All posts by Keith Haviland

Technology and business leader. Former Accenture Senior Managing Director and creator of their Global Delivery Network. Space historian, film producer, writer.

Enduring Leadership Lessons of Apollo 13

Apollo 13 Launch
Apollo 13 Launch

Forty five years ago, astronaut Jack Lousma was acting as the ground-based Capcom (a shorthand for Capsule communicator) for the Apollo 13 mission, which was in its coast phase towards the Moon.

The mission so far had been routine. Lunar missions seemed to have become almost straightforward. Lousma asked the crew, as part of normal operations:

13, we’ve got one more item for you, when you get a chance. We’d like you to stir up your cryo tanks.

The response – initially from Command Module pilot Jack Swigert has become a modern legend:

Okay, Houston —I believe we’ve had a problem here.

There had been an explosion. The crew’s first thoughts were that a meteor might have struck the Lunar Module. In fact, an oxygen tank had exploded because of an old wiring issue inside the tank. The following image – taken in the last minutes of the flight – shows the immense damage done to the Service Module.

Damaged Apollo 13 Service Module
Damaged Apollo 13 Service Module

What followed is equally well known – a story of resilience, ingenuity, guts and adaptability. The main Command and Service Module Odyssey would be powered down, and the Lunar Module Aquarius would become an unexpected lifeboat, supporting the full crew way beyond its original design limits. The moon was lost. The rest of the mission would now have a life and death focus on managing resources and controlling the spacecraft’s trajectory. The unfolding events would grab the world’s attention in a way that was unprecedented – billions of people would care, and sometimes pray, for the Apollo 13 crew during their encounter with fate.

Cutting to the present day, It was my privilege to attend a Forty-Fifth anniversary celebration of the mission at Cape Canaveral last Saturday. The highlight was a panel discussion with the surviving astronauts (Jim Lovell, and Fred Haise), mission directors (Gene Kranz, Glynn Lunney, Gerry Griffin) and the Capcom team (Vance Brand, Jack Lousma and Joe Kerwin). The discussion was both entertaining and hugely inspiring. We sat in front of real history.

Again it struck me again how perfect Apollo 13 is as a modern parable: a parable of leadership; of how to take action in a moment of complex crisis; of teamwork, and of engineering excellence. I have often used it in my own thinking, and teaching.

In no particular order, here are just some of the lessons Apollo 13 can teach us.

The Power of Teamwork. The film Apollo 13 centres on Jim Lovell and Gene Kranz. It has to, in order to present a complex real-life drama with the confines of the movie format.

But it was not for nothing that the panel at the celebration event consisted of multiple astronauts and flight directors. And every member of that panel emphasised the importance of teamwork, and how they themselves represented the efforts of 1000s.

Indeed, before cell phones and modern communications, without asking and within a short period after the incident, Houston Mission Control and many other NASA centres were filled with NASA members and supporting contractors. People would be at their desks for days, dividing up an immensely complex problem into solvable pieces. NASA and its suppliers pulled together to save the three astronauts as they swung around the moon.

The Power of Responsible Leadership in a Crisis. One of the key moments for the flight directors managing the crisis occurred when they – represented by Glynn Lunney and Gerry Griffin – went to brief NASA leadership, who would themselves have been under a great deal of hard-edged public pressure. The flight directors went through five complex recovery scenarios, and made their recommendation out of that five.

Given the importance of the decisions being made, the Flight Directors were ready for challenge. The challenge that came delighted them

We have just one question. How can we help?

Those of you who have worked in major problem resolution and crisis management will recognise the importance of this. As a leader, if you have the best people, and good procedures, then your role is to let them act, and give them the resources and support they need.

The Power of Professionalism. The crew of the mission, and the people that supported them, had been selected on the basis of character and ability. They had been well trained. As Ron Howard, director of the film Apollo 13, once pointed out to Jim Lovell , it was hard to hear a problem when listening to the original tapes from the time of the initial explosion. The response to immense problems was calm and measured – in both the spacecraft and in Mission Control.  It was focused on making revised plans, and working those plans. In fact throughout the crisis, there was little doubt and little fear. The NASA team believed it could save the astronauts, and worked carefully to that goal.

The Power of Preparation, Rehearsal and Testing.  Although the Apollo 13 was an extreme incident, NASA’s careful preparation paid off. They had rehearsed using the lunar module to control the full “stack” on Apollo 9. NASA’s detailed, existing procedures proved to be highly adaptable to the new set of problems. The wiring on the Command and Service Module was made to an extraordinarily high standard – a reaction to the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire. That meant that the dampness inside the hibernating spacecraft did not create issues when it was brought back to life for re-entry.

So, after forty-five years, the story of Apollo 13 – of NASA’s successful failure – still endures, and inspires. Above all, it can teach.

Mission Control celebrates the recovery of the Apollo 13 crew
Mission Control celebrates the recovery of the Apollo 13 crew

Keith Haviland

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services. He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network. Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

Whiplash: outrageously dramatic, redemptive and enthusiastic

I had the privilege of seeing Whiplash at the BFI’s London Film Festival last October. (It was shown at the Accenture gala, renowned for the quality of its films choices). Directed by Damien Chazelle, the film is now on general release in the UK. It is a film with an extraordinary reputation – a reputation that turns out to be completely deserved. Indeed, Whiplash generated a rare standing ovation during the London festival in the vast cathedral space of the Leicester Square Odeon.

The movie is a mash-up of film genres that takes the audience on an emotional and stretching journey. The ending in particular is outrageously redemptive and enthusiastic, revolving around a confrontation between the main characters described purely through musical performance.

The story starts with 19-year old Andrew Neiman (played with a smouldering monomania by Miles Teller). Neiman is a young drummer who wins a place at the Shaffer Conservatory, a major music academy in New York. His ambition is to become one of the “greats” in jazz drumming, Buddy Rich being the example used in the film. Indeed, the film’s name comes from a complex jazz classics, which used in a key musical sequence.

Neiman soon encounters a legendary conductor and teacher called Terence Fletcher. In conventional terms, Fletcher is the villain of the film, although he retains a certain brute-force charm throughout. He is played with psychopathic, wiry and wild-eyed perfection by JK Simmons. Fletcher starts by projecting that charm, initially with elegance, but he turns out to be a talented, inspiring and abusive monster who humiliates the young people in his band, delivering badass and disturbingly funny insults with real gusto. There are hints of a prior student having committed suicide under pressure. The engine of the plot is the tension that develops between Neiman and Fletcher.

With this premise the film moves far away from the cinematic conventions around music or pupil-teacher relationships. It adds dramatic and stylistic conventions from film noir, the tensest of legal dramas, crime thrillers and war movies. It is delightfully old-fashioned in its melodramatic tone.

As a result, the film itself becomes a master class in technique and performance from the ensemble of director, film crew and actors. It is an extended riff on film conventions that is aimed to dazzle. Variety’s reviewer Peter Debruge wrote that the film “demolishes the clichés of the musical-prodigy genre, investing the traditionally polite stages and rehearsal studios of a topnotch conservatory with all the psychological intensity of a battlefield or sports arena.” Close your eyes and you know it should seem ludicrous – life is not this dramatic. But open them and you enter a bargain with the director and actors with little hesitation. This is a story that demands to be followed.

As the film develops, Neiman is inspired – almost demonically possessed – by Fletcher and spends every waking moment rehearsing and practicising, until there is blood on his hands. He looses his girl friend, and brutally competes with other drummers in Fletcher’s orbit.

