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!!!, 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.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Behringer VD400 Vintage Delay

"Roadrunner, roadrunner", sang Jonathan Richman in 1975, "going faster miles an hour", and then four years later there was a revolution in Iran, and just forty short years after that we both had a look at the Behringer VD400. Who knows what the future will bring.

What's the VD400? It's an delay pedal aimed at guitarists, although in this post I'm using it with a Korg ARP Odyssey synthesiser. While you read the following words have a listen to this short demonstration:

The VD400 is a clone of the old Boss DM-2, which came out in the early 1980s. The DM-2 was a "bucket brigade delay". It used a chain of capacitors driven by a clock circuit to generate the delay effect.

How do bucket brigade delays work? The first capacitor in the chain is connected to the audio input. Each time the clock ticks, the capacitor records a split-second signal from the input; when the clock ticks again it passes that value to the next capacitor in the chain, and when the signal has passed through all the capacitors it's sent to the output.

The DM-2's circuit had 4,096 capacitors, so it took a noticeable time for the signal to pass through the chain. That's how a bucket brigade delay works.

Bucket brigade delays use analogue components, but they have a fuzzy, digital sound that resembles bitcrushing, because the input is cut into tiny little time-slices. They aren't as smooth as 1970s tape echo units, but they're cheaper and a lot more portable. They were killed off in the late 1980s by digital sampling delays. Nonetheless they have a distinctive sound all their own.

The VD400 is particularly appealing because the price hovers around £20, so as with the Behringer Model D that I wrote about earlier in the year the VD400 is a cheap way of adding a bit of analogue grit to an otherwise digital setup. Original DM-2s hover around £200 on the used market depending on condition, although to my mind a physically-abused DM-2 would actually be more valuable than a pristine example on account of the patina. Boss re-released the pedal back in 2015 as the DM-2W, which actually sells new for less than a used DM-2. Is it any good? Probably!

The VD400 is powered by one of those square 9v batteries or a 9v power supply; it works best with mono audio cables. There are only three controls. The repeat rate varies from 300ms at the maximum to an unpleasant flange effect at the minimum value; the echo knob sets the volume of the delay signal; the intensity knob sets the feedback, which varies from light swirly to screeching feedback. The VD400 will self-oscillate, so even if you have no input whatsoever you can still use it to make odd sounds.

In the video further up the page I have my Korg ARP Odyssey plugged into the VD400; the ARP Odyssey is being driven by an Arturia Beatstep, which is being clocked by Patterning running an iPad Mini. It's all going into a MOTU 2048 connected to a Power Macintosh G5. An eclectic bunch of hardware spread across the last twenty years.

As mentioned, the delay has a crunchy sound. The VD400 applies a low-pass filter to the output, but the 300ms delay isn't really long enough for spacey dub effects. When you change the repeat rate, the echo momentarily changes in pitch. The short delay time means that you have to be careful with the intensity slider, otherwise you get a swampy soup of delay.

The VD400 has a separate direct output that bypasses the delay effect. It operates in parallel with the main output, so in theory you can mock up a stereo effect by routing the direct output to one channel and the effected output to another, although sadly there isn't a way of outputting only the effect.

Of note the unit won't turn on unless you have something plugged into the input. Physically it's made of plastic. The original DM-2 was made of metal, and was apparently indestructible. I can't imagine the VD400 surviving as well. It's very lightweight, and even then most of the heft comes from a metal plate screwed onto the base:

There's a simple mod you can do. If you open up the unit there's a trim pot inside that alters the maximum delay time. Opening the unit is relatively easy. There are only four screws, but you also have to pull the knobs off, which is awkward. Furthermore once the case is open there are a pair of very short wires connecting the pedal to the circuit board, so be careful not to snap them off.

The trim pot. There are two other pots. I have no idea what they do.

As the delay time goes up the graininess increases. In the following video my shaky white hands adjust the trim pot while trying not to destroy anything or scratch the table:

Despite years of dissolution I can still use a screwdriver in the official manner. In the video I've set the delay knob to the maximum value - I adjust the pot from the shortest value to the longest. Notice how it ends up sounding like dub delay, but put through a bitcrushing effect. The result is pleasant but has an irritating aliasing sound, although with a bit of filtering it would be a lot nicer.

