always cool, and especially cool that day was an exhibit they had on Star Trek (the original/best series), which included several sets you could take pictures with. I am a particular fan of the below picture, because it looks like I am in charge of the Enterprise, but my crew has all been turned into children, a fate I was spared from by being on an opportune vacation:

So that was seeing the last launch of the Space Shuttle! Highly recommend, though that’s not a very useful recommendation. Please come back next week, when I will (probably) write about going to Brazil!

Zoom U

Be forewarned! Today’s post is largely me whining. I think there may be a point to my whining, but that is largely irrelevant; I gotta get a post out and this is the only thing I’ve been really thinking about. What am I whining about? I am whining that the world has not heeded all the wonderfully amazing advice I gave in my post Zoom Pedagogy.

As you are probably well aware, unless you are from the future and haven’t learned about it in school yet (or I guess a time traveler from the past just getting their bearings and for some reason using my blog to do it), there is a pandemic on and that has forced many schools, including the one I am currently going to (Yale, nbd) to shift to largely or entirely to remote classes. I am not fundamentally particularly upset about this. I would prefer that classes be in-person and that we could all jostle together and discuss deep thoughts while huddled around tables (or whatever it is we used to do here at Yale, it all seems so long ago now), but it’s vastly better we take measures so that we don’t all die and/or suffer the long-term consequences of COVID. And also while this isn’t the Yale experience I was expecting, I didn’t actually know what to expect anyways before I came to Yale, and I am taking it all in stride as an experience that isn’t necessarily better or worse, but just different. I’ve also gotten very used to not having to run around campus to get to my classes and can instead just open up a new browser tab to get to my next class and being remote makes it much easier to play Pokémon during class. This is not really the point I am trying to make!

What I am here to whine about is the fact that we are somehow not all phenomenal at teaching online. Here at Yale, we have recently begun the spring semester. It will be my second-and-a-half semester of taking online classes (half of the Spring 2020 semester, all of Fall 2020 semester, and now Spring 2021 semester), and I gotta say, we don’t seem to have gotten any better at this. When all of our classes suddenly went online over Spring Break last year, I was very sympathetic to teachers that were struggling to make the transition to online. Teaching online is a very different beast than teaching in a classroom, and it was a hurdle that they were not expecting and is not easy to overcome anyways. But I feel that whatever consensus method we had achieved by about late April last year is just what we’ve been doing ever since.

And lemme tell ya it is not great! That last sentence lacks nuance, so let me put some in. There is a lot of variability in the quality of classes, which comes down to both the fact that some classes lend themselves to the format more, and also a difference in ability between teachers. But as far as I can tell there does not seem to have been any concerted effort to figure out the best way to teach an online class and disseminate that among all the professors. Given that literally every professor here at Yale is taking a stab at the online thing, you’d think it would be a great opportunity to very quickly identify the best practices and the ideas that work and make sure literally everyone knows about them. I don’t seen any evidence of that happening.

I’m getting increasingly frustrated at the little things. I actually have one “hybrid” class, where I am attending in-person (masks, testing, social distancing, all that), but some people are online. The first day of class, the professor was somewhat flummoxed because he had intended to use a white board to keep notes but hadn’t figured out an elegant way to let the online students see the board as well. Then, he wound up walking around holding a desktop microphone because the online students couldn’t hear him. These are little things, and my condemnation here might be a bit harsh, but on the other hand, how do we not have something like a standard package for all of this? That is, as soon as a professor decides they’re gonna teach a hybrid class, why does Yale not have myriad resources that tell them exactly how to do it? “Ah, hybrid class I see. Here is your lapel mic! Were you planning on using a white board? Excellent, here is what we have found is the best way to go about doing that. You’re going to be splitting the students up into groups occasionally? Yes, that is a great learning tool, other professors have found a lot of success using this method…” Why do we have every professor reinventing the wheel for themselves?

There are larger problems as well. My most frustrating experience this semester has been my Spanish class. Again, here I have a lot of sympathy. I struggle to imagine how you could do a really effective online language class with 15 people in it, like we have. If there is a way, however, the Yale Spanish department has not figured it out. One of my biggest frustrations is their decision to go from five days a week to three days a week. When we were in-person, and then last spring when we suddenly went online, we had class for 50 minutes five days a week. Then, in the fall, and now again this spring, they have decided to teach only three days a week for reasons that are mysterious to me. This hasn’t been an unpopular move; it’s kinda nice to free up that block of time on Tuesday and Thursday. However, they still expect the students to do the same amount of work to the same standard. This seems ridiculous to me. If you operate under the belief that teachers add something to a class, then having less time with a teacher is going to make that class less effective. I have to imagine this is especially true in a language course. But instead of cutting out 40% of the work to go along with cutting out 40% of the teaching time, the students are just supposed to do the lessons on their own twice a week. I have found it difficult to teach myself Spanish, which is not surprising, because I do not speak Spanish.

Last Spring, when we all suddenly went to online classes, the school made a huge effort to acknowledge that it was a difficult transition. I realize they were also responding to the pandemic in general, but students were given a lot of leeway in how they managed to achieve the requirements of the course. Professors were told to be very generous with extensions and allowing for Temporary Incompletes with the classes. Every student could change their classes to pass/fail with no questions asked up until the very last day of class. As soon as fall semester hit, however, I guess it was decided that This Is Just What We Do Now, and all that extra leeway was taken away. I understand the need to keep a rigorous standard when it comes to student work, but on the other hand I don’t see that same rigor being applied from above to make sure the classes are effective in the online format. I am floored that a year into online school we all aren’t phenomenal at it, because I feel like we could have been. Where are the numerous online thinkpieces about effective online teaching? Where are the Wikis to cover every conceivable online teaching scenario? Where are the virtual conferences about Zoom pedagogy? Am I just missing them? My super amazing girlfriend, who has thought deeply about education for years, figures that the answer is research universities like Yale just don’t actually care about teaching quality. Let’s hope she’s wrong.

