Tuesday, March 31, 2009

From the Archives | Cherry tree blossoms in Washington

Four Kids
Taking a break along D.C.'s Tidal Basin during the National Cherry Blossom Festival in April 2007.

ArchivesNow that this year's National Cherry Blossom Festival is in full swing, I wanted to take the chance to share some photos I snapped at the event two years ago.

I took a Saturday out of my busy schedule at American University to take hundreds of photos on the National Mall and around the Tidal Basin, the most popular viewing spot for blossoms in Washington. I was rediscovering my love of photography at the time. With a loaner Nikon digital camera from the school, I took these shots.

Expect more "From the Archives" posts on The Offlede. The recession has hit home in the form of no overtime at work. In fact, Gannett Co. Inc. is taking work time away from its employees. The company is again requiring newspaper workers to take a second five-day furlough during the second quarter. That means there is less disposable income to use on travel and local excursions that provide much of the content for this blog.

Newspapers have long depended on the automotive and real estate industries for revenue in both display and classified advertising. But with them suffering disproportionately in this recession, newspapers have taken a huge hit, too. Their success or failure has always trickled down. When the economy starts to rear its head again, we should see better times.

Until then, blog readers will have to cope as I relate a few chapters of my past through photos. They'll be mostly in chronological order. This first installment is an exception, simply because the advent of this year's festival makes it more timely.

Lisa Tansey, 47, of San Diego plays "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on her flute near Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Park along the Tidal Basin. "I like playing around good nature," she said.

Looking across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial.

A helicopter of the Marine presidential fleet flies over the National Mall, as seen from the Tidal Basin Inlet Bridge.

White Blossoms
The white Yoshino blossoms.

Pink Blossoms
The pink Kwanzan blossoms.

Old Camera
Taking photos with a rather old camera.

Kite Stuck
A father climbs a cherry tree to fetch his son's kite after it got stuck during the Smithsonian Kite Festival, which is part of the blossom festival. Climbing the trees is illegal.

Monument and Blossoms
Two festival attendees wave over their friends during the kite festival on the mall.

Expert Kite Flier
Michael Melvin, 23, guides his two-string kite with ease, pulling it horizontally, vertically and diagonally, as it makes a deafening whipping sound when the wind resists. An old story I wrote about the festival is here.

Soccer Kids
Eli, 3, and his friend Mara, 4, play with a large kite-like soccer ball that fills with wind.

Catching Bubbles
Little children were fascinated by the bubble machine on the National Mall.

Catching bubbles.

Despite Nationals' hilarious flubs, Tigers get the last laugh

Nationals second baseman Willie Harris and the umpire share a chuckle after Harris caught a popup on his fourth try.

Tigers batters slap hands after scoring on a two-run home run, which gave Detroit a 3-2 edge over Washington, and eventually the win.

Without alcohol, it's sometimes difficult to stay occupied throughout a nine-inning baseball game. Especially when it's the Washington Nationals.

But the perennially bottom-tier team found a way to entertain fans Monday at its last spring training game of the year at Space Coast Stadium in Viera. And it was by shear ineptitude.

Willie Harris of the Nationals, who more frequently plays outfield now, started at second base, where he has played much of his career. Maybe his time away from the position played into his performance.

The first mishap was when the first baseman went after a popup in foul territory. Harris rushed to get behind Adam Dunn, called him off - I got it, I got it, I got it - and proceeded to miss the ball. It should have been Dunn's catch. At the end of the half inning, Dunn jokingly tossed Harris a popup. Harris squared his body, and caught it. The crowd cheered.


In the fourth inning, on probably the highest-hit ball of the day, Harris misjudged the popup, which fell to the grass behind him. Harris also fell (above), but after getting a checkout from a trainer, he stayed on the field. He was charged with an error. The crowd applauded.


Meanwhile, the fans showed skill, catching foul balls left and right (above). Most of them could have pulled off a "Rookie of the Year" moment and taken Harris' slot at second base.

In the fifth, Harris chased a popup near the first-base line, but it went over his head, again hitting the ground in foul territory. He wasn't charged with an error, but it was a catchable ball. He bent down, ripped up some grass and threw it into the air, checking for wind speed and direction. But that's something you would more often see Tiger Woods doing. The crowd laughed. I stood up and yelled, "Apparently, third time isn't a charm."


