apocalypse now

This is the end… Image from MGM United Artists

by George Taniwaki

On June 1, 2020, President Donald Trump led a group of White House cabinet members and advisors across the street to St. John’s Episcopal Church. Once there he staged a photo op of him holding a bible. He took a few questions but did not have any prepared statements. Then everyone walked back to the White House.

Prior to the walk, National Park Service police cleared out mostly peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square through use of rubber bullets and pepper munitions. Once they “captured” the square, they formed a cordon around the path for the president and his entourage.

I was rather startled by this event and immediately thought of the parallels to a scene in the movie Apocalypse Now. This classic Vietnam War movie, released in 1979, was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. In the scene I am thinking of, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, is the leader of a helicopter cavalry unit. He decides he wants to go surf with his men, so he calls in a napalm strike against a fishing village sympathetic to the Viet Cong. Once the beach is “neutralized” he ends up unhappy because the napalm and helicopters are causing the wind to blow the wrong way, ruining the waves.

One of the most famous quotes from the movie are spoken by Duvall’s character during the scene. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning… It smells like victory.” I can almost imagine Trump saying it.

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More scenes from Apocalypse Now. Images from MGM United Artists

Check out the images below from news sites and compare them to the images at top and above taken from the movie.

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Images from President Trump’s photo op (from top to bottom): Park Service Police clearing Lafayette Square (AP Photo Alex Brandon); Trump and his entourage crossing the Square, Trump giving a fist bump to police; Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in fatigues on the right (AP Photo Patrick Semansky); Trump ignoring the graffiti of FTP (AP Photo Patrick Semansky); Trump holding the bible while pointing at reporter

Update: Corrected first paragraph. President Trump did take questions. But he did not have a prepared statement.


Example of polar area chart showing causes of mortality among soldiers by month during Crimean war. Image from Wikimedia

by George Taniwaki

May 12 is International Nurses Day to recognize the contribution nurses make and to celebrate the birth of Florence Nightingale. Today marks the 200th anniversary of her birth. The World Health Organization named this year the Year of the nurse and midwife in her honor. Certainly, with the Covid-19 pandemic in full force, 2020 will be remembered as the Year of the nurse for many years to come.

Ms Nightingale, who was born in Florence, Italy was the founder of the modern nursing profession. Prior to her efforts, nursing was a volunteer activity, most often undertaken by untrained family members, soldiers, or religious members. Ms Nightingale trained nurses during the Crimean War. She later founded the first secular nursing school and published many nursing textbooks.

In addition to advancing nursing in a clinical setting, Ms Nightingale was a social activist who advocated for more government spending on healthcare for the poor. She helped develop the field of public health nursing to reach patients who were poor and sick at home.

Finally, Ms Nightingale was an incredible statistician and a pioneer in data visualization. She kept thorough notes and documented which treatments worked and which did not, making it possible for others to replicate her results. She popularized a type of pie chart that she called a coxcomb (see image above) and is now known as a polar area chart. She was the first woman elected to the Royal Statistical Society and became an honorary member of the American Statistical Association.

American microbiologist Dr Maurice Hilleman (1919 - 2005) (center, rear) talks with his research team as they study the flu virus in a lab at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Springs, Maryland, 1957. Fellow microbiologist F Joseph Flatley is near left. (Photo by Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Maurice Hilleman (center, rear) talks with his research team as they study the flu virus in 1957. Photo by Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

by George Taniwaki

The fall 2019 issue of Univ Chicago Mag contains the incredible story of Maurice Hilleman, PhD’44, a microbiologist. I had never heard of him, but he is truly an unsung hero. He worked on 40 vaccines in his lifetime. In an obituary published upon his death in 2005, Mr Hilleman is credited with saving more lives than anyone else in medical or public health history. That praise comes from Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Wash Post, Nov 2005).

Mr Hilleman was one of the discoverers of the two types of genetic changes (called shift and drift) that cause humans to get repeated infections of the flu. His work guides the selection of which flu viruses that should be included in the annual flu vaccine and to predict which flu strains are likely to cause a pandemic.

In 1957, he was one of the  first people to realize an emerging 1957 flu virus could become a pandemic and sweep across the world. However, neither the US Public Health Service nor the Influenza Commission took the threat seriously. Hilleman approached six vaccine manufacturers directly. Forty million doses of vaccines were prepared and distributed. Although 69,000 Americans died, the pandemic could have resulted in many more deaths. Hilleman was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his work.

