MIT On Climate Change

Every year MIT has a Technology Day on its alumni reunion weekend where faculty discuss what they’re working on.   These are consistently interesting, and I’ve written about them before: The Oceans Are Dissolved Information and Print Your House and The Engineering of Biology at MIT.

This year the topic was climate change.   There were five speakers in total: two analysts (Valerie Karplus and Janelle Knox-Hayes), one researcher  (Noelle Eckley-Selin), one policy maker (John Holdren, co-chair of Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) and one inventor (Don Sadoway).    The moderator was Maria Zuber, an astronomer who manages Lincoln Labs and MIT’s own Climate Initiative.

First half: Valerie Karplus, Janelle Knox-Hayes, moderator Maria Zuber

Second half: John Holdren, Noelle Eckley-Selin, Don Sadoway,  moderator Maria Zuber

You can watch the whole session here:  Tech Day 2019 Live Webcast: MIT on Climate Change.    Sorry about the Facebook link, but that’s where it’s posted.  Let me say something brief about each, but then concentrate on Sadoway, who was much the most fun.  Here are the panelists:

Valerie Karplus (the 30:20 mark in the video): China now emits 1/3 of the world’s CO2, largely because they had a huge burst in coal usage in the last 15 years.  Only 50% is for power, though. Yes, they have also built more renewable capacity than anyone else, but coal is very much a government policy.   Their wind turbines are actually idle 10-15% of the time because the coal operators have to meet quotas.  It is literally killing them – there are something like a million deaths a year in China due to smog.

Janelle Knox-Hayes (52:00): Has been looking at who is actually adopting carbon pricing and whether it has had any effect.   Her slides, sadly, were unread-ably detailed in that large auditorium.

Noelle Eckley-Selin (2:04:40): Had a nice way of expressing what’s happening to the planet: “Those of you here for your 50th reunion are from class of 325 ppm CO2, as measured by the Keeling Curve on Mauna Loa.   The 30th reunion is the class of 353 ppm, the 20th is 387 ppm and the newly graduated are at 410.”  Her angle on increasing action w.r.t. climate is to note that emissions have directly horrible health effects.   Coal and diesel emit a lot of tiny particulates, ones less then 2.5 um across (1/10000 of an inch), which which cause lung cancer and heart disease.   Burning coal also emits mercury, so much that it can be seen rising in the 20th century in the geological record.  These kill millions.  Rising temperatures make this worse, as it accelerates chemical reactions in smog.  Oddly enough, the reduction of sulfur in ship fuel may have increased warming by reducing cloud cover, since clouds condense on the sulfur particles.   Heat stroke is now a major issue in India and the Persian Gulf in the summer time.

John Holdren (2:24:50): Actually teaches at that liberal arts school up the river, but is an MIT alum.  He has been in the halls of power for decades and so was much the best speaker.   He noted that climate change makes extreme events worse, even lightning storms.  Wildfires burn four times the area that they did just ten years ago.   Hurricanes used to be cooled down when their waves brought cold water to the surface, but now even the deeper water is warm, so the hurricanes last longer.  Sea level rise has accelerated from 1 mm/year in the 1900s to 5 mm/year today.

He actually had recommendations.   We’ve got to put a price on carbon immediately, and raise it to $100 per tonne by 2030.  The US ought to be spending five times what it currently does on research and mitigation.  As academics, our main contribution is to teach the next generation of leaders – Eckley-Selin was actually a student of his.   He found that for faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School, 50% of their personal CO2 emission came from travel.   Do more video-conferencing!   He recommended that people tithe 10% of their time to climate issues.

Don Sadoway (1:48:10)  – Talked about two of his startups, Ambri (molten metal batteries) and Boston Metal (making steel with electrolysis instead of coke).   He noted that electricity equals modernity, which this EE readily agrees with, but that means we use enormous amounts of it and need it all the time.   We need batteries that store gigawatt-hours, and complex Li-ion ones are never going to get there for reasonable cost.   It’s got to use dead simple chemistry with dead cheap materials – “If you want to make something dirt-cheap, make it out of dirt, and local dirt at that.”  Don’t replace a dependence on foreign oil with one on foreign neodymium.   He’s thinking of something enormous, like a modern aluminum smelter.   He showed a hall of smelter cells a hundred feet wide and a mile long.   It sucked 500,000 A at 4V, which would be the entire output of a large nuclear reactor.  That’s the scale we need.

He’s a senior professor, but teaches the intro to solid-state chemistry course 3.091.  His lectures were put up on Open CourseWare, and Bill Gates happened to watch them.   His assistant then wrote to Sadoway asking if he could spare 90 minutes to meet with Gates.  He ignored it.  He figured that one of his students had hacked his account.  The assistant wrote again, wondering if he had seen the earlier email.  He then decided it was real, agreed to meet, and they had a good discussion about distance learning.  At the end Gates asked him what he was working on.   He sketched his idea for a battery made of liquid metals, and Gates said “That’s interesting.  If you decide to spin that out let me know and I’ll put some money into it.”   So Ambri got Round A funding from Bill Gates because Sadoway taught intro chemistry!  Keeping the attention of undergraduates is good training for keeping the attention of VCs.

