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.

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.

 

North to Alaska!

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Hedonism, thy name is cruising. Nowhere else can you find the invitation to indulge each and every whim and luxury perk as easily than when you are on a cruise. You are offered the opportunity to purchase jewels, or fine art, or just have another drink any time you desire. Want to throw away your money faster? Just take a spin or two in our casino for a chance to come out ahead. Want a foot massage? We’re just waiting for you to show up at the spa entrance. Want to take a helicopter trip up to the surface of a glacier? Just buy the tour. All it takes is money. After you have spent the initial outlay for the cruise, and ancillary expenses like port fees, transit fees, and beverage packages, each additional charge for another luxury is just a charge card away. Money is the lubricant for cruise operations.

We went last week on a cruise and land travel package up to Alaska, including two days in and around Denali National Park. We were unbelievably lucky to enjoy clear blue skies as we drove into the park, and we had a crystal clear view of the mountain itself. If we had visited the day before, or the day after, all we would have seen would have been fog and clouds shrouding the peak.

If you go to Alaska for a cruise, you cannot help but feel sympathy for the salmon that are completing their life cycle in an attempt to return to their birth waters and spawn before dying. You see them crowding the waters as they surge upstream to their place of birth, ready to give up their entire existence for the chance to reproduce. Then they die, and their bodies serve either as food to the animals of the forest, or they decompose and release their nutrients directly into the waters to serve as fertilizer for the entire ecosystem. The salmon are the mechanism for sending the nutrients of the ocean back up onto the land.

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In much the same way, the passengers on the cruise ships migrate upstream as well, stopping at various ports of call, and spreading fertilizer in the form of money. Money spent directly in bars and restaurants, money spent at souvenir shops, money spent at the jewelry stores that crowd the docks of the larger towns. But the fertilizer goes to others as well. It supports people like Bear and Ryan up in Haines Alaska, where Bear came up for the season in a cargo van that has served as his home for this season. He’ll drive on back once fall hits and the cruise ships depart on their migratory routes across the Pacific. Ryan takes his independence a step further, and has lived in a tent on the outskirts of town. He didn’t share his future plans once the season is over, but it likely will not be to spend the winter in a tent in the Alaskan panhandle. But both of them served ably as driver and guide for tours in the town of Haines, sharing their stories and the beautiful vistas as we went to the Raptor center to see eagles and owls and falcons.

The monetary fertilizer also lands far from the ship route as well. Cruise ship workers are bound to the ship for 9 or 10 months at a time. There was Ivory, who is studying to become a sommelier and better her lot. Yes, being away from her 2 and 4 year old children is tough, but she’s hoping to have her aunt, who’s serving as caregiver, bring her children to the ship when they dock near her home in the Philippines. It will only be after her full term is through that she’ll be able to try to re-bond with her children for the 2 months allotted before she is obligated to return to the sea. Her fertilizer is being saved in order to eventually buy a house so she can stay with her children before they grow up.

Entire economic ecosystems are supported by the five month cruise season up in Alaska. That’s when the lengthened daylight makes the place tolerable for those who don’t love winter sports. Many people grab a piece of the money. There was the retired biologist from Wisconsin who served as an ecological evangelist and bus driver on our Tundra tour through Denali. Her stories of the relationships between species served as a reminder that the web of life is complex, and unraveling a single strand can lead to many other effects on the web. There was the petroleum geologist who used to work on the North Slope, but now had weekend gigs driving tour buses from Denali to Seward. There were the guide and bartender on our train coach heading up to Denali from Anchorage. Money helped to lubricate that trip as well, either for souvenirs or for beverages. Hot chocolate in August? Well, especially with a little peppermint schnapps in it to chase the gloomy clouds away.

The transit experience to and from the cruise was the antithesis of the cruise experience. The fun of being shoehorned into 9 and 10 seat rows at the back of the massive planes for a 7 hour bout of claustrophobia. The joys of walking endless airport corridors, only to turn a corner and see another set of moving walkways for you to manipulate your carry-on bags. The ultimate joy of having gone through airport security in Vancouver, only to have to go through an entire extra set of security checkpoints and facial recognition software in Toronto to ensure that you matched your passport picture. And the final indignity inflicted on US travelers by the security system, having to have your luggage unloaded from your connecting flight, go through US customs inspection, and then and only then will your initials and destination appear on the giant screen, enabling you to finally leave and find your gate. After all that, the walk into the nether regions of the airport parking lot at 11:30 at night was a walk in the park. Admittedly, after the sweat drips off of you as you reacquaint yourself with the world of humid air, it is difficult to remember all of the good times you had on your cruise. Maybe the travel to and from the cruise is your penance for having been able to forget all of the worries of the world for your week of hedonistic pleasure seeking.

