There are mistakes, and there are MISTAKES…

I custom-designed a t-shirt, including my avatar and the awesome #NASATweetup logo created by the awesome artist Lar DeSouza, for next week’s Shuttle launch.

This is what I ordered:

The shirt I ordered from

A #NASATweetup-appropriate shirt...

THIS is what I received:

This is what I received...

NOT a #NASATweetup-appropriate shirt.

Do I really have to mention I am not amused by this?

I’ll refrain from posting the company’s name until I see how they handle the customer service issue. If they can get me the shirts I ordered by Tuesday, hey, mistakes happen, and no need to call them out.

Let’s hope… I’d just really, really rather wear the top shirt.

Atlantis: We’re Go for Launch (Viewing)

On July 8, 2011, it’s expected that over a million people will travel to Florida’s Space Coast to watch the final launch of the Space Shuttle program. I’m super-excited to be one of them, watching not from Titusville (about 13 miles away, where my son and I watched Atlantis launch in Nov. 2009), the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex (7.5 miles away, but with no direct view of the launchpad), nor the NASA Causeway (6.7 miles away, but only a lucky few thousand were able to get tickets.)

Along with just 151 other very lucky people, I’ll be watching the launch from the Press Area at Kennedy Space Center, a mere 3-ish miles from the launch pad. We’re guests of NASA, selected from over 5,500 applicants to attend the very last Space Shuttle launch #NASATweetup. The day before the launch, our group will get a special tour of KSC, including the chance to meet some of the folks who work on the Shuttle program, and hopefully some astronauts as well. Then, on launch day, we’ll be on the lawn with the countdown clock that you see on network launch coverage.

One of these is not actually an astronaut

The STS-135 Crew, and a willing stowaway.

When NASA announced they’d be collecting names for a chance for the Tweetup, I set a reminder in my Outlook calendar to apply, but I never dreamed I’d be selected, particularly after hearing over 5,500 people had applied. So when I opened my e-mail on June 10 to see a message with “NASA Tweetup” in the title, my brain automatically filled in the “We’re sorry to inform you…” when I started to read the e-mail. But those words weren’t actually there.  Instead, I saw this:

Dear Dennis Atkin,

Congratulations, you have been selected to attend the NASA Tweetup on July 7-8 for space shuttle Atlantis’ targeted launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida! The event will provide you the opportunity to speak with shuttle technicians, engineers, astronauts, and managers, and to experience the launch of space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station.

Once I caught my breath, I immediately went down the hall to inform my lead that I was going to need some unplanned vacation time! And to share my excitement with anyone who’d stand still long enough to listen.  I think the only person who could have been more excited would have been my 10-year-old self, if I could travel back in time to tell him this would be happening. (Actually, my 10-year-old self would probably glare at me and respond, “WTF? You mean I’m not an astronaut when I’m 45?”)

I can’t express how enthused I am about this, nor how much I appreciate the opportunity NASA has given me here. It’s literally the opportunity of a lifetime. That it’s the last launch is somewhat bittersweet, of course, and there’s always the chance that a flight delay could cause me to miss the actual launch. But even the chance to tour KSC and meet the people who’ve accomplished so much in our space program will more than make the trip worthwhile. Not to mention the chance to hang out with the group of seriously fun, smart, and enthused fellow space nuts I’ve met virtually through our Facebook  Tweetup planning group.

I was four years old Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It’s one of my earliest memories. I was at the babysitter’s house, and they quickly shot down my claim that I’d “seen this show before” when I tried to convince them to change the channel to a kid’s show. That was the start of my fascination with the space program, and I clearly remember raptly watching the later moon shots. Then came Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz, and then the triumphs and tragedies of the Space Shuttle program.

In 2009 I was in Florida with my then-six-year-old son when Atlantis was schedule to launch.  We decided we had to at least try to watch the launch. We found an abandoned apartment complex parking lot on the water across the street from a Krystal, bought a bag of cheeseburgers, and sat down for a few-hour wait. I spent the morning setting his expectations for a probable delay, so that he wouldn’t be disappointed. I did a good job convincing myself as well, so when the countdown continued, we were both super-excited.

Here’s our very shaky video, shot with a Canon Elph pocket camera. I made a point not to look at the camera LCD while shooting—I wanted to actually see the launch—so apologies for the quality. There’s much better footage, but I’m glad I have this just because it captures our excitement, particularly after Carter actually spotted the Shuttle in the air.

My only disappointment is that I can’t bring Carter with me to share this. But with the group that will be there, I’m certain we’ll have hundreds of photos, hours of video, and lots of impressions to share with him and the rest of the next generation of space fans.