In summary the VD400 is slightly awkward if you aren't a guitarist. You have to use mono cables. It's obviously nosier and more fiddly than a VST effect, and you could probably imitate it convincingly with a mixture of bitcrushing and low-pass filtering, but for £20 it's a fascinating little toy.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

MRE Menu 11: Vegetable Crumbles with Pasta in Taco Style Sauce

Let's have a look at another MRE. This one is Menu 11: Vegetable Crumbles with Pasta in Taco Style Sauce. It was released in 2017. It's not rare, or infamous, or unusually popular, and Steve1989 hasn't reviewed it (yet). I just wanted to see what it was like.

Note that it's meal eleven, not two in Roman numerals (meal twelve is vegetarian as well). There's something familiar about the font. It's apparently Handel Gothic, which was used on the poster for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and looks similar to the 1980s Star Trek font although simpler. The curvy E is really distinctive. It reminds me of Eurostile and Westminster, in that it was futuristic a long time ago but now looks old-fashioned.

It also reminds me of the old NASA worm logo, remember that? But enough of typography, let's spread the contents of the MRE onto a table:

As before, MREs are US military meals introduced in the early 1980s. They replaced canned C-rations. Some MREs have a reputation for badness but on the whole soldiers seem to like them; the biggest criticism is that they quickly get monotonous. Each MRE is a single meal. On the civilian market they don't make a lot of rational sense. They're novelties, but what's wrong with that?

MREs are designed to provide sustenance, but they're also morale-boosters, and that's why I like them. They're like Christmas, for men. Manly Christmas. Menu 11 is a vegetarian meal; I have no idea if it's full-on hardcore vegan. The idea of a vegetarian military meal seems odd but, and I'm getting ahead of myself here, the main meal is really good and I could have eaten more.

Before I look at the rest of the MRE, let's get the main meal cooking. I've had mixed luck with flameless ration heaters - the last one just made the food lukewarm - but this one worked perfectly and was hot enough to cook the main meal and heat up the mixed fruit as well.

Menu 11 is top-heavy with snacks. Mine came with a main meal, plus some peanuts, some peanut butter, two crackers, a pouch of mixed fruit, a First Strike energy bar, a cappuccino drink, and a raspberry juice powder. No coffee! Not proper coffee, anyway. The cappuccino has instant coffee in it so presumably there's some caffeine.

Most modern MREs come with a plastic beverage bag for hot drinks. The cappuccino - that's two ps, two cs, two-two, two-two - and remember that accommodate is two-two, and Mississippi is two-two-two, and Philippines is one-two, and cappuccino is two-two, millennium is two-two, cappuccino is two-two, the cappuccino bag is better than the beverage bag. It's curiously elaborate for what amounts to a standard powdered cappuccino two-two drink.

The accessory packet has the standard very large brown plastic spoon, plus salt, useless toilet paper that might work as a tampon or makeshift nosebleed-stauncher, plus a moist towelette and some chilli and lime sauce. But no coffee! Or tea. Let's try the cappuccino two-two.

I used my long-defunct Schwa mug. Remember Schwa? Probably not. It was a "meme" made by a chap called Bill Barker in the 1990s. The timing was excellent, coinciding with The X-Files and the peak of interest in the Church of the Subgenius, and I remember that there was a fascinating website with lots of gen one HTML tricks. I lost touch with it. Bill Barker vanished, then came back, then vanished again. The mug survives.

It's essentially a generic cappuccino drink. I added a tiny bit of sugar; there's nothing wrong with it, but it's not coffee, instant, type II.

Let's try the raspberry drink. Raspberry type III. At first I was disappointed because there wasn't much of it:

But add water and it turns an alarming blood-red colour:

It's surprisingly good. As with the lemon drink from Menu 3 that I tried back in January, I was expecting it to be a chalky sugary mess, but it's surprisingly subtle. Diluted to about three-quarters of a pint it was tasteful enough to be pleasant but not so tasteful than it made me sick. I suppose it exists to make purified water drinkable but if it was available in sachets I would buy it.

