Celestial Billiards


Earlier this year I wrote about some of the risks facing humanity. I’ve begun to expound on those risks with additional information. Here is the first risk in the list, Celestial Billiards.

One risk we face that is certainly out of our control involves our environment. Not the environment on Earth, but the environment in the universe. There are many, many forces out there in the universe, and they care not in the least that they may affect life forms on our planet should they interact with it. There are many objects flying around in our solar system that can (and eventually will) intersect with our planet. If they are large enough, they can wreak havoc upon a city, or a nation, or upon the entire earth. Modeling of the impact of the Yucatan body that brought the end to the dinosaurs shows that the entire atmosphere of the earth was aflame from the impact and subsequent reentry of the material thrown out across the globe. Only the creatures burrowed into the ground, or shielded by water had much of a chance of surviving the immediate impact. Today, we use many telescopes to identify and track objects found in our solar system. Still, it seems that every few months we learn of an object that could cause significant harm to the earth passing between us and the moon. One valuable use of a proposed Space Force would be to combine this detection team with a proactive defense capability, one that would be able to divert an oncoming object away from impact with earth.

The odds of an ecosystem destroying impact is very low. But our solar system has another kind of risk to throw at us, and this risk is probably orders of magnitude more likely than an asteroid’s impact. That is, we could have a solar flare that would wreak havoc upon our electric grid, causing large portions of the world to instantly regress back to stone-age conditions. Our sun is huge, and we still don’t understand the physics of how large-scale eruptions can throw off millions of tons of charged particles from the sun’s surface into space. If the eruption is large enough, and if it is aimed at Earth, it will hit us. We would have a mere two to three days warning. Would we be able to power down our electrical grid before it hit, causing catastrophic damage to our wiring and transformer base? Is there a way to shield these huge transformers so that they would survive? For it is a known fact from physics that if wires are present when electrically charged particles flow past, voltage will be induced in the wires. And transformers are nothing but masses of wire windings, aimed at either stepping up or stepping down voltages. The last major solar storm that reached the Earth happened in 1859. At that time, only telegraph wires were strung across the countryside to give us an idea of what will happen with a much more wired world. In the 1859 flare, telegraph operators reported receiving electrical shocks from the induced voltages. Telegraph wires sparked and caused fires. And all of this happened with single wires carrying low-voltage electricity.

Were we to have such an event today, the damage would be catastrophic. Overloaded wires will cause transformers to blow. Not just the local ones on the poles that step voltage down to household level, but the huge ones that work with the high voltages used to transfer electricity across the country. These transformers are huge, there are insufficient spares available to restore service should it be required across a large swath of any country, and the available manpower to fix the grid is lacking. Look how long it took to restore service to Puerto Rico after a massive failure of their grid. It would be much worse with a massive solar flare. Thus here is another area where we need to invest manpower in preventive activity, and much of that manpower must be well-versed in electrical engineering and physics. More than just manpower though, we must also invest in spare parts, and stage these transformers in locations where they can be moved to where they are needed. Given the economic model for utilities where state regulators must approve any rate increases due to the investment of a utility, it will take a real awakening of the world to this risk factor to convince those in power to grant rate increases for a danger that may come tomorrow, but may not show for 100 years. Those who pay electrical bills will not understand prudent risk avoidance when it raises their electrical bills unless there is a huge effort made to teach the public about this risk.



America First? Or America Alone?

UN building

With the resignation of Nikki Haley as the US Ambassador to the UN, it is time to reflect upon the state of the US foreign policy under Donald Trump. First, congratulations to Nikki Haley for her efforts at the most difficult job of representing this nation’s suddenly altered foreign policy on the largest international stage available. She did an admirable job of trying to convert otherwise unintelligible tweets (covfefe anyone?) into a coherent set of talking points for discussion at the UN. Even when she was patronized by other White House officials, she stood her ground.

Theodore Roosevelt was famous for his maxim: Speak softly, and carry a big stick. Although he has not codified his policy to date, Donald Trump’s equivalent statement would be:  Carry a big stick, remind everyone loudly and repeatedly that you carry it, and threaten repeatedly to use that stick if you don’t get your way. That’s one heck of a foreign policy, certainly one that hasn’t come from a US President for a very long time. Along with the vocal and twitter pyrotechnics, go out and meet foreign dictators in person, and claim victories for your policies even though the foreign dictators make zero real concessions. Oh, and send your son-in-law out to solve the Palestinian problem, while backing the Saudi administration since they did such a wonderful job of feting you on your visit to their country. You know, the Saudi administration that is still prosecuting an endless war against Yemen (with our weaponry – don’t you feel proud to see how effective our armaments are?). The Saudi administration accused of murdering one of its critics at its Turkish consulate in Istanbul? Yes, they will be wonderful allies in assisting with solving the Palestinian problem that has been intractable ever since the formation of the country of Israel in 1948.