Goodbye DirecTV, Hello Over-the-Air HDTV

In late June, 2011, I said goodbye to hundreds of TV channels as I cancelled my DirecTV account. Teaming an old-fashioned VHF/UHF TV antenna mounted on the side of the house, a PC running Windows 7’s Windows Media Center, and an Xbox 360, we’re still able to watch almost all the shows we watched before in two rooms, but with monthly expenses well under $50/month. (Netflix, Hulu Plus, and a few TV series bought on Zune.)

In the living room, we have a media center PC, as well as an Xbox 360. The Media Center PC picks up about 20 HD channels. These channels look better than cable or DirecTV, because they’re not as heavily compressed. We get all the major networks and PBS, plus some subchannels that show classic TV shows, syndicated programs, and additional PBS shows, all recorded on the Media Center PC. We can also use this to watch any PC-compatible video services, such as Amazon, iTunes, and Hulu Plus shows that are “web-only.”

Windows Media Center
Windows Media Center can act as a DVR and TV tuner, and also play back your music collection, photos, and more.

Though we could watch these services on the PC, we watch Hulu Plus and Netflix on the Xbox 360. The easy user interfaces and Kinect voice control are popular with the family. The Xbox 360 isn’t necessary here, but since we have it in the room anyway, might as well take advantage of it.

 In the bedroom, a second Xbox 360 (the under-$200 4GB model is fine for this) lets us watch everything we can watch in the living room. It acts as a Media Center extender, so we can watch all of the HD shows we record on the PC, as well as live TV. We can also listen to the music stored on the PC. Plus, of course, we have Hulu Plus and Netflix on the Xbox 360 as well.

Xbox 360 4GB
The Xbox 360 not only plays great games, it can stream live and recorded TV.

You can use an older, retired PC for recording – it doesn’t take much oomph – but I specifically built a low-power-usage PC that could handle big-screen gaming, media center duties, and Blu-ray video playback, and also act as a backup location for music, documents, and photos copied by a batch file on a regular basis from my office PC.

Also, keep in mind that you could just as easily put the Media Center PC in an office or bedroom and just use an Xbox 360 extender in your main TV room.

 With a Harmony Remote to simplify control of multiple devices, this setup is no more difficult to use than the DirecTV DVR/Xbox 360 combo we were using before. And the initial investment in hardware will be more than paid for in over $1K in savings by not paying a monthly satellite bill.

Building a Home Theater PC

I recently dropped DirecTV and switched to over-the-air HDTV, in conjunction with Hulu Plus and Netflix streaming. Of course, I still needed a DVR. Rather than opting for an HD Tivo, I built a new PC just for the purpose. It lets me stream my recordings to an Xbox 360 in the bedroom, it’s easily expandable, and it has the added benefit of letting us do stuff like watch YouTube and play games on our big living room TV.

Here’s my build, in case you’re considering doing something similar.

  • Core i3-2100 Processor ($110, 3.1GHz, amazingly fast for the price but low power usage and sips power at idle, cool so the fan’s quiet). If you want true quad-core performance, the $200 Core i5-2400S has similar power usage, but is probably overkill unless you do a lot of video transcoding.
  • Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD3H-B3 motherboard ($169 latest Intel chipset, supports swapping between onboard and PCI-E video to reduce power consumption)
  • GeForce 560 Ti ($229, plenty of oomph for 1080P, low idle power usage, quiet). If you’re not gaming, you can omit this component.
  • 8GB DDR3 RAM ($84.99)
  • 2 Samsung Spingpoint 2TB drives ($79 each; Samsung’s the only drive brand I’ve had consistently good luck with in recent years)
  • Media Center Remote ($17; mainly using this for the IR receiver as I have a Harmony)
  • HDHomeRun TV tuner. This dual-tuner external device is awesome. Any computer in your house with a fast network connection can also access it to watch live TV.
  • Memorex Blu-ray reader/DVD writer, $59 on sale at Fry’s.

GA-Z68X-UD3H-B3 Motherboard

Though components like this look intimidating, all you need to build a PC is a Phillips screwdriver.

Plus a quiet case (Antec P180; just stuck it behind the TV stand), 550W 80-plus power supply (OCZ, but they’re out of the power supply business), and my old SSD drive to speed bootup. I’m using a sadly now-discontinued MS Bluetooth media keyboard and mouse.

If you don’t want to do a full ATX board, go for an Asus or Gigabyte micro-ATX board based on the Z68 chipset. Then you can opt for a smaller case.

With this setup, the Xbox 360 in the bedroom can watch live TV and recorded shows from the HTPC, in addition to showing Netflix/Zune/Hulu+ content. Even buying 5 or 6 premium channel show subscriptions on Zune (for the shows where we don’t want to wait for the season to hit Netflix), it’s still waaaaay cheaper than a $100+/month cable/satellite bill.