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

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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?

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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.

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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?

 

Chemicals I Have Known (and Made) – Hydrogen Cyanide

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As I look back on my career in industry, I realize that I became inured to the chemicals I dealt with and produced. I will be posting occasionally on some of the materials I worked with and made during the first part of my career. The first chemical I worked with was hydrocyanic acid – a simple molecule consisting of a hydrogen atom, a carbon atom, and a nitrogen atom (HCN). This molecule is so simple that there are molecular clouds in space where HCN is found, released from stars that have synthesized carbon and nitrogen in their core. But HCN has a well-known reputation as a poison, one that prevents oxygenated blood from being able to deliver their life-giving load to cells. Once oxygen transport ceases, energy production in a cell stops, and the cell and the organism that contains the cell dies.

 

So at the chemical plant I worked at, one of the requirements to work in the cyanide area was to ensure that I could detect cyanide leaks so I would not wander into an area with a fatal concentration. This was done by means of a sniff test. Three beakers of water were set on a tray. Two were plain water, and the third had a concentration of cyanide in it that resulted in small amounts of cyanide vapor in the air above the beaker. To pass the test, you had to tell which beaker held the cyanide. The first time I took the test, I was guessing somewhat. None of this “bitter almonds” smell, just something that was a little off. By the last time I took the test, almost 10 years later, I picked up the beaker with the cyanide and before it made it halfway to my nose, I put it back down on the tray and said “That’s the one.” What was originally too faint for me to be certain had become so overwhelmingly repugnant over the course of a decade that it gagged me.

 

Cyanide. What’s it good for? Hydrogen cyanide is used in quite a few chemical processes as a feed stock. One of the chemical processes is used to make another chemical called methyl methacrylate (MMA), used in acrylic paints and in plastics like Plexiglass. My chemical plant made MMA as well, but that’s a story for another day. The other main use of cyanide was to make sodium cyanide, which is used in the mining of precious metals. Sodium cyanide solutions are able to leach small concentrations of gold, silver, and other precious metals out of ore, allowing it to be concentrated and extracted into product. Our plant produced sodium cyanide as well as HCN. Some HCN is shipped to other locations for use. When it was shipped, the tank cars that contained it were painted in a distinctive manner. They had red stripes on them – one that circled the car lengthwise, and one that circled the circumference of the car, forming a cross on both sides of the car where the stripes collided. These cars were called candy stripers in the trade.

 

Hydrogen cyanide is produced when ammonia, natural gas, and air are heated and passed over a platinum – rhodium gauze mesh. The off-gases are then absorbed, and the cyanide produced is concentrated and purified. At our plant, HCN was stored in tanks surrounded by dikes. One of our safety features was flare guns mounted on posts throughout the tank farm. If the worst happened, and liquid cyanide were to leak out onto the surface of the dike, folks were instructed to fire a flare gun and set the liquid on fire. HCN is volatile (78ºF boiling point), but the vapor will not explode. Instead, it will undergo a deflagration where the combustion wave front is slower than the speed of sound. Other gases like methane will explode, where the combustion wave front is faster than the speed of sound, which causes the pressure wave that creates damage in an explosion. So for HCN, it is much better to let it burn and eliminate the toxic vapors evaporating from the liquid surface.

 

One day in 1979, I was out at the plant on a Saturday. I remember that Dr. Jenks was there on that day as well, and he invited me into his office. Dr. Jenks was one of those older generation chemists who knew everything about the chemistry and processes. He had a wooden box in his office, about 18″ on the narrow sides, and about 10′ long. In that box was the replacement platinum/ rhodium gauze for the catalyst change. At that time, when precious metal prices were at a 30 year high, his office held about 2 million dollars in platinum and rhodium. I was impressed.