He originally called his startup Liquid Metal Batteries, but that was clunky.   He learned that the network giant Cisco was named after San Francisco, so he pulled the middle out of Cambridge to get Ambri.   That was in 2010, and they’ve had a lot of trouble since then.  They got close to release in 2015, but found that their seals failed at high temperatures and they nearly went under.   They have a different chemistry now and hope to release their first product next year in 2020.

Sadoway himself is on to something new – steel-making.  This involves reducing iron ore, Fe2O3, into pure iron.  In the normal process the ore is heated up with coke, processed coal, to pull away the oxygen with carbon to produce CO2.   Steel-making actually accounts for 9% of world emissions!   That’s over 3 billion tonnes a year.   His approach is to use electrolysis instead.   Heat up the ore to liquefy it and then break off the oxygen with huge currents.

The key is getting an anode that doesn’t melt away and is cheap.   There’s a good discussion of the whole scheme at Technology Review:  A New Way To Make Steel Could Cut 5% of Emissions At a Stroke.  Boston Metals started in 2013 with with DOE and NSF money, and now have demos and just got Round A funding.

So Sadoway is taking the traditional technical route to solving a problem – find a better, cheaper way to do it.    That seems much more satisfying than the analysis and advocacy of the other speakers.   Trying to persuade corrupt Trumpists and those whose regions and livelihoods depend on fossil fuels is a way to ruin your blood pressure and waste your career.  Crush them in the marketplace, say I.

Maria Zuber: But what about MIT itself?  In 2015 they set up a A Plan For Action on Climate Change –  Summary  Details, which Zuber is running.  Most of it is organizational – trying to coordinate the efforts across the vast range of activities that happen at the Institute.   That’s fine, but they were also pressured to reduce MIT’s own emissions.  With great reluctance they  committed to a 32% reduction from 2014 emissions by 2030.  32% is weak.   Obama wanted the whole US to reduce by 30% by then, and the entire planet actually needs to do at least that much.   MIT has already gotten 20% of that by funding a solar farm in North Carolina, and will get another 10% by upgrading the co-generation plant that supplies most of the campus power and heat. In 4 years they’re almost at their 15-year goal.

Worse still, they officially refused to divest from fossil fuel companies, and actually committed to working with them.  The fossileers have not acted in good faith.  They’ve funded smear campaigns and outright lies against anything that threatened their revenue.  Including them in your plans could well be giving them inside info to use against you.  That may sound paranoid, but as we’ve recently seen, kompromat has become a standard tactic.

Overall, though, it was encouraging to see good efforts coming out of my alma mater.   That’s what these Technology Days are supposed to do!   Remind alums of their bright college days, and tell them that things are still going well.   Well, not going well in terms of climate change, but at least they’re on the job.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Is “The Biggest Little Farm” For Real?

This new documentary is so wholesome and uplifting that it immediately raised suspicions in my skeptical heart.  It describes the odyssey of a young couple in Los Angeles who started their own organic farm, Apricot Lane, on 200 acres of desolate land about 50 miles west of LA.  After eight years it has become an oasis of greenery and wildlife among the barren hills, but while watching it you really have to wonder – who paid for all this?

The couple, John and Molly Chester, had been living in Santa Monica doing very LA-ish jobs.  He had been a cameraman and director on various TV shows, and she was a private chef for one-percenters.  She had come out with a cookbook, Back to Butter,  and really believed that the quality of food depended directly on how it was raised.  While filming a bit about a woman who had 200 dogs in her house, John rescued one of them, a soulful black Lab named Todd.  Unfortunately, Todd barked incessantly when they weren’t there, causing them to be evicted from their apartment.

But it was time for a change anyway.  He had grown up in farm country and she wanted better food.  They found this property up in the barren hills west of the city.  It had been a horse farm, and then raised lemons and avocados, but the killer drought of the late 2000s had done it in.  Everything on it was dead except for a few eucalyptus trees, and the soil had turned to clods and dust.

The first step was raising money, but I’ll talk about that in a bit.   They bought it in 2011 and hired a consultant, Alan York, to get the property laid out.   He constantly stressed the value of biodiversity.  They wanted to have three kinds of fruit trees, but he insisted on 75.  They added a pond for ducks and wild birds, pastures for chickens, sheep and cows, and a “vermi-composting” shed, which means processing manure with worms.  They landscaped the hills into contour lines for the orchards, and planted ground cover everywhere to aerate the soil and hold rain.   An artesian well supplied irrigation water.

Everything then went wrong.  The drought continued.  Duck poop turned their pond into green slime.  The trees were attacked by snails and aphids, and their roots were damaged by gophers.  Starlings took little bites out of each piece of fruit, ruining them.  Coyotes ate their free-range chickens.  The cattle were overwhelmed by flies.   Yet the Chesters were dead set against using pesticides or herbicides, and didn’t even want to shoot the coyotes.

But the inspiring part about the story is that they solved all these problems through ecological means instead of mechanical ones.  Too many snails?  The ducks love them.  Keep the ducks penned into one part of the orchard until they clean out the snails, then move them to the next.  That spreads their droppings around too.  Too many aphids?  Add ladybugs.   Coyote problems?   Guard the chickens with dogs and let the coyotes eat the gophers.  Chickens also love to peck at fly larvae, so have them keep the fields clean for the cattle.  Add birdhouses to attract barn owls to keep down rodents and starlings.