Without revealing too much of the plot, the two fall out and Fletcher dismisses Neiman, before his own troubles with the academy over the intensity of his abusive style. But somehow the plot engineers a reunion at a major concert, which turns out to be a ploy to humiliate Neiman. However,  Neiman grits metaphorical teeth, and proves himself in a performance of the jazz classic caravan, perfectly assembled via images related to the music, and shots of the faces of the actors. Somehow, with no dialogue whatsoever, the film resolves the tension between the two protagonists. It is easy to applaud.

The film itself possesses an inspiring history of hard effort and perseverance. The original script was featured in the 2012 “Black List” of the best motion picture screenplays that have not yet been produced. Chazelle then turned 15 pages of the screenplay into a short film that was noticed, then acclaimed at the Sundance festival in 2013. The full film was made finally for a small budget of just over $3 million. It has won and been nominated for a dazzling array of awards.

The bottom line is this. Whiplash is a wonderful piece of film making that moves and inspires the audience. It should be in the top five of films to see this year for any true cinema buff. And you will leave the cinema uplifted. Enjoy.

Failure is an Option

Things will always go wrong, but excellent preparation and strong leadership can turn failure into a kind of success.

The story of Apollo13 is a parable of gritty resolve, technology excellence, calm heroism and teamwork. For anyone focused on leadership, operations and program management it is absolutely the purest of inspirations.

The film of Apollo 13 centres around the phrase Failure is Not an Option,” invented post the original drama in a conversation between Jerry Bostick – one of the great Apollo flight controllers – and the filmmakers. It summarises a key part of the culture of Apollo era NASA, and it has found its way onto the walls or desks of many a leader’s office. It is part of the DNA of modern business culture, and of any sizeable delivery project.

Damaged Apollo 13 Service Module
Damaged Apollo 13 Service Module

Lessons from the Space Program

But one of the reasons that the crew was recovered was this: throughout its history, NASA and mission control knew that failure was precisely an option, and they designed, built and tested to deal with that simple truth. The spacecraft systems had – where physically possible – redundancy. The use of a Lunar Module as a lifeboat had already been examined and analyzed before Apollo 13. In the end, a old manufacturing defect caused an electrical failure with almost catastrophic consequences. It was precisely because Mission Control was used to dealing with issues that Apollo 13 became what has been called a “successful failure” and “NASA’s finest hour.”

The ability to respond like this was hard earned. The Gemini program – sandwiched between the first tentative manned flights of Mercury, and the Apollo program that got to the moon – was designed to test the technologies and control mechanisms needed for deep space. It was a very deliberate series of steps. Almost everything that could go wrong did: fuel cells broke, an errant thruster meant that Gemini 8 was almost lost, rendezvous and docking took many attempts to get right and space walks (EVAs in NASA speak) proved much harder than anybody was expecting. And then the Apollo 1 fire – where three astronauts were actually lost on the launch pad – created a period of deep introspection, followed by much redesign and learning. In 18 months, the spacecraft was fundamentally re-engineered. The final step towards Apollo was the hardest.

But, after less than a decade of hard, hard work – NASA systems worked at a standard almost unique in human achievement.

So, with near infinite planning and rehearsal, NASA could handle issues and error with a speed and a confidence that is still remarkable. Through preparation, failure could be turned into success.

Challenges of a Life More Ordinary

All of us have faced challenges of a lesser kind in our careers. I was once responsible for a major software platform that showed real, but occasional and obscure issues the moment it went into production, expensively tested. We put together an extraordinary SWAT team. The problem seemed to be data driven, and software related and simply embarrassing. I nick-named it Freddie, after the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. It turned out to be a physical issue in wiring – which was hugely surprising and easily fixed. The software platform worked perfectly once that was resolved.

Another example: In the early days of Accenture’s India delivery centres, we had planned for redundancy and were using two major cables for data to and from the US and Europe. But although they were many kilometres apart, both went through the Mediterranean. A mighty Algerian earthquake brought great sadness to North Africa, and broke both cables. We scrambled, improvised, maintained client services, and then bought additional capacity in the Pacific. We now had a network on which the sun never set. It was a lesson in what resilience and risk management really means.

Soon enough, and much more often than not, we learnt to handle most failures and problems with fluency.  In the Accenture Global Delivery network we developed tiered recovery plans that could handle challenges with individual projects, buildings, and cities. So we were able to handle problems that – at scale – happen frequently. These included transport issues, point technology failures, political actions and much more – all without missing a single beat. Our two priorities were firstly people’s safety and well being,  and secondly client service, always in that order.

Technology – New Tools and New Risks

As technology develops, there are new tools but also new risks. On the benefit side, the Cloud brings tremendous, generally reliable compute power at increasingly low cost. Someone else has thought through service levels and availability, and invested in gigantic industrialized data centres. The cloud’s elasticity also allows smart users to side step common capacity issues during peak usage. These are huge benefits we have only just started to understand.

But even the most reliable of cloud services will suffer rare failures, and at some point a major front-page incident is inevitable. The world of hybrid clouds also brings new points of integration, and interfaces are where things often break. And agile, continuous delivery approaches means that the work of different teams must often come together quickly and – hopefully – reliably.

The recent Sony incident shows – in hugely dramatic ways – the particular risks around security and data. Our technology model has moved from programs on computers to services running in a hybrid and open world of Web and data centre. The Web reflects the overall personality of the human race – light and dark – and we have only just begun to see the long-term consequences of that in digital commerce.

Turning Failures into Success

What follows is my own summary view of those key steps required to handle the inevitably of challenges and problems. It is necessarily short.

1. Develop a Delivery Culture – Based on accountability, competence and a desire for peerless delivery and client service. Above all, there needs to be an acknowledgement that leadership and management are about both vision and managing and avoiding issues. Create plans, and then be prepared to manage the issues.

2. Understand Your Responsibilities – They will always be greater in number that you think. Some of them are general, often obvious and enshrined in law – if you employ people, handle data about humans, work in the US, work in Europe, work in India and work across borders you are surrounded by regulations. Equally importantly, the expectations with your business users or clients need to be set and mutually understood – there are many problems caused by costing one service level, and selling another. Solving a service problem might take hours or days. Solving a problem with expectations and contracts may be the work of months and years.

3. Architect and Design – Business processes and use cases (and indeed users!) need to account for failure modes. The design for technical architectures must acknowledge and deal with component and service failures – and they must be able to recover. As discussed above, cloud services can solve resilience issues by offering the benefits of large-scale, industrialised supply, but they also bring new risks around integration between old and new. Cloud brings new management challenges.

4. Automate – Automation (properly designed, properly tested) can be your friend. Automated recovery and security scripts are much less error prone than those done by people under stress. There are many automated tools and services that can help test and assess your security environment. Automated configuration management brings formal traceability – essential for the highest levels of reliability. Automated regression testing is a great tool to reduce the costs of testing in the longer term.

5. Test – Test for failure modes in both software and business process. Test at points of integration. Test around service and service failures. Test at, and beyond, a system’s capacity limits. Test security. Test recovery. Test testing.

6. Plan for Problems – Introduce a relevant level of risk management. Create plans for business continuity across technology systems and business processes. Understand what happens if a system fails, but also what happens if your team can’t get to the office, or a client declares a security issue.

