Technological Change Over A Career

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I went from college into a career with DuPont starting in 1976. After an initial assignment, I worked in a process that used a DEC PDP-8 computer for data monitoring and for control of certain critical process parameters. This was in a process that produced hydrogen cyanide, so reliability of the computer system was critical. This computer, when it was booted up, required setting toggle switches in order to start the sequence. Then a paper tape was run through a reader, and the system would lurch into operation. This modern machine also used punch cards for program input.

By 1984, our company began to use IBM PC’s. To have this type of power upon your desk was amazing. These were not used for process control, but enabled us to have the power to write and distribute through an e-mail system documents that bypassed the old strictures of communication. If you can imagine now living within a hierarchical system that required all communications to be written by hand, approved by supervisors, typed by a secretary, then copied and sent through corporate mail systems, that was the world as it existed in my company. It was the same as existed in most other companies around the world. It was also a first introduction to the ability of technology to replace jobs. Secretarial positions shrank in number once they were not needed to serve as a key link in the communication process. Those who remained either had to be flexible enough to pick up other skills, or became administrative assistants to those high-ranking administrators where it was still valued to have someone to serve as an intermediary.

In the late-1980’s, the chemical process I worked with had a computer used exclusively for process monitoring. We had gotten past the toggle-switch and paper tape process, but I learned techniques for data compression. For each variable that was monitored, you got to choose how much change you would allow in the value before another data point was recorded. Computer memory was still limited, so it was necessary to use a bit of judgment to tweak each setting so that any signal noise was eliminated, but significant changes in variables were recorded and could be graphed. This computer also held the statistical program Minitab, which helped in determining correlations and other relationships between variables. I began using that program in 1991 to start tracking the performance of my 401K investments, a spreadsheet I maintained until my retirement in 2014.

This process had computers to monitor variables, but it still had individual control loops. Each variable that needed to be controlled had a piece of equipment on a panel board. Out in the field, a sensor would provide a reading that would be transduced into a 3-15 PSIG (Pounds per Square Inch Gauge pressure) signal in the field. That signal would be fed into a small metal tube and routed back to the control room, where it got transduced back into an electrical signal, and fed into the controller. We would use controller logic to provide the optimum settings for this particular loop to keep the loop stable. There was also a signal splitter that sent the signal to a chart recorder, where a paper chart was fed through and multi-colored inks were used to display multiple variables onto a single recorder. Normally there was a maximum of three variables on a single chart recorder. The electronic signal was also sent to the monitoring computer as well. Now, if modifications were made in the field, say for a new piece of equipment, it would require running a new piece of tubing from the field back to the control room, placing a new controller into the metal board, and installing all of the sensors and transducers to enable the system to work. The entire process was labor and capital intensive, and required a significant amount of operators, electrical and instrument (E&I) mechanics, and engineers in order to maintain a plant and keep it operating safely.

During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the next change in process control occurred. Distributed Control Systems were commercialized. These computer systems replaced all of the controllers on a panel board with two computer consoles and a pair of keyboards for entry of commands. These computers used wire pairs directly from the field to provide their input, so no longer were 3-15 PSIG transducers or metal signal tubes needed. You always installed extra wire pairs in a wire bundle from a field signal box back to the DCS so if you expanded the number of controls or signals in the field, it only required installing the last leg of the wiring in the field.

The displacement of workers with computerization was huge with this step. The number of E&I mechanics used to keep these systems up was much fewer than before with all of the signal transducers and individual controllers and chart recorders. Chart recorders were totally dispensed with, as all records were retrievable via computer. And fewer control room operators were needed, since no longer was it necessary to go up and down the control panel and record readings every few hours. A single operator could maintain the entire process by himself, and the back-up operator could be assigned into the field for a portion of his shift (most but not all operators were male). Even with engineers, there were fewer needed, since control loop tuning was all but eliminated with the new algorithms available in the computerized systems. There is no wonder why the population of workers in my plant kept going down, year over year. It became a ritual that every 2-3 years, we would undergo a purge of excess people. Not all of it was due to automation, since world economic conditions rendered multiple chemical processes uneconomical, but at least half of the reductions in force were due to automation.