When the drought finally broke in the mid-2010s, their ground cover saved them.  Everyone else’s soil got washed downhill in the torrential rains, but theirs absorbed it, and just helped to deepen the grass’s roots.   That helps maintain the underground water table as well.  The roots are also good for carbon sequestration, but even they couldn’t avoid the oncoming climate catastrophe and had to evacuate during one wildfire season.

These days the farm is thriving.   It appears to employ about 15 people, and has a crowd of volunteers through WWOOF, World-Wide Opportunites for Organic Farming, who get room and board in return for labor.  They sell through farmstands (people stand in line to get their eggs) and LA restaurants.   They tried to open their own restaurant and market in the nearby town of Moorpark, but gave it up after too many delays and costly requirements.  They also have tours of the property, and since this is the 21st century, have an online gift shop.  John Chester has been drawing on his film skills for the entire process, releasing short films along the way, and now this major documentary.

So how did all this get funded?   They’re cagey about that in the movie, saying only that they found venture money.    There’s nothing about their investors on any of their sites, but I found the actual owners with a bit of web sleuthing.   I won’t give their names because they don’t matter, but they were real venture capitalists in the early 2010s.  They don’t seem to be involved in it any more, though, and have shifted their attention to high-frequency trading and bitcoins.

Well, that’s sketchy.  More sketchy, though, is the philosophy behind the Chesters’ farming style – biodynamics.   That word also did not come up in the movie.   It’s based on the theories of the German mystic and philosopher Rudolf Steiner from the 1920s.   It does stress ecological management practices, but also proposes sympathetic magic techniques, like burying ashes in a cow’s horn, and planting according to astrological calendars.   The farm is actually certified by Demeter International, an organization that makes sure that strict biodynamic standards are being obeyed.    There are a few other such farms in California, but the bulk of them appear to be in Germany.

So this farm is California all over: a New Age ideology crossed with Whole Earth Catalog redemptive environmentalism, underpinned by modern finance, and spending a good fraction of its energy on publicity.

And that’s OK!  Publicity is crucial to everything these days.   The money put into this looks to be in the $10M range, but that’s negligible by VC standards.  Better this than yet another phone app.    I don’t mind New Age-ism if it’s used to inform your worldview instead of to control empirical decisions, and I was an avid reader of the Catalog back in its 70s heyday.  The Chesters seem to have hit on something that is economically and more importantly, environmentally sustainable.  They are not Masters of Nature, but gardeners within it.  Their life looks like a lot of work and heartache, but greatly rewarding.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Mad Science #5: Fluorine-Based Rocket Fuels

One of the purest examples of maniacal engineering is the field of liquid rocket fuels.   These chemicals have to contain as much energy as possible, and so are  dangerous by definition.  A fun and opinionated version of their development has just been re-issued by Rutgers University Press:

Ignition!

Click for publisher link

You know those hazardous material signs, the NFPS diamonds, that rate toxicity, flammability and explosiveness on a scale of 1 to 4?

NFPA 704 4-4-4-W

This is the sign for diborane (B2H6), and says it is maximally dangerous on every parameter.  The slashed W means it also reacts badly with water.  It turns out that it’s a fine rocket propellant!  That’s the sort of stuff these guys liked to work with.    If you see a building with such a sign on it, and it’s on fire, run.

Clark was the head of the Naval Air Rocket Test Station (NARTS) in New Jersey in the 1950s and 60s, and did a lot of the key propellant work himself.  He was also a friend and mentor to Isaac Asimov, and Asimov wrote an introduction for this book when it first came out in 1972.   Clark was also a serious SF fan going back to the 1930s.  He restored interest in Robert E. Howard’s Conan series by constructing a map and timeline of Conan’s adventures.

NARTS was trying to build rockets for the Navy.   They can’t use the obvious propellants, liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (H2-LOX).   Those are fine for big space launches (that’s what was in the big orange tank on the Shuttle), but take a long time to load into a rocket and can’t be stored on a ship because they boil away.  So the Navy wanted fuels that would:

  • Be liquid down to fairly cold temperatures, like -54C (-65F) so they wouldn’t freeze  in the Arctic.
  • Have lots of oomph, as measured by exhaust velocity, to maximize payload.
  • Be nice and dense so the tanks wouldn’t have to be too big.  Liquid hydrogen is 8X less dense than water, and that’s why the Shuttle tank was so huge.
  • Be storeable in the rocket itself, i.e. not eat through the tanks.
  • Be hypergolic, that is, the two propellants should ignite on contact.  That saves having complex ignition hardware.

By the later 1950s they had settled on a combination that is used to this day: UDMH (Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, H2NN(CH3)2 , which is hydrazine (N2H4) with two methyl groups (CH3) tacked on) and RFNA (Red Fuming Nitric Acid, mostly nitric acid (HNO3) with a little dinitrogen tetraoxide (N2O4) for flavor).   If your job involves working regularly with something called Red Fuming Acid, you may want to consider a position in accounting.   Clark would test the mettle of interviewees at his lab by having someone drop a piece of a rubber glove into a beaker of RFNA:

The rubber would swell and squirm a moment, and then a magnificent rocket-like jet of flame would rise from the flask with appropriate hissing noises.  I could usually tell from the candidate’s demeanor whether he had the sort of nervous system desirable in a propellant chemist.