In addition to flu vaccines, Mr Hilleman was involved in the creation of vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella (and the combined MMR vaccine), hepatitis B, and chicken pox (varicella). Overall, he worked on 40 vaccines, including 9 of the 14 diseases that now have pediatric vaccines.


The cow pock or the wonderful effects of the new inoculation! – the publication of ye Anti-Vaccine Society. Image from Wikimedia

by George Taniwaki

Today marks the 40th anniversary of eradication of smallpox. You probably don’t fear smallpox. That’s because it is believed to be the first, and so far only, infectious disease of humans to be eradicated.

About smallpox

It wasn’t that long ago that smallpox was the most feared disease on earth. The disease is highly contagious and has a mortality rate of 30%. It could make whole cities uninhabitable. Those who survived it may have had scarring and blindness. The origin of the smallpox virus (Orthopoxvirus variola) is unknown. Based on gene clock dating, it may have first appeared in Africa about 30,000 years ago after jumping from rodents.

The disease may be the source of many of the plagues that have been recorded in history and is estimated to have caused 300 million deaths in the 20th century alone.


Long before the development of modern vaccines, people realized that taking the small bits of the scabs and pus from a person infected with smallpox and inhaling it could result in a milder form of the disease. The mortality rate for this inoculation therapy was about 2 to 3%, but many felt it was a reasonable risk during an epidemic outbreak.

In 1796, Edward Jenner noticed that dairy farmers were less likely to get infected by smallpox. He guessed correctly that inoculation with the scabs and pus from a person infected with the O. cowpox virus would confer immunity to smallpox . Cowpox is a milder disease than smallpox, so the mortality risk from inoculation was lower as well. The name of his invention, vaccine, is derived from the Latin root vacca for cow. Not everyone was enthusiastic about his invention and anti-vaccine societies took root (see image at top).

The current smallpox vaccine is based on a third virus, O. vaccinia, which is closely related to horsepox and is believed to cause an even milder disease. The vaccine is about 95% effective while causing side-effects in about 2% of patients.

Newer vaccines have also been developed but not deployed. One, based on O. vaccinia Ankara uses a version of the vaccinia virus that has been modified so that it does not replicate, so cannot cause disease. Another contains recombinant DNA that express genes for the antigens, so does not contain any virus and does not need live animal cultures to manufacture.


In 1959, the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed a plan to eliminate smallpox. However, funding did not appear until 1967, with the launch of the  Intensified Eradication Program. Cases of smallpox dwindled and one at a time, continents were declared disease-free. The last known case of smallpox occurred in October 1977 and the WHO certified the global eradication of smallpox on May 8, 1980.

As the disease became eradicated in developed countries, it became clear that while the number of hospitalizations and deaths were zero, the injuries caused by side effects of the vaccine were quite high. Thus, all nations began eliminating vaccination of their populations for smallpox. The exception is the U.S. military, which vaccinates all service members.

Today, the biggest controversy surrounding smallpox is whether to destroy the last remaining stocks of live O. variola virus (WHO 2008, CDC 2011). They are not needed to produce the current vaccine and are considered a high risk for an accident or intentional release as a bioweapon (NCBI 1999).

Vaccines work

It may seem ironic that we are “celebrating” the eradication of smallpox while sheltering at home waiting for tests, treatments, and preventatives for Covid-19. But it truly is a public health milestone. I hope this story helps convince you that vaccines work. They save lives. And we need one for Covid-19 as quickly as possible.


Keeping my blog alive

by George Taniwaki

I’ve been writing this blog since 2007. For most of that time I’ve been using a text editor called Windows Live Writer. It was part of a bundle of free apps called Windows Live Essentials that Microsoft distributed to enhance the value of Windows and the .NET Framework. The last upgrade was released in 2012 and the product was discontinued a few years later.

I just bought a new PC and could not install Windows Live Writer on it. I was somewhat concerned how to continue editing this blog. I suppose I could learn how to use the new online WordPress editor that uses a format and editing technique called blocks.

However, I’m old and set in my ways. Learning to use yet another text editor seems like a lot of work. Plus, there doesn’t seem a way to convert my existing .wpost files to the new WordPress format. And I prefer using a dedicated client app to an online browser app, even if it is performant.