7. Rehearse Invest in regular rehearsals of problem handling and recovery. Include a robust process for debriefing.

8. Anticipate and Gather Intelligence – For any undertaking of significance, understand potential issues and risks. Larger organisations will need to understand emerging security issues – from the small, technical and specific to more abstract global threats. Truly global organisations will need to sometimes understand patterns of weather – for example: to determine if transport systems are at threat. (I even once developed personal expertise in seismic science and volcanism.)

9. Respond – But finally acknowledge that there will be major issues that will happen, and such issues will often be unexpected. So, a team must focus on:

  • Simply accepting accountability, focusing on resolution and accepting the short-term personal consequences. It is what you are paid for.
  • Setting-up a management structure for the crisis, and trigger relevant business continuity plans
  • Setting up an expert SWAT team, including what is needed from suppliers.
  • How to report diagnosis and resolution – be accurate, be simple, avoid false optimism and be frequent
  • How to communicate with stakeholders in a way that balances information flow and the need for a core team to focus on resolution
  • How to handle media, if you are providing a public service
  • And after the problem is solved and the coffee machine is temporarily retired, how does the team learn

And finally a Toast …

In previous articles, I have acknowledged the Masters of Delivery I have come across in my varied career.

In this domain covered by this article, I have worked with people in roles such as“Global Asset Protection”, “Chief Information Security Officer” and teams across the world responsible for business continuity, security and engineering reliable cloud services. They work on the kind of activity that often goes unacknowledged when things go well – but in the emerging distributed and open future technology world, they are all essential. To me, these are unsung “Masters of Delivery.” Given this is the start of 2015, let’s raise a virtual glass in celebration of their work. We all benefit by it.

Keith Haviland

This is a longer version of an article originally posted on linkedin.  Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services. He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network. Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

30 Alternative Quotes on Success to Celebrate New Year, 2015

A large part of the Western workforce will be returning to work, after celebrating New Year. It’s a time of New Year’s resolutions, and general thinking about renewal and the future. Or at least exercise.

And there seems to be no shortage of Internet-seved inspirational quotes and messages for this New Year of 2015 – as part of the vast, modern literature on self-improvement and leadership excellence. Much of this is based on the premise that success is ultimately about self-belief.

This actually represents a very old trade in ideas. Virgil was a 1st century BC Roman poet who completes with Shakespeare for the times he is quoted. One quote is “Possunt quia posse videntur,” which roughly translates as “They can, because they believe they can.”

But success is more than about denying doubt, it is about preparation, planning, effort and working with other people. It is managing issues and dealing with error. So, to celebrate the arrival 2015, I have assembled a few alternative quotes on success and leadership for the year, some with a little edge, and all hopefully a little truth.

Oh, and a Happy and Very Successful New Year to you all.

1. Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm – Winston Churchill

2. As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information. – Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli
Benjamin Disraeli

3. Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value. – Albert Einstein

4. I don’t look to jump over seven-foot bars; I look around for one-foot bars that I can step over. – Warren Buffett, investor

5. Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure. – Confucius

6. The test of success is not what you do when you are on top. Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom. – George S. Patton

George S. Patton
George S. Patton

7. Success is dependent on effort. – Sophocles

8. The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

9. As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve come to appreciate – and really value – the other attributes that define a company’s success beyond the P&L: great leadership, long-term financial strength, ethical business practices, evolving business strategies, sound governance, powerful brands, values-based decision-making. – Ursula Burns

Ursla Burns
Ursla Burns

10.Failure comes only when we forget our ideals and objectives and principles. – Jawaharlal Nehru

11. Never was anything great achieved without danger. – Niccolo Machiavelli

12. Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.- Chris Hadfield, astronaut

13. Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive. – Chris Hadfield, astronaut

14. Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference. – Nolan Bushnell

15. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours. – Malcom Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

16. First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end. – Aristotle

Aristotle
Aristotle

17. Expect problems and eat them for breakfast. – Alfred A. Montapert

18. Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision. – Peter F. Trucker

19. Stay hungry. Stay foolish. – Steve Jobs

20. People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things. – Edmund Hillary

21. To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence. –Mark Twain

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

22.We had risen to probably one of the greatest challenges in history, put a man on the moon in the decade. We’d created incredible technologies. But what was most important, we’d created the teams, what I call the human factor. People who were energized by a mission. – Gene Kranz, Flight Director

23. There are three things that matter. The first is competence — just being good at what you do, whatever it is, and focusing on the job you have, not on the job you think you want to have. The second one is confidence. People want to know what you think. So you have to have enough desirable self-confidence to articulate a point of view. The third thing is caring. Nothing today is about one individual. This is all about the team, and in the end, this is about giving a damn about your customers, your company, the people around you, and recognizing that the people around you are the ones who make you look good. – Bill Green, former Accenture CEO

24. I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took any excuse. –Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale
Florence Nightingale

25. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. – Chinese Proverb

26. The world is changing very fast. Big will not beat small anymore. It will be the fast beating the slow –Rupert Murdoch

27. A leader is one who sees more than others see, who sees farther than others see, and who sees before others see — Leroy Emis

28. The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.— Theodore Roosevelt, American President

Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt

29. A leader is a dealer in hope. – Napoleon Bonaparte

30. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it. – W.C. Fields

wc fields 1934 - by paul hesse

Christmas and NASA’s Perfect Mission

Apollo 8 was NASA’s perfect Christmas Mission, which moved the human spirit. It was also an extraordinary example of bold and strong leadership, remarkable teamwork and commitment, agile and rapid program management, and brilliant, authentic communications and marketing. Apollo 8 represents leadership at its best.

I’ve always been fascinated by the great cycles of humanity’s festivals – and their links to the patterns of our solar and lunar years, and to each other. I’ve often sent greetings that search for the meanings of such festivals.

We are now a few days away from Christmas and its secular cousin of the New Year. For Christians, Christmas is of course a very direct celebration of the religion and its origins. But its date was set by Roman clergy from the 350s, and maybe earlier, to connect it to the ancient festivals of the Winter Solstice – which are in the end also about renewal and rebirth. For some Romans, the date of December 25st was the birthday of the sun god Sol Invitictus. In the north of Europe, people celebrated the pagan festival of Yule, which became synonymous with Christmas from the tenth century onwards. Many traditions linked with the non-spiritual side of Christmas – from greenery and trees from the North forest, through gift giving and feasting, to the miraculous powers of a bearded, benevolent godlike figure – have their ancient origins in these pagan festivals.

But this year I wanted to celebrate Christmas with a modern twist, and look for a story that underpins some of the themes of Christmas, and resonates with my own interests and future plans – a story that would also be an inspiration.

For me the choice is an obvious one: the Christmas flight of Apollo 8 in 1968 – the first time that humans would orbit and return from the Moon, and NASA’s perfect flight.

It is a flight seen by many who took part in Apollo as the golden moment of America’s journey to the Moon – and perhaps its greatest mission. It is a story that covers vision, teamwork, renewal and a moment of spiritual reflection, looking down upon the Moon and the Earth.

1968 – A Year of Turmoil

1968 overall was an extraordinarily challenging and difficult year for the US and the West. It started with the North Vietnamese launching the Tet offensive at Nha Trang. It was also the year of My Lai. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There were riots in Paris, and a sense of revolution hung coldly in the air. Later, there were riots in Chicago. In June, Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy, and in the autumn, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia with a vast army, strangling the Prague Spring. It seemed an inauspicious year.

Delays in Apollo

The Apollo program also faced its own complex challenges as the deadline set by President Kennedy closed in. First had come the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, which had killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

The defects in the Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft had been fixed remarkably quickly, and Apollo 8 was intended to test the Lunar Module or LM in low Earth orbit in December 1968.