Both of these chemicals are nasty.   UDMH is a 4-3-1, highly carcinogenic and flammable.  RFNA dissolves everything – Clark got a permanent burn on his arm from one drop of it – and also breaks down into pure oxygen.  It took a lot of experimentation to discover that adding a little hydrofluoric acid (HF) will coat a steel or aluminum tank with a protective layer of fluoride and keep the RFNA from eating through it.

But they are liquid at room temperature and down to -54C, and do have good density (1.27, about four times that of H2-O2).  Unfortunately, they also have 3/4 the performance of H2-O2.  So their thoughts turned to an even stronger oxidizer, fluorine.

The easiest fluorine compound to handle is chlorine trifluoride (ClF3).  All those fluorine atoms love to strip electrons off of stuff.   When burned with hydrazine it gets about 6% more performance than UDMH + RFNA, and it’s 20% denser.  That’s nice, except that as Clark notes:

It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that’s the least of its problems.  It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured.  It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water – with which it reacts explosively.

So naturally they experimented with it extensively.  They tried all sorts of fuels for it, and did get some success with mono-methyl-hydrazine (MMH) with various additives.   Better still was chlorine pentafluoride (ClF5), which has even more fluorine by weight.  It gets 13% more performance and is about the same density but needs to be kept cold and under pressure.   Even better still was dinitrogen tetrafluorine (N2F4), which is 21% better than UDMH-RFNA and still pretty dense.

They’re all highly toxic and flammable.  They also emit hydrofluoric acid (HF) after combustion.  With H2-LOX you get pretty clouds of condensing steam, and with these you get one of the most corrosive acids known.  It goes straight through your skin and damages your nerves and breaks down your bones.  So not only can you be killed by touching these fuels, and set your ship on fire when it’s spilled, but its HF exhaust destroys everything it touches.

So yes, the entire project was both dangerous and ridiculous.   Fortunately no one ever used it!    These days everyone uses pretty standard fuels like ethanol, methane, and kerosene, almost always with liquid oxygen.

Clark would not be surprised.   By 1972 he believed that his field was exhausted, that all the reasonable combinations had been tried, and he was pretty much right.   The only novel fuel I’ve seen recently is Propylene-LOX, which has more performance than kerosene and better density than methane, but is only a minor improvement.

Clark hoped that someone would find a way to make the ultimate fuel, mono-atomic hydrogen (bare hydrogen atoms), which would have more than twice the performance of H2-LOX when it reverted to H2. It would make single-stage-to-orbit rockets easy.  The SF author and editor John Campbell actually used this idea in his early novel The Black Star Passes (1930), and Clark knew Campbell through his SF connections.  People have reported making metallic hydrogen under gigantic pressure inside diamond anvils, but the results are still controversial and it almost certainly can’t be held in tanks.

So this crazy corner of engineering research is probably over.   The EPA is doubtless happy that it doesn’t have another Superfund site to worry about!

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Big Lonely Doug” – An Alien Stranded on Humanity’s Earth

There’s a tree in Canada that’s so famous that it now has its own biography, Big Lonely Doug (2018) by Harlan Rustad:

Click for author’s site

It’s a gigantic Douglas fir, ~67 m (220′) tall and 4 m across at the base. It’s one of the tallest trees in Canada, and is probably a thousand years old.

But that’s not why it’s famous. There are taller firs (the 100 m Doermer Fir in Oregon) and larger ones (the 350 m³ Red Creek Fir). There are even trees that tall in distant locales – there’s a 69 m fir in New Zealand that’s a mere 160 years old. That country really is the land of the Ents.

No, it’s famous because of the whim of a forest engineer. In 2011 Dennis Cronin was mapping a section of forest near Port Renfrew. That’s on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, only about 40 miles from Victoria, the provincial capital. He was preparing a section for logging, marking where the access roads should go, and where the boundaries of the clearcut should be. Logging companies are not allowed to cut within 50 m of a waterway for fear of silting them up and harming the salmon. They’re also not allowed to cut Culturally Modified Trees, ones that First Nation people have cut into for timber or fibers. Some of the CMTs are hundreds of years old, and First Nations now have the lawyers to protect them.

While hiking through the dense undergrowth, Cronin came upon a trunk of enormous girth.  It disappeared up into the canopy. He rather liked it, and so put a green Leave Tree ribbon around it. Ten months later the Teal Jones lumber company came through. They clearcut the 12 hectare in plot in a couple of weeks, leaving Big Lonely Doug standing there all by itself. All the rest of the timber was taken by truck to Nanaimo on the eastern coast, then floated down to a mill on the mainland.

For once, people could see the actual scale of these trees. They’re the size of skyscrapers, but are normally hidden among lots of others. It has now become a tourist destination.   Lumbering is fading at Port Renfrew, and they’re now realizing that eco-tourism is far more profitable.  Local environmental groups, such as the Ancient Forest Alliance, have been pushing this for years. It’s not enough to just chide people for destroying natural beauty – you have to give them something else to do. They’re the ones who named Big Lonely Doug, and they’ve made it an example of what logging is doing to the island.  They’ve been able to save a few small parcels, such as Avatar Grove, named for the eco-conscious James Cameron movie:

Photo by TJ Watt of the AFA, who actually climbed Big Lonely Doug

But the overall trend is clear – this island will be razed to the ground.  About 100,000 hectares are cleared a year, and the best old growth is long gone. Douglas fir makes excellent timber, worth about $100 per cubic meter. Big Doug itself would be worth about $30,000. The timber companies are competing with much more desperate regions in Siberia and Indonesia and the Amazon, and so are trying to get every nickel out while they can.

