Sunday, December 21, 2008

History Channel: Modern Marvels: "The Manhattan Project"


The Manhattan Project” is an important episode, made in 2002, in the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” series, 45 minutes long, narrated by Max Raphael, produced by Sean Dash, documenting the history of the atomic bomb and of President Truman’s use of this weapon twice to end World War II. The web link is this. The name of the Project is based on the Manhattan Engineer District (MED).

The film discusses the science of chain reactions, of separation of U235 from U238, and of how HEU (highly enriched uranium) differs from plutonium. It described the “Little Man” and “Fat Boy” devices of 1945 as held together by 3M masking tape, suggesting that, for all the assembly of world scientists, there was something essentially crude about the devices, perhaps a warning in relevant to today’s world situation. The film shows the Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and even Hanford, Washington facilities, the last of which was involved in separating plutonium. I drove by that facility on a vacation trip in a rental car in the summer of 1990.

The Metropolitan Opera recently produced the opera “Doctor Atomic” by John Adams, covering some of the same material.

The actual history starts out in 1939 with a letter for FDR proposing the possibility of the device. Many of America’s best scientists (including Fermi and Zolard) were assembled in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to develop the weapon, and the most controversial and perhaps psychologically unstable was Oppenheimer. At the same time, enormous facilities were built in Oak Ridge, TN to separate and produce the necessary components. (I had a high school friend who would get summer jobs there during college in the 1960s.) Workers were recruited at both facilities, especially Oak Ridge, and promised amenities like steak dinners every night, but sworn to absolute secrecy. Society during the war was sensitive to the spread of information (and overhearing by enemies) to an extent that would shock today’s publicity-seeking world.

The film traces the Trinity test, and the fear that it could set the world on fire. The name “Trinity” came from a John Donne poem that dealt with the ability of God to recreate things by destroying them.

President Truman was told that he might be impeached if he didn’t use the weapons. The United States also feared the Soviets, and that they would try to partition a postwar Japan into north and south regions as was done with Korea and Germany. Scientists at Oak Ridge wanted to petition the President to do a demonstration drop on an unpopulated island before using the weapon on cities with civilians. The petition was squashed. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were left untouched by conventional weapons in order to be “available” for nuclear weapons.

Since World War II, the death rate from war has been steady and much lower than it had been in the first part of the 20th Century, because of the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons and “mutually assured destruction”. Scientists who worked at Los Alamos and who are still living count how many civilian deaths they were “personally responsible for” but believe that they saved lives in the long run. But in a time of asymmetry, rogue and failed states, and non-state terror groups like Al Qaeda with “no return address” the MAD doctrine seems to turn on itself.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Tornado Rampage" on the Discovery Channel


On December 18, 2008 The Discovery Channel presented “Tornado Rampage”, a cornucopia of live storm-chaser footage of twisters, mostly in the Midwest, as far back as 1991.

The program started with winter tornadoes, the outbreak in the south on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008, with interviews of students at Union College in Tennessee.

The program showed chilling footage of the May 2008 tornadoes that destroyed Pitcher, IA and that killed several boy scouts camped in a river valley area that should be been less exposed.

Another impressive sequence took place in Windsor, CO with a hailstorm first.

The show explained that a supercell is a large persistent rotating thunderstorm. The rotation occurs because of squeezing in the atmosphere as warm moist air from the southeast collides with cool dry air from the northwest. The twister is an example of the principle of the law of the conservation of angular momentum (a good question for a physics quiz).

The show presented some large wedge tornadoes, which often blacken part of the sky to the ground. Smaller tornadoes often seem to appear near the ends of storms in areas where rain has already past.

The show maintains that it is not a good idea to wait out a tornado under a highway underpass. The structure could increase the windspeed with a Bernoulli effect. It is safer to lie face down in a low ditch.

Other major tornadoes shown included Greensburg, KS in 2007 and a 1999 of 66 tornadoes near Oklahoma City. Sometimes there are multiple twisters and supercells forming north to south over an area.

I recall the tornado outburst on March 30, 1998 in Minnesota. I was in northern MN and returning to Minneapolis with a friend when we got caught in a violent hailstorm, unusual that far north that early in the Spring.

Update: June 21, 2010

MSNBC has a fascinating video of one tornado circling another in South Dakota


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

History Channel: The Universe: Deadly Comets and Meteors


The History Channel “Universe” program tonight is accompanied online by a three-minute video “Comets of Doom”, link here.

The “main course” of this “Universe” installment was called “Deadly Comets and Meteors”. The program started with mention of a website that allows one to calculate the effect of a given sized asteroid at a given location. The asteroid that caused the Chicxulub Crater near the Yucatan 65 million years ago, if it hit Los Angeles, would also destroy San Francisco with the “fallout” from the plume.

The film used the terms asteroid and meteorite more or less interchangeably, and most of the rest of the hour long film was a descriptive exploration of asteroids and comets in general.

The film talked about carbonaceous and ordinary meteorites. It moved to comets, and a female scientist made a “comet” in a laboratory with corn syrup, window cleaner, and dry ice. The film described Halley’s comet and then the Mam belt of comets in the regular orbits similar to those in the asteroid belt. Some comets that could threaten Earth could come from the Oort Cloud outside Pluto, extending to almost a light year.

The film then explored the idea that both meteorites and asteroids helped seed the Earth with life. Comets could have provided enormous quantities of water, and asteroids seem to have primitive amino acids, or at least their building blocks.

The film went back to the possible threats, including a small asteroid hit in 2029, which could be large enough to destroy a city, but had less than 1 chance in 40000 in striking. The film also showed comet Shoemaker-Levy (NASA link) which hit Jupiter in 1994. Jupiter protects Earth from most major asteroid and comet hits. We owe our lives to Jupiter. The film briefly described the Tunguska explosion over Siberia in 1908. There is an article by Charles Q. Choi in Space "Huge Tunguska Explosion Remains Mysterious 100 Years Later," link here.

At the end of the film there was a comment that a major strike of some kind would occur within the next 1000 years. But you don't need asteroid insurance, nor can you get it.

There was a related "Mega Disasters" entry (2 films, one on comets, one on asteroids) reviewed on this blog Sept. 5, 2007.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Discovery: Biblical Mysteries Explained: Sodom and Gomorrah: a warning about asteroids


Tonight, the Discovery Channel presented “Sodom and Gomorrah” as part of its “Biblical Mysteries Explained” series.

The one hour film presents an overwhelming case for the theory that the destruction of several ancient cities along the Dead Sea occurred on June 29, 3123 BC from the back plume following an asteroid that exploded over what is Austria today, even knocking the top off a mountain in the Alps. The plume would have looked like an enormous meteor shower, but soon the temperature over Sodom and other cities would have become so hot that the occupants fired and buildings burned. Lot’s wife was probably incinerated when out in the open, her charred corpse looking like a pillar of salt in the region today.

The asteroid has been tracked down from Sumerian drawings kept in the British Museum in London (which I visited in 1982).

The asteroid came from the Aten Belt (link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aten_asteroid ) between Earth and Venus. The explosion was 10 times the size of the Tunguska explosion over Siberia in 1908. The explosion was 100 times as powerful as the largest hydrogen bomb. The event resulted in a “climate collapse”: a “nuclear winter” of several years, and the turning of north Africa into the Sahara Desert and the middle East into the arid region it is today.

Ancient people would have seen this as the end of days, but were it to happen today, it could be a mother of all mega-disasters and threaten civilization as we know it. Yet the asteroid was less than a mile long and wide.

A comet could cause such a catastrophe, although the details of how it would explode and do damage could be much different.