But the first lunar module turned out to be broken. When it arrived at Cape Canaveral, there were too many defects to meet the schedule. It would take many weeks to fix.

A Flight to the Moon is Born

In a decision that would be remembered as an act of extraordinary vision and boldness, George Low, the Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office,  proposed that Apollo 8 be instead sent to orbit the moon without its Lunar Module.

This would be the first manned flight using the mighty Saturn V – a rocket that had just had severe issues with “pogo-ing” fixed. It was a bold step indeed to use its first manned flight to travel almost a quarter million miles to the Moon.

Any trip to the Moon also required intense planning and training flight, and the discussions had started just a few weeks before the earth orbit Apollo 7 was scheduled to fly. It was a tough schedule to meet. Would it be possible?

Glynn Lunney, one of the most important figures in NASA Mission Control during the Apollo years summarized the thought process that would typify the response of NASA senior management “I went in minutes from ‘crazy’ to ‘brilliant breakthrough’, and ‘why didn’t I think of that’?”

So, the mission imagined on almost the spur of the moment rapidly gained the support of almost all NASA’s senior managers. They understood the immense morale boost it would create, and they had confidence in their vehicles. Above all, the team that had formed out of Mercury, Gemini and the early days of the Apollo program had gained immense confidence in itself. This great challenge could be met. This mission was possible. It was a Go.

Training was started in September. No public announcement was made about the real intent of the mission until November 12, less than 40 days before launch. The news of the real goal of Apollo 8 stunned and exhilarated the public. American astronauts were going to the Moon.

Crew

The crew consisted of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. For Borman and Anders, this was to be their last spaceflight. Lovell would be the commander of Apollo 13. They were a good crew admired by those who supported them, and became well prepared at short notice for a mission of an entirely new kind.

Mission Control would operate 24×7 in three shifts, led by Flight Directors Charles Charlesworth, Glynn Lunney and Milton Windler.

Apollo 8 Crew
Apollo 8 Crew

Launch

On the morning of December 21, the Apollo 8 crew was awakened in the small hours, and given a traditional breakfast of steak and eggs. The countdown proceeded smoothly and at 7:51 AM, the four hold-down arms were released and the mighty Saturn V moved slowly into the air, driven by many millions of pounds of thrust.

Astronaut Michael Collins was the CAPCOM (Capsule Communications) on duty and at 2 hours, 27 minutes and 22 seconds in the mission radioed, “Apollo 8. You are Go for TLI.” The engine on the third and final stage of the Saturn V fired, and pushed out of Earth orbit.

Apollo 8 was now the first manned interplanetary spacecraft.

Apollo 8 Lift Off
Apollo 8 Lift Off

Reaching the Moon

As they approached the moon, the crew began to prepare for Lunar Orbit Insertion or LOI. This was a particularly tense moment. It depended on a burn of the service module engine on the far side of the Moon, when the spacecraft was alone and out of contact with Earth.

After the key members of Mission Control were polled for a “go” or “no go” decision, the crew was told that they were “go” and “riding the best bird we can find.”

Mission Control had set up two countdown clocks. If Apollo 8 regained contact at the first timing point, then no burn had happened and LOI had failed. If it regained contact at the second timing point, the burn had worked perfectly. Anything else was real trouble.

It was at this point that Lunney – who was the flight director on duty, said: “Okay, all flight controllers, this is a good time to take a break.”. It amazed the members of Mission Control at first, but on reflection there was nothing to be done for around 20 minutes. Some of them took advantage.

Eventually, the first countdown clock expired. There was no signal. Tension in Mission Control increased.

Then the second clock expired. Apollo 8 radioed at that point “Houston, this is Apollo 8. Burn complete.”

The engine had worked as it should. Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon.

 

Lunar Surface from Apollo 8
Lunar Surface from Apollo 8

In Orbit

It was then that the crew could start observing another world – one of the prime purposes of the mission, and essential preparation for future landings. They would take many hundreds of photos.

Jim Lovell would characterize the surface as follows:

“The Moon is essentially grey, no color; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand. “

Bill Anders would add:

“Looks like a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time—it’s all beat up—no definition—just a lot of bumps and holes.”

But it was not the Moon that was to get the most attention.

The First Human Earthrise

One of the key moments of the flight, and indeed all of history, came as the craft emerged from behind the Moon for the fourth time. The crew witnessed “Earthrise” for the first time – the crescent of our plant rising above the limb of the moon’s broken surface. Borman noticed first, and called in excitement to the others, taking a black and white photo as he did so. Anders took another, now famous color photo, later selected by Life as one of its 100 photos of the century.

The sense of wonder, and unity, at seeing all of Earth and all of humanity from the vastness of space was a common experience shared by many of the Apollo astronauts. Anders would go on to say:

“We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth”

Earthrise in Black and White
Earthrise in Black and White

The Christmas Eve Reading of Genesis

As Apollo 8, rounded Moon for the ninth time, they began another TV transmission. They first described the lunar surface for the people on Earth, Borman characterizing it as a “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing.”

Then Anders said crew had a message for all on Earth. It was at that moment that each of the astronauts read a section from Genesis, about the creation of the Heaven and the Earth.

“In the Beginning god created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void. And darkness was upon the face of the Deep. . . . And God saw that it was Good. . . . “

They had chosen Genesis since it was from that part of the Bible that had meaning across several major religions. Borman ended the broadcast with:

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

This was a hugely moving and unexpected experience for those in Mission Control. Flight controller Jerry Bostick later wrote:

“I was totally overwhelmed, and tears came to my eyes. [What could be] more appropriate than a Bible reading about creation, coming from the first people to ever leave the influence of Earth, on Christmas Eve?”

Returning Home

The next critical moment was Trans-Earth Injection, or TEI. The service module engine needed to be restarted a second time, and perform another perfect burn. Again, that would be done behind the moon.

It worked, and Lovell reported “Houston … Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus.”

After the long coast back to Earth, the Apollo 8 Command module re-entered the atmosphere with the dreadful violence that comes from interplanetary velocities. The deceleration peaked at 6g, and – as planned – the spacecraft bounced like a skipping stone before falling to the Pacific Ocean.

Anders would say:

“You could see the flames and the outer skin of the spacecraft glowing; and burning, baseball-size chunks flying off behind us. It was an eerie feeling, like being a gnat inside a blowtorch flame.”

At around 10,000 feet the three main parachutes slowed the Command Module, and it splashed down south of Hawaii.

Apollo 8 Command Module being recovered after splashdown.
Apollo 8 Command Module being recovered after splashdown.

Apollo 8 – In Retrospect

In the end, Apollo 8 was a genuine and complete success. It was indeed a perfect mission.

Jerry Bostick would say: “It was bold, it was exciting, and it was successful.”

Chris Kraft – who created the very notion of Mission Control – notes in his autobiography how many historic firsts it scored. It was the:

  • First manned flight of a Saturn V
  • First manned vehicle to leave earth’s gravitation field
  • First use of a computer to provide total “onboard autonomy” in navigation
  • First manned vehicle in lunar orbit
  • First close-up view of another planet
  • First exposure to solar radiation beyond the earth’s magnetic field
  • First vehicle to rocket out of lunar orbit
  • First manned vehicle to reenter from another planet

Perhaps the impact of the Mission is best summarized by a telegram sent to Borman by an unknown citizen that stated: “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”

Apollo 8 as an Example of Leadership

Beyond the magnificence of the technical achievements, there are many leadership lessons.