 

And the Living Is Easy (2018 Version)

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And the living is easy. This is a follow-up to my post a year ago when I evoked the bucolic aspect of my summer environment during the height of the summer season. Well, it is that time of year once again. As you can see, the new generation of hooved rat has been born, and is doing its best to persuade me that all members of the species are cute and adorable. So I find myself conflicted, deciding to not use my slingshot to poke at the mothers of the fawns that I find in my backyard. So far, I’ve seen one doe with a single fawn, and one with two. Since I don’t keep track of each deer around, I have no idea if that is the population growth for the year, but I’m good with that.

A week ago Sunday, we had just returned from a trip to NY late on Saturday. Accordingly, we decided not to make it to church on Sunday morning, and thus I was outside on my front porch, perusing the paper and sipping coffee, when it began to rain. It was not a normal rain, it was pouring down rapidly, so I looked at the drain in our driveway to ensure that we weren’t getting flooded. No problems. But then, the culvert across the street got blocked up and all of a sudden, all of the water from the hillside above us was cascading across the street and towards our driveway and drain.

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The street drains rapidly plugged with the same vegetable matter that had plugged the culvert, and muddy water inundated our driveway and blocked the grate in front of our garage door. It knocked down my simple paving block retaining wall, and ran across the yard, both above and below my car in the driveway. Having lived in the house for over 25 years, we had taken preventive action to keep water from infiltrating our garage and our lower floor. This was the first test of our new earthworks and we were pleased to find that no water made it inside of the garage except for a minor irritating amount that could be washed out with a hose. None of this 6″ of water soaking all of the miscellaneous material found inside of a garage. No mud coming into the lower floor of the house, requiring commercial assistance to prevent mold formation. I was pleased that I only had to move a bit of dirt and replace blocks in the retaining wall to return to pre-flood status. The picture shows the flow overwhelming the culvert across the street.

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The tomatoes and peppers are in their peak pre-BLT days. Lots of foliage, lots of small tomatoes set on the vines, but nothing ready to eat yet. Tomatoes got set out late this year because I had to do the deck cleaning and waterproofing before I wanted to set out the plants. Thus it was late May before I managed to get the plants out on our deck. The deer have still not figured out how to climb up the steps of the deck to get to the plants. Speaking of our deck, we moved into our house in 1992. At that time we had a deck made out of cypress that had clearly not been taken care of. We figured the deck was built sometime in the 1970’s, but it was nearly at the end of its useful life. We replaced the deck in 1996, and now our “new” deck is probably about the same age as the one we replaced. It really shows the advantage of ongoing maintenance – our deck has no wood rot or pitting problems, and the wood looks nearly like new. At this rate, the deck will outlast us.

 

We have our hummingbird feeders out, and they receive a lot of attention. It is too early in the summer for the alpha male hummers to set up ownership of the feeders, as they are still content to take their turns. But what was surprising to me is that another species loves the hummingbird feeders. The flickers are opportunistic feeders, and they will slowly draw nigh to the feeders, assessing the behavior of the humans who are sitting outside where they live. Eventually they start to suck the sugar syrup from the feeders, gaining sustenance from the red and yellow flower imitations. Flickers are omnivores. I have seen them on the ground, stirring up insects to munch upon. They also seek insects like other woodpeckers. Their ladderback feather patters and their clear call remind me that we are but trespassers in their turf. The other species we have a lot of this year are mockingbirds. They perch on the various wires leading to the house, and share their soliloquies of all other bird speech. I’ve often wondered what evolutionary advantage it is for mockingbirds to duplicate the sounds of the birds around them. That wonderful on-line source, Wikipedia, says that the birds sing the songs of others in order to convince rivals that this turf is already overpopulated with birds, and it is not to your advantage to stick around. My thought is that mockingbirds can be seen as lounge singers, doing cover songs of other birds, and it is up to you whether you think their act is good enough to stay for another round of drinks.

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Speaking of birds, in the summer one of my favorites is the finch family. It’s really family groups, as 5 or 6 finches come to gather around our feeder full of thistle seeds. You can hear them coming from far off as they chatter flying up to the multiple perches available to them on the feeder. Occasionally a chickadee will share a perch, but mostly it is the red and yellow finches who take turns on the feeders. Since they are messy eaters, they spill as much as they eat, which spawns a whole ecosystem of other animals cleaning up the spoils. Mourning doves and sparrows hop around on the ground, and chipmunks scurry about, finding the whole seeds that have fallen from the feeder. It’s a good thing that our two black cats have gotten older and are not much interested in going outside, because chipmunks are definitely one of our cats favorite prey. Right now, the chipmunks are catching a break instead of being caught and eaten.

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Summer is if nothing else, a state of mind. We have the great fortune to be able to slow down in the summer, and enjoy the late afternoon warmth while enjoying our favorite beverages. It is good to observe the rhythm of life going on around us, knowing that we are doing our small bit to keep things going by providing space free of herbicides and pesticides, allowing nature to coexist with us on our bit of West Virginia.

 All pictures by the author.