The Biblical story in Genesis 19 now seems to present us with a great deal of irony. There seems to be an ultimate moral truth, but it is more about how fragile our world can be. Ancient nomadic culture was communal and socialistic (but so was early Christianity) with great emphasis on sharing hardships as well as wealth. Cities were seen as anathema to these values (as perhaps they are today – I had a roommate at the University of Kansas from the western Kansas town of Tribune, which I eventually visited, and he often talked about the corruption of cities, but this was back in the 1960s – even though he was also a fan of Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged). Sodom and Gomorrah (I’m reminded of Judge Robert Bork and his book “Slouching Towards Gomorrah”) apparently were quite inhospitable to Lot and his family and other nomads seeking shelter. Lot and his family left in advance of the catastrophe. The moral lesson for today is that the demands for hospitality can come at anyone as a bolt from the blue. After Hurricane Katrina, many people took in relatives and sometimes strangers. Hospitality demands could come in any area if there were a disaster, manmade or natural. Were I still in Dallas (I owned two different condos when I lived there), I probably would have heard appeals to take in people from the Dallas MCC or Cathedral of Hope (separate now). I once did take in someone for a few months in October 1980.

Of course, this gets us to the issue of homosexuality, and the idea that this story led to the condemnation of any sexuality that does not risk procreation, and the word “sodomy” and the legal issue (stemming in large part from religious misinterpretations) that would not be settled until Lawrence v. Texas (2003). Yet, some of us experienced the early days of the AIDS epidemic as a mega-disaster, which it has always been in Africa (although, again, apparently not because of homosexuality).

Pictures: McCollum Hall, University of Kansas, where I lived in room 907 1966-1968, looking out of Iowa Street in Lawrence; devastation in Bay St. Louis, MS, photo taken by me in February 2006.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

PBS: Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice: Turning the Tide


The PBS Series “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice” continues in DVD 4 with “Confronting Terrorism: Turning the Tide”. Again, Walter Cronkite narrates. Bill Clinton appears frequently with extra comments.

The thrust of this film (90 min) is that failed states in the developing world breed unrest and encourage resentment against the West, often based superficially on religious ideology, especially among young men. To preserve our way of life, we have to maintain eternal diligence to avoid an instant of horror. We have to get it right all the time; the enemy needs to score only once.

The film points out early that there is not real control of international shipping or tracking what is on it reliably. That seems to contrast with how freight railroads work in western countries.

The film showed a computer simulation of what might happen with an anthrax could over Seattle, by the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC) of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, where a friend of mine in San Francisco worked in the 1980s.

It also showed attractive young adults with smallpox, and interviewed Michael Osterholm from the Minnesota Health Department (link).

There was some attention to a typical family’s preparing itself to survive a long time without government after an attack.

The film goes on to investigate the three most critical states (outside of Iraq, that is).

First, it reviews Afghanistan, which, before 9/11, was one of the most obscure places on earth. I did a geography paper on it in ninth grade, and the general education teacher said, she just knew I would pick that country. How prescient!

The film points out that the Taliban had an ideological reason to keep its population illiterate, and to keep women subservient and hidden from society. This seems to fit into what seems like an odd psychology of marriage and family and how it fits self-concept in the world of radical Islam. The film shows the squalor and lack of infrastructure and utilities in Afghan villages. Most do not have phone service or electricity.

The second dangerous country is Iran, about which I’ve written recently The film briefly covers the 444 day hostage crisis at the end of the Carter administration, and Carter appears. However, the film (made in 2004) precedes the influence of the bellicose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the controversy over its nuclear program.

The third area of instability risk is most of sub-Saharan Africa, because of the AIDS epidemic as starting in the 1980s. The film focuses on Uganda. The prevalence of AIDS among adults has dropped from 20% in 1992 to 6% today. Castro in Cuba found that many African soldiers were HIV infected when they came to Cuba for training in the 1980s. The disorder in Somalia and the Sudan, where Osama bin Laden hid out, and the attacks in Africa in 1998 may be related to instability caused by AIDS. The disease appears to be spread by heterosexual contact during rapid urbanization, and is probably exacerbated by other sexually transmitted diseases.

The film concludes with panel discussions and some remarks, as by Madeleine Allbright.

The range of material covered in the film shows how, in a globalized economy, problems tend to interact and cause social and economic tensions previously unknown. The film mentions that the Internet has provided an effective asymmetric tool among extremists un recruiting others to their ideology.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"The Fight of Her Life" and "Paradise Now": how the psyche works


There is a little film from 1999 from India and Phaedra films that now seems particularly prescient for what has happened in Mumbai, although it probably is more indicative about what happens in the middle East. The Indian name is “Theeviravaathi”, in French “Malli: Le combat d’une vie” or simply "The Terrorist". The film has been promoted by John Malkovich, and is directed by Santosh Sivan. The 95 minute film is a bit crude technically and has a somewhat monotonous musical moog sound track.

Ayesha Darker plays Malli, a teenage girl (from Sri Lanka) who is “recruited” out of grief following the death of her brother, shown graphically in the prologue. She is fitted with the explosives and a belt, and she is supposed to detonate herself while putting a garland around an official a few days later. Yet, pretty soon, she seems to veer away from the shame that is typically the motivation in these cases (particularly in Palestine and probably with other conflicts around the world). She gets back into blood loyalty, and soon learns she may be pregnant. The movie has lots of ideological speeches that seem to turn in on themselves. Taken in by the family “sponsoring” her martyrdom, she meets a old woman who has remained catatonic since the loss of her own son to terror. Her moment of truth is at the end. This movie has a real end, with a red button. Not quite the red phone.

Landmark Theaters have been selling the DVD of this film recently.

A more recent film along the same lines is "Paradise Now" (2005, Warner Independent Pictures/Augustus, dir. Hany Abu-Assad, 90 min) in which two boyhood friends on the West Bank go toward their path of martyrdom. The film is graphic as to how they are “prepared..” The film, shot in full 2.35:1, shows the West Bank and Israel on location with breathtaking realism.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Discovery Channel Sci-Tech: New York Earthquake


Tonight the Discovery Channel aired a one-hour film “New York Earthquake” as part of its Sci-Tech series. It is very similar to the History Channel Mega-Disasters film of the same name which I reviewed on this blog Oct. 23, 2007 but it does not seem to be identical. The credits say that it was made for Discovery Channel (they rolled too fast to get the name of the director).

The film seemed to me more specific as to the danger New York could be in than I recall from the History Channel film. As before, it mentioned the 1884 earthquake, magnitude 5.5, south of Long Island. As a general rule, earthquakes in the East for a given magnitude are more destructive and over a wider area than in California. A 6.0 in New York City (which could happen ever 400 years) might be more destructive as a whole than a 7.0 in San Francisco, despite the logarithmic nature of earthquake Richter scale. A 7.0 could happen every 3500 years, but no one know when the last “big one” was so the clock could be ticking now.

This film (a scientist named Gates) examined the mountains north of New York City (Harriman Park, perhaps the Schewangunks, a popular destination for the Sierra Club when I lived there) for active faults, and found a fault that could explain the 1884 quake.

A physicist (Steve Ross, native of the City) discussed the vulnerability of bridges and buildings in New York. Masonry buildings without reinforcing steel, common in brownstones, could collapse. The external masonry from older skyscrapers like the Empire State Building could fall off as if shaved. Shorter buildings have higher natural frequencies and are more exposed to mechanical resonance. Some bridges have only vertical steel support and are vulnerable. The Roosevelt Island tram (which I rode in 1976 and actually looked at an apartment – too much trouble) is vulnerable. So are some apartment buildings built over the East Side or West Side highways. Some subway tunnels are not sufficiently reinforced.

The bedrock underneath New York City varies in thickness, which explains why skyscrapers generally are built only at the lower end and in midtown.

New York does sit in the middle of a plate now, but there are very old faults underneath, and possibly some dimpling, as with New Madrid. Boston and Charleston SC have had severe earthquakes since the settlement of America.

Most of New York City remained functional on 9/11. That would not be true after a major earthquake.

Chuck Scarborough, former local television anchor in New York, appears in the film. He is author of "Aftershock: Earthquake in New York", which became the four hour film (1999, directed by Mikhael Solomon) that has appeared on ION TV. (There is also a 1998 shorter TV film by that name, directed by Terry Ingram.)

So, Donald Trump, watch out. The City can eat people up.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

PBS: Avoiding Armageddon: Nuclear Nightmare


PBS has a series “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice”. Disc Two is “Nuclear Nightmare”, dated 2003. It is narrated by Walter Cronkite and directed by Frank Sesno. The production company is Ted Turner Documentaries.