So during the roughly 15 years while I was directly supporting chemical manufacturing, constant changes in technology kept paring the need for employees of the company. At the same time, the support staff kept shrinking as well. Whereas we once had an entire group of workers tasked with maintaining and updating blueprints (I can still remember the ammonia aroma of a freshly printed blue-print), they left once all print updates were done on the computer. Since most documents traveled by e-mail, the need for physical mail distributors went way down as well. Combine that with the growing international competition in the chemical industry, and you will understand why the plant I worked at in West Virginia did not hire any hourly employees for a period of 20 years. If you really want to know why the middle class has atrophied in the US, just look at the jobs that were displaced due to technology improvements during the time from 1975-1995. And the technological changes have only increased since then. That is why the talk about Making America Great Again by revitalizing manufacturing rings hollow. The direction manufacturing has taken involves replacement of people by technology, allowing a smaller number of people to maintain a growing production output. We’d best be thinking about how to restructure the workforce to pay wages that reflect the value society places upon the work, rather than weigh everything on the scales of economic efficiency.

The Rise of Willful Ignorance

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This is the third in a series of posts that discuss in more detail what I perceive to be threats to humanity today. It expands upon the discussion started in my original post that covered seven different risks. It concerns the rise of willful ignorance. This is a disease that may yet cause the extinction of the human race. We can see the effects when the government of a nation consists of individuals who are proud to admit that they are disregarding all scientific evidence, since after all, the scientists have their political agendas that just may show that the preferred action to avoid tragedy will cost a favored political ally some money. And we can’t have that. The recent superb book, The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, shows what risks are increased if an administration takes over the reins of power of our complex government without any interest in the functions of the government agencies they now administer. Not only do they not have interest, they exhibit no curiosity as to what might happen if the risks they are supposedly managing actually bear fruit. They actively campaign to reverse the work undertaken during previous administrations aimed at reducing risk, like when they proposed spending 20% less on global nuclear materials security in a recent budget proposal.

We as a civilization have created an extremely complex network of interdependencies. We have managed to limit risk to our population through the process of regulations, and through the transparency of government actions. Unfortunately, the mindset of many currently serving in government is that all regulation is wrong, and we must hide the truth from the citizens of our nation so that the increased risk we are taking does not become evident to our citizenry.

Part of what has led to this attitude came from those in the nation who reject all claims of knowledge by experts. Just because someone has dedicated their life to the pursuit of knowledge, whether within a government agency, or at a university, why should we believe that they know more about a subject that we do? We don’t need no steenkin’ math or science, do we? If we can’t learn all we need to know with a 5-minute perusal of the internet, then the subject has been made too complex and anyone’s opinion is just as good as anyone else’s. Thus we have government spokespeople coming out in support of alternate facts. We have conspiracy theories for beliefs that are easily disproven by an examination of the facts, but of course, those facts were reported by the main street media and they are biased and since they are saying that these are facts, we must believe the opposite.

This type of belief system is self-reinforcing. Psychologically, it is very comforting to enshroud yourself in a mantle of community, where all believe the same thing and are able to reinforce that belief through daily interactions. It is known as an echo chamber. The internet has played a huge role in allowing these communities to develop, and those who belong to these communities are nigh unto impossible to convince that their beliefs are wrong. This is what convinces individuals to drive hundreds of miles to a pizza restaurant in Washington and fire a gun in order to bring down the evil child sex trafficking ring known to exist in the basement of a building without a basement. It is why many believe there is an active military operation to spread aluminum salts and other mind-altering substances behind jet aircraft, leading to the chemtrails many swear are meant to numb the brains of honest Americans. It is what convinces many to believe that human emissions of greenhouse gases could never be responsible for any kind of adverse effect.

 

Of all of the risks that humanity faces, this may be the most intractable. Other problems may yield to research, or to spending money, or to creating a better climate for administering programs. But this one goes to the heart of humanity. That is, the belief that my knowledge is good, and since it is good, if you oppose it, you are evil. The psychological reassurance you get when an entire community of like believers reinforces you for being a part of the group who is truly in the know. The only known antidote to this sort of willful ignorance is to increase the scientific and mathematical literacy of the population as a whole, so that the folly of the beliefs of the former group becomes evident. However, it is hard to teach this type of literacy when we as a society continue to struggle to teach a basic standard of literacy. Look at communication means such as Twitter. By trying to limit public discourse to a maximum of (now) 280 characters, they contribute to the belief that all discussion can be simplified to fit within that type of strait-jacket. No one needs to understand anything at more than a superficial level, since the entire world is doing just fine using Twitter to conduct our national political discourse. One quote of H. L. Mencken comes to mind from nearly a century ago. He said, “As democracy is perfected, the office of President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Would he be happy to know that at last, his prophesy had been fulfilled?