 

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses – Yeah, we’ve heard that already

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When can you feel a shadow? When the shadow is cast from a team pennant flying over Yankee Stadium in the hot summer sun. I felt the coolness when the flickering flag blocked the sun’s rays momentarily. I went to the descendent of the House That Ruth Built for an afternoon game with Seattle, while the orchestra that I came to see was busy with other tour activities. I braved the NY subway system, trying to find the right side of the platforms to head on out to the Bronx. On the outbound leg, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a group of middle-school students coming onto the train, along with a beleaguered teacher. The energy and interplay of this group of students was intense, and I enjoyed watching it, while I did say to the teacher that I thought she had her hands full. They left on one of the stops in Harlem.

The game itself was exciting, but most of the action happened in the first two innings. By the end of the top of the 2nd, the score was 4-2 Yankees. The game ended at 4-3. I saw three 2-run homers, including one by the Judge. I saw another home run taken away by a remarkable catch in center. And then the game settled into a pitcher’s duel.

Aaron Judge

One of the activities the orchestra went on was a harbor cruise. This tourist staple was complete with a guide who gushed about the history of immigration on Ellis Island, and gave glowing praise to the ideals represented by the Statue of Liberty. We heard about how the nation became a nation of immigrants, welcoming all to our shores, our nation being the embodiment of an open society. The passengers on the cruise represented the diversity of the world, with large groups of Asians, and many other passengers from throughout the world. Our group of 50 West Virginians added to the mélange of cultures on the ship.

Ellis Island

As we cruised on our return past Ellis Island, I was struck by the stark difference between the canned words of the tour guide, with the situation on the southern border of this country. Here was our administration, deliberately causing trauma in families by pulling children from parents, then separating them and keeping them in different facilities, sometimes thousands of miles apart. This administration that has been in control of the reins of government for 16 months, suddenly implementing a drastic escalation of the zero tolerance policy. What was abundantly clear was that the amateurs who are running our government had given scant thought about how to ensure there was a system to link parent to child, so they could be reunited. The amateurs had not built facilities that could handle the huge increase in detentions. Instead, they implemented it and then were incredulous when there was a backlash against the cruelty inherent in this forced separation policy. Even this week, we saw Jeff Sessions attempting to make light of the situation by claiming that all those who objected to the policy were to be found in gated communities, and they would gladly separate trespassers to the gated community from their families. I heard the echoes of “Let them eat cake”.

Statue of Liberty

Whatever your feelings are on the increased prosecution of illegal immigrants, even of those who try to follow the rules and are claiming asylum at recognized crossings, I cannot see how you can be in favor of the splitting of families for what is in essence a misdemeanor crime (first time offense of crossing border illegally). This is not what we as a nation represent. Our national mythology is that we welcome the immigrant, and are willing to evaluate each immigrant’s story based upon well-established principles for admission to this nation. I heard that mythology reflected in our tour guide’s script that she probably repeated 5 or 6 times a day. It is clear, though, that any more it can only be found in mythology, since it no longer represents the present state.

This nation has always had a conflicted history regarding immigration. At various times, it has been the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the southern and eastern Europeans, the Chinese, all of these groups have been savaged as they were allowed into this nation. Each time, the new group came in and established their own civic traditions, and eventually those traditions merged into the national culture with the passage of generations. Now we are in a world where the potential number of migrants greatly exceeds our capability of assimilating them. Combining that with a leader who evokes fear of others, who can only see the bad in those from outside instead of the good, and you end up with a perfect storm for those who were unfortunate enough to have bought into our national mythology and believed they would be welcomed into this nation.

The recent history of trying to resolve the immigration system, and the status of those already in the nation illegally, is replete with outlandish partisanship. Especially since the election of the Tea Party fanatics who view any mention of a pathway to citizenship as being traitorous, the well of bipartisanship has been poisoned. Now we have efforts from the House of Representatives at forcing a discharge petition to allow free and open debate upon the House floor. The beleaguered House leadership, not wanting to cede control to the possibility of bipartisan legislation, instead tried to force consideration of two different proposals depending only upon Republican votes for passage. It was heartening to see both of those efforts smashed into bits by the final votes. I can only hope that those who were pursuing the discharge petition renew their efforts, and attempt to develop a bill that can find supporters from both parties. Only then will we take the first steps towards healing the national divide on immigration. Only then can we hope to deal with the root causes of the problem, rather than dealing with the symptoms when they arrive on our border. And only then will we possibly develop a sustainable system for bringing new residents into our country, where their skills and energy can help to revitalize this nation’s communities and economy. Only then can we Make America Great Again!

All photos by author.

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Take a Bus!

