Archive for November, 2012

Movie review: Skyfall

James Bond went old school for his fiftieth anniversary.  Or possibly oooooold school.  I don’t mean that Skyfall included throwbacks and homages to past Bond movies (but it did), I mean it threw out nearly all the conventions and tropes that the Bond was built on.  Most notably, all the complex gadgets the franchise is famous for are completely non-existent in this iteration.  Bond doesn’t meet Q in the lab with all the goofy/deadly tests going on, and Q sends him away with nothing but a Walther and a radio transmitter.  Not even a GPS device, an actual radio transmitter, and a large one at that.  The only concession to Q Division’s high tech history is the Walther makes sure no one can fire it but Bond himself.

So when I say old school… Bond faces the bad guys with nothing but his wits, a couple of trusty firearms, and the shiny Aston Martin from his early escapades in Dr. No and Goldfinger.  It’s an interesting choice, especially in a movie that goes out of its way to contrast intelligence work in the digital age with the old-school Cold War era work previous Bonds have done.  The movie works hard to make this comparison much to its detriment.  In the beginning I was expecting a ‘passing of the guard’ type where everyone acknowledges the importance of digital intelligence gathering while also needing field agents, but in end the message was that old-school brute force wins out over any digital finesse.  I won’t quibble with the message, but getting there seemed a bit misleading.

Skyfall continues the darker, grittier Bond that has been around since Craig took over the character in Casino Royale.  This is one change I heartily endorse.  The entire franchise was just a bit too in love with itself and had veered way too much in the direction of camp so a little more dark realism brings it back down to earth.  I did find myself a bit confused about one aspect.  Casino Royale was presented as a prequel of sorts.  A look back at the early days of Bond, but now just a few years later we’re shown a Bond on the decline.  A Bond who’s lost a step due to all the injuries and trauma he has been through and who needs a little ‘administrative’ help to pass his field fitness test.  It’s a creative choice in keeping with the old vs new conflict the film wants to keep beating us with and a logical point to reach in Bond’s career, but it was a bit jarring for people keeping up with the franchise.  I assume this is a meta effort to acknowledge and derail the familiar tropes of the franchise but it’s a bit of a character swerve.

They worked hard at humanizing Bond in a way that has never been done before.  Bond isn’t always at his best as the character was in the Connery days.  He spends a decent amount of run time looking hungover and scruffy.  This Bond doesn’t spend nearly as much time pitching woo as is typical and settles for a bit of perfunctory flirting with a fellow agent and a really rapey shower scene.  The main lady in Bond’s life is M, his boss and a blatant mother figure.  She is presented as a very morally ambiguous figure who made a lot of shady decisions but is ultimately on the side of the angels.  This character is even more humanized than Bond and has a much larger role to play than M has in any Bond movie I can recall.  The ultimate humanization of both characters occurs near the climax at the ancestral Bond estate in Scotland.

As always in a Bond movie, Skyfall has some really amazing locations.  The London scenes aren’t especially impressive, but there are some amazing shots of the harbor and skyscrapers of Shanghai as well as some extended scenes on a deserted island that seems straight out of a horror video game.  That said, my favorite by far is the location of the film’s climax.  The Scottish highlands are deserted and forlorn yet achingly beautiful and make brilliant use of fog, especially when the fog is backlit by exploding helicopters and a burning building.

Edit: I’ve since found out that a lot of these locations were actually filmed in studio due to MGM’s cash flow problems of the last few years with only establishing shots from the locations.  I’m a little dissappointed, but bravo for the staging.

I enjoyed Skyfall a great deal.  It’s never going to be mistaken for an Oscar contender and it’s a bit muddled and contradictory in places, but it corrects a lot of the excesses of the Bond franchise and goes a long way to present our hero as a real human instead of a sexed up human gadget deployment system.  I recommend it for any fan of action movies though long time Bond fans may be in for a bit of a shock.


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Today I want to talk about an amazingly useful tool that I’ve used to great effect many times.  Contour maps.  A contour map is a way of visually representing a three dimensional environment on a two dimensional plane (a sheet of paper).  In short, it shows the hills and valleys of the land area on the map.

The basic idea of contour mapping is that the lines are a constant elevation.  So if you were to walk the line depicted on the map you would never go uphill or down.  Each line represents a particular elevation, and the closer the lines are to each other, the steeper the grade.  A circle, or any closed shape, represents a hilltop or sinkhole.  When reading a contour map it’s always important to keep in mind, any sort of V shape means a ditch or channel, and it flows in the direction opposite of the way the V is pointed.

That description probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when written long form, but hopefully it will become more clear when you look at the map below.  If you take nothing else from this post always remember, more lines mean more hills and less lines means flatter.

The thin brown lines are contour lines. Thick red and blue lines are added for effect.

Contour maps are used for a lot of things.  In hydrology they’re used for determining watershed boundaries and stream steepness.  They’re indispensable to land developers, and anyone interested in building anything other than a small house, because they help determine the suitability of a plot of land for various uses.  For example, the example map above has a lot of contour lines very close together indicating it’s very hilly.  It’s obviously too steep to farm, and you wouldn’t want to try and put up any large buildings.  A Walmart with a large flat parking area would be out of the question.