Logging has long been a mainstay of British Columbia.  My uncle worked in the mountains and mills here before it was all automated.   My father hiked these very mountains as a teenager in the 1940s doing seedling re-planting as a summer job. It was hard work because the brush is thick and the slopes are steep, but it got him out of the city.  It jibed with the green thumb and love of nature that he had his whole life.  That experience is going away – it’ll all be tiny fragments of parks like the above and tree farms.

Doug itself will probably make it. It’s a bit more exposed to windstorms now, but it has survived many hurricanes over the last millennium. It even survived an estimated magnitude 9 earthquake that shook Vancouver Island in 1700, which is known because it wiped out a village nearby, and its tsunami hit Japan. Doug’s root system is enormous, and it is now a bit more isolated from insects. It has been declared a provincial recreational area, which doesn’t prevent logging, but does make the paperwork a lot harder.

But trees are not isolated individuals. We now know that they communicate with each other via sap and electrical signals passed through fine networks of fungi in the soil, and through pheromones and other gases in the air. They appear to take collective action to help injured members, and to ward off pests. But they live at such a slow pace, and the fungi and aerosol signals are so hard for us to detect, that we don’t perceive this alien civilization in our midst.  It’ll come back once we either go away or realize we must  leave them alone.  In the meantime Big Lonely Doug shows us what we’re losing.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“They Shall Not Grow Old” – the Movie Memorial of WW I

This extraordinary restoration of actual World War I footage shows what movies can do that practically no other art form can – take you to places that you’ll never see.  Theater has physical limitations, television has technical ones, and literature is limited by the reader’s imagination, but a movie can fool you into believing you are there:

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD - 14-18 NOW

Restored on left, original on right, click for IWM site

The people here are no longer jerky black-and-white figures in odd clothing – they’re people you might meet anywhere.    Except with much worse teeth!

This was made by Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, at the request of the Imperial War Museum in London.   Its name alone is refreshing to those used to the euphemistic Department of Defense.   They had hundreds of hours of black-and-white film from WW I, and wanted to collate it into a memorial for the 100th anniversary of its end in 1918.

Computer editing tools can now  remove the graininess of old film, fix the contrast so that dark objects can be seen, and fill in the scratches caused by actually playing movies.  Recent tools can even fix the frame rate by interpolating new frames between old ones to make the motion much smoother.  At that time cameras were cranked by hand at anything from 10 to 17 frames per second, but now they can all be corrected to the standard 24 fps.  Sometimes that doesn’t work, and you see people’s hands turn into blobs as they move, but the overall result looks natural.

Even the colorization is good.  The colorized movies from the 90s looked awful because they were done quickly – it takes effort to get the details right.  They used archived uniforms to get the right shades on the British khaki and German blue, but that was relatively easy because there’s no one to remember what those really looked like.   It was harder to get the shades of the grass and trees.  It’s striking to see bright red poppies all over these fields, just like in the poem.  Jackson drove all over France and Belgium taking pictures of the actual locations in order to capture the color balance.

The most haunting case of that was this scene:

Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old

This squad is resting in a channel formed by a road through the country.  They’re about to go over the channel’s side and into machine gun fire.  They have less than thirty minutes to live, and know it.  Jackson found the exact place where this was shot, and it looks about the same, but empty.

The films could not capture hand-to-hand combat because having cameras there was  impossible.   Jackson showed those scenes with illustrations from propaganda magazines of the time, of which he happens to have a large collection.  He does have gruesome shots of human and horse corpses.   The horses are somehow worse to see, probably because they were innocent.  There are also grim shots of men living in trenches full of water, and a man’s skin coming off as he removes his boot.

The voice-overs for the movie come from interviews with veterans captured in the 1950s and 60s by the BBC.  The voices are as real as the images, with one exception – they had lip readers figure out what people were saying in the films, and hired actors to recreate the voices in the same accents.   Jackson is from New Zealand, and his locals didn’t sound right.   He wanted to do a big rousing song over the credits, “The Madmoiselle From Armintiere” (“You’ll forget the bombs and shells but never forget the madmoiselle!”), but had to get staffers from the British embassy to sing with the right accents, which they did with gusto.

The veterans were stoic about their experiences.   “We had a job to do and got on with it,”  several said.  For some it was the first time they got decent exercise and food.  They talked about comradeship, but also about how they couldn’t tell people what it had been like when they finally got home.  I guess those are universals of war.

The films and interviews concentrated on the British ground war on the Western Front, the battles in Belgium and France.   There were a lot of other sides to the conflict such as the air and sea battles, the experiences back home, and the perspective of other combatants, but they aren’t covered.   Maybe there just isn’t as much film.   WW I isn’t thought of much in the US, perhaps because its involvement was so short and controversial, but there is an excellent museum and monument to it in Kansas City.  It’s there because Harry Truman was from KC, and he first came to prominence as an artillery captain in France.  He’s the only US president who fought there.   Eisenhower was in the Army at the time, but never got overseas.