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There are locations that are sacred for practitioners of the arts. For musicians, one of these locations is Carnegie Hall (the one in New York, not the one in Lewisburg, West Virginia). It has served as a mecca of music for over 125 years since its opening in 1891. Last week, I had the great fortune to attend an orchestra festival, seated in a box seat just above the main floor, and listen to three youth and community orchestras perform. I came to see the Charleston Chamber Orchestra, which was the last of the three groups to play. They played three pieces, with the centerpiece being a movement from the Shostakovich Piano Concerto #2. The pianist exuded sensuality as she pounded the keys, expressing through her fingers the quintessence of Russian soul music, flinging back her mane of curly hair as she bounced on the bench. And complementing and contrasting the piano, the high notes of the piccolo played on, providing piercing punctuation to the percussion of the piano. My wife was on stage of Carnegie Hall, sounding the high notes that as she says, “Only the dogs can hear.” Well, my high frequency hearing still must be in good shape, because the night before in a smaller venue, those same notes actually hurt my ears.

The Charleston Chamber Orchestra exists due to the vision of its founder, Dr. Scott Woodard at West Virginia State. When the resident string quartet for the West Virginia Symphony was cut loose in a cost cutting measure, Dr. Woodard was able to offer employment, and an opportunity to participate in his dream, a symphony orchestra of the community. Music students at State, high school students from the Youth Symphony, professional musicians both past and present, and members of the community who have the ability to tackle a symphonic repertoire, all are members of this orchestra. This includes a blind flutist who sits next to my wife, who is able to play despite never seeing the baton beat the tempo. The orchestra has existed for fewer than three years, but this year they were invited to a festival in Carnegie Hall based upon an audition tape (we still call them tapes even though no physical media is used to record). The orchestra has a fairly full wind section, is light on strings, but is capable of tackling serious symphonic pieces. Well enough to receive a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall.

Charleston Chamber Orchestra

 

I was able to hear this group’s improvement from its inception. My wife got in on the ground floor, having grown acquainted with Dr. Woodard when she served as adjunct faculty. The group has another performance scheduled early next year in the Kennedy Center in Washington, and a dream about collaborating with an orchestra in Vienna. In my own life, music has allowed me to sing in music festivals in Charleston S.C. It has allowed me to perform on stage with Jennifer Garner. It has allowed me to accompany my sons when they were with the Appalachian Children’s Chorus on trips through central Europe, and to Oahu. And now, music allowed me to have the experience of being seated in a box in Carnegie Hall, enjoying the sounds not only of my friends, but also to hear youth orchestras from Green Bay and from the Bay region in California. You don’t have to be a professional musician to allow music to expand your range of experience in a lifetime. But it does take time and effort, and at least a moderate amount of talent to ensure that you don’t make a fool out of yourself. The musicians in this orchestra? Let me replace the word moderate with the word plentiful, and that comes closer to capturing their performance.

The day after the performance, we boarded a bus back to Charleston. It was ironic that the first movie that was played on the return trip was “The Bucket List”. Many of those in the orchestra had just completed checking one or more items off of their personal bucket lists.

 

Three Degrees of Separation

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I claim to be only 3 degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. I make that claim due to a play I did 29 years ago this summer. The Charleston Light Opera Guild always had a summer show, and that year the show was “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. The summer shows were an opportunity for some of the high school dancers who were in our director’s dance studio to have roles on stage, and see if they wished to pursue dancing and acting further. Well, one of the high school dancers played a courtesan, and I remember her distinctly as she had a blue jewel in her belly button. Her name? Jennifer Garner. But I cannot bring many other memories of her back over this time period (btw – that gives you a good idea how old she is now as you see her on the Capital One ads).

No, this tale is about another of these high school dancers, who contributed to the single best moment I ever had while either on stage, or in an audience watching a play. First, a bit of background on Forum, as it was known. This was a slapstick musical comedy set back in Roman days, where a cunning slave named Pseudolus was continually plotting to gain his freedom. He belonged to my character, Senex, an older man who was dominated by his wife Domina (subtle this play ain’t). Meanwhile, my son Hero was in love with a courtesan-in-training who was owned by the brothel owner Lycus, who just happened to live next door to me. The play is a series of comic scenes ending up with a family reunion, Hero being able to marry his love, and Pseudolus able to gain his freedom. On Broadway and in the movie, Zero Mostel played Pseudolus. It was the funniest show I’ve ever been in, even without the events I am about to relate.

Now, of the courtesans, Jennifer already was decently endowed. But another of the courtesans needed a bit more augmentation in the breast area. This was accomplished through the means of two water balloons strategically placed in her upper costume. We had done many rehearsals, and several performances, and the water balloons served their purpose admirably.

Except, for the one night, where one didn’t. Our dancer (whose name will remain anonymous to protect her), was out shaking her booty as she displayed her wares for a potential buyer. That night, one of the water balloons escaped its bondage, and bounded on down to the floor.

Now odds were that the water balloon was going to burst once it hit the floor. This being Forum, of course that didn’t happen. What did happen was that the water balloon bounced, then rolled to a stop halfway across the stage. When it stopped rolling, one of the eunuchs pranced over to the water balloon, went “Oh! Oh!”, scooped it up in his hands, and presented it back to the unbalanced courtesan. I can’t remember exactly what she did, but the audience and most of the cast broke up, eventually leading to the show going on.