 

 

We’ve Been Had!

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One year ago, I wrote a post titled You’ve Been Had!, highlighting the people that the administration had placed in positions of high responsibility, and detailing their (un)fitness for those same positions. It is now time to revisit this administration, showing how much (or little) progress has occurred in support of the stated objectives of Donald Trump, with a special emphasis upon how the actions taken are diametrically opposed to the goals espoused during the campaign. I would write more about the people involved, but most of the original list are either under indictment, or have left the administration in order to crawl back under the most convenient rock.

So what were the pledges that Donald Trump made that fully excited his base and enabled him to claim victory through the vicissitudes of the Electoral College. Here’s what I took away from the campaign in terms of pledges.

  • Build the wall. Build a physical barrier along the southern border of the US in order to reduce the 50% of the illegal immigrants to the country who physically cross the border
  • Lock her up. Appoint a special prosecutor in order to determine the basis for prosecuting Hillary Clinton for her E-mail pecadillos.
  • Drain the swamp. Run an administration that works for the forgotten people of this country who have been dominated by those coastal elites, who are probably Jewish
  • Eliminate all traces of the actions of that traitor, Obama

There were more, but these were the pledges that resonated most strongly with the base during the campaign events in 2016 (and 2017 and 2018). So now that we are two years into this administration, how are things going? How well have these pledges been fulfilled? Note that we are not discounting the one true accomplishment of this administration, that of turning our judicial branch of government over to the Federalist society to be remade in its own image. That is one that has been overwhelmingly successful, probably to the long-term detriment of the citizens of the US.

Build the Wall. Ban Muslims. Stop the invasion of the US by undocumented others. Well, after two full years, we have seen prototypes of physical wall designs installed near San Diego. We’ve fixed some of the existing barriers on the southern border. And we’ve sent thousands of active duty military to the Texas border where they are sitting awaiting the onslaught of, women and children and men who form a rag-tag army of pestilence aimed at inflicting gang violence upon an unprepared nation. Or so we heard in the lead-up to the mid-term election.

We’ve not had any fiscal authorization for a physical wall, even though Republicans have held a majority in both houses of Congress to this point. Maybe it is because even those Republicans who have had to link arms with the President in order to survive his famous tweets, realize that building a physical wall across thousands of miles of arid landscape makes zero sense. Who knows? But with the legendary negotiating skills of the Snowflake-In-Chief, we can expect a braying noise to begin hitting the airwaves about the absolute necessity to authorize funds for the wall. This is in order to allow a continuing resolution to be passed that will keep the Federal government operating in the near future.

We’ve seen incredible incompetence in the implementation of the zero tolerance policy earlier this year leading to the family separation debacle. To think that children would be separated from their families without even a rudimentary way to connect the parties after separation occurred! To think that, if concern for children being brought into the country for exploitation was a reason for this policy, they would not have had a genetic testing program in place to confirm familial relationships. No, what we the people got in the implementation of this program was a totally incompetent effort that was fatally flawed in order to demonstrate the toughness of this administration. Incompetence that is continuing with the show of military force at the Texas border.

So all of the effort we see is aimed at the interdiction of people physically coming over the border from Mexico. Meanwhile, we see zero activity aimed at stopping the roughly 50% of those who are in the nation illegally due to overstaying their legitimate visas. That’s about par for this administration. Devote outlandish attention to their incompetence with one half of the problem while totally ignoring the other half of the problem as if it doesn’t exist. The people of the US applaud the efforts of this administration to rid us of the flood of illegals who are forcing us to eat tacos.