Finally, on a high popup to shallow right-center field, Harris tracked the ball through its flight (above) and actually caught the thing. The crowd gave him a standing ovation. The umpire laughed. Harris gave a bow (below). After the inning, Harris lifted his arms for a curtain call as he headed into the dugout.


But, yet again because of the Nats' ineptitude, opponent Detroit Tigers got the last laugh. They won, 3-2. Fortunately for Harris, none of those runs were a direct result of his defensive issues.

Adam Dunn had two strikeouts on the day.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Risking life, ticket to see the shuttle and to hear it boom

Click on the "HD" button in the right corner (so it's red) to watch in high definition.

Shuttle Discovery landing at Cape Canaveral
A screen grab from the video.

While spectators go crazy to see it lift off, little hype surrounds the landing of a space shuttle. Being new to Florida, I usually follow the masses when it comes to such things, so I've never bothered to see the shuttle land at Kennedy Space Center.

Until today. And man, was it a bother.

Clouds and strong winds prompted NASA flight directors to waive Discovery's first landing attempt Saturday afternoon. Seeing the dense puffy cu, I figured there was slim chance that conditions would improve for the second window an hour and a half later.

So I went about my normal afternoon. I browsed the Internet and took a brisk run on one of the hottest days this spring. When I returned, I learned that winds were pushing the clouds away from the 3-mile runway at Cape Canaveral. But I would need to book it if I were to make it to my favorite shuttle viewing spot on time.

I grabbed my video camera, screamed at a few Florida drivers who shouldn't be on the road and completed the lengthy trip to Titusville's Space View Park just in time to press "record" and hear the shuttle's twin sonic booms that signal its final approach. I was adjusting the aperture for the hazy conditions when the blasts occurred, though, so the video of NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building is poor. In addition, I had no time to adjust the tripod, so the video is crooked.

Though I spotted Discovery early, it took time to find it through my video camera's viewfinder. I managed a short, often out of focus video of the spaceship as it dropped below the trees and landed at 3:13 p.m. It was quite a sight (and sound).

Time of stay: 6 minutes. Round-trip commute time: 75 minutes.

Shuttle's speed at touchdown: 225 mph. My speed on Interstate 95: 85 mph.

I held my own.

Link: Check out this intriguing photo by FLORIDA TODAY photographer Craig Rubadoux.

Senseless in Seattle: Facebook's dream-city quiz is biased

I'll skip, please.

Facebook. I created my profile in August 2004, months after it was started at Harvard University and at the beginning of my junior year at the University of Maine. At the time, it was called TheFacebook.com because Facebook.com was occupied. I consider myself an experienced user of today's most popular social network.

My Facebook wisdom allows me to dismiss some parts of the site such as the "Where should you be living?" quiz that many of my friends have been taking. I noticed that an alarming number of them got the same answer: Seattle. Only a few got Paris. Some got "the country."

I snooped around various blogs and discussion forums, and many people have been either delighted or disappointed that they should be coffee-drinking, drizzle-loving Seattleites.

Something's fishy, I thought. And I had a theory: Someone in Seattle might be behind this. So I did some light digging.

The third-party developer of the application is Arwyn Robinson. One would think that the developer would maintain a Facebook profile, and the only Arwyn Robinson on Facebook is a high school student set to graduate in 2011.

A high school kid developed software? Not really. Actually, it's a simple quiz that can be put together in a matter of moments. Even a caveman can do it.

But the particular high school that this Arwyn attends intrigued me. It's Sandpoint High. Where is it? Near Spokane, Wash., across the state from Seattle.

The quiz asks seven questions about living preferences, including entertainment, food and relaxation. I doubt seven questions properly account for all the factors one considers in relocating. And I'm guessing that there aren't many possible answers for the quiz and that it skews toward Seattle.

In a comment section for the application, a quiz-taker says, "The stupid quiz picked almost the furthest place on earth from my current location - I live in Mauritius and it told me that I should live in Seattle (a city I admit that I quite like apart from the absence of decent coffee)."

The Internet activities that people engage in amaze me. Some are productive. Some are pointless. I'm certainly guilty of the latter, as is apparent in this post.

But as for Facebook quizzes, with all their shallowness, they aren't worth your time.

Link: To become my Facebook friend, click here. Let me know that you're a fan of The Offlede.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A taste of home: Making whoopies - well, not quite

Moist, beautiful and sumptuous.

OK. OK. I didn't exactly bake these. But they are homemade.

I received three whoopie pies in a shoebox just days after they left the kitchen in Maine where they were born.