If we ever could have been assured that the water balloon would not burst, we would have built that into the blocking and it would have been the funniest thing ever in a scene. So it is ironic that in my one legitimate attempt to be a name dropper on one of my acquaintances, it was her friend, who never made the trip to Hollywood and became a big star, who left the greatest impression on me. As it turns out, that was the last big play I’ve been in, as I had just gotten married, and life in the form of children interrupted for a long time. But if that was my swan song for the musical stage, what a way to exit.

 

Where the Wild Threats Are

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What are the real problems facing society? I’m not talking about the issues that take the most space on cable news channels, or in the remaining newsprint options available, or on internet boards. No, I’m talking about the issues that face humanity across the globe, issues that threaten our well-being and the health of the planet that we share as a species. This post is a discussion of what I consider to be the 7 most critical problems that we face, with a little explanation as to why they are so critical. They are posted in inverse order. That is, the least important is presented first, and the most important is last.

7. Celestial billiards. With increased sensitivity, we are now learning how many objects out there in space may have Earth’s name engraved on them. It seems that almost monthly we hear about an object of substantial size that will pass, or has passed within a few 10’s of thousands of miles of Earth. Efforts are being made to catalog all objects that may be an existential threat to life on Earth, and we will likely see an attempt made on some object in the future to alter its orbit, just to prove that the capability works before we need it. But space is huge, and we are small, but just large enough to serve as a target in the ongoing game of celestial billiards.

6. Infectious Diseases. This problem has two main causes. First is antibiotic resistance. Having been given the magic bullets of antibiotics in the 1940’s, we applied them everywhere. Go to the doctor for a viral cold? Ask the doctor for an antibiotic. Learn that antibiotics lead to faster meat animal growth? Apply low dosages of antibiotic to animal feeds, ensuring the maximum exposure to antibiotics in the environment. And now, 80 years later, resistance to antibiotics is emerging everywhere, and it is doubtful that new antibiotics can be developed at a fast enough rate to compensate for the loss of effectiveness of standard antibiotics. We may later look upon the brief period of antibiotic effectiveness as the golden age of human longevity. Add to this the possibility of viral diseases such as Ebola becoming global pandemics due to the increased interconnectedness of our society, and we face potential crises of infectious diseases in the future that are intractable.

5. The Rise of Willful Ignorance. This is different than denial of scientific truths, although many who are willfully ignorant also deny findings from science. This is a recent phenomenon, and it manifests itself by deriding subject matter experts as “elitists” who are out of touch with the human experience. Its adherents find solace in anecdotal evidence, and evidence shared second and third hand via the internet. It includes those who decry fake news while sharing the latest conspiracy-laced rumor without a shred of physical evidence. Why? Because those shadowy figures who control the mass media are trying to foist their elitist world view down the throats of the normal hard-working silent majority, and thus we cannot trust anything that they say. Those who follow this practice will ignore all real evidence against their beliefs, up to the point where their ignorance costs them their lives.

4. Sea level rise. Regardless of the source of the warming, it is abundantly clear that ice is melting, especially in the arctic, the surface ocean waters are also warming and expanding, and that will result in sea level rise. Since so much of humanity’s population is settled on or adjacent to the ocean shore, ongoing sea level rise will cause massive human displacements in the underdeveloped world, and will cause unimaginable damage to infrastructure in developed nations. The local communities on the front lines of the struggle are trying to deal with the issues, but unless and until we recognize that sea level rise is inexorable, and that we need to deal with it both on a national and trans-national level, then we will incur excessive costs due to our intransigence at denying that there is indeed a problem. And the refugees that are flooded out of their subsistence farms in Bangladesh and other countries will dwarf the number of refugees that came from the Syria conflict.

3. Tribalism and Denialism. These two items are strongly linked, since there is evidence that the political movements most identified with tribalism and nationalism and isolationism, are also the political movements most engaged in the denial of demonstrated scientific principles. Tribalism is troubling since it assumes that all of our problems are the result of “others” encroaching on our borders, or serving as a fifth column within our borders. It denies that there are problems that are trans-national in nature, that can only be addressed effectively by multi-lateral efforts. Thus any effort to reduce the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is ridiculed, since all true tribal believers know that CO2 is a fertilizer for plants, and besides, 400 parts per million is too small to affect the thermodynamics of the atmosphere, and besides, whatever we do in our country will be overwhelmed by the developing countries increasing their emissions, and besides, who are we to think that we are as powerful as God. You can go through any series of logical sequences for any of the problems that are fostered by tribalism and denialism, but the bottom line is that a tribal world sees others as a threat, and focuses non-productive energy on preventing incursions from others, while excluding any problem that is truly global in nature from being worked on.