Lock her up! We will show the nation what we value by assigning a special prosecutor to take down that noted criminal, Hillary Clinton. What she did by exposing the secrets of this nation to the risk of discovery by having her unsecured e-mail server is a traitorous act. So how’s this effort going? Uhh, there doesn’t seem to be a special prosecutor anywhere in sight for Hillary, but the effort by Robert Mueller seems to be giving this President fits at this time. I never realized that the word collusion had to be preceded by the word no, but now I cannot separate the two words in my mind. Seems like the walls are closing in on this President, much like the walls of the garbage compactor in the first Star Wars movie. Once Roger Stone is indicted, and the facts show that he indeed was the link between the Russian operatives and the Trump campaign, feeding them tidbits about the upcoming release of scores of e-mails, the loop will be closed, and we will see the collusion duck waddle and quack in a very duck-like manner. But it is amazing how the line of Lock Her Up still elicits uproarious shouts each time it is brought out at one of the hundreds of copy-cat rallies this President uses to get his adrenaline fix.

Drain the swamp! Yeah, that isn’t quite working like people may have thought. Who could have foreseen that by draining the swamp, that would include gutting the efforts to enable for-profit college students who were defrauded by institutions that scarfed down the Federal student loans of their marks  students, from being able to gain relief from these loans? Why, didn’t Betsy DeVos appoint a program dean from DeVry University as head of the Student Aid Enforcement Agency? What could be better than to have someone intimately involved with one of the for-profit colleges being sued, to serve in an oversight and enforcement role for the debt forgiveness program? Is not the fox the best guard of the hen house?

Ok, maybe this was an isolated case. Let’s look at something that really does affect many of Donald Trump’s core supporters. Those who are suffering financial distress, and have to turn to payday lenders in order to meet an immediate need for cash. Unfortunately, due to the excessive fees and interest charges for these loans, many who use them as their last resort find themselves trapped in an endless series of rolled-over loans, each with additional service fees added. It is the perfect mechanism to squeeze profits out of those least able to pay.

The Federal agency working on behalf of consumers, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued regulations on October of last year that provided at least some regulation of this new financial product offering. The regulations would have ensured that the lenders make an assessment as to whether the person seeking the loan could pay it back, and set a limit on the number of times that a loan could be rolled over. Alas, the regulations were not to become effective until August of 2019.

In July of this year, Treasury Department urged the CFPB to rescind the rule, stating that it was not needed. The administrators of the Treasury Department, who have only the hearts and well-being of the public in mind, insist that it is the proper role of the states to set guidelines for the payday loan industry. Just like they had done so thoroughly before the Federal effort to set regulations in this area. Guess that the swamp drain got clogged up with all of those donations from the payday loan industry to receptive swampers.

Oh well, I guess it is going to be difficult to find cases where the swamp is actually being drained. Let’s go on to the last of our items, erasing all traces of Obama from the government. On this pledge, we can unequivocally state that the pledge is well on the way to being fulfilled. From the Iran nuclear deal, to the non-binding Paris Climate accord, to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and through a myriad of other actions, Donald Trump is demolishing all traces of his predecessor in office. And he’s not through there. He’s demolishing all traces of the past 73 years of the post-war diplomatic environment. Through his blatant disregard for diplomacy and for the necessity to understand that words have consequences, this china shop bull has smashed the crockery higgledy-piggledy. Throwing the weight of the US around, he unilaterally withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear control pact. Iran is now unencumbered from adhering to the limits and inspections imposed by the pact, and could restart their nuclear program.

But Iran is small potatoes compared to the signal diplomatic achievement of the Trump presidency to date. That is the love affair he is conducting with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Who can forget the statements of affection between Donald and Kim? “A very worthy, smart negotiator, absolutely,” in the aftermath of the June meeting between the two men in Singapore. And, who can ever forget what was said in Wheeling, West Virginia in late September. “I was really being tough, and so was he. And we would go back and forth. And then we fell in love, okay? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.” Of course, other than not conducting actual nuclear explosion tests, or new ballistic missile tests, there is absolutely no evidence that North Korea is taking any steps to denuclearize. Our inexperienced diplomat-in-chief, who knows more than all of the rest of the government put together, would never let himself be snookered by a tyrant whose only ambition is to keep his regime in power. I would bet that Kim has actually read Machiavelli. He certainly is using the playbook very well as he uses flattery to disarm the leader of the US until he can make his nuclear arsenal and its deployment a “fait accompli.”