The program started with an account of the July 1999 crisis where President Clinton met with leaders of India and Pakistan, who could have entered into a nuclear exchange. Even in 2002 the after effects of the crisis continued. One problem is that neither country can detect a “nuclear tipped” weapon from a similar conventional one.

The film then goes back to 1945 to consider the history of nuclear weapons, with the Trinity Test in New Mexico and President Truman’s use of the atomic bomb to end World War II with Japan. Not as many people know that in 1951 the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to use up to thirty atomic bombs in North Korea or Manchuria to “end” to Korean War. Truman said no, out of moral reasons.

The film discusses the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the closest we ever came to nuclear war with the Soviets. The soviets almost breached our quarantine with subs equipped with nuclear payloads that we didn't know about.

The film moved to the modern era. It the 1972 treaty that prohibited nuclear missile defense, that then President Reagan’s challenge in 1983 with a proposal for a Strategic Defense Initiative, which was never built.

After the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, the resulting situation was one of thousands of sites, over 9 or more time zones, husbanding nuclear weapons and materials presumably under control of an imploding Communist parties. Nuclear scientists were out of work and were faced with supporting their families in a world of high inflation. One scientist, wanting to start a pet shop, smuggled small amounts of uranium at a time and kept it in his apartment until selling it. One scientist got a job working for the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 1998, three workers were seriously injured by a canister of loose strontium 90 found in the mountains of the Republic of Georgia. There is tremendous pollution in the Ural mountains areas near plants, with many birth defects.

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) had investigated 17 leaks of nuclear material from Russia by 2003.

The film mentioned former senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), who now works with the group the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and has produced a dramatic film “The Last Best Chance.” Nunn believes that misdirection into the hands of terrorists is by far the most likely way a nuclear incident could happen on American soil or any other western country. The film briefly covered attempts by Saddam Hussein to obtain uranium, and then attempts by Al Qaeda. The Cold War was deterred by "mutually assured destruction" but a terrorist has no return address.

The film showed by illustration the effect of a Hiroshima-sized bomb had it been exploded on 9/11 at the WTC site.

There was presentation of non-proliferation and the dismantling of some Soviet weapons, and even smashing bombers. Some nuclear materials were being sold to utilities in the United States for electric power.

The film says that only about 2% of cargo coming through coastal ports is inspected.

The film ended with a panel discussion, emphasizing the need for removing loose nuclear material from around the world.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Electromagnetic Pulse: YouTube has some substantial videos on the ultimate "mega-disaster"


Imagine one day, perhaps an early morning, you’re sitting at your computer. The power goes out. That happens, even for no reason sometimes (look at the Northeast in August 2003). Okay, you have an uninterruptible power supply for your computer, or it is a laptop with a charged battery. But it freezes too, perhaps goes dark. That’s strange. You go upstairs because you have to go to work. But your car won’t start.

Outside, people mull around. Nobody knows what has happened. But this would be the scenario for an electromagnetic pulse burst, possibly from a high altitude crude or small nuclear weapon, possibly launched from a freighter ship a few hundred miles in the Atlantic. There might or might not be fallout issues later. It would be a very long time before you could get reliable information from authorities.

This has to be a good idea for a movie that ought to be made. (In fact, I do have a short film screenplay for this scenario.) But if it happens, there might not be any movies for a very long time.

Youtube has a few videos on the topic. The most informative may be “The End Time Prophet Presents Electromagnetic Pulse,” link here. True, the website flashes “Rapture Information” and has a religious motive. (The date it gave for our demise, 12/21/2007, has already passed; I wonder about 2012, the Mayan date.) But the narrator, with some pretty good illustrations over 9 minutes, traces the history of nuclear weapons, starting with the Trinity Test (as in the opera "Doctor Atomic") over New Mexico in July 1945. By 1952 we had fusion hydrogen bombs, and the Soviets were soon surpassing us. In 1961 the Tazr was the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated. In 1962 Project Dominic, by the US, accidentally did a lot of damage to the electrical infrastructure of several Hawaiian Islands 800 miles away. He goes into some discussion of submarine nuclear launch capabilities and attempts to detect them (as with Orion “submarine hunter” planes). The speaker discusses the composition of the atmosphere and gives some explanations of the physics of the blast. One of the highest blasts was 240 miles above the earth, probably capable of bathing the entire US in the pulse. He also posed a “Moonraker” scenario, a blast from a space station outside the mesosphere, capable of wiping out all electronics over the entire world. He says that such an event would happen to end a nuclear war.

This video has about 25000 views so far, rather moderate given the seriousness of the issue.

There is a short but chilling video in black and white with a man speaking “Electromagnetic Pulse: Will It Play a Role” in which the speaker outlines a scenario a bit like the one in this post, link here. The video was posted in April 2008 and mentions the “Dark April” project.

Perhaps the most chilling is an eleven minute speech by Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) “Electronic Pulse Attack Threat Raised in U.S. Congress,” from July 2008, link here. ("CSPANjunkie" has it on it's blog here.) Again, toward the end, Mr. Bartlett explains the physics with some diagrams. He refers to the work of William Graham. He also discusses Iran’s scud tests in the Caspian Sea and says that Iran may have missiles that can reach 1000 miles or so and that could be placed on an inconspicuous freighter. But most alarming is the political and social analysis (at least as conservatives see it). EMP, at high altitude, is one of the very few ways the United States (and the West) could be defeated by a small asymmetric entity like Al Qaeda or small rogue states like Iran or North Korea. Why? Because the entire American economy and physical function depends on technological infrastructure. People would not die immediately, but prospects for long term survival for many people might be poor. More primitive countries are less vulnerable to such an attack. A high altitude EMP blast could be more devastating and a few isolated full nuclear blasts on the ground. It would appeal to an enemy with authoritarian and socially hierarchal (familial or clerical, often patriarchal) religious values, a desire to “bring others low”, and resentment of individualism enabled by technology that tends to encourage public expression. Perhaps all of this is more like a conservative "projection" of its own subtle ideas on family values than the actual reality of radical Islam mentality.

The critical step, of course, is preventing rogue states and groups like Al Qaeda from having nuclear weapons or raw materials at all. (Remember Osama bin Laden’s “threat” on Nov. 10). Not good are reports indicating how difficult it is for western Navies to prevent piracy off the coast of Somalia. They would need similar diligence to protect the East Coast from rogue ships for several hundred miles.

There have been some reports, as in a Popular Science issue published one week before 9/11 in 2001, that relatively cheap conventional devices could cause EMP damage over a wide area. There have also been discussions of whether Faraday Cages can protect electronics (at least for companies and the military). Sorry, "Oceans 11" got this concept all wrong.

The Washington Times published op-eds on this problem on September 3 and October 14, 2008, by William Graham and Clifford May, respectively (see my International Issues blog on those days).

One big question is how likely it is a "rogue" device (sponsored by Iran or North Korea or even Al Qaeda) could really reach the "necessary" altitude for the destruction that's claimed. Another good question is whether small "suitcase" or other crude weapons would actually "work" this way at high altitudes. There is a lot of right-wing hype about this, and it deserves careful reporting from the established media. Others have pointed out that Iran and most of the rest of the Muslim world in the Middle East and far East really do have a lot to lose from massive retaliation that would follow.

I don’t think that the History Channel has done a show on this possibility, for it’s “Mega Disaster” series. It sounds like an important topic.

So, if you wake up in the middle of the night, check whether the electricity is on. If it isn’t, check your laptop and car. If nothing works, we face The "Purification". I hope I don't have to say, "I told you so!" Just hope the lights never go out.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Krakatoa: a new documentary on PBS


Although the History Channel aired a report on Karatoa in 2007, PBS stations are now airing a 90 minute British film directed by Jeremy Hall and Stuart Everett and narrated by John Shrapnel. The website for the film is this. The film "Krakatoa" (2008, with a docudrama format) dramatizes the events (with actors in period costumes) in the four months leading to the great explosion eruptions in Aug. 26-27 1883, starting with earthquakes felt 23 miles away in Ketimbang. The third of those eruptions was the largest blast ever to occur on the planet. Businessmen and merchants from the Netherlands worked there and communicated by telegraph. The Dutch expected the employees to visit the volcano by canoe or small shop to monitor it.

