A Late-Breaking Review


I was hanging out at the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park craft center a couple of weeks back, scrolling through emails as my daughters glued colorful glass shards to pale pine cigarette boxes, when an email came in. Subject line: A review of Jars to Stars.

We were outside at a picnic table, under a sort of tarp-awning, at the time. Tall clouds traded off with sunshine. I looked up at the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park over Alpen Inn, the lodge where the girls and I were spending a couple of days during the last week of summer vacation, and then to the psychedelically painted, life-sized elk statue beyond the fence. My first instinct was that there must be some mistake.

You see, I published “From Jars to the Stars” in late 2010. It was now mid-2015. How could this be?

As my nine-year-old fretted about her mosaic design (the speed with which my 12-year-old daughter completed hers amplifying her anxiety), I opened the .pdf, which Quest: A History of Spaceflight publisher Scott Sacknoff had kindly attached. I scrolled to the bottom first to see who’d written it up, and was surprised to see the name David DeVorkin, an eminent Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum historian.

It happens that DeVorkin’s work was essential to the early chapters of the book, which chronicle the early days of what became Ball Aerospace. He had had the foresight in the early 1990s to do oral histories with some of the key players. A couple of them had died by the time I came along in the late 2000s; others’ memories had faded further. And anyway, he, being an actual space/astronomy historian, had much a better grip on what questions to ask than I would have had.

The review, while not without valid criticisms, was enthusiastic. So I’m now doubly indebted to its author.


Print vs. Video: a Double-Lung-Plus-Liver Transplant Smackdown

As a writer with limited Photoshop skills and very limited video-editing skills, I’m tend to be in awe of good video. Since I left the Daily Camera in 2007, though, I haven’t  had a chance to compare a story of mine with the video equivalent. Back then, it was always TV news people who happened to be covering something up in Boulder — predictable, quick-hit stuff. This one’s different.

Michael Mazzanti, the multimedia guru for the University of Colorado Health system, put together the above about Shaun McCabe, on whom surgeons performed Colorado’s first double-lung-liver transplant in March. He sent a link out to a few of us a couple of days ago. I freelance write for the same system, and covered the story when they opened the doors to the press on March 16. My story ran in an internal biweekly called UCH Insider shortly afterward.

Shaun McCabe with TV camera in the foreground

A shot I took of Shaun McCabe on March 16 at University of Colorado Hospital.

I watched Mike’s video and was impressed to the point that I sent him a note back asking how long it had taken him and what he used. Premiere, he said, with the captions in After Effects. Took him a few days to edit.

My initial impression was that video kicks print’s ass. My story has more depth, but the video’s impact is on a different plane.

Then I thought about it. The TV folks did breaking news stories, too. CBS4’s version pales in comparison to Mike’s product. But then, Kathy Walsh, an excellent television journalist, only had a couple of hours to put her piece together. Time is really the essential difference.

I spent probably 3-4 hours writing the piece, including the review of my notes and rooting around on the Web for additional background. If I’d have had a few days for it, the product would have been different. But in what ways?

Whereas Mike used the time to select striking cuts, distill the messages he wanted to convey, and create and place the dynamic captions, a writer would have used the luxury of time to make the story longer. I’d add  sources, do follow-up interviews, gather background on the history of transplants, provide a more 360-degree view of the key players — the surgeons, the mom, the siblings, McCabe himself. The relationship of reporting to article length would not grow linearly — more input lets the writer pick from a stronger roster of quotes and imagery. The story becomes less of an assemblage of whomever happened to show up and more of an all-star team of inputs. The added reporting, assuming some of it is on-scene, also boosts the odds that the reporter sees, hears, touches or smells something firsthand that adds immediacy and poignancy to a piece. But would it have been a better product than Mike distilled into two minutes? That I can’t say.





From Jars to Stars to… Mars @Slate.com

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

A closely held secret among journalists is that, once you write a story, the mind tends to shed the details rather hastily. And so, despite seeming authoritative — and actually being rather authoritative — for the duration of a given story and for a day or two afterward, it fades fast. Hence the need for beat reporters, who gain depth and source bases through reps.

I had been wondering to what extent the same would happen with things related to Ball Aerospace, having closed the book on the book about four years ago. Sam Lemonick, a freelance writer, gave me a chance to assess that.

Sam came upon the idea of writing a story about how strange it was that Ball Aerospace, this company making instruments for the Orion mission slated for its first orbital test tomorrow (scrubbed today; winds and a goofy valve), was the same Ball that once made the mason jars. Slate published it today on Future Tense.

Ball Aerospace spokeswoman Roz Brown, who was a huge help when I was reporting the book from 2006-2009ish, mentioned to Sam that he wasn’t the first to wonder about the jars-stars connection. She called me last week when I was walking around a private zoo west of Phoenix, one with just loads of macaws and not a few loitering ducks.