No, even more so than when I wrote it in November 2017, it is clear that “We’ve been had.” The track record of nearly two years shows that we can only expect worse and worse as we wind our way to the next election cycle. At least there will be one chamber of the legislature that will not bow down to the leader of our nation, who is so afraid of a bad hair day that he would forego a centenary observance of the end of the first world war.

 

An Unexpected Visitor

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I was surprised by the sound of the doorbell. I was not expecting anyone on this November evening. When I got to the door and turned on the light, I was met by my friend Slimey’s face staring back at me. He was holding a plastic orange pumpkin in one of his clawed hands. I opened the door, and he greeted me with “Trick or treat!”

I motioned for him to come in, and said to him, “Did you know that Halloween was last week?”

“It was?” he asked. “You lose track of time down there in the swamp. I figured this was the best way to not attract too much attention, carrying the treat bucket. Most folks who drove past me just didn’t see me.”

I moved the coffee table away from the sofa so as to give him room to haul his huge girth towards a seat. He sat down with surprising grace, pulling his tail up behind him and laying it beside him on the couch. I asked him first, “How did you find my house?” I had only seen him alongside the tidal basin before, and had no clue how he knew where I lived.

Slimey looked up at me. “I Gargoyled you.” He pulled out a Slimey-sized phone with a well-scratched screen cover. “It’s the best way for my kind to keep up with what’s going on in the world above.”

I realized that I was being a poor host, not offering my guest any refreshments. “Could I get you anything to drink?”

Slimey thought for a moment, then said. “If you could, I’d like a glass of water flavored with some dirt from one of your plants. That would be delicious.”

I got up, and went into the kitchen in order to prepare drinks for us. I pulled a pinch of soil out of the aloe plant I kept in the kitchen, and placed it in the largest plastic cup I had, then filled it with tap water. As for myself, I poured a large scotch atop a few ice cubes. I figured that this was going to be an unusual evening, and I’d best be ready for anything.

When I returned to the living room, I noticed a trail of water leading to the sofa. When I looked back at the source, I noticed that all of the fish in my aquarium were missing, and Slimey was licking his claws. “I must complement you on the buffet you laid out there. That was mighty tasty,” he said.

I was flummoxed, yet I did not complain. It is never a good thing to complain when a 400 pound reptile with razor-sharp claws is sitting on your sofa. Instead, I handed over the cup to Slimey and sat down myself. “What brings you here tonight?” I managed to ask finally.

“I wondered if I could watch the election returns with you?” he said. “We don’t get good reception down in the swamp, and I’d really like to know what’s going on as soon as possible.”

“We can do that,” I said. I picked up the remote control and turned on the TV on the wall. Up came a scene of five people seated at an extended table, with graphics all over the walls behind them. They were talking about the closeness of the Senate race in Texas. “It now appears that Ted Cruz has defeated Beto O’Rourke for the Senate seat in Texas.” And up popped a giant picture of Ted Cruz, oozing his smarmy smile across the screen.

Slimey perked up. “That’s good for me, isn’t it? He’s the one who was so insulted a few years ago, but came back and kissed Donald’s ass this year, right? Anyone with so few principles has got to be great for the swamp.”

I nodded in agreement. While I personally would have wanted Beto to win, I could see it from Slimey’s perspective. The more candidates got down into the muck and mire to win, the messier the swamp would be.

Slimey took a swallow of water, then smacked his lips. “Ah, that’s good stuff you put in there. I can taste just a tinge of tartness from the dirt.” He pointed his claw up at the screen where the talking heads had moved on from the Texas race, and were talking about the wave of women entering the House.

“Now, that can’t be good. I know those women, they like to clean, they like to clean things up. I like it better when you’ve got a bunch of sloppy men around. They don’t worry about the filth.” Slimey took another gulp of water.

I nodded, then looked at the screen for more information. It was not to be found in the endless rehashing of the talking points they focused upon. I finally said, “You’re right, women don’t like dirt. But I don’t think they’re going to be able to really clean up the swamp. It’s too deep to get at.”

Slimey looked at me, then shook his head slowly in agreement. “I’ve grown attached to my swamp. I’d hate to see anything happen to it.”

I let out an unintentional yawn. It was getting late and they had just started going over the California results. Slimey noticed, and put his cup down and said, “I’ve imposed long enough. Thanks for the drink and snacks.” He unwound his tail from the sofa and maneuvered his way to the door.