The great explosions destroyed a lighthouse and produced briefly-lived tsunamis (caused by landslides from pyroclastic flows) over 100 feet high, capable of destroying any skyscraper city in the area today. There are some comparisons to the tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004. The original mountain was over 5000 feet high and it was almost entirely eliminated (in comparison to St. Helens, which lost about 1300 feet of “mountaintop removal”).

The film uses real footage and simulations to show what the great eruptions must have looked like. The film also shows some of the drawings of a British artist who sketched the effect of the eruption on sunsets in London for a year. During this era, all photography was in black and white.

At the end, the film shows the replacement volcano Anak Krakatau which has grown at an amazing rate, and has already caused a few injuries and deaths with spit-ups.

Krakatoa apparently did not produce as high a plume as Tambora in 1815, also in Indonesia, responsible for the "year without a summer." See the comparative chart in this Wikipedia article on Tambora.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A&E "I Survived" episode describes massive chlorine leak from Texas derailment in 2004


The “I Survived” segment on A&E tonight (Nov. 3) traced what can happen after a train derailment with chlorine gas. Two of the survivors were an elderly couple near San Antonio Texas near a massive derailment in late June 2004. A typical news story of the event is here. The A&E stories are supposed to be at Bio.com, although I couldn’t find this yet.

The couple survived over seven hours, not able to escape the cloud of chlorine because of muddy conditions and road blockage. Inside the house, stainless steel fixtures gradually disintegrated. The couples stay in the house for much of the time recalls last year's film "Right At Your Door." Emergency was not able to get to them, and actually threatened to arrest a relative volunteer fireman who said he could get to them. The 911 operator at one point told them to shower, which was wrong advice because the chlorine converted to hydrochloric acid, causing chemical burns. The inability of emergency services to perform their job seemed unbelievable. The couple eventually settled out of court with the Union Pacific Railroad.

The US Army uses chlorine gas in training recruits for chemical warfare with protective masks (which actually work very well), although in my own Army Basic we had “just” tear gas.

Major cities, including Washington DC, have been taking action to force trains carrying hazardous chemicals to bypass populated areas or tunnels. The transportation of extremely hazardous materials (including radioactive) is one of our most important homeland security issues and “mega-disaster” scenarios.

There was a somewhat similar catastrophe in South Carolina in January 2005, link here.

The “I survived” segment also covered two crime stories. A woman, driving alone on a freeway at night in Idaho is cut off, carjacked and left for dead by methamphetamine addicts. She is rescued by two teenage boys who see her car on fire. The four suspects are caught, and three get life sentences. However, carjackings and crimes of gross brutality have increased in the past eight or so years, to amount to acts of domestic terrorism.

In Kentucky, a young couple leaves a party and walks along railroad tracks and is attacked by a serial killer. Only the woman survives. The perpetrator is apprehended for a crime in Texas.

The film featured the victims and survivors talking to the camera, and mostly just stills of the scenes of the incidents.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Discovery "Investigations X": Could UFO's be really dangerous?


There have been several television coverages of the Stephenville, TX ufo sightings (on the TV blog), the Discovery Channel “Investigation X” film (link (one hour) tonight of incidents in Stephenville, Southwick MA, and Kokomo IN is perhaps a little bit more alarming. It at least raises the question of just how our whole culture would react if there were an unmistakable extraterrestrial-source landing with real damage or casualties. A bit of “The 4400” perhaps? Just conceivably, we could be wrong. Somehow, there could be a wormhole way to get past the physics of the speed of light and the geological epochs of time. Maybe somebody has noticed us. Maybe they are even from our own future.

The show did reconstruct the spectacular sightings, with banks of lights splitting, over Stephenville, with the Erath County courthouse. There was analysis of the way the fighter jets from Carswell scrambled.

In Southwick, in March 2008, a young woman made a camcorder recording of the lights. Shortly thereafter, there was a similar series in Kokomo, IN, north of Indianapolis (I’ve driven through it only once, in 1970). A young man named Justin Cronkhite made some sensational footage that makes the object look like a raimbow-colored airborne jellyfish, even moreso that the Southwick film. A local filmmaker named J. D. Puterbaugh also made similar video. A sonic boom occurred when fighter jets scrambled. That is against Air National Guard policy, and subsequent experiments at Wichita State University showed that a disk-like object can generate an even larger boom than a conventional fighter jet. The sonic boom came very close to damaging homes below, which is a very unusual incident. It was nearly, at least, a "micro-disaster" for the History Channel as well as Discovery.

In April 1978 I saw a blinking red and green object in the night desert sky east of Tonopah, AZ (west of Phoenix on I-10) that resembled one of Justin Cronkhite’s photos. That still sticks in my mind.

Another filmmaker photographed commercial jets and helicopters around LAX airport and compared the patterns to the films from Massachusetts and Indiana. He does not believe that the amateur video could have come from known aircraft.

In 2003, when I was in the screenwriting group in Minneapolis, I had a dream where a rocky craft slowly lands near a suburban subdivision of a southwestern city (like Dallas) at night. An electromagnetic pulse happened in the dream over the area. The craft sits on the ground for about fifteen minutes and then slowly rises and leaves after a few people board it. Then, in the dream, the people in the suburban subdivision are all in a zombie-like, hypnotic trance that they do not come out of. The dream was like a horror film from Sony Screen Gems. So, next, in this imaginary movie, viewed by one, the media and the president and stock market the next day have to deal with incontrovertible evidence of abductions (people missing) and actual medical casualties and EMP damage. This sounds like a nice little movie. It just needs, besides a beginning and middle, a logical end.

Update: Oct. 20

AOL reports that Britain has released previously classified reports of US fighters being summoned to shoot down UFO's during the Cold War, link here. In the AOL survey, 92% of respondents believe in alien life elsewhere in the Universe.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

History Channel: "Black Blizzard"


On Sunday October 12, the History Channel aired “Black Blizzard,” a 90 minute (with commercial breaks) documentary about the dust storms and dust bowl on the Great Plains of the United States (particularly Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and eastern Colorado and New Mexico) during the Great Depression, particularly from 1932-1935 (culminating in “Black Sunday”). The storms look like huge dark clouds 2000-10000 feet tall marching across the plains, with winds up to 100 mph. Some reached Chicago, New York and Washington with some dust. Families had great difficulties shielding even the insides of their homes from the fine, talc-like dust which killed “dust pneumonia” or a kind of silicosis. Storms generated their own internal static electricity, like lightning.

The dust storms resulted from careless farming methods that removed topsoil before 1930, followed by drought, cause by cool Pacific and warm Atlantic water, which shifted a jet stream further south.

When I lived in Dallas in the 1980s, there would occur occasional minor dust clouds and deposits on cars, especially in March and April.

The dust bowl problem of the 1930s anticipates our global warming challenge today.

The History Channel link is here.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

"Quarantine" follows the formula of "Blindness" with some "Cloverfield" video journalism


One week after “Blindness”, we have “Quarantine” from Sony Screen Gems, directed by John Erick Dowdle, which combines the paradigms of the former movie (an epidemic, mostly in a confined building) with the video journalism style of “Cloverfield.” (No, they don’t destroy New York or LA; they’re trying to stop it). I’m reminded of how the advent of video journalism in the 1970s helped lead to a major strike while I worked for NBC, and I actually got to learn to operate a boom for a soap opera.

The first fifteen minutes has reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) and camerman Scott (Steve Harris) doing a live-in report on an LA fire station. She shows the intimate, quasi-military lifestyle of “barracks” life for a fireman – with hints of the social and political implications. (I immediately recalled the Christian movie “Fireproof”). She even reports that firemen wear flame-retardant pantyhose close to their gams as they rappel down firepoles.