The Great War was an utter catastrophe, but Jackson carefully avoided politics in this.   He didn’t talk about the motives for the war, or the consequences, or the big movements.  He wanted to show the personal side of it.   He ended by saying that he wanted people to remember what happened to their own families in WW I, to do their own memorials.   This movie is an act of memory, not analysis.

So let me end by saying how my family was affected:

  • Abraham Unger (my great-grandfather) – killed in 1920 during the Bolshevik Revolution.
  • Edward Garrard (also great-grandfather) – killed in 1917 in Belgium.
  • Philip Watson (brother of my great-grandmother) – survived the Halifax Explosion, but died in the submarine service shortly after the war.
  • William Maitland-Dougal (cousin of my grandmother, nephew of Philip) killed in 1918 when his submarine was sunk by a French airship in the English channel.
  • Hamish Maitland-Dougal (William’s brother) killed at Vimy Ridge in 1917.
  • Winnifred Watson (my great-grandmother) – lost her husband, brother and two nephews above.  She spent almost all her life in Victoria BC, but her family was destroyed by events on the other side of the world.
  • Walter Redford (my grandfather) served as a young seaman in the Pacific, and as a commander in the Atlantic during WW II.
  • Elmer Nelson (my wife’s grandfather) served stateside from 1915 to 1918 under Robert (later Admiral) Peary, but never got to Europe.

The generation of my great-grandparents and grandparents was devastated by WW I.  No wonder they didn’t want to fight the next.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Nothing Has Ever Been Manufactured in Space

I happen to own something that has been to space – a laptop bag made partly from the orange nylon of Soyuz re-entry parachute:

A Montreal company, Everquest Design, went out to Kazahkstan in 2003 and recovered the parachute from the Soyuz capsule. They’ve been cutting it up for use in various products ever since.

But after more than sixty years of space flight, after about 8000 launches and 150 person-years in orbit,  the extraordinary thing is that nothing has ever been commercially manufactured in orbit. It’s been talked about from the very beginning. Perfect crystals! Pure proteins! Maybe even solar panels made from lunar silicon and beaming their power down to earth via microwaves. Yes, seriously.

People have tried. Hundreds of experiments have been done, starting on Soyuz 6 and Skylab in the early 1970s, and continuing on the ISS right up to the present:

From Material Science in Microgravity, click for presentation

Blobs of different density diffuse more uniformly in zero-gee.  Materials can be grown without containers, reducing defects. Phenomena such as thermo-capilliary action, where the temperature loss caused by evaporation on the surface of a liquid causes convective currents inside it, can be studied much more easily.

There’s value to this in understanding the mechanisms, but none in manufacture.  Things worth doing have to be scalable.   It’s not enough to make one perfect boule of silicon – you have to make a lot of it to be worth the expense of the research.   50,000 tonnes of mono-crystalline silicon were made last year for use as chips, and that’s just not going to happen in a remote and incredibly expensive location.

So since serious uses of space haven’t worked out, we’re now into frivolous ones.  Like laptop bags!   And space tourism, where people will supposedly spend hundreds of thousands to experience a few minutes of zero-gee.   And this week we heard of the ultimate space novelty item – Space Roasters claims they’ll get perfect coffee roasted completely uniformly in zero-gee: 

From article in  The Guardian

During re-entry the capsule would experience several gees of deceleration, so the diagram makes no sense.  They must mean a short sub-orbital hop where the roasting can be done while the beans float around.  The capsule would splash down somewhere near Dubai, where they would sell it for €100 a cup.  At 60 cups per kilo and 300 kilos per flight, that’s about $2M per flight, which might be reasonable for the Virgin Galactic ship or the plethora of small rocket companies that have been springing up.

But this is ridiculous.   I think the only remaining hope for space manufacture is the Air Force’s mysterious X37B space plane.   It looks like a stubby Space Shuttle but is a quarter of the size.  It’s launched on a regular rocket and then flies back down on its own.  It has spent over seven years in orbit during five flights.  The first was in 2011 and the fifth is still going on.  No one knows what it’s been doing up there.  The boring answer is some kind of surveillance, but you wouldn’t need to return to earth for that.    They are known to be testing Hall effect ion thrusters and exposing materials to space conditions.  People have speculated that they’re releasing sub-satellites or spying on China’s Tiang-gong space station or looking at anti-satellite operations.  

I prefer to think that they’re growing giant laser crystals for Air Force death rays.  The cargo bay is 2.1 m long by 1.2 m in diameter, about the volume of a closet, so it could make something of decent size.   It spends one to two years up at a time, enough to do something serious. This weird zero-gee high-vacuum environment has got to be good for making something!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Best-Looking Movies of the 20th Century

The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In honor of the occasion, they’ve put together a list of The 100 Best-Photographed Films. Members submitted nominations, and then an overall list was created and voted on to pare it down to 100. They limited it to the 20th century, including the year 2000, as Arthur C. Clarke would remind us.   That was probably to avoid having too many people vote for the work of themselves or their friends. Rather than having an invidious ranking of all of them, they just broke the list into the Top Ten, and the worthy 90.   They’ll be updating the list with more information about the films throughout the year.

I’ve included the raw list at the bottom of this post, and added the directors for all the movies. Films in the top ten are in bold.  Let’s also answer a few questions about it:

Q: Who has worked on the most of these films?