Of course, everyone else in the world must recognize the absolute wonderfulness of the US, and feel honored to do business with us. In fact, trade is a privilege that we can and will withdraw even from our longest-standing and strongest allies if their leaders dare to diss our leader. Thus we have the image of Donald Trump loudly calling for the evisceration of Justin Trudeau after Trump left the G7 conference early, when Trudeau dared to say that Canada would not be bullied. How Dare He Put Canada First! Everyone in the world knows it is America First! Thus Donald exemplified his first principle of foreign relations in his administration – I am the state, and if I’m unhappy, everyone will be unhappy. And your country will pay the price.

One of the largest problems the US faces over the next few decades will be the escalating tensions between the US and China over economic and military matters. And since the Trans Pacific Partnership was intended to form a group of nations pledging to use common trade as a way to keep China contained, of course Donald Trump welcomed the arrangement even though it was developed before his inauguration. WRONG-OH! Come on now, a multi-national agreement negotiated by Obama? That’s two of Donald Trump’s bête noires in one single agreement. That didn’t even survive two days of the Trump administration. Likewise, NAFTA was repeatedly denounced and the terms were renegotiated with both Canada and Mexico.

Now, nearly two years after the administration repudiated decades of trade policies, what successes does the Trump administration have to show? Well, there’s a joint agreement with Korea. And we have rebranded NAFTA into USMCA, which tinkered around the edges of NAFTA but didn’t dismantle the basic structure. Just think what we could have done had we begun a process to renegotiate NAFTA under a banner of cooperation, instead of threatening massive tariffs if our demands were not met.

Did I say tariffs? The signal economic accomplishment of this administration has been the implementation of protective tariffs against most of the rest of the world. This, of course, is in line with the belief of this administration that the country to whom the tariffs apply are the ones who pay the tariffs, thus exporting our payment of tariffs to other governments and countries. Oh wait! You mean that’s not how it works? You mean it is the customer within our country that has to pay the tariffs, and then they have to decide whether to eat the tariff cost themselves, thus reducing profits, or add the tariff cost to their finished good cost, thus raising prices to the American public? And not only that, the other countries can retaliate and apply tariffs of their own on US exports, thus making our products less competitive and reducing the demand for US exports. Boy, it is such a good thing that trade wars are easy to win.

Well, let’s move on from the economic sphere and enter the world of diplomacy. The success of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State will long be remembered as a high point in this administration’s efforts. The close relationship between Trump and Tillerson was reflected in the high prestige that the State Department is held within this administration. Oh, Darn! You mean I’ve got it wrong again? Trump fired Tillerson via twitter? And his replacement, Mike Pompeo, is still awaiting many ambassador and other senior State Department officials to be named and confirmed by the Senate? Well, at least the lack of qualified and experienced personnel in the State Department has not caused the standing of our nation to decline in the eyes of the rest of the world. Oh, wait. You mean that the ambassadors of the world had the audacity to openly laugh at our President as he spoke at the UN General Assembly? Did they not get the memo that this administration has restored our swagger and caused the rest of the world to once more fear American power?

I could go on and on with the signal accomplishments of this President and his administration in their activities outside of the US borders. Perhaps the best compliment I can give them is that the success they have had in their international activities is on a par with the success they have had on implementing their family separation program at our southern border. There we saw a totally amateur effort aimed at displaying a tough man bravura against illegal immigration, while totally ignoring the logistics and information systems needed to process and track families that were forcibly separated. After all, when ignorance and disdain for expertise forms the core of an administration, one expects incompetence in one area to be matched by incompetence in others. And so far, this administration has an almost perfect record of incompetence.

Good thing our leader is so humble and gracious.

The Origin Myth Debunked


Once upon a time, there was a country unified by its mythology about the morality and heroism of its founding fathers and elected leaders. We all learned about the first President who chopped down the cherry tree, only to realize he could not lie when confronted with the accusation of cherrycide. We learned about the rail-splitter from Illinois who studied books by candle-light, always trying to better himself despite his poor circumstances. We learned about the bully hero of San Juan Hill, who fearlessly charged against the Spanish lines in order to overcome Spanish resistance. We learned about the Navy Lieutenant, who rescued one of his crewmen by swimming with him for four hours through shark-infested waters in the South Pacific, supporting him through a life jacket strap that he clenched in his teeth.