Pretty soon they get a call during this sleepover slumber party, and they arrive at an old apartment building that looks out of character for LA. One elderly woman is desperately ill and seems to be going mad. But as they are about to take her, the building is sealed off. It reminds me of the sealing off of the passenger train in “The Cassandra Crossing” which I saw in New York in 1977. Chaos ensues in the building, as the phone, cable and Internet are cut off. From rabbit ears TV (that could only work until Feb. 2009) they learn that the CDC has closed off the building. It isn’t long (the whole flick runs just 89 minutes) before we learn that the residents are spreading a sort of rabies, with transmission means about like that of Ebola (they attack each other). To the outside world, the residence takes on the character of Ft. Dietrich; inside, it’s all ruin. Vidal, normally professional, is reduced into the panic of her own survival. The movie opens to the outside world only a little at the end, much less than in "Blindness."

Eventually, all that is left of the incident is the videotape she made. Let’s say, it’s possible that a single resident could bring this on to the whole building, as an exercise of a weird cult. Back in the 1980s, a garden apartment building that I had occupied in Dallas would burn a few years after I left because one resident had an illegal meth lab.

Is this a plausible scenario? Could something like this really happen? Perhaps in any building, a resident (perhaps a disgruntled scientist or cult leader could do something like this with any of a list of pathogens if he or she had access. It could lead to a quarantine, perhaps secretive. Just look at what did happen shortly after 9/11 (and the government's misadventures in the investigations that follow). It is all pretty scary, although, for the last hour, “this is only a movie”. It is more a micro-disaster than a mega-disaster.

This film is apparently an adaptation of a film from Spain called "[Rec]" (2007) directed by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza from Filmax. In 2000 (before 9/11) there was another TV (ABC) filmed named "Quarantine" about a virus unleashed on a small village.

Friday, October 03, 2008

"Blindness" is more an experiment than a scenario for a "mega-disaster"; attracts protests!


First, this new film “Blindness” has generated some protests. At least, when I saw it tonight at an AMC Theater complex in northern Virginia, there were about ten demonstrators with signs outside the ticket office. I hadn’t heard about this, unless the case with “Tropic Thunder” where the protests were covered in the media.

This is not the first film by this name. There is a 1998 drama directed by Anna Chi. But the film is a bit of an event, since the Brazilian director, Fernando Meirelles, previously offered us “City of God” through Miramax. (This time the film has distribution from both Miramax and Focus Features.) The outdoor scenes, many in Sao Paolo and Montevideo, are among the most effective in the film, as the “city” becomes deserted in squalor, a sight already known from films like the “28 Days” movies (London), Doomsday (also London, from smallpox), and even “Open Your Eyes” (Madrid). The lighting in the film is overexposed and the colors in sepia, to simulate the mood of the afflicted.

This movie (based on a novel by Jose Saramango) is more of a sociological experiment that a “mega-disaster” movie. But first, for the medical premise. The movie starts with some shots of stoplights, and then a young Japanese man, sitting in a crowd, screams that he has gone blind. A kindly stranger takes him home and his wife takes him to the doctor (Mark Ruffalo). It seems that in a few seconds the normal field of vision is filled with whiteness (that would be awful when closing your eyes to sleep). Is this medically possible? Maybe a virus could infect the optic nerve or the brain tissue connected to it. But it wouldn’t be easily transmissible as in the movie. People with HIV sometimes go blind from opportunistic infections of the retina, but that takes some time. And a disease like this probably would not be “self-limiting.” (I add one note from personal experience from someone I met on the job a few years ago: a cause of blindness in some older people stems back from the 1940s and early 50s when sometimes babies were left on oxygen too long.)

Nevertheless, in 24 hours this has become a pandemic, and the authorities “quarantine” the afflicted in what looks like an asylum. The patients are left to fend for themselves with limited food rations. Conditions deteriorate quickly, mainly because the city outside becomes overwhelmed so quickly, a fact not known to the victims until toward the end of the movie. Because most of the film takes place in the confines of the “prison” and has to deal with the concept that the protagonists cannot see even that, it becomes confining. (It is filmed in regular aspect ratio,) You really don’t get the full sense of horror until they escape outside. By way of comparison, the Japanese film “Pulse” may be the most effective of all in conveying an existential horror destroying the inhabitants of a city.

The people really do become savage. A newcomer played by Gael Garcia Bernal (“Bad Education”), scruffy this time, anoints himself king and somehow gets a little control of the food rationing among the wards, for a while, but then they get into a food for sex swap. One woman can see, staying with her husband, but that does not figure into the story much until the end. The film was tricky to act, and playing in it is not a challenge that all actors would relish.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Anderson Cooper's 360 does 2 hour special on Ike


Anderson Cooper loves the chance to turn his CNN 360 program into an instant real-time documentary movie, and he did so today with his special report on Hurricane Ike from the Gulf Coast at 6 PM EDT, for two hours.

Anderson himself was paying his dues by standing waist-deep in a gentle current in Bridge City, Texas, near Port Arthur and near the Sabine Pass on the Louisiana border. At one point, a water moccasin was spotted near him. Anderson’s outdoor approach to reporting shows he is trying to match Sebastina Junger in “paying his dues.”

Rob Marciano reported from Galveston, as did Gary Tuchman, who interviewed one couple who had stayed in their home, in the attic, defying warnings from authorities about “certain death.” The report showed downtown Houston, with streets being swept up of glass that got blown out by the wind tunnel effect on lower floors of skyscrapers, especially the Chase Building. There was a helicopter tour of Bolivar Island, east of Galveston, showing about 15 rows of inundated houses. At the last minute, the storm veered slightly to the East, sparing Galveston from the worst.

Ali Velshi reported from Baytown on the preparations of the oil industry to get back online.

Reporters say that many residents in south Texas cities could be without power for several weeks. But power was still on in downtown Houston, where utilities are underground. I think Texas utilities will get the juice back sooner. I almost got a mainframe contract programming job with Texas utilities in 1988 through a consulting company called Culter-Williams. One job would have involved the nuclear plant at Glen Rose.

Anderson’s 360 blog on the show is here. He is now filming a sequel to “Planet in Peril”. I would love to see a theatrical release from the “Planet in Peril” series, to match films by Al Gore and Leonardo di Caprio. I suppose Warner Independent Pictures or Picturehouse would be logical distributors. I think such a release ought to be made.

The broadcast also covered the tragic commuter train wreck in California Sept. 12.

Update: Sept. 15, 2008

The Washington Times reports, in an exclusive story by David M. Dickson today, that John Hofmeister, a former president of Shell Oil, has called for short term odd-even gasoline rationing in many parts of the country, possibly up to Washington DC, to handle shortages due to major refinery disruptions in the Houston area from Hurricane Ike. The reporting by Ali Velshi on CNN so far would not seem to back up this need, but I will track this. The newspaper link is here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"102 Minutes that Changed America": History Channel recaps 9/11, almost in real time


Tonight the History Channel aired “102 Minutes that Changed America”, about New York City on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. It was advertised as a compilation of live video tapes and audio from news cameras and ordinary people. It was supposed to be in real time, but actually it compressed out about 15 minutes, starting at 9 PM and reaching the second building collapse in about 90 minutes of television time. Sometimes it showed a time counter running with no video.

The History Channel link is here.

The show did include overhearings of news clippings but it did not mention the Pentagon crash that occurred in about the middle of this period. Sometimes news banners on the streets show, but they don’t clearly depict the breaking news.

Probably the most terrifying part of the broadcast is the dust and debris cloud that followed each collapse. Amateur cameras captured the event of being overwhelmed by the could, a concept that would have sounded like Stephen King (“The Mist”) had it not really happened. Another part showed people jumping from World Trade Center I, while a bystander in an apartment building screams “no way,” shortly before the second plane hits. Shortly before WTC I collapsed (the second to fall even though it was the first tower bit), a fireman ran up the lower escalators into the smoky building looking for people.

Amazingly, 911 operators told people in the towers to stay put early during the incident.

The collapses are shown, but the South Tower buckling is not as clear here as in some other films.

The people on the streets did not mince words with their anger, but during the incident the identity of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda had not been widely mentioned until later in the day.