Apollo 8 is a perfect example of the power of vision and imagination, creating a new mission of historic importance out of issues.

It would not have been possible with the preparation already undertaken, and the intense commitment and teamwork of the extraordinary team that had formed around mission operations.

Apollo 8 was also a remarkable moment in communications, in PR and marketing. At the end of a deeply troubled year, its success bound together humanity for a moment as would Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 in coming months.

And perhaps most importantly, each of those who witnessed Apollo 8 through the media of the day got to see our fragile home from afar.

Jim Lovell Suiting-Up for Apollo 8
Jim Lovell Suiting-Up for Apollo 8

The Final Word

Apollo 8 was NASA’s perfect mission. It shows the value of imagination and bold vision. It was founded on teamwork. It enabled all of us to look at ourselves in a different way.

And it happened at Christmas.

Merry Christmas and a Happy, Bold and Successful New Year to all of you.

Or as Borman said: ”Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

Keith

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

Interstellar Review: A Brave, Imperfect, Beautiful and Exciting Movie

**Warning: mild-spoilers ahead **

What to make of Christopher Nolan’s new Science Fiction epic Interstellar?

This is a film that has been eagerly anticipated, and whose trailers have been filled with strong space imagery, and a sense of mythic grandeur and aspiration. There is, in my view, an intense and general desire for intelligent science fiction beyond the superhero format, and many hoped that Interstellar would provide just that. It has both an A-list director, and an A-list cast of Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Lithglow and Matt Damon. (The idea of Michael Caine running NASA is almost worth the price of an entry ticket in itself.)

However, some of the science reaction has already been negative, and the science indeed creaks at times. At a few moments in the film, there is too much artificial technical explanation, rather like some episodes of Star Trek. As Kubrick showed in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, much admired by Nolan, less is more – especially when events are caused by the gift of advanced alien technology.

There are some moments that are simply inexplicable – such as when the wall of a board style meeting room lifts and reveals a rocket launch pad feet away, and shouts film-set.  It also takes a two-stage rocket launcher to get one of the film’s shuttlecraft into Earth orbit, but the same type of craft is able to lift off by itself from a planet of 1.3g. The distant solar system that they reach through a wormhole is clearly exotic, but unclear – I suspect there was a design for the system that was not explained in the final version of the script. There is a black hole there, a neutron star is mentioned in passing, and the presumably stellar source of light and heat for the planets is not mentioned. The real gravitational and tidal effects of a black hole are understated. The renowned scientist and science writer Phil Plait wrote a very good review (see here) that reveals this class of defect in fine detail, although as we shall see I reach very different conclusions about the movie.

And the plot and characterization sometimes creak as well.  The film tries to be grand and laden with meaning at many levels – which negative reviewers find pompous. There is a section with Matt Damon as a rogue and cowardly astronaut that for me doesn’t sufficiently suspend disbelief at the human level, even before we think about the science, to really work. Would a man alone for a decade turn on his rescuers so quickly? This is ultimately an issue with this part of the script, rather than the actors who generally do well.

But, although the film is flawed enough that I came close to losing my hope and belief at one point, at the closing credits I felt that I had seen an imaginative, rich and ultimately terrific movie – especially since the last third is a strong spectacle, and a good piece of story telling. The film moves through new ideas at a blistering pace, and ideas that range across a very broad spectrum of cinematic technical excellence, visual appeal, science and story telling. It finishes dramatically, grandly and – it must be said – sentimentally. It bravely plays with concepts related to black holes, relativity and gravity – event horizons, time dilation, singularities, and accretion disks are not common features in big movies. Although it does this in a ramshackle manner, Chris Nolan and team deserve a loud round of applause for trying such ideas in a large-scale film project.

Visually the film is superb and creates a vocabulary for representing space and space flight that both convinces and pays homage to past glories of spaceflight and Science Fiction film. There are scenes that are based on the Apollo era Saturn V launch footage, and the staging footage recovered from film canisters held inside those great rockets of the Moon Age. There are flight sequences reminiscent of real film of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft. There is an excellent, somewhat theatrical representation of time travel that echoes the weightless scene in 2001 A Space Odyssey where HAL is turned off. 2001 is also directly quoted in scenes where an interior and noisy point of view shifts to a silent exterior view of the film’s space hardware, echoing the quite grace and balletic pace of Kubrick’s masterpiece. And it is visually quoted again in the journey through the wormhole – very like the last “Beyond the Infinite” section of 2001 – and the recreation of a black hole that is lit by the brilliance of its accretion disk.

Before that, however, the film starts on Terra Firma with the conjuring of a troubled future world, and a troubled America, through the recreation of an idealized Eisenhower era – like the worlds glimpsed in Astronaut Farmer or Field of Dreams. This is a place of strange dust storms and dying plants. It is also a place of infinite cornfields, a wooden family farmhouse and baseball.

It is where we learn about the character of the hero Cooper (played well by Matthew McConaughey) – a feisty, tough, independent ex-astronaut now turned corn-farmer who “was born 40 years too late, or 40 years too early” in a community that sees itself as “the caretaker generation.” This part of the film establishes his relationship with his daughter Murphy, a relationship that will span more than a century of Earth time and links the various elements of the film. This primary arc reminded me – since it is in the end redemptive, strongly sentimental, and plays with love, time and outcomes – of a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s a film I adore, so I have to admit I enjoyed the main Interstellar arc, and its inevitable uplifting ending, immensely.

The centre of the film consists of a tour of wonderfully imagined – and often scientifically dubious – strange worlds that is similar to the kind of planetary treks found in 1950s pulp science fiction. I was reminded of early works by Robert Heinlein, and James Blish. There is even a robot with a human-like personality, and a strong, tunable sense of irony. The special effects create a strong feeling of reality, and these alien worlds are very believable, even when you find yourself questioning the science.

Interstellar ends with a long and genuinely gripping sequence that is fast paced and intensely dramatic as astronaut Cooper first docks with a damaged and rapidly spinning spacecraft, and stabilizes it – a sequence possibly influenced by Neil Armstrong’s success in stopping a rotating capsule on Gemini 8. Cooper’s craft then falls into a black hole, and Cooper is placed in a kind of time tunnel by unseen and distant descendents of humanity, which becomes the device that facilitates the dénouement of the movie. Strangely enough, although this is one of the most fantastical parts of the film, it works well. The ability to influence the past is presented as a that momentary gift, a mystery created by superior intelligences, rather the alien monoliths in 2001.

In summary, Interstellar is a brave, not always successful, attempt to create a thrilling science fiction epic with greater intelligence than most. It is a beautiful movie. It brims full with images culled from fifty years of actual space flight and other Science Fiction movies that are integrated into a convincing and inspiring vision. It also bubbles over with ideas and concepts that sometimes work well, and sometimes stumble. It is an inspiring, exciting, beautiful and imperfect film that I would strongly recommend seeing, with something of an open heart.

Interstellar also represents something of the current zeitgeist – where science and technology are more valued, and some people are rediscovering the wonder of space flight. There is unsatisfied demand for intelligent science fiction, and films that genuinely take us to new places in the grandest sense. Hopefully, Interstellar will encourage others to raise their eyes to the skies above.

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
 Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

I Saw a Mash-Up of Royalty, Business and New Tech Innovation. It Worked.

Over the last two years I have been working with a small number of start-ups. These are mostly digital and cloud-based, although one is bringing innovation to large-scale consumer goods, and has built an impressive robotic production line near Cambridge. As a result, I have begun to build a classic entrepreneur’s network.

