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Skyfall 5 min read


Space trash, the pitfalls of school via a computer, the death of the coal industry and the death of publishing, doctors speak out against President Trump, and TV to make you happy.

By Cary Littlejohn

Two different things that happened this week had me looking up. Neither was related, but I came across them tangentially in the course of a fairly typical week in the newsroom. One involved a stray bullet, and the other involved a meteor shower.

One of our reporters covered a somewhat tense standoff with the police after they’d responded to a man’s house after neighbors reported shots fired. To hear him tell it, it was not the stuff movies are made of. The man was under the influence of either drink or drugs, and he was depressed. The shots weren’t necessarily at anything from what the cops could determine. I then had to wonder if the man had simply pointed the gun up in the air and fired. And if so, where did the bullets return to Earth? All I could think about was the terrible possibility of a person walking downtown in the wrong place at the wrong time and to have just such a bullet hit them.

I was reminded of a story from my time in Mississippi where a local preacher had a stray bullet come down through the roof and ceiling of a shed in his backyard. How much worse is it to wonder what would have happened had he been in that shed when the bullet came through the roof?

I stand in slack-jawed awe and appreciation of the sheer randomness of life. How many days have I walked blissfully through life without a bird shitting on my head? The answer is, in fact, almost all of them. But that’s through nothing more than sheer dumb luck. How many days have I walked around never contemplating the possibility of a bullet falling out of the sky? Almost all of them, but as I’ve seen on more than one occasion now, that’s not necessarily a given.

“The odds of a bullet falling out of sky and hitting me are astronomical,” you might say after reading those words above. Fittingly, astronomy is the subject of my next point. Right now, we, the inhabitants of Earth, are passing through the tail of a comet known as 21P-Giacobini-Zinner. We do this annually, and it produces the Draconids meteor shower. Draconids is its name because it occurs nearest the constellation Draco the Dragon, one of our five circumpolar constellations (those that don’t set below the horizon). One of the men I talked to used to be the director at the school district’s planetarium, and though he’s long since retired, he still likes to talk about the cosmos. He described Earth’s elliptic path traveling through the tail of this comet as “driving down the highway and running into a bunch of grasshoppers.” That’s a meteor shower, he said.

It made me think about the startling frequency with which things fall toward Earth, and how very few of them ever get noticed. What a crazy thought, if you’ll allow yourself a moment to truly comprehend it.

In two different ways this week, things have fallen to the Earth in such a manner as to catch my attention. It’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it simply is. Gravity acts on us whether we think about it or not. Things fall to Earth whether they hit us or not. Remembering that fact grants you the gift of appreciation, and it can turn a boring and uneventful day into a thing that deserves your thankfulness.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. In the spirit of looking up, I was reminded of a fascinating feature from The New Yorker two weeks ago on the ever-growing problem of trash in space, how it’s tracked and how incredibly difficult it will be to clean it up.

  2. Another New Yorker piece that hit home due to the fact that it’s so closely related to my beat here in Wyoming at the paper. Remote learning for students during COVID-19 is a mixed bag, and as this story shows through one student in Baltimore, there are numerous students for whom the adjustment is tragically underserving.

  3. The unrelenting joy that is Ted Lasso on Apple TV+. If you’ve got access to the streaming service, don’t sleep on this thoroughly charming show.

  4. Another story from a national powerhouse publication that feels as if it could have been written here in my little corner of Wyoming. All-star New York Times reporter Eric Lipton looks at status of the coal industry under the Trump administration. Big promises weren’t realized, and the industry is changing in major ways.

  5. The pandemic accelerated an already devastating period of decline for journalism, especially print publications. This short Vanity Fair piece talks about the most recent casualties, Quartz and California Sunday Magazine, and particularly the failure of billionaire benefactors to save the industry.

  6. The California Sunday Magazine was a great print magazine, and during the height of the pandemic, it scaled back to digital-only. A disappointment, to be sure, but an acceptable change if it meant publication could continue. Here’s an example of a recent story, the kind that we as readers will be much worse off without. It’s a nearly 20,000-word examination of a war crimes conviction that led to a presidential pardon that looks at the lives of the Army lieutenant who ordered the shooting of civilians, the trial strategies from both sides, the Fox News media push to declare him a hero, and how his platoon members felt about it all.

  7. If you think the political rhetoric in this country has risen to a fever pitch where it’s not even worth listening to either side, consider the recent editorial from no less an authority than the New England Journal of Medicine. These editors are responsible for the most respected medical journal in the country, perhaps the world. They are not prone to political commentary or candidate endorsements, but they could not hold their tongues when it comes to President Trump and his response to COVID-19. If you’re natural reaction to negative comments about the president is, “Well of course [insert whatever liberal bugaboo you’d like: Democrats, mainstream media, celebrities] would say that; they hate Trump,” read this damning assessment from a community of scientists.

  8. Every now and then I hear jokes about dial-up internet, and I’m able very clearly to remember those early days and remark on just how far the technology has come. Every now and then I think about people much younger than I, those who’ve never existed in a world without lightning-fast connectivity or the marvels such connectivity allow. Every now and then I spend lazy minutes wondering what else we could develop, dancing along the line that separates the possible from science fiction. But such a change will be here one day. I might not live long enough to see it, but the quantum internet is the future and Discover Magazine sums it up nicely. See if you can understand it, because I can’t.

  9. McSweeney’s on how some of us used to be into social distancing before it was popular. I relate to this on so many levels.

  10. This Slate piece on store that called the cops on George Floyd is powerful journalism. The interview with the teen who made the phone call is heartbreaking.

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