The ‘Fury’ of War Tanks

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The new Hollywood movie, FURY, focuses on tanks, their role, and tank crews in World War II. This 2-hour 14-minute film opens in theaters on Friday, 17 Oct. 2014. It stars Brad Pitt, a sure audience draw, playing the somewhat complex leader of the five-man crew of the FURY, a Sherman tank. If you go to this movie, watch Logan Lerman as Normal Ellison. He almost steals the show.

The movie starts in April 1945, near the end of the European part of World War II. VE (Victory in Europe) day is celebrated here as May 8, 1945. It’s spring, and everything is mud, mud, mud. American troops are in Germany by this time, and the famous Battle of the Bulge ended a few months earlier. German troops are now defending their homeland ferociously.

FURY, a Sherman tank.

FURY, a Sherman tank.

The main character of this movie truly is FURY, at least for me, and really did steal the show when I watched. The tank used in the filming was real, supplied by the Tank Museum in Bovington, England, a late-war Sherman with a 76mm gun. That’s the big gun on the turret. The inside shots were done in a specially created set that could open up in several directions for the different shots. The entire set was mounted on a gimbal that could move it for the inside shots where the tank was in motion. If you think that the inside of that tank looks really crowded, you should know that it was made 10% larger than the real thing.

Before discussing tanks in more detail, I should warn potential movie goers that this is a very violent movie with lots of grisly scenes, very grisly, and plenty of profane language in nearly every scene. Interestingly, there is no explicit sex.

For those who don’t mind the above, this is truly a riveting and tense movie. There’s little let up in the tension that begins with the first scene. I found it difficult to turn away from the screen even when the most horrific scenes took place. The characters are interesting but, except for Pitt (playing Wardaddy) and Lerman, they’re not plumbed deeply. Even Wardaddy, who says, “It’s my home” about the tank, never has this aspect explained, except implicitly. We are left to wonder if this attachment came about over time or from a single incident. We also are given no clue as to how he became fluent in German.

One more “character” in the movie is the entire FURY tank crew of five. The examination of the development of this team and its personality helps to make up for not looking more deeply into the individual characters because it’s the team and the tank that count in the end.

My favorite quote, again from Wardaddy, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” sums up the movie. Get ready for a Hollywood ride.

Back to the tanks — we’re still using those old machines today. The first were used in World War I a century ago and were rather primitive. They were little more than mobile armored weapons and personnel protectors to move troops across the no-man’s land between trenches while withstanding the machine gun fire and easily trampling the extensive barbed wire fences for the following ground troops. The WWII tanks were much more powerful and versatile and formed the mainstay of many land operations. In the movie, we see quite a few German officers at the front on horseback. This contrast of horse and tank may be intended to suggest that tanks will soon go the way of the horse.

David 'Sting' Rae, center, with the crew on set.

David ‘Sting’ Rae, center, with the crew on set.

To have a better idea of what the past and present role of the tank is in warfare and what the future may bring, I interviewed David “Sting” Rae, a technical consultant for the movie. Mr. Rae sees a continuing role for tanks in the military. According to Mr. Rae, “The US Marines reinvented the role of the tank in Fallujah during the Iraq conflict where it proved almost decisive in breaking the will of the insurgents and allowing the infantry to take and hold ground.”  Continue reading

U.S.-Russian Collaboration

VicSutton80By Vic Sutton

At a time when relations between the United States and Russia are cooling – if not cold – an innovative programme of the Eurasia Foundation continues to promote exchanges of professionals from both countries.

The ‘U.S.-Russia Social Expertise Exchange’ (SEE for short) was set up to promote co-operation between civil society leaders from the two countries.

Twelve working groups bring together experts in programme areas that include, for example, child protection, collaborative journalism, gender equity, and ‘rule of law and the community’.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

My wife, Bonnie Bracey Sutton, is a member of the SEE working group on ‘Education and Youth’, and I had the chance to accompany her to its last meeting, held on 10-11 October in Washington, DC.