I opened it for him, and said to him as he left. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about with someone trying to drain the swamp. Since no one’s done anything about it, the ocean warming will cause the water to rise. Soon the swamp will retake just about all of this town. You’ll be in good shape.”

For a minute I thought I was in trouble. Slimey looked rapturous, and started to move toward me to hug me. The thought of being squeezed by those huge limbs and crushed came quickly to me. But as swiftly as Slimey looked like he was going to embrace me, he backed off, and before he turned away he said, “Thanks. Thanks friend.”

I closed the door and turned out the light on the porch.

 

For previous tales of Slimey, see this Draining the Swamp

And this one: Sustaining the Swamp

 

The Bugs We Fear

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Back in May, I wrote a post detailing some of what I perceive to be threats facing humanity. This is the second of what will be seven posts providing more details on each of these threats. This one concerns infectious diseases.

Starting in the 1940’s, modern medicine discovered the magic bullet of antibiotics. Antibiotics have prolonged the lives of hundreds of millions of people by enabling bacterial diseases to be stopped before they created sepsis inside of humans, and caused massive organ failure. The practice of medicine soon became the story of the prescription of antibiotics, and the eventual over-prescription of the same. Once the knowledge of the power of antibiotics became known, the customer (i.e., the patients) were insistent on being prescribed antibiotics even when they suffered from a viral infection, like a cold. All of society believed that antibiotics were able to put the suffering of the past from bacterial infection out of the memory of humanity.

Except. Except that human greed and the needs of commerce got in the way. Except that human behavior caused the effectiveness of antibiotics to be compromised. Now, barely 77 years after the first widespread use of an antibiotic to treat diseases, the news is full of stories about bacteria that are resistant to all but the most powerful antibiotics, and even some strains of bacteria have developed resistance to all forms of antibiotics. How did we get here? It started when agricultural researchers discovered that by applying low-dosages of antibiotics to animal feed, weight gain for the animals was increased and disease incidence was reduced. Since agriculture in the US relies upon high animal density in farms and feed lots, and since anything helping the profit margins of farmers was viewed as a God-send, commercial animal feeds began to incorporate antibiotics as a key additive. Unfortunately, this served as an ideal breeding ground for bacteria to show the powers of evolution. Ever wonder why all antibacterial commercial products claim that their product kills 99.99% of bacteria? It’s because there are always a few bacteria that have a mutation that enables them to survive the onslaught of the chemicals aimed at killing them. It may not be a concern for a kitchen countertop to have some bacteria that survive bleach or other similar kitchen cleaner. But it is totally different when a strain of bacteria survives a dosage of antibiotics inside of a farm animal. That strain now faces less competition since many other bacteria were inhibited by the antibiotics in the feed. Soon, the resistant strain is circulating among farm animals, and slowly the antibiotic in the feeds lose their effectiveness as the population of resistant bacteria increases in the environment. Since they began to incorporate antibiotics, animal feeds have used most of the types of antibiotics, which means that effectiveness of many antibiotics have been lowered over time. Market demand is now pushing agricultural firms to proclaim that their animals are antibiotic-free, but only time will tell if that movement will grow fast enough to keep antibiotics at least partially useful.

Human behavior also plays a role. As noted earlier, patients often demand a prescription for an antibiotic even when their infection is viral. This dosage of unneeded antibiotics increases the chance of developing a resistant strain directly inside of a human. Add to this the tendency for some folks to stop taking a medicine once they feel better, and you end up with the worst case for developing antibiotic resistance. By not taking the full course of antibiotics, it is more likely that some of the bacteria will survive, and then their traits will be passed on to subsequent generations of bacteria. One way or another, the bacteria will outwit us as we currently use antibiotics.

But bacterial infections are only a part of the disease story. Viruses cause many more diseases, and there are several factors in our modern world that enhance the possibility of a viral infection causing huge problems in our society. First, viruses are mobile. They can hitch a ride upon any animal infected with the virus. Whether that is a chicken carrying the latest variant of bird flu, or whether it is an international traveler that had unknowingly been exposed to the latest version of Ebola or Marburg disease from Africa, viruses can travel amazingly fast in our modern, interconnected world. Then there is this little issue about climate change. Regardless of the source of a warmer climate, one result is that mosquitoes that are intolerant of cold, are now expanding their ranges into temperate climates. Thus malaria is expanding its range. Other viral diseases that once were known only in Africa are now showing up in Sardinia, a handy stopping place on the way to infect southern Europe.

