Documentaries I Like: The Fog of War (featuring Robert McNamara)

Robert McNamara died today, at the age of 93. McNamara was US Secretary of Defense through most of the 1960's, overseeing the start of the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, among other major Cold War crises. Back in 2003, documentarian Errol Morris made a film called The Fog of War featuring McNamara, and pretty much only McNamara -- literally sitting in a chair, reviewing the history of various wars, combined with archival video and audio.

The Fog of War - documentary posterThe Fog of War is truly fascinating. I don't use that word lightly (not here, at least). It's the kind of film you stare at, and just wonder: "Why didn't I know about this before?" How is it possible that I went through a modern college education and basically knew nothing about McNamara, very little about the Cuban Missile Crisis, only a smattering about Vietnam, and so on? I think the documentary itself addresses this question -- McNamara himself says we should look back. That's why he agreed to do the film, and why he wrote his 1995 memoir (which is apparently fairly similar to the film). McNamara says we should examine our history and try to draw lessons from it. It's not often that we, as busy human beings, sit back and make a concerted effort to make sense of what we've done. McNamara and Morris do just that in The Fog of War, and the lessons McNamara comes up with are pretty good. Here they are:

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

1. Empathize with your enemy

2. Rationality will not save us

3. There's something beyond one's self

4. Maximize efficiency

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war

6. Get the data

7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong

8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning

9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil

10. Never say never

11. You can't change human nature

But are these lessons for war, or lessons for business?

Well, McNamara had experience with both; in addition to his US government jobs, he was the first non-Ford-family president of Ford Motor Company. McNamara was a key face of the military-industrial complex in the twentieth century, and his reliance on data, efficiency, and command structures has clear roots in both the military and the manufacturing business. Now, whether this is good or bad I can't say for sure -- but it's definitely interesting, and it's deeply interesting to hear what McNamara himself has to say about it. In The Fog of War, we see McNamara as a bit of a geek, someone who cares about knowledge (at least in retrospect), who has a very thorough understanding of what he did and why. He might have been wrong (and he admits as much), and he certainly made mistakes, but boy, he has sure thought about what he did. That's why you should watch this film -- to see a smart guy, whose decisions had a huge effect on human lives, looking back on those decisions and trying to learn from them.

Representative quote: "Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he's speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He's killed people unnecessarily — his own troops or other troops — through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But, he hasn't destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is, 'Don't make the same mistake twice,' learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. There'll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you're going to destroy nations."

The entire movie is actually available on Google Video for free, in super-crappy quality. Here it is (though, fair warning, this will probably be removed by Sony Pictures shortly):

You can also rent it from Netflix, buy it from Amazon (only ten bucks!), listening to a Morris/McNamara lecture, learn more about Morris's Interrotron, or watch the trailer.

Final fun fact: McNamara's middle initial S stands for "Strange." Really.

Oli Scarff, Getty Images
How a Particle Accelerator Is Helping to Unearth Long-Lost Pieces of Art
Oli Scarff, Getty Images
Oli Scarff, Getty Images

A particle accelerator is revealing the people in 150-year-old photographs whose features had been lost to time, Science News reports.

For the first time, Madalena Kozachuk, a Ph.D. candidate at Canada’s Western University, and a team of scientists used an accelerator called a synchrotron to scan daguerreotypes, an ancestor of modern photography.

before and after image of a damaged dagguereotype
Kozachuk et al. in Scientific Reports, 2018

Invented by French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre, daguerreotypes were popular from around the 1840s to the 1860s. They were created by exposing an iodized silver-coated copper plate to a camera (the iodine helped make the plate's surface light-sensitive). Subjects had to sit in front of the camera for 20 to 30 minutes to set the portrait, down from the eight hours it took before Daguerre perfected his method. Photographers could then develop and fix the image with a combination of mercury and table salt.

Because they’re made of metal, though, daguerreotypes are prone to tarnish. Scientists can sometimes recover historical daguerreotypes by analyzing samples taken from their surface, but such attempts are often both destructive and futile, Kozachuk wrote in a study published in Scientific Reports.

Kozachuk found that using a particle accelerator is a less invasive and more accurate method. While some scientists have used X-ray imaging machines to digitally scan other historical objects, such instruments are too large to scan daguerreotypes. Reading the subtle variations on a daguerreotype surface requires a micron-level beam that only a particle accelerator can currently produce. By tracing the pattern of mercury deposits in the tarnished plate, the researchers were able to reveal the obscured image and create a digital photo of what the daguerrotype looked like when it was first made.

before and after image of a recovered dagguereotype
Kozachuk et al. in Scientific Reports, 2018

“When the image became apparent, it was jaw-dropping,” Kozachuk told Science News. “I squealed when the first face popped up.”

Scanning one square centimeter of each 8-by-7 centimeter plate took about eight hours. The technique, though time-intensive, may allow museums and collectors to restore old daguerreotypes with minimal damage.

“The ability to recover lost images will enable museums to expand their understanding of daguerreotype collections, as severely degraded plates would not otherwise have been able to be studied or viewed by interested scholars,” Kozachuk wrote.

[h/t Science News]

Courtesy of October Films
This Scientist's Idea of the 'Perfect' Human Body Is Kind of Terrifying
Courtesy of October Films
Courtesy of October Films

The perfect human body has the legs of an ostrich, the heart of a dog, and the eyes of an octopus, according to anatomist Alice Roberts. And it’s utterly terrifying.

With the help of anatomical artist Scott Eaton and special effects designer Sangeet Prabhaker, Roberts created a life-size replica of herself that fixes many design flaws inherent to the human body, Motherboard reports. Roberts unveiled the sculpture on April 23 at the Science Museum in London. On June 13, the BBC released a documentary about the project.

Among the flaws Roberts’s sculpture corrects are humans’ inferior ears, spine, and lungs. Roberts borrowed anatomy from reptiles, birds, and other mammals to create a Frankenstein-esque creature straight from the island of Dr. Moreau.

The sculpture of Alice 2.0, left, with Alice Roberts, right
Courtesy of October Films

The sculpture has legs like an ostrich because, as Roberts says on her website, the human knee is complex and prone to failure. Like humans, ostriches are bipedal, but they are far better runners. Bird-like lungs that keep air flowing in one direction, not two, make running and other aerobic activities easier for the perfect human to manage. And a chimpanzee’s sturdier spine and a dog’s heart (which has more connected arteries, leading to lower heart attack risk) make Roberts’s alternate self more resistant to injury and disease.

Roberts’s ideal human body also has skin like a frog that can change shades based on the environment, and large, bat-like ears that amplify sound. Roberts also fixed humans’ backwards retina, which produces a natural blind spot, by borrowing from octopus eye anatomy.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the baby head poking out of the sculpture’s marsupial pouch. Roberts says marsupial pregnancy would be far easier on the human body and more convenient for parents on the go.

“This could be a human fit for the future,” Roberts says at the end of a trailer for her BBC documentary.

[h/t Motherboard]


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