Someone else tried to add to the mythology of origin stories for our elected leaders. By parlaying a small loan of only $1,000,000 into a vast, world-class fortune and business empire, our current President deliberately encouraged this façade in order to emphasize his business acumen and brilliance. Alas, it now appears this myth-in-progress has been shattered beyond recognition, due to the investigative efforts of a failing representative of the press. It now appears that, despite assertions of penury, our Dear Leader has benefitted from decades of largesse from his wealthy parents. Loans? He’s had a few, including one year (1979) where he borrowed $4.7 million from his father in the first eight months of that year. I remember that year. Inflation was awful. That must have been the reason for needing that degree of cash infusion.

Instead of using his God-given talents to create his empire, our Dear Leader relied upon the fortune of his father to establish his presence in the Manhattan real estate market. And his father was available to bail his son out of innumerable tight situations, especially when the decisions made by the Dear Leader turned out to be, shall we say, less than inspired? Such as the decision to buy and finish building a third extravagant casino at Atlantic City where he already owned two other casinos that were funded on a pyramid of debt. The Dear Leader continually talks about his business acumen, and how he knows how to use debt better than anyone else. What the Atlantic City debacles (multiple bankruptcies, casino closures, an ever-shrinking percentage of equity) show is that when properties are leveraged far beyond their carrying capabilities, external factors can cause the collapse of the enterprise. Especially when you yourself create the external factor by cannibalizing demand for existing casinos by opening the Taj Mahal. Far from the wise use of debt to build useful assets, his companies continually tried to grow via the public debt market. Not even the father could rescue his son from his series of follies, although he did try that one time when he sent a messenger with a check for $3.35 million to buy casino chips the day before a loan payment was due, then the messenger left with the chips. The family obviously wanted the chips to fall where they would, preferably outside of the casino premises and unspent, enabling the loan payment to go through. It was telling that this blatant scheme caught the attention of New Jersey gaming authorities, who levied a $65,000 fine for the illegal loan.

It was also telling that Federal and State tax personnel were never able to penetrate and discern the degree of deception and deceit that girded the Trump family business empire. It was indeed a brilliant strategy born of a desire to minimize taxes by illicitly undervaluing properties when ownership passed within the Trump family. The failing media source describes multiple times when Trump tax documents show a relatively small value is declared for a property, only to have the same property sell for orders of magnitude more money within a few years of the ownership transition. Amazing how those things work. And always in the favor of the Trump family? The odds of that happening naturally (like if oil were discovered underneath the apartment buildings after the Trump siblings gained ownership) was astronomically small. But the Trump family is correct when it states that all of the transactions passed tax audit muster. For that, we must express our gratitude to the apparently understaffed tax compliance offices of New York and the IRS, since they were unable to detect any systematic bias in the values assigned to the transferred properties, thus reducing the tax due from the family by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The one single example that best demonstrates the venality and greed of the Trump family was the creation of a fictional entity whose sole purpose was to inflate the value of supplies and capital goods used to maintain the Trump family properties. This fictional entity, All County Building Supply and Maintenance, was equally owned by the Trump siblings and the manager of this entity, who was a nephew of Donald Trump. It’s sole purpose was to pay the vendors who supplied the Trump real estate empire with boilers, stoves, refrigerators, all manner of goods, and in turn provide invoices to Fred Trump’s businesses that overstated the value of the procured goods. The excess dollars from the inflated invoices went to the owners of All County, and over the course of a decade, managed to strip millions and millions of dollars out of the cash cache that Fred Trump accumulated over his career and transfer it to his children, free from gift or estate tax limitations. It would be very instructive to see if the monies thus transferred ever were declared as income, but since I am sure that the tax returns in question during the 1990’s are still being audited, we the people will never know if yet another layer of tax avoidance occurred.