A: Here are all the cinematographers who have two or more films, or one in the top ten:

Cinematographer Number Films
Vittorio Storaro 5 The Conformist (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979), Reds (1981), The Last Emperor (1987)
Gordon Willis 5 Klute (1971), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), Manhattan (1979)
Conrad Hall 5 In Cold Blood (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993), American Beauty (1999)
John Alcott 4 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980)
Caleb Deschanel 4 The Black Stallion (1979), Being There (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984)
Vilmos Zsigmond 3 McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978)
Freddie Young 2 Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Michael Chapman 2 Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980)
Owen Roizman 2 The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973)
Gregg Toland 2 The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Citizen Kane (1941)
Jack Cardiff 2 Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)
Robert Surtees 2 The Graduate (1967), The Last Picture Show (1971)
Haskell Wexler 2 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Stanley Cortez 2 The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Janusz Kaminski 2 Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Robert Burks 2 Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959)
Jordan Cronenweth 1 Blade Runner (1982)
Néstor Almendros 1 Days of Heaven (1978)
Geoffrey Unsworth 1 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I should know more about Vittorio Storaro given that great list. Gordon Willis is much better known, and rightly so given what he has worked on. Note that Conrad Hall’s films span 32 years, from In Cold Blood in 1967 to American Beauty in 1999 – that’s a tremendous career.

Q: Directors also have great input to a film’s look – who among them shows up the most?

Director Number Films
Stanley Kubrick 5 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980)
Steven Spielberg 4 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Francis Ford Coppola 3 The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979)
Bernardo Bertolucci 3 The Conformist (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), The Last Emperor (1987)
David Lean 3 Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Orson Welles 3 Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Touch of Evil (1958)
Ridley Scott 3 The Duellists (1977), Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982)
John Ford 3 The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Searchers (1956)
Martin Scorsese 2 Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980)
Terrence Malick 2 Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998)
William Friedkin 2 The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973)
Akira Kurosawa 2 Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954)
Mike Nichols 2 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967)
Wim Wenders 2 Paris, Texas (1984), Wings of Desire (1987)
Bob Fosse 2 Cabaret (1972), All that Jazz (1979)
Alfred Hitchcock 2 Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959)
Alan J. Pakula 2 Klute (1971), All the President’s Men (1976)
Miloš Forman 2 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Amadeus (1984)
Michael Powell;Emeric Pressburger 2 Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)
Victor Fleming 2 The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939)

Kubrick and Spielberg are no surprise, and all of the top few are known for the gorgeous look of their films. Note, though, that the big SF directors George Lucas and James Cameron don’t appear at all. They seem to be somewhat discounting effects-heavy movies, although Blade Runner, Alien , and 2001 still make the cut.

Q: When were these films made?

Decade Number
1920s 3
1930s 2
1940s 9
1950s 10
1960s 17
1970s 26
1980s 17
1990s 15
2000s 1

The 1970s were a good decade!   As many have noted, it was a peak for Hollywood, before blockbusters conquered all.

Q: What does the full list look like?

Here it is in date order. It’s here in spreadsheet form. Note that most of the cinematographers belong to the ASC, unsurprisingly.   They have 66 out of the 105 people listed, followed by 19 from the BSC, the British Society of Cinematographers, and 8 from the AIC, the Italian Society of Cinematographers.  

So have a look at all of these films, preferably on a big screen!