The primary use I want to discuss today is watershed delineation for bridge design.  The watershed area is a primary component in determining how much water is flowing to a particular bridge.  The sample map I’ve posted above shows the watershed of Crocker Spring Branch, which is a minor tributary to White’s Creek in northern Davidson County.  I picked this area because it’s local to Nashville and it has lots of hilly topography, making it easier to see for people who aren’t familiar with reading a contour map.

The example is delineating a watershed for the bridge at the bottom right corner of the map.  The overall watershed is in red with smaller interior watersheds drawn in blue.  The general rule is that water flows perpendicular to the contour line.  Determining watershed boundaries is a simple exercise in following the highest ridge.  You start at the bridge location and move out following the highest points.  I started to the left of the structure at the obvious ridge and followed it back from the road.  It tends to get a bit tricky when there are lots of smaller creeks flowing into the mainline, and I drew in several of those for illustrative purposes.  It’s a fairly simple process in a location with easily defined ridges like this, but it can be a bit difficult in flatter areas such as west Tennessee near the Mississippi River.

Here’s an overhead photo of the same area.  It’s very difficult to see much without the contour lines.

I’m going to close with this map clipped from the same general area as Crocker Springs Branch.  (I’ve placed red arrows beside a couple of the hills just to show how the contours close on each other.)  You can see Whites Creek running through the center, with several offshoot tributaries.  The general lack of contour lines around the main creek indicates a fairly wide floodplain and the general steepness of the tributaries indicates runoff is going to get to the main creek pretty quickly.  So based on this map you can conclude that Whites Creek probably floods regularly and it can rise fairly quickly.  You can also see how the roads are generally down in the flatter areas wedged in to one side or another of the floodplain at roughly the bottom of the hills.  This is very common in this type of area because it’s much easier and cheaper to build a road on flattish ground, but you place it at the bottom of the rise so it’s less likely to flood.

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I’ve spent a lot of posts explaining a bit about what engineers do, but let’s dive deep this time.  I’m going to tell you a little about how I spend my days on a project by project basis.  Today I’m going to start with a project that ties into the recent Metrocenter theme I’ve had going on.

After the Corps of Engineers finished raising and rebuilding the Metrocenter levee, they were confident it would stand up just fine to a 100 year storm.  However, someone quickly came to the conclusion that stopping at 100 year protection wasn’t enough given the potential for up to $4 billion.  If Katrina taught us anything, it’s that when a levee fails, it fails hard.  The levee itself is high enough to hold back a 500 year flood on the Cumberland (with the help of the reservoir system), but there are a few holes in the protection at some strategic points.

The primary hole in the flood coverage is actually a bridge on Interstate 65.  If you look at the old maps from my previous posts you can see a drainage stream of some kind and a rail line running under the bridge footprint.  Those may have been in place when the bridge was built in 1969, but these days there’s nothing running under the bridge except a buried gas line.  As best I can tell there may have been two railroad tracks servicing the Marquette Cement Yard, but they were removed when Metro bought the property in the mid 1990’s. Frankly, I’m not sure the tracks were there even then, because the ground under the bridge is at least 25 ft higher than the parking lot just to the north (where a rail line would go). 

The bridge is 20 ft above ground on the Metrocenter side

This is where I come into the picture.  The Corps and Metro asked the state department of transportation if they could build a small ridge under the bridge to keep water out.  It seems the river was backing up the low ground just south of the I-65 embankment and if the river got high enough it could pour through the bridge and into the low ground inside Metrocenter.  During the process of getting this project approved, the May 2010 flood happened and the Corps had to call out volunteers to lay sandbags under the bridge.  They tell me that water got up to the bottom layer of sandbags.

The low spot where water comes up from the Cumberland

My job as a hydraulic/bridge engineer was to look over their plans and make sure that the bridge wouldn’t be compromised and the project wouldn’t create a new flooding issue.  It was a fairly simple assessment.  The area under the bridge was already a high point, it just needed to be raised a little further, and the construction plan just consisted of bringing in soil and compacting it in the right spot.  With the rail line gone the bridge could be completely torn out and filled in if not for the traffic disruption it would cause on I-65.  So state approval was simple enough.

The major problem arose because the Interstate system is actually owned by the federal government.  States only manage them on behalf of the federal government, so this project required approval from the Federal Highway Administration.  They just happen to have a policy against using road embankments as a levee despite the fact that this one already is being used that way.  It took a lot of negotiation (the bureaucratic equivalent of slamming your hand in the car door) but the project was finally approved and construction is essentially complete.  Between this project and Metro’s efforts to replace the pump system Metrocenter is even more protected than it was during 2010.

The final product.

So there you have it.  One project in my life.  It started out quite interesting and ended up with fingers stuck in car doors, but it’s actually one of the simpler projects I’ve been involved with.  Mostly because someone else was doing all the design work.

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