The business practices of the Trump family, and thus the true facts behind the myth that the Dear Leader has fostered, show a complete disdain for the laws of this country. Almost as if the laws were never intended to apply to those of a certain wealth level and status. Almost as if a member of this family could act with impunity for any and all actions that he takes. It is certainly informative that in the first two years of his administration, the Dear Leader has shown zero concern for the fiscal realities of the Federal Government. Cut tax revenues by hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and shower the richest with the benefits of these reduced taxes? That’s great for America! (Please note that corporate tax reduction is a separate concern than the misguided transfer of tax benefits to individuals and pass-through businesses, such as the ones that the Trumps use.) Spend hundreds of billions more for defense? Great! More contracts for my friends, both corporate and personal. Kill regulations that improve the health of citizens and workers? Well, if it means that corporations can spend less and make more money, that is surely good for the nation. Spend money on those who need assistance due to the bifurcation of the income distribution in this nation? Bah! Humbug! Those takers need to take responsibility for their own situation, and go back to school in quantum physics instead of living the life of luxury on the public dole.

As an observer of society, I marvel at the ability of the wizard to keep the projection of competence and brilliance alive within his steadfast believers. Those of us who have peered behind the curtain, know with certainty that this empty shell of a human cares nothing for the population of this nation, nor of any other nation. No, the only thing that motivates this simulacrum of a human is adulation, since his delusions have shown to himself that no one has ever done so many good things in his short time in office. And we’d all better pay homage to him for his magnificence, since he will punish his naysayers. Unfortunately, my opinion of the intelligence of the American public does not bode well for a repudiation of this charlatan. I hope beyond hope to be proven wrong in November.

Source materials:  This week’s NYT expose on Trump family finances;  The Rise and Fall of Donald Trump’s Atlantic City Empire from Philly Mag.

Chemicals I Have Known (and Made) – Acrylonitrile



The last chemical I wrote about, hydrogen peroxide, I described as a cute, cuddly chemical. The next chemical I was involved with was anything but cuddly. Acrylonitrile, or Acrylo as we called it, is an organic chemical that is used to make acrylic plastics and fibers. By itself, it has toxicity as it will release cyanide within the body. But the process to make the chemical is also very nasty, and especially so where we made it in Memphis. A little background first, though.

I received a promotion and gained the title of Production Supervisor in the Acrylo process. This was a big enough process that it had two production supervisors. I was placed in charge of planning the annual shutdown, which required intense logistical planning. I served as a backup to the real process supervisor. He was a Memphis native who had come up from the hourly wage roll to his exempt role position. He actually was a classmate of Elvis Presley when they were both in junior high school, but he did not have any good stories about their shared time. So I had the advantage of being able to learn about supervision while only occasionally really taking charge.

chemical plant

The Acrylo process is a huge process, more like an oil refinery than a standard chemical plant. It had six huge reactors where the chemicals propylene, ammonia, and oxygen (from air) are mixed with a catalyst in fluidized bed reactors. These reactors were about 12′ in diameter, and some 40′ tall. The reaction itself creates significant heat, so the reactors are full of tubes containing water which turn into steam that helps to drive the later separation processes. Once the chemicals have reacted, the off-gases are sent into an absorbing tower. This tower was over 100′ tall, and about 15′ in diameter. After the gases are absorbed in water, it is necessary to separate out the other reaction products. The primary one is hydrogen cyanide, which I wrote about earlier. There were two distillation towers used to separate and purify the hydrogen cyanide, which was then sent by pipeline to the other part of the plant that produced cyanide as its primary product. I remember that one of the pumps that transferred the cyanide developed a leaky seal, and since it was several months before the scheduled shutdown, the solution was to barricade off a section of the process with good old yellow and black warning rope, guaranteed to be a barrier against all chemicals. NOT! In fact, even beyond the tape, you could taste the cyanide, and this is how I became sensitive to cyanide and was able to easily pass the sniff test during my annual physical at the plant. It does not smell like bitter almonds, rather, it is an unpleasant sensation that grabs at the back of the throat.

Once the cyanide was removed, the crude acrylonitrile had to be separated out of the ammonia-laden water. There were a total of five distillation towers, each with a different purpose, until finally the refined acrylonitrile was pure enough to go into the storage tanks. One of the distillation towers actually concentrated another byproduct, acetonitrile, which is used as a solvent. Eventually though, the ammonia-laden water was neutralized with sulfuric acid, and had to be disposed of. Now every other commercial acrylo plant in the US was in a location where the waste stream could be injected into the earth in a deep well. In Memphis with its extensive aquifer system near the Mississippi River, this was not a viable option. So when the plant was built in the 1960’s, and energy was extremely cheap, the solution implemented was to incinerate this stream. We had three huge stacks that could be used to “thermally oxidize” the solution, and release nitrogen, water, and sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere. We were the 2nd largest sulfur dioxide emitter in western Tennessee. Only the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired power plant was a larger source. As you can imagine, when the dual energy shocks of the 1970’s came, burning a water waste stream put a larger and larger burden on profitability. So much so that when our plant suffered a major freezing incident one winter, that proved to be the final straw that led to the plant’s closure and eventual dismantlement. Chemical plants really, really do not like cold, freezing weather. And seeing 12″ diameter burst water pipes start to leak when they finally thaw is not something I ever want to witness again.