I found that, while I had to cram a bit on the specifics, I remembered the broad strokes reasonably well. I was also reminded how much I love the Ball Aerospace origins story. When I started out, I was thinking about writing about a specific mission, Deep Impact. I hadn’t intended to spend time at the Minnetrista Heritage Collection in Muncie, Ind. and various Washington D.C. archives, or to have Roz recall boxes full of old documents slated for shredding back up to Boulder for my perusal. That all tallied up to months of work and about one-third of the book, and it gave the thing its depth.

Sam and I spoke while I was waiting for my 11 year old to finish up a freestyle session at a rink in Scottsdale, Arizona, and even while talking with him, I was keenly aware of not saying much of anything quotable. But his story has a lot of good stuff from the book and he did a great job with the piece, so check it out.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

Courtesy Ball Aerospace.

Fresh (Baked) news on weed and the developing brain

Fresh Baked Jersey and Shoes

The jersey’s orange and the shoes are black, unless you happen to be stoned.

Abigail Sullivan Moore’s New York Times piece on a new study on the effects of marijuana and the developing brain is another arrow in the increasingly crammed quiver of evidence that weed and growing brains don’t mix. This one shows that frequent marijuana use among young people changes vital brain structures.

From the piece:

All smokers showed abnormalities in the shape, density and volume of the nucleus accumbens, which “is at the core of motivation, the core of pleasure and pain, and every decision that you make,” explained Dr. Hans Breiter, a co-author of the study and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern’s medical school.

Similar changes affected the amygdala, which is fundamental in processing emotions, memories and fear responses.

This report is only slightly less worrisome than the 2012 study the story also mentions. That one showed the IQs of frequent teen  smokers to be 8 points lower than controls by age 38.

Of interest to me was a discussion of how the sharply increased potency of today’s MJ may render older studies — which were few anyway, given marijuana’s DEA schedule 1 status with heroin, crack, meth and LSD — passe (for example with regard to megadose-triggered THC psychosis, for example when Denver resident Richard Kirk allegedly consumed “‘Karma Kandy Orange Ginger,’ a candy form of edible marijuana, and ‘Pre 98 Bubba Kush Pre-Roll,’ a prerolled joint,” before allegedly murdering his wife while she pleaded with a 9-1-1 operator back in April).

In the discussion of marijuana potency in the fourth graf, a few of the offerings of Boulder dispensary Fresh Baked are offered as examples. Note the photograph atop this post: Fresh Baked is the jersey sponsor of my Thursday night coed indoor soccer team (meaning the owner, a teammate who played college ball, sprung for them. I assume he paid cash.). We make a point not to smoke (or eat Karma Kandy Orange Ginger) before kickoff.

Adrian Peterson, thank you for the valuable insight

Adrian Peterson in 2010

Adrian Peterson (Photo by Mike Morbeck).

While I’m in no position to evaluate Minnesota Vikings all-pro running back Adrian Peterson’s legal situation, his linguistic situation is noteworthy.

From an ESPN wire story on a second child-abuse allegation:

The reported text exchange was as follows, according to KHOU-TV:

Mother: “What happened to his head?”

Peterson: “Hit his head on the Carseat.”

Mother: “How does that happen, he got a whoopin in the car.”

Peterson: “Yep.”

Mother: “Why?”

Peterson: “I felt so bad. But he did it his self.”

According to the report, Peterson then goes on to say he was disciplining his son for cursing at a sibling, though how specifically the child was wounded wasn’t made clear.

Mother: “What did you hit him with?”

Peter never directly answered, the report said, but later replied: “Be still n take ya whooping he would have saved the scare (scar). He aight (all right).”

So that’s Peterson’s conversational style. Contrast this with his usage in a statement relating to the now infamous switch-whooping-on-a-four-year-old:

Peterson has faced heavy criticism for his use of a so-called switch to discipline the other son, but the running back said in his statement that he “never imagined being in a position where the world is judging my parenting skills or calling me a child abuser because of the discipline I administered to my son.”

It’s almost as if it were written by an entirely different person, possibly one with an expensive legal education. We can all take something from this, though.

If someone who is 6’1″, 217 lbs and comprised almost entirely of fast-twitch muscle — someone who can run the 40 in 4.4 seconds, bench press 345 pounds and squat 540 pounds, someone with a 38-inch vertical leap, someone with a Wonderlic score of 16 (placing him somewhere between a security guard and a warehouseman) — says to you “be still n take ya whooping,” he actually means, “remain motionless as I administer discipline upon your person.”

This is of particular use to four-your-old boys of Adrian Peterson’s issue.

For this valuable insight, we can thank Adrian Peterson.