The working group hopes to hold a research seminar in March 2015, to appoint two senior and two junior fellows from each country who will take part in exchanges through February and March 2015, and to organize a ‘Cyberfair’ to showcase its projects, perhaps in November next year.

Bonnie had a fellowship from the Eurasia Foundation, which took her to Saint Petersburg and Samara last February, and I paid my own way to travel with her.

Our greatest surprise was to discover that Russia, despite its leadership in areas like space technology, is a poor country. People take home USD 250-300 a month. Of course, prices are lower than in the U.S, so that is not so terrible in terms of purchasing power.

But we never before visited a country where just about everyone with whom we had a serious conversation wanted to know our home address (if you want to get a visa to visit the U.S. you have to supply a U.S. address).

The U.S. Government has said that despite poor political relationships, social and cultural exchanges between the two countries will continue to be funded. We hope so, and we will see what modest support we can provide to contribute to them.

Blood Red Moon Over Honolulu – 8 Oct. 2014 at 1:28am

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

I stayed up past 1:30 this morning to get this shot of the blood red moon over Honolulu. The light from the moon, once eclipsed, was very poor. Most of my earlier shots were turning out completely black with no images. I started at 1/200 sec. and worked all the way down the click stops to 1/3 sec. before I was finally able to get a halfway decent image. I had the aperture open all the way to f5.6 the whole time as I walked the shutter speed down.

Blood red moon taken in Honolulu on 10/8/14 at 1:28am. Nikon D5100, f5.6, 1/3 sec., ISO 250, 300mm.

Blood red moon over Honolulu on 10/8/14 at 1:28am. Nikon D5100, f5.6, 1/3 sec., ISO 250, 300mm.

I was using a 300mm zoom, too, so the slow shutter was a problem. I tried to steady the camera by lying back in a beach chair on the south balcony and shooting almost straight up, in the narrow bit of sky between the overhang from the apartment above and the railing. The lens has built-in IS (image stabilization), but most of the photos still ended up with visible blurring around the edges. Anyway, I didn’t futz with the colors in Photoshop. This is the actual red of the moon. However, I did brighten the image a bit to bring out more detail.

The Issue of Part-Time Community College Students

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

For college students in general, a 2011 survey found that 75% are part-time. Of these, “Even when given twice as long to complete certificates and degrees, no more than a quarter ever make it to graduation day.”1 Another study in 2012, focusing on community college students, found that 59% are part-time. Of these, 42% work more than 30 hours a week, 37% care for dependents 11 or more hours a week, and 40% take evening or weekend classes.2

In comparison to full-time students, part-timers fail at over twice the rate in completing certificate and degree programs. Here’s a breakdown from the 2011 survey:

part-time

Considering their numbers and their low completion rates, it’s a wonder that community colleges continue to do business as usual, with little or no change in practices that date back over half a century.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to find, in my college emailbox, an announcement that I’ve been returning to, off and on, for the past few days. It is a call for proposals to address the problem of part-timers. The proposed plan has to either (1) assist part-time students earn 12 credits in an academic year or (2) shorten their time-to-degree. The deadline is close and the form is complicated, so I won’t be submitting a proposal. But I do have some thoughts on this subject.

From a part-time student’s perspective, college is only one of a handful of other responsibilities with higher priorities. S/he has to be able to fit it into her life, and not the other way around. The problem is that colleges are set up for traditional students whose main priority is to complete a program. So, like a square peg, she’s trying to fit into a round hole.

The courses she needs are either filled or offered at a time that’s not convenient for her. Offerings at night or on weekends are slim pickings. Even when she can fit a class in, she finds it difficult to meet deadlines, complete learning activities, or obtain learning assistance. Competing for her time are work and family demands. Furthermore, the commute to campus is all too often time-consuming and, if she drives, the cost of gas and limited parking stalls are an ongoing concern.

The fact that our hypothetical part-timer is among the majority of students who are poorly served should be an incentive to change, from a perspective that’s campus-centered to one that’s student-centered. In other words, colleges ought to be asking, How can we accommodate part-timers with their unique needs?