But before the process was closed, there were some really wild times I had. One in particular involved a one ton cylinder of sulfur dioxide. Now pure sulfur dioxide was used as a polymerization inhibitor in the vapor space in the columns where cyanide was purified. So we had tubing running from the cylinder up to the tops of the distillation towers. Even though sulfur dioxide boiled at 14ºF, it took a little extra push to ensure that enough gas flowed up to where it was needed. So we had a simple plywood enclosure where we kept the cylinder, and we had steam coils underneath the cylinder. Such a complex system couldn’t ever go wrong, could it? Well, it did go wrong, and the fusible plug in the cylinder that kept it from over-pressurizing, that plug melted and began to release the content of the cylinder to the atmosphere. That was one of the days where the other Process Supervisor wasn’t there, and I was in charge. I had to direct the evacuation of the adjacent laboratory and technical building, but what saved us was one operator who was able to get onto a forklift with breathing air, and pulled the cylinder out, where it could be sealed by hammering a wooden plug into the hole where the fusible plug had been. We prevented releasing the entire cylinder contents, which could have affected a large area, including US 51 highway which ran parallel to the plant.

To this day I don’t remember what we did to get another cylinder in and fix the tubing that had torn away when the cylinder was pulled out, but I do remember that we didn’t create a huge environmental incident.

When we finally did get into our planned shutdown, the biggest job was the replacement of our 100+’ tall absorbing tower. We got cranes in that were able to lift the entire tower – the big crane to lift from the top, a smaller crane to guide the bottom section. Then the process was reversed so that the new column was installed. We did this on a weekend when most of the lab people and other technical engineers weren’t around. My job? To run the video camera that captured the move. Somewhere there was a VHS tape that documents the replacement of this absorbing tower, which was used for about one year before the entire process was shut down.

Propylene is the main reactant to make acrylo. It has properties very similar to its chemical cousin, propane. So you know those long cylindrical tanks that hold propane? We had four big tanks that held the propylene. One thing that most folks don’t know about chemical piping is that there is almost always a little bit of leakage that comes out of valves and flanges. And for whatever reason, propylene attracts wasps. So going up on the storage tanks was a bit of an adventure. It was necessary to keep watch in order to knock down wasp nests before they got too big.

One other similarity to a refinery was that the residual gases from all of the columns was released through a flare stack. This stack was 175′ tall at its tip, and one of the tasks for the shutdown was to inspect the flare. I, being a novice supervisor, didn’t always think about my decisions. We had an intern who had his own pilot’s license, and was clearly unafraid of heights. So he asked, and I gave permission, for him to do the inspection on his own, and trusted him to do it safely. If he had an accident, my career would have been over at that time. But he completed the inspection, and came down safely. It was only years later after I gained more experience that I realized what a risk I took with his life and with my own career in my company.

The equipment for this process was huge. We used air as an ingredient. So it was a 2500 horsepower air compressor that fed the reactors. That was one impressive motor that ran that compressor.

Of all of the chemical processes I worked with, this one was by far the “dirtiest”. We emitted tons per day of sulfur dioxide. We sometimes had cyanide leakage. We had another wastewater stream that did go to the sewer system, that we had to monitor for compounds that had the nitrile (or cyanide) functional group – the CN on the end of the molecule. Before I worked in the process, they had tried to see if they could use the ammonium sulfate waste stream as a fertilizer for soils that needed acidification. They had a section of ground near the plant set up to receive the waste, and monitored the soil to see how it worked. Spoiler alert – it didn’t work.

One thing that I appreciated in my time in this process was that we had a Superintendent who believed that his supervisors should know what we were expecting workers to do. So all of us had to put on self-breathing air packs (like scuba tanks), put on chemical-proof suits, and disassemble and reassemble a flange with its bolts. It did show me how exhausting working in that type of environment was. When I took off the suit, I was drenched in sweat. But in my mind, I thank my old supervisor’s supervisor for giving me a taste of what it really is like to work in such an environment.

In the Memphis plant where I worked, there were four large chemical processes. I’ve shared the stories of three of them. One more to go.