So, a few weeks ago I received an invitation to an event called Pitch@Palace, which is exactly what its name suggests – a start-up demo-day style event that was to be held at St James Palace on November 5th (a day that traditionally – and in this case ironically – marks the Gunpowder plot of 1605 where Guy Fawkes and other conspirators attempted to blow-up the House of Lords).

Pitch@Palace is led and sponsored by the Duke of York who introduces the program on its website with:

 “British prosperity, in all its forms, is central to my work. I want to recognise and reward the people and organisations working to ensure that we have the workforce, intellectual property and entrepreneurial culture to succeed.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect. The event would be well intentioned I was sure. Worthy. But could it be connected to the technical zeitgeist, relevant, genuinely innovative?

In the end, I was simply impressed. Impressed enough, in fact, to write this little post. The event was a job well done by all those involved.

There is something about being in a proper, full-on Palace, of course. The event was held in the spectacular apartments around the throne room – with great ceilings, fine artwork, chandeliers and gilt mirrors. I managed to take my own selfie a few feet in front of the throne – the use of mobile devices being encouraged throughout the event. Pitch@Palace was very well attended and the palace was crowded and full of energy and the buzz of conversation.

It turned out that the pitch day had been supported by a process that ensured the start-ups on show were very high quality. Forty-one start-ups/entrepreneurs had been selected from a network of fourteen partner organisations – tech accelerators, and University and government sponsored schemes. During October, the Duke of York held a “Pitch@Palace Bootcamp” at Central Working Space, part of a huge accelerator facility in the Mile End Road in the classical East End of London, in partnership with Microsoft Ventures, Wayra and KPMG. A panel of judges selected 15 of the start-ups to present.

The main event was kicked-off by the Duke of York. It was the first time I have seen him speak. He gave an urbane, quietly passionate speech about the program – grounded in a real sense of business reality, and strongly encouraging those in attendance to contribute.  It was an introduction that any top flight CEO would have been proud to have made.

Then came a series of three-minute pitches (supported by additional materials available on the web). What was immensely pleasing was the breadth of innovation and ideas on show. Ideas ranged across digital and physical tech, and across the categories of consumer technology, education, environment, medicine, robotics and gaming.

There isn’t space to describe all of the fine fifteen finalists, but I liked Insignia Technologies with smart labeling to reduce food-waste, Pure Marine who aim to crack the challenges of wave energy, Terra Recovery with a mission to mine existing landfill,  Armourgel with a product that protects the vulnerable against injury, Reach Robotics that makes gaming robots, and Insane Logic that through digital apps makes speech and language therapy easily available and affordable. The winner of the vote at the end of the evening was Squirrel who aim to empower low-income employees through digital  tools to manage and save their money.

There were other strong products in the original long-list of forty-one that had their own booths spread through the Palace. I liked See.Sense that manufacture (in Northern Ireland) an intelligent bike light that shines brighter and flickers faster when an internal accelerometer detects change, and so enhances visibility at key moments.

So, part from a good event, what conclusions can be drawn from the evening?

First point: Pitch@Palace emphasizes the way that business innovation and a culture of entrepreneurship have established themselves in the UK, on a strong foundation of tech innovation. There has been a real change over the last decade. The sector appears much more mature than during the time of the original dot.com frenzy at the turn of the century. There is a way to go – some ideas require larger funding that is commonly available early in the UK, and there needs to be more support for the creation of effective channels for new companies (an ex-colleague of mine has created a fine business that does just that). But, overall, we have developed a culture and infrastructure that can create new forms of growth.

Second point: I was impressed with seeing so much hardware and physical product. And some of this was being manufactured in the UK. The UK is now very strong in media and digital production, but it needs to be stronger across all manufacturing.

Third point: Many of the ideas and products presented – by design of the Pitch@Palace process – had a strong social or environmental edge. They were uniformly good business ideas as well. The evening felt remarkably progressive.

So, last night I saw a mash-up of Royalty, business and bright, new tech innovation. It worked.

The Bifurcation of Technology and the Revolution in the IT Industry

Sometimes people start to use a phrase or word that captures a moment of change. You hear friends and colleagues using it, and it starts to crop up in the media. One such example I’ve heard several times in the last few weeks is bifurcation, as a dry shorthand for the current momentous transformation in IT and IT services. The trends I noted in an article (here) in the summer are accelerating, and fast.

A recent, excellent article in the Economist covers this well. The bifurcation is the dual-track nature of growth in IT. Services and products related to mobile and cloud are expanding, and sometimes with extraordinary growth rates. Conversely, traditional IT sectors are growing slowly or even shrinking”. The sectors under pressure include most types of hardware, traditional enterprise software, and classical IT services.

The combination of the differential growth characteristics means the IT industry overall is showing modest growth. The Economist quotes a number of 3% overall. Other commentators will give numbers even closer to zero. It is a challenging environment.

One result of this is the beginning of significant change in the corporate structures of IT suppliers. Larger companies are acquiring faster-growing companies. That is the usual cycle. More profoundly, some large companies will radically reshape themselves. As the Economist describes “HP’s recent decision to break itself up was merely the opening shot … Others will shed businesses that have become commoditised …IBM announced that it will pay Globalfoundries, a contract chipmaker, to take its semiconductor business off its hands.”

The changes in technology driving these changes in business are very real. Over the last 20 years, the relentless increase in available compute power, network bandwidth and storage capacity has moved us to a world where a wide variety of very powerful devices – not always operated by people, but increasing by other machines – can connect reliably to remote services of increasing breadth and sophistication.

And what this means is that such services can potentially take advantage of real economies of scale, and can be built and provided to the entirety of the universe of consumers and business with an ease that a generation ago would have seemed startling.

A new underlying industry architecture for software is forming. It includes a complex infrastructure layer that provides cloud services, which itself faces real change as the concepts of commoditized data centre and commoditized server becomes blurred. It includes a complex range of platform options that link humans and their devices to apps and cloud services. The architecture is crowned by applications and functional services – and it is the richness of these that will accelerate the change in IT. Importantly for established businesses, there is an explicit need to add an integration layer to the architecture – since we are on a decade-long transformation, and the interfaces with legacy systems will be key concerns. Overall, the concepts of Infrastructure-as-as-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) introduced by Gartner have served us well, but need refreshing as this form of architecture becomes dominant.

These changes in architecture also change the expectations for the delivery of software and services. New companies especially want their back-end support systems to be easily, immediately and cheaply available, and provided as elastic services that will grow with them. They do not seek uniqueness or differentiation here. Instead, they want innovation and rapid development of those services that face their customers. More generally, monolithic applications are being replaced by systems of services. This brings more architectural complexity, but it allows development to be parallelized and – if well managed – delivered in much more agile ways.

There are obvious dangers here for the providers of IT services (and you can include IT departments under this heading) who are sometimes surprisingly disinterested in the way they deliver their technology services, although this is often what clients are buying.

For example: a typical feature of large companies is operator dominance where a focus on cost becomes primary – growth in a changing world is much harder and requires fortitude. Taken to excess, the focus becomes optimization of legacy services, and too much focus on tools such as global delivery – wonderful as part of a toolkit, but most effective in combination with client-facing services that bring new technology opportunity into the heart of businesses. Indeed, the best India-based IT providers realize exactly that, and understand that conventional outsourcing now has a limited shelf life.