 

My main job in manufacturing support was in the waste treatment process. As you can imagine, the waste water from these cyanide processes needed special treatment and segregation from other waste water. The “state of the art” water collection system consisted of cypress lined trenches, with cypress boards covering the top. This ran downhill to the bottom of the plant, where we had the Trade Waste water treatment facility. Waste water came into a collection point, where sodium hydroxide was added to make sure that the water was basic. If cyanide ions were in an acidic solution, cyanide vapor would be released above the solution, and that is not a good thing. So once the pH was adjusted to make the waste basic, then it would be mixed with liquid chlorine. Our plant produced sodium metal and liquid chlorine, so we had only to send the chlorine down a pipe to the water treatment plant, and mix it in with the waste water. When the chlorine hit the basic water, it produced chlorine bleach solution (sodium hypochlorite). Bleach attacks the cyanide and converts it to a non-toxic degradation product. To ensure that the reaction took place, after treatment the water was diverted into what were called 8-hour ponds. These ponds were on either side of the treatment building, and were unlined ponds where the water was held until the reaction was complete. Then the water was released into a baffled chamber called the one hour pond where it was analyzed to make sure that all of the cyanide was destroyed, and after the last test, the water was combined with the other sewer waste and went into the City of Memphis sewage treatment system. Unfortunately at the time, our interceptor sewer did not hook up to the sewage treatment system, and the water along with all of the domestic wastewater was discharged directly into the Mississippi River. Environmental protection has definitely improved in the 40 years since I was working in this process.

 

I would imagine that the staffing situation for the Trade Waste process has also improved. Back when I worked at the plant, there was a single operator who was stationed at the treatment plant. This individual sat in a central control room, and on either side of the control room were the chlorine injectors with the liquid chlorine flowing through them. Now, I don’t know about you, but I would be hesitant to work by myself, with cyanide-laden waters and liquid chlorine surrounding my office, but back in the late ’70’s, I didn’t think as much about the implications of what could go wrong. The plant had a safety procedure where the person working in a remote location had to check in with the main control room at least once per hour. Believe me, at that time, so much could have gone wrong in an hour’s time that the operator could have been dead for 59 minutes. But it never did at that facility during at least the first 30+ years of operation. Looking now at the facility on Google earth, it is obvious that they have made significant changes and improved the safety of the treatment operation. But some of the facilities look similar to what I worked with 40 years ago.

 

There’s much more I could go into. Cyanide has some amazing chemistry, and the waste treatment is almost an art unto itself. I did some large-scale testing there where we added a hydrogen peroxide waste stream that was what I considered to be fun chemistry. But it was definitely a good process to work on for my first real production support for making a nasty chemical.

Which Side Are You On?

Teachers strike nbc image

Photo Copyright NBC News

Pete Seeger sings this classic union song in 1981. Which Side Are You On?

The central Appalachians have been a hot bed of union activity for more than 100 years. The history of West Virginia is full of stories about the battle to unionize the coal mines, and armed battles that took place to enable workers to organize and gain a measure of power against the forces of capital. At the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the US government actually bombed positions held by miners as part of the armed standoff. Eventually, the victory of the United Mine Workers was recognized, and the union became a symbol of worker solidarity and evidence of the continual struggle between management and labor.

Still, after the heyday of the union movement, over time the antipathy of the capitalist class toward unions gained more sway, especially with the general prosperity that evolved in the coal fields. Entire mining companies proudly declared themselves as non-union operations. The A.T. Massey company, led by the notorious Don Blankenship, was famous for breaking unions at their mines. Indeed, even in 2018, Don Blankenship is running for Senate in West Virginia fresh off of his stay in a Federal prison, claiming that he is a miner’s safety champion, as he runs ads extolling his generosity and the commitment to safety that Massey mines held. It was the government’s fault that 29 men died in a Massey mine, not management! Nowhere is it so evident that unions are far weaker than they were, reduced as it is to a faint whisper of their influence a century ago.

Which is why it is so surprising that the events of the past two weeks in West Virginia are resonating with the echoes of history in the hills around Charleston and throughout the state. Teachers in West Virginia walked off of their jobs beginning February 22, and as of March 3, have not agreed to return to work. This strike is not against a capitalist company, though. This strike is aimed at the Legislature of West Virginia, and Governor Jim Justice, who ironically is a coal magnate with mines throughout Appalachia. Over the past decade, the Legislature has reduced or eliminated a series of taxes in the state. Some of these taxes were regressive, like the sales tax on food. Some tax reductions were aimed at improving the business environment. But the net result was to reduce tax revenues by several hundred millions of dollars per year, and the promise of new businesses coming to take advantage of an improved business climate has not closed the revenue gap. Then, several years ago, the eastern steam coal market collapsed, as exports shrunk, and more coal-fired power plants closed down rather than comply with regulations aimed at minimizing the health and environmental consequences of coal combustion. A surfeit of natural gas from fracking also convinced utility companies that coal was not part of their future. Severance tax collections fell by hundreds of millions of dollars.