Film Cinematographer(s) Director(s)
Sunrise (1927) Charles Rosher Sr., ASC; Karl Struss, ASC F. W. Murnau
Metropolis (1927) Karl Freund, ASC; Günther Rittau Fritz Lang
Napoleon (1927) Leonce-Henri Burel; Jules Kruger; Joseph-Louis Mundwiller Abel Gance
Gone with the Wind (1939) Ernest Haller, ASC Victor Fleming
The Wizard of Oz (1939) Harold Rosson, ASC Victor Fleming
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Gregg Toland, ASC John Ford
How Green Was My Valley (1941) Arthur C. Miller, ASC John Ford
Citizen Kane (1941) Gregg Toland, ASC Orson Welles
Casablanca (1942) Arthur Edeson, ASC Michael Curtiz
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) Stanley Cortez, ASC Orson Welles
Black Narcissus (1947) Jack Cardiff, BSC Michael Powell;Emeric Pressburger
The Bicycle Thief (1948) Carlo Montuori, Vittoria De Sica
The Red Shoes (1948) Jack Cardiff, BSC Michael Powell;Emeric Pressburger
The Third Man (1949) Robert Krasker, BSC Carol Reed
Sunset Boulevard (1950) John Seitz, ASC Billy Wilder
Rashomon (1950) Hazuo Miyagawa Akira Kurosawa
Seven Samurai (1954) Asakazu Nakai Akira Kurosawa
On the Waterfront (1954) Boris Kaufman, ASC Elia Kazan
The Night of the Hunter (1955) Stanley Cortez, ASC Charles Laughton
The Searchers (1956) Winton C. Hoch, ASC John Ford
Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Jack Hilyard, BSC David Lean
Touch of Evil (1958) Russell Metty, ASC Orson Welles
Vertigo (1958) Robert Burks, ASC Alfred Hitchcock
North by Northwest (1959) Robert Burks, ASC Alfred Hitchcock
Breathless (1960) Raoul Coutard Jean-Luc Goddard
Last Year at Marienbad (1961) Sacha Vierny Alain Resnais
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Freddie Young, BSC David Lean
Hud (1963) James Wong Howe, ASC Martin Ritt
8 ½ (1963) Gianni Di Venanzo Federico Fellini
I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) (1964) Sergei Urusevsky Mikhail Kalatozov
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) Gilbert Taylor, BSC Stanley Kubrick
Doctor Zhivago (1965) Freddie Young, BSC David Lean
The Battle of Algiers (1966) Marcello Gatti Gillo Pontecorvo
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Haskell Wexler, ASC Mike Nichols
In Cold Blood (1967) Conrad Hall, ASC Richard Brooks
Cool Hand Luke (1967) Conrad Hall, ASC Stuart Rosenberg
The Graduate (1967) Robert Surtees, ASC Mike Nichols
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) Tonino Delli Colli, AIC Sergio Leone
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC; John Alcott, BSC Stanley Kubrick
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Conrad Hall, ASC George Roy Hill
The Wild Bunch (1969) Lucien Ballard, ASC Sam Peckinpah
The Conformist (1970) Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC Bernardo Bertolucci
The Last Picture Show (1971) Robert Surtees, ASC Peter Bogdanovich
A Clockwork Orange (1971) John Alcott, BSC Stanley Kubrick
The French Connection (1971) Owen Roizman, ASC William Friedkin
Klute (1971) Gordon Willis, ASC Alan J. Pakula
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC Robert Altman
Last Tango in Paris (1972) Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC Bernardo Bertolucci
The Godfather (1972) Gordon Willis, ASC Francis Ford Coppola
Cabaret (1972) Geoffery Unsworth, BSC Bob Fosse
The Exorcist (1973) Owen Roizman, ASC William Friedkin
Chinatown (1974) John Alonzo, ASC Roman Polanski
The Godfather: Part II (1974) Gordon Willis, ASC Francis Ford Coppola
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Haskell Wexler, ASC Miloš Forman
Barry Lyndon (1975) John Alcott, BSC Stanley Kubrick
All the President’s Men (1976) Gordon Willis, ASC Alan J. Pakula
Taxi Driver (1976) Michael Chapman, ASC Martin Scorsese
The Duellists (1977) Frank Tidy, BSC Ridley Scott
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC Steven Spielberg
The Deer Hunter (1978) Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC Michael Cimino
Days of Heaven (1978) Néstor Almendros, ASC Terrence Malick
Manhattan (1979) Gordon Willis, ASC Woody Allen
The Black Stallion (1979) Caleb Deschanel, ASC Carroll Ballard
Apocalypse Now (1979) Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC Francis Ford Coppola
Being There (1979) Caleb Deschanel, ASC Hal Ashby
Alien (1979) Derek Vanlint, CSC Ridley Scott
All that Jazz (1979) Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC Bob Fosse
The Shining (1980) John Alcott, BSC Stanley Kubrick
Raging Bull (1980) Michael Chapman, ASC Martin Scorsese
Das Boot (1981) Jost Vacano, ASC Wolfgang Petersen
Chariots of Fire (1981) David Watkin, BSC Hugh Hudson
Reds (1981) Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC Warren Beatty
Blade Runner (1982) Jordan Cronenweth, ASC Ridley Scott
Fanny and Alexander (1982) Sven Nykvist, ASC Ingmar Bergman
The Right Stuff (1983) Caleb Deschanel, ASC Philip Kaufman
Paris, Texas (1984) Robby Müller, NSC, BVK Wim Wenders
The Natural (1984) Caleb Deschanel, ASC Barry Levinson
Amadeus (1984) Miroslav Ondricek, ASC, ACK Miloš Forman
Brazil (1985) Roger Pratt, BSC Terry Gilliam
The Mission (1986) Chris Menges, ASC, BSC Roland Joffé
Empire of the Sun (1987) Allen Daviau, ASC Steven Spielberg
The Last Emperor (1987) Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC Bernardo Bertolucci
Wings of Desire (1987) Henri Alekan Wim Wenders
Mississippi Burning (1988) Peter Biziou, BSC Alan Parker
Raise the Red Lantern (1991) Fei Zhao Zhang Yimou
JFK (1991) Robert Richardson, ASC Oliver Stone
Baraka (1992) Ron Fricke Ron Fricke
Unforgiven (1992) Jack Green, ASC Clint Eastwood
Schindler’s List (1993) Janusz Kaminski Steven Spielberg
Trois Coulieurs: Bleu (1993) Slawomir Idziak, PSC Krzysztof Kieślowski
Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993) Conrad Hall, ASC Steven Zaillian
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC Frank Darabont
Seven (1995) Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC David Fincher
The English Patient (1996) John Seale, ASC, ACS Anthony Minghella
L. A. Confidential (1997) Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC Curtis Hanson
Saving Private Ryan (1998) Janusz Kaminski Steven Spielberg
The Thin Red Line (1998) John Toll, ASC Terrence Malick
American Beauty (1999) Conrad Hall, ASC Sam Mendes
The Matrix (1999) Bill Pope, ASC The Wachowski Brothers
In the Mood for Love (2000) Christopher Doyle, HKSC Wong Kar-wai

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment