Sunday, 2 June 2019

MRE Menu 12: Elbow Macaroni in Tomato Sauce

Let's have a look at another MRE, this time Menu 12: Elbow Macaroni in Tomato Sauce.

What's elbow macaroni? It's macaroni that's bent slightly. Menu 12 is one of four vegetarian MRE options. In the last post I had a look at Menu 11, vegetable crumbles in taco sauce, and it was pretty good, or at least the main meal was pretty good. Let's see what the macaroni is like.

MREs are military meals created by the armed forces of the United States. They replaced canned C-rations in the early 1980s. Early MREs were apparently not much cop, but modern MREs are generally fine, although after eating them non-stop for a few weeks you'd get sick of them.

Each MRE is a single meal, rather than a day's worth of food. As a civilian foodstuff they don't make a lot of sense - they're too bulky for camping, too expensive to eat as a regular meal - so they're basically a novelty, but life would be dull without novelty.

Each MRE comes with a bunch of stuff, which is one of the reasons they're appealing. It's like a big grab-bag of stuff. Menu 12 has cheese spread, snack bread, a chocolate drink, Skittles, an accessory packet with coffee + creamer + sugar, and hot sauce, gum, and of course the main meal. There are fewer things than menu 11 but the meal as a whole is more coherent. You get a main meal with a side dish and a pudding, instead of a main dish and several puddings.

This one came with coffee, instant, type III. I've read about coffee, instant. All the MREs I've tried so far had branded coffee, but I know from Steve1989's popular Youtube videos that MREs also have official-sounding coffee, instant, type I / II / III, of which types I and II are the best. What's it like?

Disappointingly it was indistinguishable from the Genial-brand coffee I have tried before. Hard rather than smooth; not harsh, but manly, a bit bland. Whenever I drink this type of coffee I have a mental image of a room with tatty-looking school desks, where the walls are breezeblocks painted white, and there's a noticeboard with instructions for booking leave and outdated equality and diversity posters. It could be an army headquarters or a local government office or a social club. That is my vision.

As always I wonder why they only include one sachet of coffee, given that coffee is a space-efficient means of sustenance. Perhaps the authorities prefer it if the soldiers drink plain water, or perhaps there's an assumption that soldiers already have access to coffee. I don't know. Let's heat up the main meal.

I've had duff heaters before but this one was rageous. You're supposed to rest the packet on a rock (or something) but I find that laying it down flat works just as well. While the main meal cooks let's try out the bread.

My first impressions were positive. I was half-expecting the kind of crispy breakfast bread that's popular in Europe, but this was moist and had a yeasty, bready smell. Tastewise it's actually a cross between bread and cake. It's denser and more sugary than bread. Let's deploy the cheese spread:

I think you're supposed to knead the spread. I didn't. It tastes like a thicker version of the cheapest cheese triangles you can get in a petrol station. The resulting sandwich was edible but sugary. There's a popular stereotype that Americans don't understand cheese, and MRE cheese spread does nothing to dispel that. On the other hand cheese goes off harder and faster than other foods so it must be difficult engineering a form of cheese that can survive for five years on a shelf.

Have you ever read a book called Man Plus? It's by Frederick Pohl and was published in 1976. It's a sci-fi novel in which scientists try to surgically enhance a human being so he can survive on the surface of Mars. It has a fascinating central premise although I can barely remember the plot. I thought about it whilst eating the MRE cheese. At what point does cheese cease to be cheese? If all of the components of cheese are replaced with artificial substitutes, is it still cheese? Does it matter if only the idea of cheese survives?

Let's wash that down with the chocolate drink. Some MREs have powdered fruit juice; this one has a milkshake-type drink. MRE drinks are designed to mask the taste of purified water, but they taste surprisingly good. I would buy them if they were available on the commercial market.

You're supposed to pour in some water, seal up the bag, then swoosh it around. I put in some slightly warm water - let's pretend that the milk came fresh from the udder - and swooshed it for a minute or so, but obviously that wasn't enough:

It looked bad but tasted fine. It was essentially milkshake powder. I have no idea if the protein did me any good. At this point the main meal has finished cooking. Let's get it out onto a plate:

The pepper sauce was OTT. It just gave the meal a slight kick. Was the meal any good? Surprisingly so. The sauce was thick; there was a distinct tomato flavour; nice mouthfeel etc. The only problem is that it was relatively bland. It would have been better if there were little bits of meat, or meat substitute, but it's just macaroni. It's thicker and tastier than canned macaroni. Perhaps I could have put the cheese spread in it and mopped it up with the bread.

As always the main meal is surprisingly small, and if I was making a commercial MRE I would double the size of the main meal, get rid of the accessory packet, get rid of the side dish, and just slim it down to a meal plus a snack. In this case the pudding was fruit, which as before was okay but very insubstantial:

It took just a few seconds to finish it off. In the last-but-one MRE I tried the fruit juice had an odd metallic-petrol taste, but that must have been a one-off.

What about the accessory packet?

Massive packet of salt. The toilet paper is useless as toilet paper unless you're Taylor Swift. Perhaps you can douse it in petrol and use it as a signal. It's no good as toilet paper.

I don't know if the matches work; I am frightened of fire. The gum has a minty flavour that doesn't last. The moist towelette is just a wet wipe. What about the Skittles?

They were addictive, and also very sugary. After finishing them off I felt as I could climb a mountain single-handedly, which is fair enough for a military meal. My teeth probably wept tears of frustration, but it has been a long time since I listened to my teeth.

And that's MRE Meal 12: Elbow Macaroni. It's blander but less random than meal 11. The main meal is solid, but unspectacular; the accessories feel a bit rote; the snack bread probably has tonnes of sugar to keep it fresh, and as a consequence it tastes more like a cake than bread. It fills a space but I wish the cheese spread was more savoury.

As an experiment perhaps they could include a sachet of Marmite instead, because Marmite keeps forever. Do Americans have Marmite? It's an acquired taste, but soldiers are trained to obey orders, they can be trained to eat Marmite, the end.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Canon 100mm f/2: Once a Polly-Tito

Snakewise the interfold collectigroan. Frolic all pretty on flowery bosom, but similode its speedy cousin, albutty with slightness, and so she lost in wispy memory sidings. Shipshape but redolent.

I was talking about the Canon EF 100mm f/2, which was launched back in 1991 and apparently remains on sale today. It's a fast-ish telephoto lens for the Canon EOS system.

Despite being around forever it's really obscure. Several other, more desirable lenses overlap it. In that respect it's a bit like the 400mm f/5.6L, or the non-IS version of the 70-200mm f/2.8. Ancient, optically really good, maxilook for miniprice, but there other choices.

In the case of the 100mm f/2 the other choices include the 85mm f/1.8, which is physically almost identical and was launched a year or so later. It's one of Canon's most popular prime lenses. The reviews I have read suggest that it's basically the same as the 100mm f/2 on an optical level, but the focal length is less awkward and it's slightly faster.

There's also the 100mm f/2.8 Macro, which is another one of Canon's most popular prime lenses. It's slower but focuses down to 1:1 and is awesome for photos of plants. If you're really bold, manual focus versions of the famous Nikon 105mm f/2.5 "Afghan Girl" lens are widely available on the used market and will work on a Canon camera with an adapter.

There's also the optically excellent 135mm f/2, which is more expensive but not extravagantly so. It's not 100mm, but it's close. Canon used to sell a 135mm f/2.8 Soft Focus lens, but it's almost as obscure as the 100mm f/2 and seems to be out of production. This is without mentioning Canon's range of 70-200mm zoom lenses. They cover the same focal length and although none of them are f/2 some of them have image stabilisation.

Despite all this someone must be buying the 100mm f/2 because it's still listed on Canon's website. Or perhaps it's really cheap to make. Who knows?

What's it like? Physically it's about the same size as a squashed soft drinks can. It's plastic but feels tough. It has ultrasonic focusing with full-time manual override; it makes a soft swoosh noise when it focuses. On my 5D MkII I have to admit that it hunted a couple of times, which surprised me given that it's a fast lens, but perhaps the narrow depth of field at 100mm f/2 is to blame. It could be the 5D, I don't know. It takes 58mm filters and shares a push-on hood with the 85mm f/1.8.

A few seconds after taking the above picture a squirrel ran along the line! I only managed to catch him from behind just before he reached the other side, viz the following image:

Him, or her. Could be a lady squirrel. I can't tell the difference. Still, look at those muscles.
100mm is an odd focal length, too long for indoors, nowhere near long enough for wildlife or aeroplanes, a bit too long as a general walkabout lens. Essentially it's a dedicated upper-body-and-shoulders portrait lens.

Optically the 100mm f/2 is easy to review. It's essentially sharp in the middle wide open, but everything has a slight glow about it and there's noticeable purple fringing. Here's a 100% crop from the photo near the top of this article, of the distant (and slightly tilted) houses surrounded by trees, shot at f/2:

Here's the same again but put through Photoshop to increase the contrast, add sharpening, and tone down the purple fringing:

As you can see it's perfectly usable wide open. The purple fringing can however be a problem in certain circumstances. In the image below the writing on the plaque is supposed to be black, not purple:

But again Photoshop can fix that:

Corners? Embarrassingly the images I shot to illustrate corner sharpness were no good - I seem to have sneezed as I pressed the shutter button - so you'll have to trust me when I say that the APS-C corners are soft but still good, and the full-frame corners are smeary, but that from f/5.6 onwards the lens is essentially sharp across the frame. With a short telephoto corner sharpness isn't a huge issue because in practice the corners will be out of the plane of focus.

Here's what the vignetting is like, at f/2 (there's a little, but it's not displeasing to the eye) and then f/4 (none):

The following image was shot at f/8, ISO 400, with no sharpening or noise reduction. Just below it there are four 100% crops taken from different parts of the frame illustrating the consistency at f/8:

Geometric distortion? A teeny tiny amount of barrel distortion, and bear in mind that the following image is slightly misleading because the platform edge looks like that in real life:

The bokeh is really nice:

In summary it's a really good lens, although the 85mm f/1.8 is really good too, so you might as well flip a coin. One thing, though - at 100mm f/2 you have to shoot above 125th of a second to ensure consistently sharp results, or 250th if you're in the midst of alcohol withdrawal. It's because the sudden change of chemicals in the brain interferes with your motor functions. It's depressing to think that our personalities are just the result of chemical changes in the brain.

Can you imagine having a conversation with a jar of chemicals? Because whenever you speak with a human being, that's what you're doing. You're having a conversation with a jar of chemicals. A jar with a face, with lips and ears and breasts and hips, but ultimately just a liquid soup poured into a human-shaped leather bag. Whereas with the 85mm f/1.8 you only need shoot at 180th or so, which is slightly easier at f/1.8. There's no image stabilisation. No image stabilisation.

100mm is generally a portrait-type focal length, but it's fine for landscapes as well. The combination of long-but-not-very-long focal length plus the wide aperture allows a certain amount of depth of field separation and something approaching the medium format look, viz the image above, which is otherwise difficult with landscape photography. Is that it? If there are two equally good choices just flip a coin.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Apollo 11: First Steps Edition

Off to the cinema to see Apollo 11: First Steps Edition, an edited-for-IMAX version of Apollo 11, a documentary about the Apollo 11 lunar mission of 1969. The full-length film came out earlier in the year and attracted rave reviews, but here in the UK it only had a limited cinema release. I missed it, but luckily the Science Museum is showing the IMAX version, so I saw that instead.

NASA's goal with the Apollo project was to land two people on the moon and return them safely to Earth. I don't want to spoil the film, but I can reveal that despite many perils - such as suffocation, mechanical failure, radiation, extreme heat and cold, the risk of a catastrophic explosion, space viruses, invisible stars, a flag that moves in the wind even though there's no air in space!!!, and Richard Nixon - I can reveal that the crew of Apollo 11 made it to the moon and got back safely.

The next time the psychologist tells me that I'm being childish I will show her this document which proves that I am an ADULT because it says so right there.

I saw the film at the IMAX theatre in The Science Museum, London. The original cut is 93 minutes long, but for IMAX screenings a special version has been created that condenses the film down to 45 minutes. Why? I have no idea. With adverts it comes to a neat hour, which perhaps fits the schedules of museums; or maybe the sound mixing or cropping was non-trivial, I don't know. I also don't know what was cut from the full version. First Steps generally skips over the voyages to and from the moon, and the moonwalk itself doesn't take very long, so perhaps that's where most of the editing happened.

The Science Museum preceded the film with adverts for Amazon Alexa, Dacia, Sky Movies, Land Rover, and Pokemon collector's cards.

The film has an interesting genesis. Back in 1969 a chap called Theo Kamecke was asked by NASA to shoot a feature-length documentary on the Apollo project. He used a mixture of 65mm Todd-AO film cameras and standard 35mm. The result was Moonwalk One, which had a short cinema release in 1972 and fell into obscurity afterwards. A low-resolution version is available here, on the website of a school in the United States.

Apollo 11 is essentially a streamlined remake of Moonwalk One, minus the narration. It uses the same basic 65mm raw footage, and even has some of the same shots. The CGI is designed to look like Moonwalk One's cel animations. The footage is often spectacular and the restoration is incredible, but knowing that it was shot years before by someone else lessens Apollo 11's impact somewhat; it's not so much one man's vision as a construction, rather like the Apollo project itself. If nothing else it's a good advertisement for 65mm film.

Moonwalk One vs Apollo 11
Moonwalk One used a mixture of source footage, including TV images and animations. The film-makers decided to print the film on 35mm with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Time hasn't been kind to it. In this series of images Apollo 11 is at the top, the same shots in Moonwalk One are at the bottom from a poor-quality TV transfer.

Note how the new animation for Apollo 11 is explicitly designed to look like the animation for Moonwalk One; this sequence in particular was essentially identical.

In both cases the film-makers seem to have based their animations on the displays in mission control, as per the following shot from Apollo 11.

The film's music is however all-new. Composer Matt Morton used equipment that was available in 1969, including this huge Moog Modular:

The end result sounds like a modern interpretation of the mid-1970s "Berlin School" of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze.

On a visual level the restored footage looks awesome on an IMAX screen. The opening scenes of NASA's crawler transporter ferrying the giant Saturn V rocket to the pad are stunning, as is an extended tracking shot of the rocket powering into a beautiful blue sky.

It reminded me a little of the 1989 documentary For All Mankind, which was an overview of Apollo set to a shimmering ambient soundtrack by Brian Eno. For All Mankind was originally conceived as a non-narrative film with music and visuals only, but the end result had interview voiceovers; Apollo 11 on the other hand is made entirely of contemporary footage, with audio from news reports and Mission Control's conversations with the Apollo capsule. The music is mostly low-key and there are no talking heads.

The crew of Apollo 11 had a businesslike relationship, with Neil Armstrong in particular being famously reticent, and perhaps as a consequence the film didn't grab me on an emotional level. It was at times tense and awe-inspiring, but I can't say I felt anything. The triumphant ending, with numerous shots of the Stars and Stripes set to the tune of "Mother Country" by John Stewart, probably meant more to viewers in the United States. It felt out-of-place in a film that's otherwise emotionally restrained.

Apollo 11 has some 1960s-style split screen effects - in the sequence at the top Mission Control staff give their OK for landing.

Beyond that my only major criticism is that the best parts of the film were at the beginning. The extensive shots of the launch preparation are mesmerising, and our introduction to the crew is clever - their lives are summarised with a series of efficient montages - but as the film goes on the direction becomes increasingly literal, until by the end it feels like a very good television documentary.

It's not a great film and won't be remembered in the same way people remember Grey Gardens or Man on Wire or Grizzly Man and so forth, but there's nothing obviously wrong with it and it passes the time.

In contrast to the formal environment of Apollo 11, Pete Conrad and Alan Bean of Apollo 12 sound like two friends at a sports match.

Problems? Despite the audio restoration the narration is at times hard to follow, and on the IMAX screen the subtitles that pop up when people first appear are too subtle to register. There were no 65mm cameras in space, so post-launch the filmmakers had to rely on grainy 16mm footage shot by the astronauts. On an IMAX screen the grain is enormous and looks like tapioca. The lunar excursion itself is illustrated mostly with still images taken by the astronauts with their Hasselblads. Neither of those two last points were really problems, they're just an inevitable consequence of NASA's understandable decision to prioritise crew safety over media spectacle.

I learn from the internet that NASA originally wanted the director of Moonwalk One to recreate Aldrin and Armstrong's lunar walkabout on a soundstage! Imagine if they had gone ahead with it. There would be no end of conspiracy theories.

Richard Nixon spoke to the astronauts while they were on the moon, using up some of their precious time, but in Apollo 11 he only appears for a split-second; John F Kennedy has more screen time, and gets to deliver the coda. Take that, Richard Nixon.

For the record, Apollo 12 followed four months later, and again landed two people on the moon and returned them safely to Earth. Apollo 13 followed after another four months, but an explosion on the way to the moon wrecked the service module; after an agonisingly tense trip around the moon the crew returned to a hero's welcome, having survived incredible odds. NASA tentatively planned seven more manned missions to the moon, but the last three were cancelled in 1970, with Apollo 17 bringing the lunar aspect of Apollo to a close in 1972.

At that point the remaining Apollo hardware was used for the Skylab space station, and also the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous of 1975. From 1975 onwards there was a long gap in the United States' manned space programme until the flight of Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981.

Working backwards, Apollo 10 was a test flight that went to the moon with an overweight lunar module that couldn't land and take off again; Apollo 9 was a test of the same hardware but in Earth orbit; Apollo 8 flew around the moon with just the command module; Apollo 7 was a gruelling long-duration test of the command module in Earth orbit; the earlier Apollo missions were flown without a crew.

I was born in the Skylab era and grew up with the Space Shuttle. As a kid I was aware of Apollo, but it belonged to a different age. People in the 1960s were naive and full of drugs. They imagined that aliens from space would come to Earth and enlighten us, but that didn't happen. Instead for them the future was Watergate, inflation, successive oil crises, The Limits to Growth, and of course the unglamorous space travel of Alien and cyberpunk and Red Dwarf etc.

The next logical step after the moon was a mission to Mars, but Mars is a lot more difficult than the moon. It's much farther away, and it has more gravity than the moon and an atmosphere, so landing on it and surviving is harder. The economics are such that a simple there-and-back flight would be enormously inefficient, but conversely a lengthy stay would cost a fortune, and for what?

So, when I was a kid, I understood that we would have to settle for less.