So for several years, West Virginia has dealt with tax revenues that declined over time, and this has necessitated on-going cuts in state programs and government spending. The deplorable state of this state’s highways bears witness to the sustained neglect of state services. The teachers of this state were squeezed from two directions. First, their base pay as set by the state, has not risen for multiple years. Second, the state-run health care insurance has repeatedly raised rates and deductibles, like most health insurance has over this decade. The general increase in rates was exacerbated this year by an ill-advised proposal that was to charge employees for health insurance based upon total family wage income, rather than by the employee wage. So a teacher who would have a moderate premium based upon their state salary, might be subject to pay twice as much if they had a spouse who had income but used the state health insurance. State teachers could foresee their pay going down to cover these premiums in a period of limited pay increases.

Teachers in this state are in essence fighting a proxy war for all state and local employees and retirees. All state employees are covered by the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). So whatever changes that the teachers can cause, will apply to all of those in the state who are using PEIA.

This year, frustration boiled over. The proposed family income change, and other legislation aimed at diminishing teacher rights, collided with a minor pay raise proposal. For the first year since Republicans expelled the 80 year reign of the Democrats in the Legislature in 2014, there appeared to be growth in tax revenue projections. Governor Justice and the Legislators proposed a magnificent 5% pay raise, with the pay rates to be increased by 2% the first year, and 1% each of the next 3 years. No change was proposed in the PEIA rate structure.

Teachers rose up in rebellion. The job action finally began on February 22, and since that time, the steps of the Capitol Building have been covered by thousands of teachers with the #55Strong motto on shirts and signs (West Virginia has 55 counties). The chambers of the legislature have been packed, and the members of the legislature have been heckled with the calls of “DO YOUR JOBS”, and “WE WILL, WE WILL, VOTE YOU OUT!” echoing inside of the Capitol rotunda. It has been a remarkable scene reminiscent of the days of yesteryear, when the miners who were on strike became known as rednecks due to their use of red bandannas around their necks. Some of the current teachers are proudly wearing red bandannas now in honor of their labor past.

How will this end? At this writing, it is uncertain. The State Senate is maintaining its prerogative to slow track a bill aimed at granting a one year 5% raise, thanks to an opportunistic rise in revenue projections that just happened to show up. Teachers have said that it’s not the pay that’s the biggest problem, it is the funding for PEIA. As often happens once a conflict erupts, neither side is willing to budge, and the way out of the abyss is hard to see at this time.

 

Blair mountain

Photo copyright Jed Ward.

 

Green Bank Observatory Trips

Green Bank Observatory Picture from Google Earth

In a narrow vale between two folds of earthen ridges in eastern West Virginia, a man-made structure stands nearly 150 meters tall. This is the Green Bank radio telescope, a unique resource that is the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world, with an antenna 100 meters in diameter. The radio telescope is at the heart of what was once called the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and is now run by the Green Bank Observatory. The facility is in the middle of a radio-free zone, where cell phones go to die, since there is zero cell service in this region.

The facilities at this observatory are not just for the use of professional scientists. There is a 40′ radio telescope that is available for use by school groups to learn the principles of radio astronomy, and the principles of scientific observation. I was fortunate enough to chaperone two groups of high school seniors from South Charleston High School (SCHS) on their overnight excursions to this wonderful resource. The International Baccalaureate Physics teacher at SCHS, Janet Richardson, arranged for this field trip annually. I went in the years that my sons were in her physics class.

When we reached the observatory, we had a lecture from one of the observatory staff who explained what we were going to be looking for. The 40′ telescope is now fixed in place, so it allows observations of what is directly overhead as the earth rotates. This means that you can see the galaxy rotating towards you for one part of the day, and you can see the galaxy moving away from you 12 hours later. If you have a radio telescope tuned to the correct wavelength, you can observe the emissions from hydrogen gas found in our galaxy. If you remember the Doppler effect from physics, and you think about train whistles, you will remember that as the train is coming towards you, the pitch is higher. Then when the train passes you, the pitch lowers. That is the same phenomena that the radio telescope is observing. As the hydrogen gas in the galaxy moves towards you, the frequency moves up – the signal is shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum. If the gas is moving away, the signal shifts towards the red. By taking measurements around the clock, you can see the rotation of the galaxy as measured from our position on one of the outer arms of the galaxy.