Yet another factor is affecting viral disease transmission. Through extensive research, humanity has managed to control the immune system to enable it to react to viral invaders that can cause diseases. Thus, humanity has wiped out the dread disease smallpox as a scourge. Only remote pockets of polio remain, which means this crippler of people is nearly extinct. Who remembers iron lungs where the sufferers of polio were kept, enabling them to breath until they regained at least a semblance of muscle strength? The use of vaccines has greatly limited tetanus, and diphtheria, and whooping cough. The old childhood diseases of measles, mumps, and chickenpox are no longer rites of passage for children. All have been vanquished through the use of vaccines.

Except. Except that a growing percentage of the population no longer believes that the benefits of vaccination exceed the perceived costs. Especially with the growth of the internet, there are groups convinced that vaccines are causing the growth of conditions such as autism. And therefore they are opting out of mandatory vaccination protocols. Either opting out, or spacing vaccinations out over a longer period than recommended, all in a belief that they are protecting their children from a fate worse than the disease that the vaccine is intended to prevent. What this is doing is increasing the percentage of the population who does not have immunity to the disease, and as a result, diseases that had been nearly eliminated are making a comeback. In 2017 there was an outbreak of measles, mainly within the Somali immigrant population around Minneapolis. According to the CDC, the rate of measles vaccination of Somali children was only 54% in this area. This enabled measles imported from a visit from Africa to spread throughout the community, until 65 cases were recorded. Of those, 20 required hospitalization. I remember my own case of measles, back in 1961. I contracted it right after my tonsillectomy, another rite of passage that is no longer nearly universally prescribed. It was not fun, but I did not suffer any of the permanent effects that could have resulted.

How should we deal with infectious diseases in the future? Certainly there is a need for more pharmaceutical research in antibiotics. If we can stay ahead of the resistance curve, we may still be able to keep the tragedy of blood poisoning from killing thousands and thousands each year. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies are not investing heavily into antibiotic research. The perceived market is deemed too small to justify the vast expenditures required for drug development. This is an area where government-directed research is required since the lack of private company research does not appear to be amenable to a market-based solution. The current trend towards reducing antibiotic supplementation in animal feed needs to become universal. This may be a problem though, in other countries where a simple and cheap way to control animal disease and increase animal yield is not viewed as an existential threat.

Finally, for viral diseases, there may not be good ways to deal with them. The warming of the climate will result in the spread of many diseases beyond their current tropical ranges. Unless we can put the climate warming genie back into the bottle, we may have to deal with the effects. Vaccine development is required, and investment in additional vaccine capacity for diseases such as yellow fever. But the hardest problem to deal with may be the human resistance to acknowledge that science has the answer for disease prevention. It may never be possible in this fractured society to convince a large enough percentage of the population of the benefits of a vaccine. There will always be self-sustaining groups who convince themselves that they know more than all of the scientists in the world. After all, the scientists are the elites who have failed us, right?

 

Trump’s Greatest Hits!

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The time: A late night in early October, 2018. The place: A windowless room deep in the bowels of the White House. The players: The brain trust for the 2018 mid-term election.

“We’ve got to get back to the basics,” said the thin, balding man. “There is no way we can permit this revolution to fail.”

“Well, we’ve managed to make a martyr out of Brett. That should keep our base mollified.” A lone woman in the room gave her single contribution to the discussion.

The thin, balding man cleared his throat. “Yes, but once the vote’s taken, they’ll forget. They’ll be satisfied. And satisfaction is the last thing we want for our side. We want them afraid, and angry.”

The man in the immaculate suit and the neatly trimmed white hair raised his arms up in an air of supplication. “Stephen, why can we not go with what won before? Surely they haven’t wised up to us by now, have they?”

The thin, balding man looked over at the white haired man. He brought his hand up and stroked his chin, trying to think about this most critical month of the administration. Then, slowly, a smirk stole across his face. He spoke. “You know, it just may work. All we have to do is get the fear factor back. You there!” He pointed to a faceless form in the shadows. “What have you heard about a new group of migrants in central America starting to form up?”