2. Human-induced extinctions. Ever since humanity learned how to craft weapons and hunt creatures larger than ourselves, we have served as agents of extinction. During the last two centuries, the pace of extinctions has grown exponentially, so that now the rate of extinction is estimated at 10 to 100 times the natural rate of species extinction. Whether it is through habitat elimination, or overfishing, or introduction of non-native species, or through unintended effects of herbicides and pesticides, all of these conditions are removing species from the Earth. We do not know what effects there will be by changing the composition of the web of life. But the fact that we appear to be such poor stewards of the Earth that we believe we are the only species that matters, is one for concern.

1. The number of people on Earth x the resource consumption per person. In higher math, it is often the cross-product that is the variable of interest. Here we have a cross-product that represents the amount of resources that we are extracting from the Earth at a given time. Both factors are increasing, and we are finding physical limits on what we can do to address this problem. This problem exacerbates other critical problems, such as anthropomorphic global warming, plastic pollution overwhelming the oceans, creation of dysfunctional mega-cities, and increasing the risk of the collapse of natural systems.

This represents my own list of concerns that can develop into existential crises for life on Earth. As such it is an extremely arbitrary list, and others should work to develop their own lists. Some of the things I excluded from the list include the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and its effect on employment. Also, I excluded scientific terrorism, like developing a super virus and unleashing it on the world. Even basic terrorism failed to make the list. Nuclear engagement is not on the list, although many of the problems I describe could have a nuclear engagement as a likely outcome if they are taken to extremes. Later posts may tackle some of these concerns and discuss potential solutions for them.

 

Chemicals I Have Made – Hydrogen Peroxide

hydrogen peroxide

It’s such a cute, cuddly chemical. Found in its brown plastic container in medicine cabinets across the world, it is poured on cuts and scrapes where it foams up in bubbles. Safe enough to be used as a mouth rinse. Good old 3% hydrogen peroxide! But let me assure you, what is safe at 3% strength, is not safe at 35% concentration. Or at 70% strength. Hydrogen peroxide, or H202 , is a chemical that must be given a great deal of respect. In my career, I worked in a process that made H202 for several years, and I’ve seen examples of its power.

When tank cars were loaded with H202, the hoses would still contain some of the liquid in the lines. There was an attitude that since this was not an organic material, and since the decomposition products were water and oxygen, it was not worthwhile to ensure that the last drops were purged out of the line. So a metal box was filled with steel scraps, metal shavings, and other pieces of metal with a high surface area. This box was used to decompose the peroxide before it ran into our cypress-lined trench system. On one occasion, significantly more peroxide ran down into the box than was intended, and not all of the peroxide decomposed before it entered the tar-covered cypress trench. Decomposition continued, and the heat released along with the enriched oxygen environment inside the trench, actually caused the trench to begin smoldering. The fire alarm was sounded, and the investigation showed that the fire was essentially caused – by water. That is the power inherent in industrial strength H202.

Before I worked at the plant, they had a specialized still that concentrated peroxide to 90% purity. That strength was used as a rocket fuel, and as a propellant for torpedoes. I never heard of any stories about accidents with that grade, but it would take very little in order to release the energy found in that strong of a chemical. After I left the Memphis Plant, I heard about something that happened to a tank car outside of the plant. Tank cars for peroxide were made of about 1/2″ thick aluminum. One night, a tank car essentially exploded, opening up the top like a pop can. The thought is that someone playing with a rifle, shot the tank car. There is a little organic material that sits atop commercial grade H202, which reacted to form organic peroxides. The energy from a rifle shot caused the organic peroxide to detonate, which triggered the release of the oxygen from the decomposing peroxide. I saw the car on a trip back to the plant. It clearly showed that there is a lot of energy available with 70% H202. I have searched diligently on the internet but I can find no on-line evidence of this incident.  One can only imagine what would have happened if this incident occurred after 9/11.

The process for making H202 is complex. An organic solution called working solution is the key to creating the H202 molecule, which then recycles to begin the process again. The working solution first enters the hydrogenators, where hydrogen gas contacts a catalyst of palladium chloride coated out as palladium metal on alumina particles. The palladium chloride comes in a solution form in 5 gallon pails, costing multiple thousands of dollars per pail. After the catalyst is filtered out, the working solution goes into the oxidizers, where air is blown through the solution. Hydrogen grabs onto the oxygen, and forms H202, which then is extracted with water, and concentrated in distillation stills. The working solution then returns and is ready to run through the loop once more.

That is a highly simplified version of the process. In practice, there is art involved. The active chemicals in the working solution can degrade over time. Therefore it is necessary to divert a side stream of working solution to flow through alumina, where the impurities that form in the hydrogenation step absorb onto the alumina. The whole process with the catalyst and the hydrogenation step is labor intensive, and it is always necessary to withdraw a portion of the catalyst and replace with fresh catalyst. To prevent that expense, and to achieve higher yield, the plant I worked at had invested in what is called a fixed bed hydrogenation system. This had shown impressive results in lab-scale testing, and in pilot plant testing, where 5-gallon sized vessels were used to prove the effectiveness before you built a 1000-gallon facility for commercial production. The new commercial facility was commissioned, and put in service.