The title of the 2011 report mentioned above goes to the heart of the problem — “Time Is the Enemy.” The traditional college schedule is the enemy of the part-time student. It’s in one dimension, while part-timers are in another. Put another way, part-timers make up a completely different population that isn’t being served by the colleges as they are now. Put in still another way, part-timers are an open invitation for disruption, for a disruptive approach that will accommodate the needs of a large population of students who are currently being ignored.  Continue reading

Disney Animation Embraces Science

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Big Hero 6 marks several firsts for Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS). It’s their first action animation with six action sequences. Previous animated movies had two or three. It’s the first WDAS movie to use the new Hyperion system that makes light much more real than ever before. The computer has 55,000 cores and resides in four separate locations.

It’s the first WDAS movie to have six major characters, actually twelve if you count their super alter-egos. It’s the first time WDAS has teamed with the XPRIZE Foundation to create a prize for students. If they win, they will be at the premier in Los Angeles on November 7 and walk the red carpet.

However, these are not the breakthroughs that excite me. This is the first time that the producer, Roy Conli, and the directors, Don Hall and Chris Williams, decided at the outset that this movie would be grounded in reality, that the science would be right. If the story group came to them during the four years that elapsed since the idea first was considered with a story idea that broke the rules of nature, they said no.

However, they did not hesitate in pushing the limits of technology. In some scenes, the g forces would have caused blackouts for real people. If you’re willing to overlook these small violations of the laws of nature and enjoy the ways in which the boundaries of technology are tested, you’re in for a treat. My day at WDAS provided me with only a few short sequences, the longest being 16 minutes, but it showed enough to convince me that this movie is breaking new ground.

Teachers, ask your students what they think about soft (and inflatable) robots? Can anyone create microbots in the real world? How can you do that? What about mental control over robots? Could you have plasma gloves or magnesium fire spitting costumes? Can robotics someday make anyone into a super hero? Explore the science.

Of course, there’s a story here and lots of heart. It’s Disney, after all. And, if you love action adventure as well as animated feature movies, this may be your lucky day.

I really like that science overrides fantasy in this movie. I only wish I had been there to point out places where the boundaries were pushed a bit far and make sure that they did so for good reasons.

The technology behind this movie is another story in itself. Never have so many extras appeared in scenes in an animated movie. It has over 500 different types of extra characters who can appear in the thousands when necessary with each doing its own thing. The city of San Fransokyo was modeled on San Francisco using the assessor records for the city so that you can find the plot where any real house sits, although that house may not look exactly like the real one but will look like homes in the neighborhood. Altogether, about 83,000 individual buildings were created in their external entirety for this movie. The underwater sequence that I saw was amazingly realistic. And so it goes. It took a large team, including 90 animators, two years to make this movie.

For me, a former chemistry professor, seeing one character be a chemist (Honey Lemon) with a sort-of Periodic Table emblazoned on her purse was cool. But, the Table is active, and she presses the element buttons to make incredible compounds really quickly that help to conquer the bad guy or save the good guys. While this purse is not very likely, the stuff it makes is very well animated and looks very real.

Once I’ve seen the movie, I hope to return to these pages with a deeper review of the science and technology that we all can discuss.

Global Literacy XPRIZE Invites Comments

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

On Monday, September 22, the XPRIZE Foundation announced the Global Literacy XPRIZE in New York City. This newest XPRIZE may, in some ways, be more ambitious than the previously announced $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE. It seeks to bring literacy to more than 300 million children who cannot read, write, or do arithmetic.