It was the person who gave birth to me who sent them, unprompted, after I asked her for the recipe last week, when I made this post about a New York Times story on whoopie pies.

These are the peanut butter variety, and the recipe is based on the one in The Yummy Book, a cookbook that features Marshmallow Fluff as its star ingredient. You can download it here.

It was the first time in years that I tasted a whoopie pie. It was as sweet and sticky as a candy cane. And even better than I remember.

Link: A friend shared this site, where you can order whoopie pies directly from Maine at $24 a dozen. That's much cheaper (and more original) than the ones from Williams-Sonoma. Still, I suggest you make them yourself. Either way, you must join the whoopie pie movement.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Delta launch | Attempt at shooting in 3 media fails, but I got 2

Delta 2 liftoff
A Delta II rocket lifts off early Tuesday. I certainly could have stood to get more light into this photo.

Click on the "HD" button in the right corner (so it's red) to watch in high definition (again, I apologize for the jerkiness).

I set out for the beach early this morning to get a timed exposure of a Delta II rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral.

I stopped in Cocoa Beach, near my old apartment, and walked onto the beach. This was the first night launch for which I haven't been at work, so to see the rocket bathed in giant spotlights was breathtaking. I was so captivated that I had to get closer. And getting closer would mean a timed exposure wouldn't be an option. My lens isn't wide enough to capture the whole sequence.

Jetty Park, near Port Canaveral, is 2.3 miles south of Launch Complex 17A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It's the closest public viewing area for any launch. I decided I had to go there.

The gate for the park was closed, but a man at the entrance directed traffic through the outgoing lane. For a minute, I thought I wasn't going to get in. But I did, and unsurprisingly for a 4:34 a.m. launch, the place wasn't too crowded. Most people - including children, a Dutch couple and a man from Orlando who said he never misses a launch - complained that they were up too early. As for me, I was up too late.

On one side, the fishing pier at Jetty Park parallels the canal for ships making their way toward the port. On the other, it's a, well, jetty of large rocks. At the end of the pier, spectators had a clear view of the rocket as it sat on the pad. I found a table used for cleaning fish and started to set up my equipment.

I used only one segment of the tripod legs for my Nikon and plopped it onto the table. My video camera was set up beside the table with its tripod fully extended. I screwed my Pentax film camera to a 6-inch tripod and set it up atop the table.

I started recording video two minutes before liftoff. And within 30 seconds of the launch, I planned to lock the cable release of my Pentax to attempt a long exposure, then switch to my Nikon for some shots of the rocket lifting off the pad.

But for some reason, the cable release for the film camera wouldn't lock. And as I saw a glow coming from the pad at ignition, I abandoned the Pentax, which fell onto the table, and snapped away with the digital.

After several quick shots with the Nikon, I switched to my Canon high-definition video camera, attempting to track the rocket through it's flight. Doing that, however, was difficult with a tripod not really meant for video cameras. That's why you'll notice a lot of herky-jerky motions in the video.

In the first part of the video, you can hear my camera clicking away. When the clicking stops, that's when I take over the camera.

So I've got nothing to show from my film camera, and the digital shots came out slightly underexposed. I was worried sick about overexposure, which is what happened the first time I tried to shoot a nighttime shuttle launch.

Instead of quality, I went for quantity by trying to capture the launch in three media. It didn't work that well. In the future, I might have to set priorities.

Delta 2 video grab
This is just a frame grab from the video.

Delta 2 contrails
Contrails from the rocket blow in toward Port Canaveral (photo).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's the big whoop over whoopie pies? I know; NYT doesn't

During a break while I was attending graduate school in Washington in 2006, I drove up to Pennsylvania, where my family took me to Shady Maple, a Mennonite-run buffet restaurant in East Earl, a township of Lancaster County. One of the dessert items was the pumpkin whoopie pie. I was so excited to eat it - because I hadn't had a whoope pie since leaving home in Maine - that I forgot to take a photo until I was half finished. Sorry.

The New York Times beat me to a story that I was planning for The Offlede. I was thinking about whoopie pies the other night, and when I woke up Wednesday, I saw that the homepage of The Times' Web site featured an article on the seeming American invasion of the hand-held, frosting-filled chocolate cake.
Published: March 18, 2009
The classic snacks are migrating across the country, often appearing in the same specialty shops and grocery aisles that recently made room for cupcakes.
But the story's erroneous references to the economy and the commercialization of a homemade snack with which I associate my childhood make it bittersweet.