The 40′ radio telescope is one of the first telescopes within the quiet zone of the observatory. Once you enter the quiet zone, there are no powered vehicles except for old diesels. Spark plugs are capable of creating intense interference for the radio telescopes, so you see Checker cabs from the 1940’s and 1950’s available to transport people. There are some diesel vans as well that are used to move the students back and forth. You enter the quiet zone after passing by the start of the scale model of the solar system, with the inner planets grouped closely together. Then a significant gap, and finally the symbol for Jupiter appears on the side of the road. The gaps between the planets grows, and we reach our destination for observation halfway between Uranus and Neptune. The building that accompanies the 40′ scope is small above ground. Once you enter the door, you descend a short flight of stairs to come to the observation room. This is a scientific instrument history display, but all of the analog dials and gauges and chart recorders are still working. I probably used similar chart recorders back in my college days in the 1970’s.

green bank solar system model

The room where the measurements are taken has been used by various school groups for decades. Mementos of these groups can be found scrawled on the ceiling beams, and the wall beams, where you can see which colleges, and which high schools left their mark for future students to see. The students have been instructed on how to tune the receiver to the correct frequency bandwidth, to start the chart recorder, and to begin their observational period. They move the frequency detector manually through that range, and the chart recorder shows the response. Hydrogen gas, if it is not moving relative to the observer, will emit radiation at 1420 mHz. If it is moving towards the observer, the frequency will increase, and if moving away, the frequency will decrease. As they step through the frequency range, all of a sudden the antenna picks up the signal from hydrogen, and the chart pen goes up. The height of the response is proportional to the concentration of hydrogen being observed. The students move the frequency through the entire assigned range, and the pen comes back down to the baseline. Thus completes one set of measurements. Each group of students makes two observations over the course of their stay.

The first year I went, Janet asked me to stay with the students through all of the late night observation shifts. So while each student only got to see one measurement in the middle of the night, I got to see multiple hours of observation, and really got the sense of seeing the motion of the galaxy in real time. But once the last group of students took their measurements, I was ready to go back to the bunkhouse where the boys in the group were sleeping. The accommodations are not spartan, but the dual rows of bunk beds do not allow for any privacy. They do enable a bit of mischief, like the spray cheese some of the boys put on the hand of another sleeping student, ensuring that when they tickled his face, he would smear the cheese all over his face. I, being a sound sleeper, heard none of this mild mischief.

On my second trip to the observatory, we saw the place where conspiracy theorists (the tinfoil hat crowd) would love. We got to go inside of a room-sized Faraday cage. A Faraday cage is an enclosure that does not permit electromagnetic radiation of certain frequencies to enter or leave. This is where the computer equipment is for the observatory. Since the antennas are so sensitive to stray radiation, the computers have to be totally shielded away from the antennas. The walls, ceiling, and floor are all impregnated with a copper mesh. There are holes in the mesh, because they are only concerned with blocking radiation of certain wavelengths and the size of the holes in the mesh govern the size of waves that can escape.

For this middle-aged self-admitted science and astronomy nerd, the two days off work that I took for these trips were some of the better vacation days I ever spent. It’s now been 10 years since my older son took his trip. I asked both my sons about what they remembered, but it seems that the details of the science portion has been lost to the vagaries of time. I asked Janet what she had the class do with their measurements once they returned to the classroom, and she said that their task was to get an image of the galaxy by looking at their observations over the course of a day. I cannot express my appreciation to teachers like Janet Richardson, who help to ignite the spark of curiosity in classes of young men and women. She said that in the future, they may get involved in the programs that they have to discover pulsars. It’s a crowd-sourced project, where the data from observations are available, and interested volunteers can use their computers and software from the observatory to try to detect pulsars that have not yet been identified.