Another sign of dysfunctional effects are mash-ups of old and new which resemble failed experiments in genetic engineering. We all know of large projects where agile approaches have been introduced at too large a scale to deal with mad schedules, and client and suppliers try to handle this with conventional procurement approaches. Fixed-price contracts and flexible iteration can be unlikely bedfellows.

But real, sun-bright opportunity at scale also exists. An eco-system of service providers has appeared around the dynamic and fast-growing company Salesforce. Salesforce transaction volumes are in 9 figures daily, and much of these are via their platform technologies, showing people are building their own apps around its Software-as-a-Service core.

Another positive example:  I have come across one agile based company that hires the very best developers – aspiring for the top 1% – and undertakes only small projects with direct and strong business support. It seems to genuinely deliver the benefits of agile approaches, with great reliability. This emphasizes to me a coming focus on skills and expertise that can marry client need and the power of new tech. Like all times of change, smart tech-savvy people who understand clients and can integrate complexity will be at a premium.

And the growth rates of many larger consultancies are respectable, or simply plain good – reflecting client needs for advice and support in their transformations.

So, as always I end very optimistically. There are new opportunities for those technology service providers who can develop architectures and architects for the new world, and who can create app and tech services that can be reused across their clients. Good companies of the future will get to grips with better, more nimble ways of integrating, assembling and crafting solutions for clients as systems of services. They will invest in building the new skills and high-end expertise for 21st century delivery – both close to clients and in their global centres. They will create new types of career, and new types of personal opportunity.

I will be writing about these positive trends in future articles. Stay tuned.

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

Happy Diwali

This is a simple Diwali message is for all my Indian friends, and those – like me – that love India. Diwali also offers, in these challenging times,  a more universal message of hope, and renewal.

This ancient Hindu festival of lights is one of the great Northern Hemisphere harvest and renewal celebrations, at the start of a grand cycle that stretches through Christmas, and the Western and Chinese New Years. Before the key celebration, people will decorate and clean their homes. The main Diwali night is a time for wearing new clothes and lighting the diyas or lamps that give the festival its name. Then, in a traditional household, prayers are offered to Lakshimi – the goddess of wealth and success. Fireworks and the sharing of sweets will follow.

Like much about India culture it is multi-layered with myths and meanings, vibrant and bright with colour, and – above all – optimism. There are many underlying stories. The Ramayan describes Lord Rama’s glorious return to his Kingdom of Ayodhya after fourteen years of exile, marked by lighting of lamps. Diwali can mark Lord Krishna’s victory over the demon Narakaasura. It is associated with the story of the fall of Bali, a demon king conquered by Lord Vishnu. One major, constant part of the festival is the celebration of Maha Lakshmi – goddess of wealth and prosperity – through the ritual of puja (prayers), offering flowers, prasad (a food offering) and incense.

Such stories are a vehicle for a more spiritual meaning. Diwali signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. It is a time of cleansing, forgiveness and new beginnings.

So, a very Happy Diwali to all of you! Whatever your own beliefs, I hope the next twelve months is a time of new starts, new connections and opportunities, new achievements, and success.

Deepavali ki Shubhkamnayein
Deepavali Habbada Shubhashayagalu
Shubh Deepavali Diwalichya Shubhechha
Subho Deepavalir Preeti O Subeccha

The image with this post was sourced from Wikimedia, it is ‘Rangoli with Light and Shadow’ by Ramnath Bhat. 

Steam, War Computers and Social Media: Representing Technology in Film

The London Film Festival is currently on – running from 8th to 17th October across 17 venues, showing over 250 films. As always, it offers an extraordinarily rich program from filmmakers across the world, in a city that has now firmly become one of the movie capitals of the world.

Film, of course, is now a truly digital business. In the last few years, digital cinema cameras like the Arri Alexa have made physical rolls of films essentially redundant, and give very high-definition results of great quality. Production activities like data wrangling and conforming are tasks centred on managing video data that will seem very familiar to anyone who has dealt with configuration management on a software project. And when films are shown in a modern cinema, they will be stored as a Digital Cinema Package or DCP – a standardised collection of digital files. Everywhere there is also experimentation with digital distribution, the art of getting content to consumers in different ways on different devices, and the web’s video services have unleashed a vast wave of low-cost creativity. Technology is transforming filmmaking.

The London Film Festival itself exploits modern technology, including live streaming of its red carpet galas to cinemas across the country and use of its own BFI player for festival related content. London overall is a place where technical skills abound in the new digital crafts around post-production, special effects and 3D.

But this article is not about the digital revolution in the making of film; it is about how technology is increasingly part of the dramatic content of film, and how technology and especially digital technology is represented. The examples are – naturally enough – drawn from the London Film Festival.

The inspiration for the article was accidental. I had booked each film I wanted to see for the normal reasons – I liked the look of the film, or respected the filmmakers, or was interested in the buzz surrounding the movie. But, as I watched each of them – usually somewhere in Leicester Square – I was struck by how often technology intruded, and how often directors tried to find ways of representing technology in general, and specifically n the digital world, on screen.

Mr. Turner

Let’s start in an unlikely place with Mr. Turner. It is a marvellous film, from director Mike Leigh. It is a biography of perhaps the greatest English painter JMW Turner (1775 to 1851) who was known as “the painter of light” and who anticipated both Impressionism and modern Abstract Art.

Set in the first half of the 19th Century, it succeeds at recreating the period with a sense of truth that is unusually powerful – through its authentic and sometimes very funny dialogue, its recreation of the manners and moral temper of the period, and its careful choice of locations.

It shows off Turner’s art of course – and is visually rich and sometimes stunning – but the film also brings to life the man himself: a successful, eccentric and harrumphing curmudgeon born outside the establishment, who then became very much part of it. Turner is vividly played by Timothy Spall, with ungainly confidence and much humour.

But one of the most unexpected parts of the film for me was the way it shows an older Turner experiencing changes in 19th century society, and especially the impact of technology. Mike Leigh successfully conveys a deep sense of the move from the Georgian to the truly industrial Victorian era.

Examples: the means of passage from London to Margate changes from steamer to train during the film. There is a wonderful, funny sequence where Turner and his mistress are photographed by an American master of this new technology. He is armed with the latest cameras and equipment, including a head brace to help with long exposures. During this process, Turner ponders on the future effects on art.

And in one of the grandest sequences of the film, Turner and a group of friends watch the tall-masted and exhausted warship The Fighting Temeraire being towed to its break-up by a steam tug. This was to inspire what is one of the most famous, reproduced and loved paintings by a British artist.

During the scene, one of Turner’s companions looks at the great tall ship and remarks melancholically: “The ghost of the past.”

Turner prefers instead to observe the blackened, low shape of the steam tug: “No,” he shouts back, “The past is the past. You’re observing the future! Smoke. Iron. Steam!”

This presentation of technology, as a set of dynamic changes and images seen through the curious eyes of an artist is highly effective. The film ends up being as much a biography of the early Victorian age – a age of steam, coal, industry and transformation, with the young Albert and Victoria putting in an appearance themselves – as it is a biography of Turner.

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game moves us directly into the first days of the digital era. Indeed a key moment of the film, set during World War II, is when Keira Knightly pronounces the phrase “digital computer” awkwardly, as though it is being said in the world for the very first time.

The film is a biographic study of Alan Turing, played with suitable coldness and fragility by Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing was a taut, difficult personality often backwards diagnosed as autistic. He was a mathematician, cryptologist, and one of the first computer scientists, introducing many key foundations of that discipline. The name of the film itself is taken from one of Turing’s papers where he develops the concept of the Turing Test. This is a test for whether machines can ever think, and whether they could ever imitate a human mind.