The XPRIZE Foundation, in the last part of its proposed rules, says, “At XPRIZE, we don’t believe that we have all the answers, but we believe passionately in inspiring and incentivizing people to find solutions to our Grand Challenges… But we want to hear from you… You can email us your feedback at global.learning@xprize.org…” This article summarizes my comments and should stimulate readers to provide theirs. If you have comments for the XPRIZE Foundation, please leave a reply here, in the discussion at the end of this article, for all of our readers to see. Likewise, should you have remarks about my comments, I would love to hear from you. The following comments are my own opinions informed by my own experiences. A good argument may well persuade me to change them. In any event, I look forward to an excellent discussion.

xprize1

Quickly summarizing the competition: Teams will compete to develop software solutions to learning literacy that can be applied worldwide using Android tablets with nearby servers. Literacy includes reading, writing, and numeracy. The language to be learned will be English. The software will be open source. The software and content, ready for trial in the real world, must be completed within 18 months of selection of the finalists. The overall time frame from announcement to final award is 4-1/2 years. Read the official guidelines for all details.

I’ll begin by praising the XPRIZE Foundation for this bold effort to eliminate illiteracy across the entire globe. Education may well be our most serious problem today because a well educated world (really educated and not just schooled) will address all of our other problems such as clean water, climate change, terrorism, poor nutrition, preventable disease, ocean health, renewable resources, and so on. The Foundation is approaching problems that others ignore or give up on but that must be solved. Their competitions to date have energized entrepreneurs and those with entrepreneurial spirit to attack serious, nearly intractable problems. The technologies being developed are likely to have an impact far removed from the competition in which they are created.

I think that the “Proposed Guidelines, V.1” for this Global Literacy XPRIZE competition, have a number of controversial parts and am highlighting the ones that I believe should be altered. While the comments below are intended to be constructive, they are also definite, blunt, and tough. I feel that they should be if they are to get any attention. The controversial parts I see are: open source, teaching English, writing, and the Android platform. I wrap up with two comments: a contrarian view and literacy as fire.

1. OPEN SOURCE

The rules require that the five finalists, each of whom receives $1 million dollars and a chance at the $10 million grand prize, place their software source code in open source. This requirement is unusual in XPRIZE competitions. I think that it creates problems. Here is what the guidelines say:

An essential component of the Competition design is a commitment not only to open source software solutions, but also to an open source development process. In order to maximize the potential for the growth of this solution beyond XPRIZE, the Finalist Entries will be released under permissive licenses allowing both commercial and non-commercial use.

Software must be released on the Apache License, 2.0. Content and assets must be licensed under the Creative Commons CC BY (4.0) license. In essence, all work must be made available to anyone anywhere for free. Anyone can use the sources to build a copy and load it onto tablets without paying any fee at all.  Continue reading

Disney and XPRIZE Unite to Encourage Students to Think Science

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

While this is an unabashed promotion of the upcoming Disney animated feature Big Hero 6, it also is a real XPRIZE for young people. The prize is not millions of dollars but is still really cool.

Six winning students will travel to Los Angeles, walk the red carpet at the film’s premier, go behind the scenes to meet the creative minds at Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering, and join a special “Visioneering” session at XPRIZE headquarters.

big hero 6

Students will enter in either the Junior Division (8-12 years of age) or the Senior Division (13-17 years). They will present their solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. The precise statement is “What one problem would you tackle to change the world? How would you do it? Tell us in a video!” XPRIZE judges will review the submissions and choose twenty finalists. Then, the public and a panel of expert judges will vote to determine the six winners.

Registration opens on Friday, September 19. Have your students put on their thinking caps. You do not have to go to the movie (unless you win). Entry is free. Just create a one-to-three minute video showing how you will use any combination of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) to solve one of the world’s problems. Be creative in defining the problem, in finding a potential solution to the problem, and in presenting your proposed solution.

Clearly, Disney does not require introduction. The XPRIZE Foundation is a matchmaker of sorts. It identifies highly leveraged situations that innovation can solve and that can change the world for the better. It finds sponsors for the challenges it creates around these problems that are not being addressed otherwise for a variety of reasons. Anyone, anywhere can enter. But beware! These are never easy challenges.

See my previous article for more on the XPRIZE Foundation.

I hope that this challenge introduces thousands of young people to the joys of discovery (science) and creation (engineering) while using technology and arts to show that they have great ideas.

I also hope to follow up with an in-depth discussion with the Walt Disney Animation Studios Chief Technology Officer, Andy Hendrickson in the next few weeks.

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