The film is followed by commentary by some of the journalists and photographers.

I actually visited WTC myself in 1973. I visited New York City the last Saturday of October in 2001. I also visited in November 2004. I lived there 1974-1978.

I have a file on a flat site that indexes all the films related to 9/11, here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Ike has several YouTube videos; it became a Category 4 suddenly today!


Well, there is a puppet video having fun with Hurricane Ike, posted by “KingoftheLlama,” and “Rokku Productions.” YouTube link here.
The embedding is disabled by user request, and I wonder why so much of the video framed on an old VHS tape monitor (I have an old Panasonic myself to play old VHS tapes). But the script is funny. It says “I am Ike and I need to get bigger.” The poster calls it “a parody of Star Wars Kinda”.

Well, Hurricane Ike grew from a tropical storm to a Category 4 Hurricane today (Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008), suddenly. There seems to be nothing in its way until it reaches Florida this weekend. Wow, this sounds like a potential Hurricane Andrew (1992), or an “It Could Happen Tomorrow” weather channel film simulating a Category 5 making a dead hit on Miami.

Hannah appears ready to graze the East Coast over the Ocean City and Rehoboth areas this Saturday. Since Isabel in 2003 and numerous thunderstorms took out many weak trees, hopefully a repeat in the DC would not be as severe if it happened. If you’ve hiked in Shenandoah, you notice downed trees everywhere. It’s part of nature for them to come down all the time; it makes shelter for animals. You just don’t want them on power lines or cable.

To the east is Josephine, and two big low pressure systems over Africa. They are all lined up for training.

You can watch Charlene Rice paint a happy seascape in “Hurrican Gustav, Hanna and Ike: God Is Bigger,” link here. She starts with a blue background and gradually fills in waves and storm clouds, and demonstrates painting techniques. There is an artist with a similar show on MPT (PBS) in Maryland. ( 4 minutes).

Then there is “Gustav, Hanna, Ike Hurricanes: Please No:” link here. The film shows mostly footage of Katrina’s destruction (some of it quite graphic), with some footage of the auto evacuations. At the end, it says that hundreds of thousands of children were made homeless by Katrina. One could say that about the 2004 tsunami.

Miami Map from Accuweather.com (to follow as Atlantic hurricanes approach):

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hurricane Gustav media coverage, many videos are available already


There are already some good videos about Hurricane Gustav on Youtube. Al Jazeera Enlsih has a 2 minute video that shows some of the damage in Cuba and then relatively orderly evacuation from New Orleans this time here. This can be watched in “high quality.”

The Associated Press has a video “Hurricane Gustav Roars Over Haiti” and the country does not look as poor as one expects. There was some footage of the capital Porte-au-Prince. It also includes footage of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The link is this.

CNN is airing a Special Report Sunday night from 8-10 PM EDT hosted by Anderson Cooper, who is in New Orleans. He reported the sky suddenly turning as black as night from storm clouds in the French Quarter as the bands of rain begin. Anderson Cooper will be reporting in detail on specific levees in New Orleans.

Evacuations appear to have gone much more smoothly than before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Republican Convention in St. Paul MN is scaling back its program out of respect for those affected by the disaster, and probably because the Bush Administration was so slow to respond to Katrina in 2005.

CNN reporter Ali Velshi is staying in a steel-reinforced home of a fisherman on the southern coast SW of Houma. He will ride out the storm.

There were reports from the tip of the Mississippi River Shipping Channel, where so much imported and Gulf oil is processed. The hurricane eyewall seems to be ready to go through that part of the Gulf with the heaviest concentration of oil rigs.

CNN reports that the barometric pressure inside Gustav is dropping and the eyewall winds may pick up. There are tornado warnings south of New Orleans (8:30 PM EDT), but these will change constantly.

Roy Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, calls this the "storm of the century" (like the Stephen King miniseries) and warns that any looter will be sent right to "Angola Farm" (the penitentiary).

ExxonMobil has an important page on its preparedness for Hurricane Gustav here. About 25% of domestic oil goes through the New Orleans ports. Much of this production, as well of imports, is shut down; Ali Velshi will report on the oil production situation.

AccuWeather.com information (offered free to bloggers; if you visit the main site you can view the entire national map and choose any area):

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Discovery Channel "Storm Chasers" and tornadoes


The Discovery Channel “Storm Chasers” presented a four one hour (probably repeat) segments about the work of Shawn Craig chasing tornadoes from Texas to Kansas.

He (along with Josh Horman) designs a tank, actually welding some of it himself, capable of withstanding being inside an F4 or F5 tornado. An IMAX camera is placed inside the tank. He and his team do practice runs with truck imitating the path of a fictitious tornado.

He just misses a big tornado near Tulia, Texas that devastates the town with 135 mph winds.

The show demonstrates the 3-d graphs of the mesocyclones in clouds that drop tornadoes.

After many misses, they finally sit in the path of an early evening Kansas storm that passes over with 200 mph winds. The show still breaks up during the “Passover.”

In subsequent episodes the hunts continue. But one of the vehicles has a major breakdown, needing $3000 repairs to the clutch and transmission. The men, running low on money, double up on motel rooms and make a joke about “Brokeback Mountain” (“I’m going to quit you.”) On the last day of a storm season they drive on empty stomachs to a storm in SE Kansas and film the middle of an F1 tornado.

One of the episodes shows Greenberg, KS devastation. There is a video that covers many of these tornados, previewed on YouTube here.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

CNN: "Road to Ruin": anticipates California central valley flood mega-disaster


Last night (Aug. 1, at 8 PM EDT), CNN ran a report “Roads to Ruin: Why America Is Falling Apart”. A portion of the program had the effect of a History Channel “Mega-Disasters” segment, exploring what could happen in the central valley of California (the San Joaquin Valley) in an earthquake and heavy Pacific rains (usually in the winter) combined. The levees around the irrigated agricultural fields in the flat portions along I-5 would liquefy, inundate everything, and render 300,000 people homeless -- an prove catastrophic for the nation's food prices. The housing crisis would be comparable to that of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Some of Sacramento would be inundated.

I last visited that area myself in February 2002, and, believe it or not, it was actually cold.

The show then covered the bridge collapse on I-35 across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007. The replacement bridge is almost rebuilt and is due to reopen by Dec 24, 2008.

The show discussed the massive expense required to shore up America’s levees – not just around New Orleans, but in California and along major Midwestern rivers and flood plains. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared.

Last night, ABC’s “Person of the Week” presented, as “person of the week”, a 16 year old teen who spent the summer cleaning out houses gutted by the catastrophic floods in Cedar Rapids, IA.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cascadia fault (near Seattle) could generate major earthquake and tsunami


Today, while thunderstorms moved through northern Virginia, the Weather Channel aired a particularly scary half-hour segment of The Weather Channel's “It Could Happen Tomorrow” from Atlas Media, about the effect that an offshore earthquake could have on the Seattle area. The topic would work well for the History Channel's "mega disasters" series.

In March 1964 southern Alaska suffered a 9.2 magnitude earthquake when an offshore subduction fault slipped. There is a similar zone off the coast in the Pacific Northwest, running from Oregon to British Columbia. The mechanics of the Indonesian earthquaked on Dec. 26, 2004 and resulting tsunami are similar.

A 9.2 magnitude quake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone could devastate Seattle, knocking down many older buildings. A tsunami of forty feet might engulf the nearby coast (although Seattle itself is protected by outer islands like Bainbridge and Vashon, and the Olympic Peninsula), completely destroying the town of Westport (20000 residents), which has few escape routes.

There is a 10% chance of a large underwater quake along the Cascadia fault within the next 50 years, according to the program.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mega-Disasters: Toxic Cloud (History Channel)


Tonight (July 22) the History Channel presented the latest “Mega-Disasters” installment, “Toxic Cloud,” about the release of dangerous chemicals in huge industrial accidents, particularly at oil refineries. The HC link is here.