Luckily, there are lot of people like me. I found Open Live Writer. As stated in Wikipedia, Open Live Writer is a free and open-source version of Windows Live Writer. It is supported by the .NET Foundation. And the installer works on my new PC. Yay.

DreamboatAnnie Boston

Two albums not on the list, but close

by George Taniwaki

My friend Carol tagged me on Facebook asking me to post 10 albums that influenced my musical taste and upbringing. One per day over the next 10 days, no explanation, and to tag one of my friends each day. Being a curmudgeon, I refuse to do it her way. But what are those 10 albums? Let me recall them.

Them Changes, Buddy Miles, 1970

It’s the first album I ever bought with my own money. I got it because my best friend in middle school suggested it. His middle name is Miles and he played the drums. Well, it’s a reason. And I still have the album.


There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Sly & the Family Stone, 1971

I never owned this album and until today had never listened to it all the way through. (Aren’t streaming music services great?) It makes the list because the first concert I ever went to was Family Stone in 1972. I went with my best friend, the drummer mentioned above. The concert started two hours late. I later learned this was a common occurrence because Sylvester Stuart was in a constant drug induced haze.


Paranoid, Black Sabbath, 1971

Politically incorrect lyrics from a band who’s lead singer is now more famous for being the doddering patriarch of a reality TV clan. Another album suggested by my best friend.

We saw Black Sabbath in concert on Halloween 1976. Prior to the start of the concert there was a costume contest. One of the judges was Pat Schroeder, who had recently been elected as the House representative for the 1st District. One of the contestants was dressed as a giant dildo and hopped around the stage. I’m sure Ms Schroeder regretted participating. There were two opening acts; newly popular bands from the east and west coasts, Boston and Heart (see covers at top of post). Great concert.


The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get, Joe Walsh, 1973

As a child, I joined the Columbia Record Club. You got 10 albums for a dollar, then promised to buy 4 more at an inflated price. Still cheaper than buying at a store as long as you remembered to cancel your membership immediately after fulfilling your agreement. One of my dollar albums is this gem.

Before he was a guitarist for the Eagles, Joe Walsh had a solo career. Of course, growing up in Denver, our favorite song on the album was Rocky Mountain Way.


Quadrophenia, The Who, 1973

One of the best albums of all time, by one of the greatest bands of all time. Enough said.


Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin, 1975

I was introduced to math, physics, Led Zeppelin, and mass consumption of drugs (not in that order) by my classmates at Caltech.

Nearly 20 years later, before I knew what it was about, I immediately knew I would like Richard Linklater’s nostalgic movie, Dazed and Confused, just from its title.


Van Halen, Van Halen, 1978

Another band popular while I was at Caltech. Van Halen was a local band from Pasadena but I never had a chance to see them.


The Wall, Pink Floyd, 1979

If Quadrophenia was great, The Wall was even greater. Apparently, I have an affinity for double albums.


Boy, U2, 1980

A band from Dublin that I call the anti-Beatles. The Beatles started out playing pop music and became more experimental as their success grew. U2’s album Boy is very experimental. But the band’s music became more conventional as they became more popular.

I saw U2 perform songs from this album at the Rainbow Music Hall in Denver.


She’s So Unusual, Cyndi Lauper, 1983

There weren’t very many female composers that I considered favorites in my formative years. Hard rock and alternative are sexist. As an adult, my musical tastes became more balanced.


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Final thoughts

The popularity of albums is an odd thing. A collection of 8 to 10 songs produced as a unit of recording didn’t exist until the invention of the 33-1/3 rpm vinyl record in 1948. Prior to that, records could only hold a few minutes of music on each side and so people listened to live music as a set but recorded music a single song at a time. Eventually cassette tapes and then CDs replaced vinyl albums and could hold more music, though they usually did not. With the advent of downloadable music and streaming services most people no longer buy and listen to albums. We are back to listening to songs as singles again.

While I was growing up, I listened to my albums over and over. As I listened to an album, as one song was ending, I knew exactly which song was next. Yet I didn’t know the order of the songs on an album. I could only recall them as I was hearing them.

When my wife Sue and I got married, we each had record collections with over 100 albums. We combined our collections and gave away our duplicates. Our taste in music were so different that we only gave away 7 records total, that included the Beatles’ Let it Be and Led Zeppelin III, a time that marks the end of her collection and the beginning of mine.