The aide who had been summoned clicked on his laptop, then replied. “It looks like there’s a group in Honduras that may be ready to march soon. We’ve intercepted some communications that they are ready to begin as early as next week.”

The balding man smiled. “Is there anything we can do to help them? You know, without anyone finding out? The last thing we want is our fingerprints on their march.”

The aide, looked back at his computer, then said. “I’m sure we can manage a bit of logistical support behind the scenes. No one ever looks at how these things form.”

The white haired man said, “I’ll just bet if we work it right, we can blame a new caravan on Soros.”

The balding man replied, “Damn straight. We’ll tar him with this one just like we’ve done the last five times.”

Suddenly, the rumpled figure over in the corner stirred himself to life. His scraggly hair hung over his face, but he seemed scarcely to care that he appeared so slovenly. “Yes, that will be good. Revive the fear of the other. It would be good if we were able to deploy the military to the border before the election.”

The aide dared to speak up. “Sir, if these folks started tomorrow, it will be January before they reach any border.”

The rumpled figure glared in the aide’s direction. Then he turned to the balding man, “So much the better. The longer we can keep this in front of the public, the better for us.” He paused, then added “If we could just conflate this group of migrants with Arab terrorism, we’d get twice the pop out of this.”

The aide said, “I’m on it, sir.”

The rumpled figure got up from his chair, and brushed his hair back away from his eyes. “You guys asked me back in here because of how I managed the last campaign. Well, if you want my help, you have to be willing to do what I say. Is this a go?”

The white haired man said, “I can speak for him. We need you. We’ll do what you say. Anything but Nancy Pelosi leading the House again.”

The rumpled figure then started pacing back and forth, waiting for the words to form in his head. He started to speak as he crossed the room. “Ok, we’re in a bad place with this thing about pre-existing conditions. It seems that’s something even our crowd likes. We have to convince everyone that we are the folks who will keep this in place.”

Another aide who had been in the shadows spoke up. “How can we do that when we’ve been telling everyone we want to repeal and replace?”

The rumpled figure raised a finger at the offending voice. “You. Out. You have no place here.”

The second aide scurried to gather his things, and left the room, his back to the door so as to not ever show his back to the assembled crowd.

The rumpled figure stopped pacing, and held onto the back of one of the enormous office chairs around the conference table. “I have no patience for people like him. Why is it folks can’t see that it doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past, all we have to do is come up with a common story and stick to it. Lying? That word doesn’t exist. If we say it often enough, they will believe. We’ve destroyed their ability to believe anything other than what we say.”

The balding man spoke. “There must be something we can do with all of these folks who are accosting our friends in restaurants, staging sit-down protests in the Capitol, yelling at us.”

The rumpled figure smiled. “I’ve thought of that. Let me see what you think of this. ‘Jobs Not Mobs’. I can see that plastered on signs at every rally he holds.”

The white haired man looked pleased. “I know I can sell that one to him. It’s short – he’ll remember it. Before we’re through, we’ll have convinced people that the Democrats are evil creatures, wanting only to seize power in order to make us the Venezuela of the north. I’m sure we can convince some of our friends to foot the bill for some really good visuals on TV.”

The rumpled figure nodded his head in agreement. “There’s one more thing that bothers me, though. That tax thing we did last year, it’s not polling well. Even our base has seen right through it. And it hasn’t resulted in more revenues – when that deficit figure hits, we’ll have to work hard to convince folks everything will be fine.” He paused. Then he resumed, “I’ve got it. Middle of this month, we have him talk about a middle class tax cut. Make it, oh, let’s see – 10%. Have him claim that it’ll be in effect by the election.”

The balding man spoke. “That’s genius! How have we done without you this past year.”

The rumpled man gathered his coat, and got ready to leave the meeting. “You weren’t too successful. May I just mention family separation? That was a royal mess. You needed me to reconnect with the people. Don’t you forget that. I’ll be waiting for your next call.” And the rumpled man left the room, while the others remaining were beaming with the knowledge that they had the game plan for the return of Trump’s Greatest Hits.

Celestial Billiards

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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?

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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

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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

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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.

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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.