The show starts with the history of the ammonium nitrate explosion at Texas City, TX in 1947 (caused by the explosion of the freighters Grandcamp, High Flyer, and Wilson B. Keene). which immediately wiped out its entire fire department, and produced a fireball comparable of that with a nuclear weapon. Texas City would have another incident, a British Petroleum explosion in 2005 with 15 fatalities.

Seveso, Italy would experience a dioxin release in 1976. But the worst industrial accident ever occurred at Bhopal, India in December 1984 with a release methyl isocyanate gas during the night of December 3, 1984 from a Union Carbide plant.

The show paid particularly attention to the dangers of ammonia, chlorine, and hydrogen fluoride, the later of which is used in refining gasoline. There is talk that sulfuric acid could be used instead and would be safer, but more expensive.

The show discussed a chlorine release from a train accident in South Carolina in 2005.

In general, the danger to the public could increase if refineries are under greater pressure because of growing demand. The risk is probably greater in a country like China.

The show concluded by sketching the hypothetical risk from the waste treatment plant in SW Washington DC. Many changes have been contemplated for the plant, which is four miles from the Capitol and Pentagon, since 9/11.

Serious chemical hazards exist without explosions. The whole town of Times Beach, MO, sound of St. Louis, had to be moved because of dioxin exposure in the 90s. It isn't possible for the casual motorist to see the original town. Much of the lake Erie area in New York State has been contaminated by the Love Canal problem.

There are natural risks, too. Twice, lakes in Africa have released carbon dioxide, suffocating nearby residents.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"Atlantis Apocalypse" History Channel Mega-Disasters


This Tuesday night, the History Channel Mega Disaster was “Atlantis Apocalypse.” The show examined the historical facts surrounding the eruption of the Colombo volcano around 1660 BC in the Santorini archipelago of Greece in the Aegean Sea. The eruption is said to have been 10 times the size of Krakatoa and 100 times St. Helens.

The Minoan civilization on Crete (with the site at Knossos and Phaistos) was apparently wiped out, and this could have had a great influence on ancient history. Minoa was apparently a very progressive society, with women’s rites and some advanced household technology, such as toilets. Many of the inhabitants disbanded and escaped before the catastrophe, which is said to have been described by Plato.

The documentary shows scenes from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and makes comparisons to what would have happened with Santorini.

The movie says that this area probably has a violent eruption about every 20000 years, so the case for immediate danger is underwhelming, whatever the name of the episode.

The History Channel has previously explored what could happen with Mt. Etna, near Naples, and the Discovery Channel presented a major reenactment of Pompeii in January 2004.

When I was living in Minnesota, I knew a college student who visited Crete during Christmas break in 1997, and some of the material in the film I had heard before.

In 1961, MGM released “Atlantis, The Lost Continent”, directed by George Pal. A fisherman (Sal Ponti) tries to deliver the Atlantean princess (Joyce Taylor) to the continent, when it will be destroyed by the eruption. But before that, we see man-beast slaves, and the “crystal”, with the mantra “destroy the crystal” leading to the destruction. Walt Disney studios also released an animated feature by this name in 2001.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Sci-Fi: "Meltdown" : Earth's orbit decays after asteroid near miss


Here’s a scenario for “global warming.” What if the orbit of Earth were slowly deteriorating, edging closer to the sun by 1% a year, and “they just weren’t telling us”? That’s practically the premise of the Sci-Fi channel’s “Meltdown: Days of Destruction” with some minor league remedial work for actor Casper Von Dien. The director is John Murlowski, and it is written by Rick Drew. There are stories that John Carpenter had written this story ahead of time, and that there were some legal wrangles before this cable movie got made. If true, this movie may provide an object lesson in why Hollywood studios enforce a “third party rule” on loglines and unsolicited spec screenplay submissions.

Actually, what happens is that a huge asteroid, a couple hundred miles across (Ceres has a diameter of over 400 miles) approaches earth. The fibbies knock it off course with a nuke (an break off some of it as if it were a worn tooth crown), but the gravitation changes the orbit of Earth. It starts warming up, by about 30 degrees Fahrenheit everywhere. “They do tell us” after a few days, and the president declares martial law.

The rest of the movie is an attempted escape from LA “to the North,” which might not work since global warming affects polar latitudes a lot more than temperate, melting ice caps and rising sea levels. Will the gravity of the other planets pull Earth back into position?

I don’t know whether the “science” here is plausible. This is a good question for a college physics class.

Curiously, the script makes reference to the film “Deep Impact” (1998, Touchstone) which was about a comet strike.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Mega-Disasters: Jet Collisions (History Channel)


On July 8, the History Channel aired the latest in the Mega-Disaster series, “Deadly Jet Collision”, which examines runway or airspace head-on airliner crashes.

The film opened with a mention of the need to clear the skies of about 4000 flights on September 11, 2001.

Much of the program told the story of the collision at Los Rodeos Airport on Tenerife Island, Spain in the Canary Islands on March 27, 1977, of two Boeing 747’s, resulting in 583 fatalities, the largest airline catastrophe to date in world history. One problem (according the recovered hardened flight recorder) was airliner cockpit culture, where the pilot did not fully believe his copilot.

The show also examined some other accidents, such as one in Milan in 1981. It did not examine weather-caused single crashes, like Delta Airlines crash in Dallas in August 1985 in a sudden thunderstorm, when I was living in Dallas. I was entering a health spa when I heard about it. It would actually indirectly affect the course of my own life.

The show discussed air traffic controller hours and fatigue, and the way we depend on their work. without realizing it.

The conclusion of the film demonstrated a hypothetical runway crash of a new 800-passenger airbus with a 200 passenger plane in fog.

Ironically, today there was discussion of a near miss at Kennedy Airport because of perpendicular runways, which also exist at Dulles and Reagan in the Washington area.

The strain on the system to perform without delays was stressing the airlines before the current runup on jet fuel prices (for all airlines except Southwest, which had negotiated a futures contract earlier). Recreational air travel had become common for the middle class all over the world, but it is definitely threatened now by fuel prices as well as the demands of safety.

Surprisingly, I did not see safety expert John Nance in the film.

I actually took a free flying lesson (with an American Airlines coupon) at Dallas Redbird Airport in 1982.

Picture: Airline traffic, from Udvar-Hazy NASA "control tower" museum at Dulles Airport, VA

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

History Channel Mega-Disasters episode: "Airborne Attack"


Tonight, July 1, 2008, The History Channel Mega-Disasters series presented one of the most disturbing of all of the episodes, named “Airborne Attack.” The one-hour documentary examined the possibility of the use of anthrax as a weapon against a civilian population, whether by a non-state actor or by a (rogue or enemy) government. The link for the documentary is this.

The program examined the history of the agent, which French scientists worked on in the 1920s, after World War I. The Japanese may have used it against the Chinese in the 1930s before the full outbreak of World War II. Hitler, Stalin, and the United States and Britain all did research on it during World War II.

The program traces the history of the 1979 incident in Sverdlovsk, which was an accidental release from a biological weapons plant in the Ural Mountains that resulted in civilian fatalities in a few days.

The program also summarizes the events in the fall of 2001. The details are available on Wikipedia at this link. The Weekly Standard ran a probing article by David Tell on April 29, 2002, about the "lone actor theory" and international theories, link here.

The program then lays out a hypothetical scenario of an incident in Phoenix.

The “Ames Strain” is mentioned and refers to a Department of Agriculture facility near I-35 north of Des Moines. I have seen it from the distance while driving. The other major facility is near Frederick MD. The recent “person of interest” litigation against the Justice Department was not mentioned.

The program does discuss clinical course, antibiotic treatment with Cipro, and the deficiencies of the current vaccine, which is given to the military.

ABC Nightline had outlined a fictitious subway incident in 1999, before 9/11.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sci-Fi: "Earthstorm" imagines consequences of an asteroid hit on the Moon


The Sci-Fi channel shows a number of custom-made low-budget movies that seem to be genre clones of the “Armageddon” variety, but the scenarios are so fanciful as to be out of range for speculative “mega-disasters.”