But problems developed very rapidly. Even though the pilot plant testing did not show it, the commercial scale facility developed some hot spots inside the hydrogenator. This caused the active compound in the working solution to degrade much more rapidly than inside of the fluid bed hydrogenators. Since the investment in the working solution was several million dollars, it became imperative to find some way to reverse the damage. Lab work was expedited, and a solution was identified. They needed some engineer to manage the project and get the equipment ordered, installed, and functioning. I was plucked from the cyanide unit(see  Chemicals I have made – Hydrogen Cyanide ) and put in charge of the project.

It was a true baptism into project management. I got to travel to see the vessel that we were buying in the fabrication shop, up in the extreme northwest corner of New Jersey. There you were more likely to see a black bear than to see a Joisey girl. But the best part of the project was that I got to install and program a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC). Now this was back in 1980, and these were brand new toys  tools that used all of the advances in semi-conductors that were available. You could replace a whole rack of single-function logic switches, with a single unit that could do nearly unlimited functions. I had a lot of fun learning the ladder logic that went with this, and getting the system to work as intended. We started up our treatment unit – and it didn’t solve the problem. The working solution was still getting degraded, even when the fixed bed unit was operated at only a fraction of its intended production rate. The equipment I installed was abandoned, and the large fixed bed unit was shut down and eventually dismantled. But I had learned valuable skills and had managed a significant project by myself.

The manufacture of H202 is not different by chemical manufacturers. At the time I worked to make H202, all manufacturers used the process I described. Eventually, the unit I worked at was sold to another company in exchange for one of the other companies processes. I left H202 when I got a promotion to be a process supervisor for the manufacture of acrylonitrile. But that’s another story for another time.

 

Tumbling Tumbleweeds

Tumbleweeds

Photo copyright of the Huffington Post

Up until about 100 years ago, human entertainment meant being in the physical presence of the person or people providing the entertainment. From the ancient days where stories of survival and of origins were shared around fires that kept wild animals at bay, to times where a bone was drilled and put to the lips to create a flute, to times when an animal skin was drawn taut across a surface and a drum was made, early humans had an extremely personal relationship to their entertainment. Over time, as villages grew into cities, and amphitheaters served as gathering places for crowds to be entertained by specialists, entertainment began to be distanced from the audience. Still, the urge to provide entertainment within the family was strong, and helped in ensuring that a common culture bound the inhabitants of a nation together.

With the advent of commercially available recorded music, it became possible for performances to be shared across space and time. No longer was it necessary to be physically in the theater to hear a master perform, you could play a piece of music in your home, and no one in your family needed to have the skills to actually make music. And since artists could leverage their talents across a commercial audience, they had financial incentive to make their recordings attractive.

Radio was the next intrusion in the brain / entertainment interface. Now it was possible to share an evanescent moment that came into a house over electromagnetic waves. Voices could share a symphony, or a popular tune, or a news bulletin, or a Presidential speech, to an audience undreamed of only a few years before. Humanity became used to hearing voices and other coherent noise coming out of boxed enclosures that ran on electricity. You could listen to something as you did something else – maybe a dance tune while you washed the dishes. It became possible to multi-task.

Television was the next intrusive medium. It replaced the one-sense media input of radio, and substituted the two-sense audio and visual input of television. Once it was possible to share a presentation across a nation, the need to provide your own entertainment diminished further. We turned to passive imbibing of the media and its entertainment, and the piano in the corner of the living room sat idle more often than not. No longer was there a common language of music, from folk songs shared across a nation, but the new medium allowed for the balkanization of culture. The images of heathen dancing, reminiscent of tribal pagan dances, were blasted through the TV screen into houses across the nation, and the messages of young lust resonated with the youth generation ascending after World War II.

Divisions fostered by the ease of media consumption drove cultural differences. In the 1960’s, rock music with its message of rebellion and freedom, drove popular culture into new directions. The older generation was able to still enjoy the ballads and big bands they were comfortable with. Look up “Sing Along With Mitch”  if you wish to watch the last remnants of the popular culture for the Greatest Generation before it was swept away. Finally, another strain of popular culture emerged, with roots back in Appalachian music, as country music found an audience that did not share the hedonistic beliefs embodied in rock and roll. While the Who cranked out “Won’t get fooled again” to demonstrate the desire of the rockers to reshape society, Merle Haggard repudiated this movement with “Okie From Muskogee.” Battle lines formed during the late 1960’s still play out today in politics.

After the explosion of media input from the 1950’s through 1970’s, the fragmentation of the culture continued, but at a slower pace. Musically, reggae and disco battled for prominence. It was not until the advent of rap and hip-hop that a new entry into the culture wars really took hold. Rap and hip-hop provided a cultural perspective from the viewpoint of the minorities who never felt comfortable sharing in the larger culture. Even though their parents and grandparents created jazz, and R&B, those offerings were co-opted over time. But the raw energy of rap artists, enunciating their discontent with society, managed to rub many of the mainstream culture inhabitants the wrong way. The urban nature of these new offerings was alien to the experiences and beliefs of fly-over country. Yet another division was created in the muddled cultural landscape of the nation.