In addition to fresh lobster, the whoopie pie is a comfort food that I miss the most from my home state of Maine. They're ubiquitous in northern New England. Grocery stores sell them by the bag. Bakeries aren't bakeries unless they offer whoopie pies. And if you walk into any Citgo, Irving (now Circle K) or Mobil gas station, you'll see a rack of locally made pies greeting you just inside the door; they come individually covered in plastic wrap.

For the most part, the Times report, which became Wednesday's most e-mailed article on the site, is accurate. I take issue, however, with how it draws a comparison of the whoopie pie's spread to a craze over cupcakes sparked by HBO's "Sex and the City." That's bogus: Cupcakes have always been popular in my book, and I have never seen an episode of that reprehensible show.

The whoopie pie's popularity is credited to people looking for "nostalgic," down-home comfort amid this economic recession. Why does everything have to relate to the economy these days? I, instead, credit the big whoop over the pies to their taste.

Another inaccuracy is to say that the cake is extremely dry. Contradictorily, The Times writes that the whoopie pie isn't good unless the cake sticks to the Saran wrap when it's pealed off. That stickiness is caused by moisture. You'll also find the cake sticking to your fingers when you eat a whoopie pie. They literally are finger-licking good. (Also, look at how moist the cake in the above photo seems.)

Sizes vary from the circumference of a Pringles lid to that of a Cool Whip top (they're circular). The frosting filler is usually French vanilla, but I've tasted peanut butter as well. The cake is traditionally chocolate, but I've seen red velvet. I thoroughly enjoy pumpkin, too, which I last had at Shady Maple, a Mennonite smorgasbord restaurant in Lancaster County, Pa. (The Times credits the Amish with inventing the treat.) When I lived in a whoopie-less Washington, D.C., I would sometimes visit family in Collegeville, Pa., where stores carry the pies. The craving was sometimes so unbearable that the three-hour drive just for a bite would have been worth it.

The whoopie pie's big leap to Maine, however, is largely unaccounted for. Like a broken record, The Times pins it on the economy, specifically the Great Depression. It names two possible sources: a recipe book published in the 1930s featuring Marshmallow Fluff, or a 1930s radio program for women.

Like many things created during economic hard times (SPAM comes to mind), the whoopie pie is now being exploited and bastardized as an expensive novelty item. Williams-Sonoma offers many-shaped whoopie pies in flavors of "rum, peppermint, Cointreau, raspberry and espresso." Ashamedly, they're made by a bakery in Maine. These are heart-shaped, called "Sweetie Pies" and cost $49 for a dozen. In the words of my generation, WTF? Only an elite media outlet would write about that.

There's a saying out there that goes something like, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I'm grateful for the whoopie pie's spread, though I haven't yet seen it in Florida. But if bakers and consumerists are going to mess with an already good thing, I'd rather confine the treat to Pennsylvania and Maine for when I visit family. It would just make the taste that much sweeter.

Better yet, maybe I'll write home for Mom to send me a care package.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The no-rocket-launch blues

No launch, but there were clouds.

Another fueling issue prevented me from photographing a nighttime launch.

An Atlas V rocket was scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 9:24 p.m. Tuesday. But an engine valve in the upper stage of the 19-story rocket sprang a leak, relegating me to pictures of clouds at sunset. Last week, my lame fallback was the moon.

Unfortunately, I had already made the 35-minute trip to Port Canaveral, the closest public viewing site for a liftoff at Launch Complex 41, about 12 miles across the Banana River. Parking for launches is allowed along the waterside thoroughfare to Disney's cruise terminal. I was the first to arrive Tuesday, though, and that made me feel like a no-life loser. But I felt worse for the people I left behind who didn't get the text message from FLORIDA TODAY that said the show was off.

I'm trying to develop knowledge of the best sites from which to view launches. Probably the best resource on the Web is this site by Ben Cooper, a photographer and engineer at Kennedy Space Center.

I'm just trying to keep myself busy on my "weekend" days of Monday and Tuesday. But right now, the launch gods aren't cooperating.

Backyard burgers, cooked fast - or not so fast - at Five Guys

Give Guys cheeseburger
Pictures are worth 1,000 words, right? If you believe that, stop here.

Five Guys outside
The new Five Guys location at Hammock Landing in West Melbourne is large and includes outdoor tables. Florida in its awesome beauty, here.