* * * *

[Update: Edited the post to make it clear my best friend was not a drummer of any of the bands mentioned.]

2019-08-10 14_ChrisPineSpideyBellsYouTube

Captain Kirk is filled with deep regret. Still from Chris Pine on YouTube

by George Taniwaki

There are not very many popular culture references about getting a degree in chemical engineering. But there should be. I’m only aware of three. That’s not enough to fill a blog post so I added a few extra.

Spidey Bells–2018

If you watch a Marvel movie all the way to the end, hidden in the credits are wonderful Easter eggs that tend to be somewhat unrelated to the movie.

In the opening of the 2018 animated movie Spider-Man:Into the Spider-Verse, the first Peter Parker, voiced by Chris Pine, says that he has recorded an album and is selling some related merchandise. At the end of the movie, as the credits roll, one of the songs from that supposed album plays. It is a Christmas carol called Spidey Bells (A Hero’s Lament). In the song’s middle bridge, he reveals a dark secret:

“Why did I agree to do this stupid song?
I have a degree in chemical engineering”

Who knew? We know that Peter Parker dropped out of college to become a photographer for the Daily Bugle. But until now, we didn’t know what his major was.


Long before Mark Wahlberg became famous as a restaurant franchisor, he was known as Marky Mark, the lead singer of the Funky Bunch. They had a hit in 1991 with a cover version of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. Their version includes samples from the original but had different lyrics and was retitled Wildside. The song include these great lines:

“Cause deep inside Annie had aspirations
Besides that she had expectations
Wanted to be a chemical engineer”

Unfortunately, it does not end well for Annie, who is played by an uncredited actress in the music video.


A ChemE major takes a hit on the wild side. Still from Marky Mark on YouTube

The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades–1986

In 1986, the U.S. band Timbuk 3 released their debut album which contained the hit song  The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades. The music video got extended play on MTV, back when MTV consisted almost entirely of music videos in rotation. The video features a burro, the mascot for my alma mater, Colorado School of Mines. The song refers to nuclear science rather than chemical engineering, but really, that burro and the harmonica solo.

Incidentally, The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades is the title of a 1990 episode of ALF, a television sit-com.


The future’s so bright I put a TV on a burro. Still from Timbuk3 on YouTube


Just a few weeks before I graduated from college in 1981 there was a Doonesbury cartoon that became wildly popular among my classmates. It became the buzz at school because it pointed out how crazy high the demand for chemical engineers had become.

Earlier in the year, all of us seniors were flying around the country interviewing with the major oil companies and receiving job offers from every company we talked to. It was madness. I interviewed with eight firms from California to Louisiana and received offers from all of them at starting salaries that exceeded what my parents made combined.

Little did we know, the oil industry would collapse a year later, throwing many of us, including me, into unemployment.


BD is tired of coddling lazy chemical engineers. Image from GoComics.com

The Graduate–1967

The granddaddy of all chemical engineering pop culture references is a famous scene in The Graduate, the 1967 movie directed by Mike Nichols (who won the Academy Award for his work) and co-written by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. In the scene Mr McGuire (Walter Brooke) advises young Ben (Dustin Hoffman) that that there is a great future in plastics. However, he doesn’t say you have to know anything about chemistry to reap the rewards of that future.


I just want to say one word to you. Still from Movieclips on YouTube

Space Oddity–2013

And finally, I want to point to a 2013 cover version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity performed by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield while onboard the International Space Station (ISS). This song has nothing to do with chemical engineering and Mr Hadfield is a mechanical engineer, not a chemical engineer. I just like the song and the visuals of the earth zipping by in the background of this music video.

I’m glad David Bowie had an opportunity to see this before his death just over two years later. In fact, without his intervention, the video may not have been made available (Independent Jan 2016).

According to NASA, Mr Hadfield is the first and so far only astronaut to record music videos in space.


Can you hear me major Tom? Still from Canadian Space Agency on YouTube.

Update1: To complete the circle, check out this video of the "real" Captain Kirk, William Shatner, and a fellow Canadian, singing Rocket Man at the Science Fiction Film Awards.

Update2: Inquiring minds want to know. If Peter Parker dropped out of college, when did he earn a degree in chemical engineering.