Television did not stand idle during these decades, either. A new genre of TV shows were created, where unknown personalities were coached to go through situations and create drama and comedy. These shows were inexpensive to make, and surprisingly popular with the viewing public. Reality TV became a new category for the networks, and the cable television providers. Now, more than ever, it became possible to gain unprecedented fame simply by being famous. Content and substance no longer was even important to the consuming audiences. The increasing passivity of the audience kept growing over time.

Into this environment, the smart phone was released and the internet blossomed. The new tools and toys embedded in these devices exacerbated the balkanization of the culture. But one thing new did result from the smart phone era. Now, more than ever before, the consumers of culture could become producers of culture. The bar to entry of needing expensive electronic equipment along with an entire network to make images available, no longer existed. Anyone had a chance at creating a video, uploading it to You-Tube, and having the lightning of viral success strike.

The use of smart phones though, comes at a significant price. That price is concentration. Now for the first time in human history, it is possible to eschew the need to concentrate on anything in order to enjoy the fruits of the culture. Selfies posted on Instagram fulfill the need for self-aggrandizement. Myriads of games enable those who are addicted to pick up their phones for mindless play, rather than have to partake of the moment they are in, and maybe actually reflect and think. Twitter survives and thrives because we all have to kibitz in the moment, and insert our own limited link thought pattern into the public sphere. Those rooted in the past abhor the conduct of diplomacy via tweet, yet given the descent of the culture into shallowness, it was inevitable.

Those of us who bewail the decline of concentration have few options. Some find it beneficial to use the tool of the internet to create their own blog, where they can expose their souls through words (guilty as charged). Others may self-select to stay rooted in the “higher” culture of the past, whether that be classic books, or Broadway productions, or symphonic music, but the median age of those who partake of this keeps climbing. Soon, the audiences for these forms of cultural expression will fade away as they die off. Then all that will be left is the chaff of a culture, rooted so shallowly that the first storm will tear it out of the dirt and all we will be left with is torrents of Tumbling Tumbleweeds , piling up around the relics of our society.

Whatever Happened To The Door-to-Door Refrigerator Magnet Man?

Magnet 1

He called on us in our old house, back around 1991. A slight, stooped man, with hollow cheeks and limited teeth, bringing his wares. He peddled little refrigerator magnets, made out of popsicle sticks, colored felt cut into seasonal shapes, and accented with sequins. He spoke up apologetically, deferentially. “I’m selling these magnets. My daughter is disabled, she makes these, and I go around and sell them. Could you help us out?”

His plain clothes were well-worn, but clean. It was impossible to tell his age, but he looked well over 70. Around here in West Virginia though, people sometimes age at an accelerated rate, so I never knew his age the first time he came around. I bought one of his magnets, a bright yellow felt Christmas tree, and paid him a few dollars that I had in my wallet. He said “Thank-you” and left.

A couple years later, we had moved from Charleston to South Charleston. The same man appeared at our door one day, with his stock of felt magnets. This time, it was a rabbit since it was spring, and Easter was around the corner. The same story about his daughter, and saying how he didn’t want to ask for help, but if we wanted one of his magnets, he’d love us to have one. Again, we bought one for our refrigerator.

Now, these magnets barely had enough strength to hold themselves up, let alone hold any other papers. But the sincerity of this man shone through as he walked the hilly streets of Charleston and South Charleston. Though it was less than two miles as the crow flies between our old and new house, it was several miles further that this man walked, selling his wares and trying to make enough money to support him and his disabled daughter.

This man showed up several more times over the years. Sometimes it was in the heat of summer, and we invited him in and gave him some cool water, as well as buying another magnet. Sometimes, we may have even given him a few dollars without taking one of his magnets, telling him that we already had several. I don’t know how many times he showed up over the years, or how many magnets we bought from him. We still have three of his daughter’s creations gracing our two refrigerators. But just by seeing his face at our door, after months or years of absence, he bore witness to the strength of family, putting himself out on his strenuous walks just to try to make a few dollars.

magnet 2

 

You always notice the presence of something. You notice when a storm comes, or when the sun breaks through the clouds and brings it’s life-giving warmth. You notice the normal traffic on the streets and roads that you drive. What is difficult is to notice the absence of something. In the case of the magnet man, it was probably several years of absence before we brought it up that we hadn’t seen the man for a while. Now, looking back, it has probably been at least 10 years since we last saw the wizened face, with his handful of colorful magnets gracing his gnarled hands. We never saw any mention of him in any local news, although he certainly was known to many of the residents of the Charleston area. No obituary of him caught my attention, although I wasn’t paying as much attention to obituaries 10 years ago as I do now. It will always be one of those mysteries of life that, should we have an afterlife with the ability to form questions and receive answers, one of those questions would be what ever happened to the man who sold us magnets?