Batik

Reading this week:

  • Blockchain Chicken Farm by Xiaowei Wang (beautiful)
  • In the Waves by Rachel Lance

Look. A couple of things. First, I continue to be impressed with the success of my blog post Joe Biden’s Ties (a success not shared by its short update, Joe Biden’s Ties Update). According to WordPress stats, it got like, slightly over two dozen views the other day. Two dozen! This has made me drunk with fame. Expect a biopic shortly. Second, there is a pandemic going on, which has severely restricted the amount of places I can go and then dryly describe for my myriad followers. This has left me pondering if I could maybe even creep up into three dozen viewers on any given day if I dedicate myself entirely to fashion commentary. At the very least, it would save us from being a Chronicle blog. This has made me decide to dedicate this week’s blog in an ode to the greatest fashion in the world, batik.

First off, I apologize; I’m not going to do batik justice here, either in regards to its rich history or to my deep and abiding love for it. I first discovered batik in the usual way: my grandfather died. He was not Indonesian, nor am I entirely sure he ever went to Indonesia, but nonetheless a shirt made of batik wound up in his closet. My dad was too fat for it (that’s not a dig at dad, I’m also too fat for it now, but I used to work out [because the Navy made me]), so I wound up with it. What a revelation! To back up a bit. In case you didn’t follow the link to Wikipedia the first time I wrote batik, what I’m referring to is cloth that has been colored with a wax-resist dyeing technique. If you’re using batik in that general sense, there are a whole lot of types of batik from over large swaths of the world. Given that other parts of the world use other words for it, batik therefore refers more specifically to cloth produced with the technique from Indonesia. It comes in a variety of colorful designs, and people make all sorts of cool clothing out of it, but in my case I exclusively wear batik that has been crafted into shirts.

And I do wear a lot of ’em. Or at least used to. There’s a pandemic on and I can’t stand to muster anything more than a t-shirt for an online class. The picture at the top is a small portion of my total batik collection; I have stowed a large chunk of it away because as I have just complained about there is a pandemic on and I never go anywhere anymore. I wear them for a few reasons. Probably the biggest reason is that they are bold and loud. I remember one day (before my forays into fashion) that I looked at my t-shirt collection and realized they were all blue. And nearly the same shade of blue. This isn’t just a personal fashion choice; look at men (in America at least), any man, and I am willing to bet that he is probably wearing blue. I don’t know what part of that is blue being a flattering color to wear, men being desperately uncreative, or mass-produced fashion having to cater to the lowest common denominator, but men all tend to wear the same boring stuff. There’s no reason to! We can wear whatever we want! We don’t have to wear blue! So batik for me was in large part a major antidote to uninspired dressing.

Another huge reason I like to plug batik is that at some point I decided that it was worth it to look presentable to the world. Batik shirts are a great way to do that. I made this realization at some point with the help of a PutThisOn article I don’t think is up any longer. That article was talking about Aloha/Hawaiian shirts (when I wear batik, it’s usually mistaken for an Aloha shirt, which I also very much love), but made the point that those shirts are actually kinda dressy. Look, I (probably) wouldn’t wear one to a funeral, but the batik shirts I wear (and Aloha shirts) are button-down and have collars. That certainly puts them a step above the t-shirts that my stereotypical blue-clad men wear. And if I come across another man in a batik shirt or an Aloha shirt, I can tell that man has probably put a lot more thought into what he is wearing than somebody dressed in a t-shirt, and out of sheer favoritism I am also going to put him above the polo-shirt clad crowd. And what is the point of formal dress besides an indication that you’ve thought about what you’re wearing and how it applies to the situation in which you will wear it? Also, I meant to point this out earlier, batik is formalwear in Indonesia anyways, so it’s not sorta-kinda formal, it is formal.

The most difficult part of my passion for batik is that it is hard to get. I have bought nearly the entirety of my batik collection on ebay. At some point, I think I was (I might still be) the exclusive buyer of size-17 batik keris (my preferred brand) shirts on ebay. I have an alert set up. In good times, I get an email nearly every morning. I think the pandemic must have significantly slowed the flow of batik into the United States because pickings have been sadly slim. There have been a limited number of other ways I have been able to obtain batik. At one point, a buddy of mine had long been suffering under a deluge of batik, actually. I was jealous of his lifestyle, which involved having an uncle that sent him boxes of batik shirts unsolicited. Both my buddy and his uncle were Indonesian, as way of explanation. While we were in closer proximity, he would pass his surplus to me. This was amazing.

At only one time in my life have I been able to buy batik shirts directly from a store. This was in Singapore. I did not know I was going to go to Singapore when I set out on this particular trip (it was on a submarine, and things are hush-hush on submarines, and also sometimes disorganized), but as soon as I heard we were headed there I felt my batik dreams were destined to come quickly true. I was crushed to not find every street lined with batik stores, but when I finally found one I ran across the street to shop there. At the time I was under the impression you could be caned in Singapore for jaywalking, but such was my dedication to bright and colorful patterns that I was willing to risk physical injury for it. Based on the reaction of the erstwhile shopkeeper, I am willing to say I was the most enthusiastic buyer of batik he had seen in quite some time. Maybe just the least canny. At any rate, it was heaven.

So, uh, yeah. That’s what I got to say about batik. It’s bold. It’s beautiful. It’s a step up from whatever you’re likely wearing (my super amazing girlfriend disagrees [hi!]). Give it a go! Just not in size 17 from ebay. That’s for me.