Let's try the First Strike bar. Mine is cranberry-raspberry (or "cran-raspberry"), but Menu 11 can also come with chocolate or apple-cinnamon. App-Cinnamon? No, it's "apple-cinnamon".

I assumed it was going to be an oat bar, but it's not. It reminded me of something but I can't put my finger on it. Surprisingly it only has 260 calories despite looking like a mass of sugar; the ingredients list is huge and includes zinc oxide, propylene glycol, and alcohol, which makes me wonder if you could use it as an explosive. Or a component of an explosive.

I remember a few years ago the doctor made me attend some meetings where a volunteer talked about the damage that alcohol does to your liver. The Lucky Strike bar reminded me of some of the slides. Despite resembling an organ / tumour it's actually not bad. Chewy, moist, less sugary than I expected, but still utterly artificial, with only a vague cranberry taste. First Strike bars are available in a range of flavours. A short while after writing this I had an Apple-Cinnamon bar:

It tasted a bit like the cran-raspberry, so I assume they all taste the same.

On to the next treat, the peanuts:

They're peanuts. Menu 11 can also come with almonds or cashews, but I got peanuts. There was a distinct hiss when I opened the packet. Here in the UK dry roasted peanuts tend to be covered in a kind of savoury powdery stuff, but these were just normal peanuts. They're peanuts. They tasted like peanuts. I'm not a huge fan of peanuts.

EDIT: Many years later, but still before you were born, he bought a second Menu 11. Judging by the photographs this one came with Jalapeno cashews:

Judging by his handwritten notes the cashews were much better than the peanuts. Texture-wise they were much closer to the British version of dry roasted peanuts, and they had a hot but not overpowering aftertaste. Alas there were only a few of them.

The meal came with peanut butter and a pair of crackers. I've written about them before so I'll save them for later. The crackers are biscuity, unsalted; the peanut butter is peanut butter, there's nothing special about it.

Let's look at the main meal. Mine was packaged in October 2017 (the mixed fruit was packaged a month later). I ate it in April 2019. I have no idea how it was stored. MRE meals are supposed to last for five years so the food was well in date:

What are vegetable crumbles? I have no idea. The food is essentially a kind of vegetarian chilli with little pasta bits:

Shown here with some of the lime and chilli sauce, which I stirred into the food. Professional food photographers spend a lot of time presenting the meals, but that would involve hard work. I hate that.

It was really good! I wolfed it down and could have eaten more. I think the chef was going for a mock-beef chilli, and he succeeded; it tasted and felt a bit like beef. It's a shame the MRE didn't have a couple of taco shells. The lime and chilli sauce is superfluous (it adds a bit of edge to the meal, but not a great deal of taste) and the salt is pointless unless perhaps you're working hard in the sun, which makes sense if you're an infantryperson, less so if you aren't.

As with the other MREs I have tried the main meal is relatively small and the bulk of the calories come from snacks. I suppose it makes sense if you're in a hurry, but if I was redesigning this MRE for the civilian camping market I would remove the accessory packet and the nuts - on the assumption that a camper would carry those separately - then make the main meal half larger, make the crackers slightly thicker and more substantial, and perhaps squeeze it down so it fits into a mess tin.

Let's wash it all down with the mixed fruit:

This was the weak link. The fruit was fine, although there's not enough fruit to justify the space it takes up. The big problem was the sauce - it had a curious nail varnish / petrol / plastic flavour. Just a hint, and only for the first split-second after I put it in my mouth, but it wasn't pleasant. Perhaps it was starting to go off, I don't know. I didn't fall ill afterwards and so far I haven't noticed any change in the consistency of my stools.

In summary therefore Menu 11 is surprisingly good. The vegetable crumbles were much better than I expected and the rest of the meal, with the exception of the fruit, was at least okay, although the inclusion of peanuts seems unimaginative - can't soldiers just buy packets of peanuts? I mean, the point of MREs is that they're clever, but there's nothing clever about peanuts.