Earthstorm”, shown tonight, is a good example of a Tinseltown disaster movie rip off. A major asteroid slams into the Moon, send up debris that comes to Earth. That probably would happen. The orbit of the Moon is perturbed, causing aberrations in tides and a succession of Category 5 hurricanes (or perhaps hypercanes). Maybe that would happen. But soon the scientists find out that the pellets hitting the Earth (they do major damage to Baltimore and then level Mexico City) are far too dense even for normal asteroid or lunar surface fragments. The Moon has been cracked, and material is regurgitating all the way from the small heavy metal core. I don’t that this would happen. The concept reminds me of the way my hip broke when I fell in a convenience store ten years ago: a crack in the acetabulum (hip socket).

The models of the moon on television are interesting, and the crack makes for good landscapes. Imagine a canyon hundreds of miles deep. The rest of the story involves sending an implosion and demolitions expert in the space shuttle to implant the right explosives to implode the crack and seal the Moon.

We hear a lot about the ability of the Air Force or NASA to send missions to detonate asteroids and comets approach Earth, but nothing about what to do if a large asteroid approaches the Moon. The largest asteroid in the Solar System is over 400 miles in diameter.

The film (2006) is directed by Terry Cunningham and written by Michael Conyves.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

History Channel: "Glow Train" (Las Vegas); "American Volcano" (Rainier) mega-disasters


On Tuesday June 24, the History Channel “Mega Disasters” series premiered two new one-hour films.

The first was “Glow Train Catastrophe” which does sound like something from the sci-fi channel. (I thought about the train on Mars in John Carpeter’s “Ghosts of Mars”). The program hypothesizes that a freight train carrying nuclear waste, in hardened canisters, has a collision with another train on a wrong track near the Las Vegas strip. A cloud of black waste powder spreads over the city and contaminates it, requiring full permanent evacuation and a cost of billions. Of course, one wonders why the train tracks for such material should not run far from any city.

I was in Vegas in 1997 and 2000, and traveled to the Scott’s Castle area in California, not too far away from Yucca, in 1997.

The film recapitulates a derailment of a train with propane cars in Weyauweagan WI in March 1996. One car had to be blown up deliberately, and three square miles were destroyed. The film then covers the derailment with a chlorine leak in Graniteville, SC in January 2005. It also covers the in-tunnel derailment in the Baltimore Harbor. The film shows freight trains passing near the Capitol in Washington DC.

American Volcano” presents the danger of a Mt. Rainier eruption 60 miles from Seattle. The most destructive part of the event could be a mud flow (or lahar) which would reach Tacoma, exacerbate by the volume of ice and glacier (which may be decreasing because of global warming). If the wind were blowing from the east, ash and dust could cover Seattle.

The show then gives the details of the Mt. St. Helens eruption in May, 1980. The eruption occurred after three months of warnings, and occurred in several stages and blasts (starting with a landslide popping the cork on the mountain), including a mud flow and destruction of 150 square miles, “ash snow” in Yakima, WA 75 miles away, and some ash fall all the way to Minnesota. It was St. Helens that made scientists aware of the threat of lahars. The show next details a small 1985 Andean eruption in Colombia that killed 23000 people with the mud flow, which has the consistency of poured concrete, filled with debris, and is scalding hot.

The minerals on Mt. Rainier include a lot of weak rock that tends to liquefy. A lot of it remains on the west flank, facing Seattle. Some people in the area live on old mud flows, deposited as recently as a few hundred years ago. The towns nearest the mountain could be difficult to evacuate.

The closing minutes of the film simulate a Mt. Rainier mega-disaster. The explosion would make St. Helens look like a “footnote” according to the film. There would be a huge mushroom cloud, reaching 15 miles into the stratosphere. The animation in the film is quite realistic. Imagine what this animation would look like in Imax. A Rainier eruption would take 20000 lives and become the worst natural disaster in US history.

I visited the area in 1976 (Paradise WA), 1978, 1990 (the St. Helens site), and 1996 (Mt. Hood). I am familiar with how few evacuation roads there are. The roads have Volcano Evacuation Route signs. I remember a personal “epiphany” in 1978 at the Snoqualmie Pass, but that’s another story.

Picture: Freight train in Minneapolis, E of Mississippi River (from video that I took in 2003).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"The Summit" on ION: elaborate smallpox plot (very fictitious)


Tonight, ION television aired the four hour film (or “miniseries”) “The Summit”, directed by Nick Copus, written by Kirzanc. (The film had premiered on ION June 15.) The title of the film refers to the “next” G8 summit which conveniently takes place in “northern Ontario” – the woods, 200 miles north of Toronto, in the “main” part of the province usually not shown in road maps. It has to take place there because is a totally Canadian DGC film (I recognized a couple of Vancouver sets used in Smallville), and I thought, with a chuckle, that Summit Pictures itself is a significant indie film company. Not here, though; the film seems to come from Shaftesbury Films and the CBC. The title of the film reminds me of 1960s Irving Wallace novels (like “The Prize” and “The Plot”). The film has some A-list stars like Christopher Plummer, Bruce Greenwood, James Purefoy.

Of course, what matters is the “mega disaster” concept. Here, the elements are a corrupt pharmaceutical company and jihadists. Another potential player is a corrupt government, which in this case means "Blame Canada!" So, what are the pieces of the plot? Develop a live smallpox vaccine, and inject it into immunocompromised people. In fact, deliberately infect some of the marks with HIV if possible first. Then, send a smallpox-infected “typhoid Mary” to the site of the conference, and watch a body count. It’s pretty grisly. The plot starts in Colombia, with the assistance of the drug cartels, and particularly distressing is the use of a teenage boy as one of the first victims (and his mother may be a culprit).

More elements enter into the mega-disaster. The developing countries threaten to default on their debt, so that the entire Bretton Woods financial system can come to a collapse.

Somehow the G8 summit continues, although the premises get locked down for 48 hours. It seems that they really conceal the outbreak. But there are plenty of scenes of grass roots violent demonstrations. At the end, the reported starts coming down with symptoms on the air, bleeding from the nose, as she says, “there is no evidence that there ever was a smallpox outbreak at the summit.”

These miniseries are too long and too hysterical to be really effective. A much better film about the smallpox risk came from British director Dan Percival and Fox in 2002, “called “Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon” which shows the relentless progress of an epidemic through New York and London.

We do need to think about a revaccination program. I can see my own scar now.

The major film on corruption in pharmaceutical companies came from Focus in 2005, with director Fernando Meirelles, "The Constant Gardner."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Dam Break": History Channel Mega-Disasters


Tonight (June 17) the History Channel Mega-Disasters series presented “Dam Break”, a one hour documentary that examines the risks downstream from dam failures that may occur because of torrential rains, or earthquakes.

The early part of the film gave the history of the Johnstown PA Flood in 1889 (then population 30000, supported by steel mills), which occurred partly because a rich man’s South Fork fishing club that owned an upstream dam had maintained it poorly and undermined it to improve fishing pleasure. The flood occurred after two days of heavy rains associated with a stationary front. The catastrophe was spectacular, with trains washed off tracks, a second dam collecting downtown at a viaduct, and a huge fire.

The film chronicles a dam failure in the Ozarks in Missouri, and the destruction of the home of a family that escaped. An Army Corps of Engineers project, Tuttle Creek, in Kansas is shown, with analysis of Midwestern earthquake risk. Projects in Tennessee are next analyzed, but the climax of the film hypothesizes a rain and earthquake induced rupture of the Hills Creek Dam (built in 1962) above Eugene Oregon, and demonstrates the destruction that would occur in Eugene.

The film takes the position that many dams and bridges were built before the risks of earthquakes in many areas were properly understood. Furthermore, many dams and bridges are in danger because of age. The Army estimates that 10% of all dams are at some risk. The film shows live video of the collapse of the I-35 Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007.

There is also a DVD of a film “Johnstown Flood" (2003, Inecom, narr. Richard Dreyfuss, dir. Mark Bussler, 65 min, PG). I visited Johnston in 1994 and again in 2007.

In 1997, I visited the Hoover Dam in a car rented in Las Vegas, and the ignition key for the car broke in the ignition. I had to be rescued by Alamo.

Picture: Johnstown PA, from 2007 trip