It is a brilliant choice of title, since the film is about deceit at many levels – including the original Enigma codes, the hiding of the success of Allied code-breaking and the passing of false information to the Russians. Above all, there is the hidden nature of Turing’s own sexuality in a time when male homosexuality was a criminal offence.

The bulk of the film’s plot – with quite a lot of dramatic simplification- is centred on the breaking of the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park. The resulting intelligence was labelled Ultra (from Ultra Secret), and Churchill would later tell King George VI: “It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war.” The film itself repeats the common suggestion that ultra shaved two full years of the war.

In the film, the core of this process is a computer-like device – a bombe in the terminology of the time – that eventually is successfully programmed to break German encrypted messages on a daily basis. Turing’s efforts to design, build and operate the machine, and manage the team around it, occupies much of the story.

The visual and dramatic vocabulary that the film uses to describe its technology is taken straight from 1950s Science Fiction. In some ways, this is a perfect choice, since the 1940s wartime acceleration of technology would influence the world-view of the 1950s. So, we have common archetypes such as:

  • The central character of a lonely, arrogant boffin, dressed in tweed, who has a mission to save the world. Indeed, Turing is warned several times in the film to avoid thinking of himself as God.
  • Plain speaking, slight dim military men who’s job seems to be to place obstacles in the way of the hero
  • Sudden moments of inspiration where a chance remark opens the door to the instant resolution of a complex problem.
  • Diagrams and mathematical text assembled in great linked masses showing the workings of another “Beautiful Mind”
  • The great machine itself, a clunking mass of cylinders and valves that rotate remorselessly – like a vision of a Babbage difference engine. It reminded me of the whirl of mechanical computation machines in the classic “When Worlds Collide”.

The vision of technology here is cold, hard-edged and relentless – similar to Turing himself. Overall, the film succeeds – it is a good,moving and watchable piece of work, with strong performances throughout, but perhaps the plot works itself a little too mechanically, simulating the code-breaking machine at its heart.

Men, Women and Children

This film – by Jason Reitman and starring Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner and a large ensemble cast – is completely contemporary. It is about the lives of middle-class Americans, and how modern motivations and complexities are wired together by personal and social technology. It is based on an original novel by the controversial author Chad Kultgen.

Technology is represented in two ways. Firstly, there is a sequence of digital special effect sequences of the Voyager missions to the outer solar system, narrated by Emma Thompson. The connecting link between these sequences and the rest of the film is through the use of words – at the very end of the film – that Carl Sagan wrote about the “Pale Blue Dot” photo. This famous image was taken by one of the Voyager probes of the distant Earth as a final act of observation. The sequences are beautiful, and the narration sometimes very funny, but this part of the film feels a little contrived and unnecessary.

 The second representation of technology – of websites and social media – is much more relevant and direct. This is not achieved through conventional shots of a PC or smartphone screen, but via pop-up windows on screen that represent what is being shown on a device. These appear beside the main antagonists in the film, popping in and out of existence like speech or thought bubbles. This is effective, and helps the narrative flow. It soon seems strangely natural. It is also provides opportunities for real humour, when people text what they really thinking of the person they are talking to.  

The themes covered are those social issues generated or amplified by technology. One example plotline: the character Tim Mooney (played by Ansel Elgort) is a schoolboy football player of real talent. But he quits the sport – to the vast disapproval of his father Kent (Dean Norris) – to obsessively play online games. He also learns of his absent mother’s new marriage via Facebook. Increasingly alienated, he finds solace in a relationship with intellectual, book-reading teenager Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever).

Her mother Patrica (played with steel by Jennifer Garner) is one of the strongest characters in the film. Her obsession is the Internet life of her daughter, which she monitors, restricts and controls with total authority before she finds out that her daughter has a secret and rebellious alternative web identity. This sets up a near tragic incident, where Patrica impersonates her daughter to persuade Tom that their relationship is over. As a consequence, Tom takes an overdose that he barely survives.

Another examples of the film’s threads include a teenager so corrupted by pornography he cannot form a normal relationship, a married couple who organise parallel infidelities via websites, a teenager who damages her life chances by putting too racy images on the web, and another – borderline anorexic – who gets advice on extreme dieting from virtual friends on the web.

There is much humour, especially at the beginning, but in the end the film takes a grim view of humanity. However, the representation of the technology works well, and allows parallel threads of plot and meaning to be shown on screen. It is a successful recreation of people’s abstract virtual lives.

Dearest and Rosewater

Both these films are reconstructions of real stories, where technology is part of the story, but not the prime driver. Both were – for me – unexpectedly moving, and illuminated very different cultures.

“Dearest” is a Chinese film, directed by Peter Chan, which covers the sensitive subject of child abduction in China. Although fictionalizsed, it is based on a true story that Chan came across in a TV documentary. It is well acted, humane and gives real insight into the social world of modern China.

Tian Wenjun (Huang Bo) and his ex-wife Lu Xiaojuan (Hao Lei) lose their child PengPeng through abduction. They spend three years searching – using the web as a means of communicating across the vastness of China, and connecting with others in their situation. Eventually, they locate their son in a remote village. The film then – remarkably and successfully – switches its point of view entirely to the heartbroken woman Li Hongqin (Zhao Wei) who has been looking after the abducted child.

In Dearest, the technology dimension is treated entirely conventionally, with the focus always on the actors. It is well made, and a delightful film, but rooted in traditional filmmaking.

“Rosewater” is the story of London-based journalist Maziar Bahari (played by Gael García Bernal) who was detained in Iran for 100 days, while his British and pregnant girlfriend waited for him in London. It was written and directed by Jon Stewart, who was connected with the case.

The film starts with Bahari getting increasingly involved in the events around the Iranian presidential elections, and their violent aftermath. He is arrested and spends four months in solitary at Evin Prison, being interrogated by a “specialist”. Since he is blind-folded, his experience of the interrogator is through the scent of rosewater that surrounds him.

Technology threads itself through the film in two ways. It is shown as one of the motors of change in Iran, with the opposition fluent in use of the web and internet. TV news has also connected Iranian youth to the wider world. At one point, Bahari is introduced to a “university” that is simply a vast array of satellite dishes, hidden from the security forces. The last scene in the film is of a small boy filming the destruction of the nest of dishes by police. He is using a smart phone.

There is also a sequence that starts with Bahari in the depths of despair. He is convinced that the world has forgotten entirely about him. He has been told that his girl-friend has not contacted the Iranian authorities. But then a security guard mentions that Hilary Clinton has been talking about him. In that instance, he realises he absolutely has not been forgotten, and he is actually famous and the subject of much outside debate. That awakening is captured in the use of an animation sequence that shows information and keywords spreading around the world. It is out of kilter with the naturalistic feel of the rest of the film, and reminded me of the use of maps to show travel and the passing of time in films from the 40s and 50s. But it is effective, and a compact means of making the point.

Conclusion

Technology, and a sense of technical change and opportunity is everywhere in society, and everywhere in the world. That is influencing the mirror of film – only one of the films above was directly about the use of technology, but technology pervades all of them. This presents filmmakers with a challenge – especially when the technology is digital. How we represent the drama and rhythm of lives that are part virtual becomes an interesting and essential question. Soon I suspect someone will make a breakthrough film which tackles and answers that question head-on.

I look forward to it