Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Monday, November 28, 2011

RED Dawn: Digital Cameras, Moving into Movies

How often does one get to meet one's movie hero?

Not often. I did interview Harrison Ford once about his helicopter training when I was writing The God Machine, and also John Lithgow for Harvard Magazine, but those talks were by telephone, so they don't count as up-close.

The hero-meeting I have in mind was three weeks ago, when I was at a location shoot in Maine for the History Channel. The show will air for the centennial of Titanic's loss: April 2012.

The object in question is the Red One digital camera, which is something I've wanted to see since it came on the market four years ago. The Red One offers a max resolution of 4,480 by 2,304 at 60 frames per second, which is well beyond what any television can reproduce. It's movie quality.

The production unit for Lone Wolf Documentary Group was using the Red on a wheeled crane, which will give a cinema-like feel. 

An operator holding a remote control was responsible for changing the angle, focal length, and focus of the camera. Here's the business end:
Here's a profile, from the company:
Typical attachments to the body are a hi-res monitor, filter,  a battery pack, a storage device, and a carrying handle. The Red is very much a modular design.

I know there are other brands of digital cameras now capable of moviemaking, and a newer Red model, the Epic, surpasses the Red One in features like pixel array. But the One has a special place because it opened the door to more independents by greatly lowering production costs. I first picked up a Sony video camera in 1980, starting reading American Cinematographer, and wondered how long it would be before video could match the 35mm cameras from Arri and Panavision.

I talked to a technician on the set and he said the latest video equipment records light better than filmstock in some respects, including underlit scenes. Very bright spots of the image are still a challenge for video, which tends to wash them out, but bracketing can improve the rendering. 

It's not just a question of resolution; a successful product takes the right combination of lenses, sensors, mounts, image-processing software and workflow, and storage that can reliably handle the huge flows of data. The Red One started with hard-drive storage, but now flash cards are common.

There weren't many skeptics about what a Red One could do after Peter Jackson took up the company's offer to try it out. Jackson did more than play around with it: he hauled two of them to New Zealand and came back with a short-form WWI costumer called Crossing the Line, filmed in two days. It drew a lot of attention at the National Association of Broadcasters' 2007 convention. Here's a low-resolution clip from it, posted on YouTube:
Since then, many major productions have dropped film stock and gone Red, including Social Network and Contagion. Here are more titles

There was a long waiting list at first; now availability is better. Renting the Red One body and a package of commonly used accessories costs about $2,500 per week from an LA rental house. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Rena's New Phase: Container-Plucking

The removal of Heavy Fuel Oil, diesel, and lubricating oil from the Rena is complete enough that the next phase, container removal, has begun.

We're told that a grand total of 1,262 containers remain on the Rena, topside and in the holds. A crane on the Sea Tow 60 has pulled off eighteen to date, after workers freed the corner attachments with cutting torches. Here's a short NZ news item with a video clip.

Pulling containers from unstable stacks and lifting them with a crane that's sitting on another ship -- a ship that's moving independently from the Rena -- is difficult and dangerous, even in the best of weather. Getting close enough to use a cutting torch and attach cables means a rigger is close enough to get smashed. 

Despite the salvor's best efforts, it's likely that hundreds of containers will end up in the water anyway, particularly if a storm comes along. And the work is so difficult and dangerous it can't be rushed with the thought of beating the storms. The best information I've seen on the ups and downs of the salvage work can be found at this blog, Antipodean Mariner. Check it out!

Six to eight containers off would be a good day, so months of fair weather would be required to get all of them off. Not too likely.

Anticipating that likelihood, Svitzer's salvors have readied two hundred transponders, and attached them to containers most likely to become flotsam.

A more substantial crane-equipped vessel, the Smit Borneo, is on its way from Singapore and should arrive in a week or two. The Smit Borneo is a heavy-lifter, usually employed for pipelaying in the offshore oil patch. Here's an issue of a Smit publication, The Tug, that mentions the Borneo at work on a sunken drill rig. Here's the vessel, from
A look at the Rena makes the challenge clear. Containers were stacked seven high aft of the deckhouse, and up to six high elsewhere. There are hundreds more containers secured in steel racks called "cell guides," under the decks.

For container geeks, here's a handbook for vessel masters about how containers are stowed on different types of ships, above and below decks. Here's a risk-advisory paper from marine insurers on the problems of container stowage above decks. (Item for future blog: marine insurers are concerned about a rising trend of containers lost from containerships while in transit; there are a variety of reasons for this; one is a scary phenomenon called parametric rolling.)

First, a brief summary about how generic containerships like the Rena stow their cargo. At port, crews begin by lowering and stowing containers in the holds (the cavernous areas below decks). When each hold is full, cranes lift heavily reinforced covers to seal the hatches. These hatch covers are the foundation for hundreds more containers on deck, usually six high. 

Containers in the holds: Each vertical column of containers is called a “cell.” As lowered by a crane, a container slides down a “cell guide" (a strong steel framework with vertical tracks) until it comes to rest either on the base of the cell guide, or another container. 

Containers are highly standardized, which allows the dimensions of the cell guides to be very precise. Precision is normally a good thing, because if there's slack between the cell guides and the containers, movement of the containers at sea will damage the cell guides.

Above decks, the first two or three tiers of containers are held down by steel rods called lashings. These are diagonal tension rods, securing corners of the containers to fittings on the ship structure. These attachments are quite strong ... assuming the containers and fittings are in good shape. If you look at the Rena photo above you can see some of the diagonal lashings -- they look like X's across the ends of the containers.

But containers in tiers rising higher than the lashed ones are more at risk. These upper containers attach to each other at the corners, not directly to the ship structure. The higher and heavier the stack, the more leverage to crush the containers below, or to snap their attachments. Crushed containers are visible at the bottom of the stacks on the stern.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chasing Contrails at Flight Level 360

Disaster-wise, I'm tracking several developments (evidence of spontaneous fission at Fukushima-Daichi; what went wrong with Fobos-Grunt after successful injection to low-Earth orbit; and the daring plan to pluck shipping containers from the leaning Rena with the Smit-Borneo crane barge) but for now, a word about my sponsor, clouds! This following two trips to California in the last two weeks.

One trip was for an Inviting Disaster safety talk at a NASA facility and the other was to finish location shooting for a History Channel special to be broadcast in April 2012, produced by Lone Wolf Documentary Group. Links to come.

Both flights offered fine weather, which for a cloud-watcher, means heaps of clouds below and a clear sky above. 

One neat back-lighting effect that appeared west of Salt Lake City was produced as sunlight reflected off the snow cover, sending sunlight up through a heavy cloud cover:
And contrails clamored for attention, like these two eye-level streaks at 36,000 feet:
Here's a sunrise-contrail, appearing when I was on the way back:
Here's a contrail as seen from above, also in early morning.
Over eastern Utah our flight paralleled another plane, which happened to be making a whopper of a contrail. The sky was hazy enough, and the contrail big enough, that it actually threw a shadow across the sky:
Here's the dark streak that the contrail laid across a low cloud deck and a range of mountains:
That's a big one. More typically, contrail-shadows are faint and not visible at long distances, like these:
Winding up, now back at ground level, here's a summertime time-lapse video of cirrus on a northwesterly wind, followed by a handful of contrails.