Good fast food isn't rocket science. But considerable mathematics - geometry, to be exact - does come into play.

At McDonald's and Burger King, the burgers are round. At Wendy's, they're square. At all three, they're thin, dry and akin to waferboard - a composite of ground-up bits of beef.

At Five Guys, the burgers have that Nickelodeon splat shape. They're formed by hand. They're juicy. And instead of folding or sliding off the bun as they do at other fast-food joints, the burgers at Five Guys crumble. They have that back-deck cookout look, feel and taste. Above all, they're simple; no "special sauce" here.

After moving from Washington, D.C., I missed the greasy comfort of a double-decker Five Guys cheeseburger. The chain started small in 1981 in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac from the capital. But in the last five years, it has spread rapidly, now with 300 locations. Last month, GQ made Five Guys No. 1 on its list of 10 things to be psyched about because of its decade-long, 1,500-store expansion. And last week, Brevard County, Florida, got its first Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

Psyched? I'm ecstatic.

And I have to say, it's the biggest location I have seen. In D.C., the restaurants are cramped. Lines are out the door, onto the sidewalk. At the new Hammock Landing shopping complex in West Melbourne, the Five Guys features an open dining room with a high ceiling and plenty of room for bags of the peanuts that customers crack freely while they wait for their food.

Unfortunately, the wait was an issue when I went Monday. After a painless two minutes in line, I paid $10.25 for a cheeseburger with pickles, lettuce, onions, ketchup and mustard (they're fully customizable), as well as a small fries and a drink.

The cashier yelled my order to 10 people manning the grills and fryers. They looked like high-schoolers. Two reluctantly answered, "Got it."

Five Guys believes in a transparency unsurpassed by the Obama administration. The burgers are cooked - starting from a raw patty - and constructed in front of an audience, the customers. But the burger-builders Monday were unsure and inexperienced. They slowly grabbed for lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, maybe a bottle of hot sauce, and deliberately applied them to a bun or atop a cheese-smothered patty.

Customers lined the thigh-high counter that separates the kitchen from the dining room. The couple next to me tried to guess which of the partially constructed sandwiches were theirs. The manager assured us that, though the wait was long, the burger would be "the best you've ever tasted." I believed her guarantee; others looked suspicious.

As one of my Facebook friends said, the interior "decor leaves a lot to be desired." Like the burgers, the furnishings are simple. The walls are accented with a checkerboard of red and white. Large red and white signs brag about the fame Five Guys has garnered (The Washington Post, Newsday, Zagat, you name it), offering customers another guarantee that the wait would be worth it.

Five Guys greaseFor 15 or 20 minutes, I waited. I looked over my shoulder, checking which table would be open when they called my number. I drank half of my Coke.

Five Guys friesThe longest I have ever waited for a burger at Five Guys was five minutes. That was at Reagan National Airport after Barack Obama's inauguration in January.

But when the West Melbourne crew called my number, 34, I wasn't disgruntled. I was captivated by the brown paper bag, splotched with grease oozing from its contents.

I sat, unwrapped the foil-wrapped burger and sunk my teeth into it. It wasn't warmed up. It wasn't waferboard; it was perfectly cooked beef. The bits of lettuce weren't strips pulled from a bag; they were ripped from a head of iceberg.

The fries? Skins and all, they were soft, with crispy edges. They weren't sticks of batter with imitation mashed potato inside. Want some spice? The Cajun fries are great, too (menu, locations).

The manager was right; I'd rather wait at Five Guys than be handed a burger plucked from under a heat lamp at McDonald's, Wendy's or Burger King. And once its workers learn to move a little faster, Five Guys will give those circles and squares a run for their money.

Update: This post has inspired dozens to make the trip to Five Guys. You're welcome, Five Guys.

Monday, March 16, 2009

1 gorgeous launch, and 140 photos that didn't do it justice

Discovery lifts over the Atlantic, as seen from the shores of the Indian River in Palm Shores.

Shuttle Discovery 3
The shuttle, after it had reached sunlight.

Shuttle Discovery 7
Red-tinted contrails left behind.

Update: News 14, a 24-hour cable station in Raleigh, N.C., republished, with permission, The Offlede's photos of Discovery's launch on STS-119. Tony Antonelli, the shuttle's pilot, was raised in Fayetteville, N.C. The Web story is here.

Shuttle Discovery 2I called this one.

As I mentioned Wednesday, the post-sunset launch of shuttle Discovery would be a pretty one, yes, but a very difficult one to capture with a digital camera.

Come 7:43 p.m. Sunday, I was proved right.

I skipped out of work about 15 minutes before the launch, scurried down the highway to a local park beside the Indian River north of Melbourne, sat on the rocks and waited.

My location was about 30 miles south of Kennedy Space Center, so my expectations weren't high in the first place.

At ignition, Discovery's twin solid rocket boosters burned brightly, casting a reflection on the river. That's something you don't get during the day, of course.

Shuttle Discovery 4But the most beautiful part of the launch was when the shuttle flew into the light of the setting sun - literally up into the sunset - as it climbed toward space.

The contrails glowed with red, orange, blue and white. It was sort of a rainbow with colors stretching its width instead of its length.

But because the most beautiful part of the launch was when Discovery was bathed in sunlight, it was difficult to expose for rest of the frame, which was covered in twilight.

Film might allow for a higher contrast and a better product, but who shoots film these days?

Shuttle Discovery 5Other obstacles to good photos: a high ISO, which, though necessary to allow for proper lighting, makes the final product extremely grainy on lower-end digital SLRs such as mine; a slower shutter speed, again necessary for lighting purposes but tends to allow motion blur; and poor focusing, again a product of the light.

Nevertheless, I shot 140 photos in a period of a few minutes. But they would have been so much better if the launch was an hour later or an hour earlier. Darn NASA has to hit its target, though.

Back at work, we had a difficult time choosing a lede front-page photo from a staff shooter for most of the reasons I mentioned above.

There are only nine more shuttle launches left to get the perfect photo.

As for rockets, my next try will be Tuesday, when an Atlas V is set to blast off in a nighttime launch. There's always the issue of weather, though, and the forecast isn't looking great for that launch.

But even if it's scrubbed, it will be rescheduled, offering another chance at a another view and another photo. It's probably the only benefit to living on the Space Coast.

Vertical images: Top, people still watching Discovery after the solid rocket boosters separated; middle, a view of the shuttle at separation; bottom, just before separation (I know, I know, it's reverse chronological order, so sue me)

Shuttle Discovery 6
Zoomed in at 200mm, shortly after liftoff.

Shuttle Discovery 1
Discovery, as seen from Palm Shores, Fla., just south of the Pineda Causeway, which you can see in the photo.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The no-shuttle-launch blues

The moon, after rising over the Atlantic off Cocoa Beach on a night that was supposed to feature a shuttle launch. There's a man smoking a cigarette - or something - at the end of the walkway. I saw 99 percent of the moon and 0 percent of the shuttle.

I'm really not in the mood for words right now. I get enough of them at work. And today? Well, it's a furlough day, or unpaid leave, or a pay cut. And today, I'm not supposed to have anything to do with work.

That's why a shuttle launch would have been a good thing to keep my mind of words, those things that define my existence. It was supposed to be a visual spectacular. I readied my digital SLR, my film camera and my high-definition video camera. I was even poised to buy a third tripod for the 9:20 p.m. launch.

moon_palm_0073But no. NASA couldn't properly fuel the external tank for shuttle Discovery. A valve sprang a leak 20 minutes before the tank was full. I got word - via text message, from co-workers - that the launch had been scrubbed, just before I was about to leave for a front-row seat in Titusville.

The mission's start was delayed until at least Sunday, when it'll lift off - if all goes well - at 7:43 p.m., which is 12 minutes after sunset. At that time, the conditions won't be dark enough for a timed exposure, which bummed me out. It was to be my second try at a nighttime shot of a shuttle, the first being exactly one year ago when I failed miserably trying to capture Atlantis on March 11, 2008.

Discovery's streaking arch in a timed exposure could have been either ruined or made more interesting by a nearly full moon. I took my camera out to the beach, despite there being no launch, and watched the reddish satellite rise over the Atlantic Ocean. The photos of its rise were miserable, but I snapped a few after it had been hanging in the air for a while. They were still bad, but not quite as bad.

As for Discovery, NASA wants to shoot it up Sunday, allowing for the fullest mission as possible. But I don't have Sunday off from work. How do I describe that? There are no words.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

At ballgame, getting money's worth is a matter of opinion

Nationals teammates greet Brad Eldred, who hit the game-winning home run.

Fans celebrate the end of the game.

In an effort to do something constructive with my time off - in other words, to stimulate the economy - I took in a Washington Nationals spring training game against the Houston Astros.

And man, did I pay.

I'm a huge fan of baseball but not of watching it from cheap seats. That's why I sprang for the $20 box seat on the third-base line. That, of course, is after the $5 parking fee.

And that's when one realizes that, in a time of great economic hardship and declining consumer spending, who in his right mind would pay $20 for a ticket to an exhibition game?

Lonely me, that's who.

Yes, I went alone to Space Coast Stadium and sat in the third row for the nighttime game. I didn't drink beer. I didn't eat a hot dog. The only conversation I had was when a woman sitting two seats down said, "Well, that's one way to do it," when I climbed over the seatback from the empty row behind me, the easiest way to access my pricey hard-plastic folding chair. I said, "Yep."

And that was that. Not a word out of me from then on.

With the Nationals scoring five runs in the first inning - including some power hitting - and the Astros scoring throughout the game to catch up, I thought I might be getting my money's worth.

hit_0064When the action slowed - the Nationals only scored one more run in regulation - two drunken fans behind me provided comedic relief. They didn't know each other: One called the other "The Cuban," apparently because he was somewhat Hispanic, and The Cuban called the other "Ankiel" because of the Rick Ankiel Cardinals jersey he was wearing. Their banter boiled down to a bunch of "your mother" jokes and climaxed with The Cuban using Ankiel's cell phone to call Ankiel's mother. I needn't say more.

But like most acts these days, their comedic stylings were profane. They drove off the young family sitting in front of me. "We've got a baby here," another mother said. And after multiple ushers and the sheriff's deputy gave them warnings, the cursing funnymen were kicked out.

After they drove everyone else from my section and after the drunkards themselves were ejected, the reality set in: I had paid $20 for a game in which beer was more important than baseball. Before he left, The Cuban said he paid $8 for a ticket and found an empty $20 box seat, where he carried on his drunken ramblings with another drunken ticketholder.

I had been duped.

But then the Astros scored in the ninth inning, forcing the game into overtime. This is promising, I thought. I was getting more for my money.

Then, in the bottom of the 10th, Washington's Brad Eldred, a native Floridian, cranked a pitch into the left-field cheap seats. The 2-run walk-off homer gave the home team an 8-6 win.

The rest of the Nationals greeted Eldred at home plate, gave him high-fives and jumped up and down. How exciting. Well worth the 20 bucks.

But I couldn't avoid thinking that someone who paid $12 less caught that ball.

Man, I was taken for a ride.

The third-base umpire makes small talk with Astros outfielder Darin Erstad.

Astros outfielder Darin Erstad makes small talk with the third-base umpire.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Delta II launch | Look at that! Yes, they call it the streak

I assumed my usual stakeout position for Friday's rocket launch: beside the sign at the main entrance of FLORIDA TODAY's headquarters along U.S. 1 and the Indian River in Melbourne.

There isn't much you can do with a photo of a nighttime rocket launch other than take a long exposure of it streaking across the sky. Whoop-dee-doo.

In keeping with that conviction and with my run-of-the-mill rocket picture-taking technique, I shot Friday night's delightful lights from in front of the FLORIDA TODAY building with even more lights - from ground-based vehicles - streaking through the foreground.

It's pretty much the same frame job as my last photo of a rocket liftoff on the Space Coast. See that here.

But this time, I cranked the ISO up to 400, which allows more light to hit the camera's digital sensor. The shutter was open for only 52.2 seconds, as opposed to 86.6 on my previous try. That's because this rocket was a Delta II, a considerably lighter and less bulky craft than the monstrous Delta IV. It's a more agile vehicle, so it climbed quickly, allowing less time for an exposure.

delta_vert_hq_0008After the liftoff and initial shot, I created a vertical version, left. In this photo, there's a slight errant streak on the left end of the main one. That's the ground-lit solid motors as they separated from the vehicle and fell toward the ocean.

The launch was a successful start for a NASA telescope called Kepler that will look for planets in the Milky Way that might sustain life.

I set up my camera and tripod just a minute before the liftoff. And minutes after taking the photos, I was inside, putting a staff photographer's work onto Page 1. His shot was all right.

Wednesday's nighttime show, starring shuttle Discovery on its mission to the International Space Station, should be more photogenic. I plan to start that stakeout five hours before liftoff to ensure a front-row seat at Space View Park in Titusville. There will be video, too.