I noted at the first of this post that the observatory used to be known as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. It was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). As part of the ongoing disinvestment in science that began years ago, the NSF no longer provides 95% of the funds for the facility. Up until late in 2017, it was even feasible that the NSF would call for the demolition of the telescope. But since that time, a compromise was reached that enabled the observatory to stand as a self-sustaining organization. The Green Bank Observatory now is partnering with universities, like West Virginia University, and is involved with several multi-year projects including Project Breakthrough Listen, which is surveying the million closest stars to us and looking for signs of intelligent life. But like all such facilities, the needs for funds continues. If you would like to support the science programs of this unique facility that seeks to expand our knowledge of our origins, here’s the link to get involved:   https://greenbankobservatory.org/engage/

Winter Did Come

Snow in woods

Whose woods are these? They’re mine, you know. And they are really filling up with snow.

apologies to Robert Frost.

Poem paraphrase courtesy of my wife Carrie.

When you are retired, the concept of a Monday doesn’t resonate quite as badly as during a work week. But last week, we truly had a Monday. It started in the cold morning as the temperature was down to low single digits, after having been below freezing almost continually for 2 weeks. This was the longest sub-freezing cold streak I can remember since moving here in 1986. It finally got above freezing on Sunday, and the temperature in our unheated garage rose enough to allow water to flow through the copper tubing and find the hole which had burst during the extended freeze.

My wife was getting ready to go to the Rec Center to do her water exercises, but she heard water running. Never a good sign when you have no reason for water to be running. Turns out we now had an improvised car wash that was knocking the salt off of our car inside the garage. I stumbled downstairs in response to her call out to me, and was able to turn off the flow of water by closing the two valves leading out to our garage. Now the takeoff for this water line is upstream of the main house shutoff, so later this year, we will be plumbing this whole thing up right, including relocating the takeoff to downstream of the shutoff valve, and providing heat tape for the section of the line in the garage. Fortunately for us, we caught the leak shortly after it started, so no water damage, and we won’t be using the outside hose for a while.

Later on Monday we had cabinetry installed, so the kitchen was full of workers. Then we had a backup in our weirdly configured plumbing down in our laundry room, where the combined effluent from the kitchen dishwasher and the washing machine was backing up out of the floor drain and flowing across our basement floor. Discovered this just before I had to leave for a previously scheduled dental appointment. So I had to leave the mess to Carrie. An hour later, the workers from Roto-Rooter were in the driveway along with the cabinetry folks. I parked on the street but they had gotten the plug loosened (was related to the cold weather but wasn’t a frozen line). So add it all together, and I figure we’ve had enough Monday mishaps to last us for months.

Winter has settled in on our house, after having left us virtually untouched the last few years. Still not much snow – the 4″ we got this week was the biggest snowfall we’ve had, and it was so fluffy I could push it and not have to lift it. So the snow blower has yet to receive its first workout of the year.

The local birds and squirrels are pleased with the buffet laid out for them on our porch. Actually haven’t seen too many squirrels, but the morning doves come in droves. When I open the porch in the morning, the whirring of their wings as they take flight echoes from the feeder, the porch rail, the floor. We must have 6-8 of them who are focused on our feeder at times. The suet feeder is attracting many different birds, including a misplaced mockingbird I saw the other day. I always thought they migrated away, but I saw one last week at the suet.

morning doves

Its seed catalog time. This is the time when the marketing team for the Burpees and Gurneys and other seed vendors arrive unbidden, and they bring the hope and dreams of spring and summer. I have a new raised bed to install, replacing a 4″ x 4′ x 4′ with a 15″ deep x 3′ x 4′ version. When I made my garden 3 years ago, I crowded the beds too much, leaving inadequate space between beds. Plus my knees are much worse than they were, so having a 15″ high bed will be very nice. As the other frames deteriorate, I’ll likely change them as well. One thing I’ll say is that you will never receive a positive cash return if you are using raised beds for gardening. They are expensive and their yield is less than you’d need to make money from them. But if you just love to have the fresh vegetables, and enjoy the work to make things grow, the return is more than positive. The dreams of spring grow apace in winter.

The daffodils of spring are starting to poke their heads up. As the snow melts on the banks, you can see the green shoots start to emerge. They are smart enough to not grow excessively for a while, at least until the temperature really warms for multiple days. But for us, the earliest harbingers of spring will be the crocuses that pop up all over the lawn. I’ve never known how these corns moved all over the lawn, but they have naturalized everywhere. There will be some of them that will emerge on the first 70 degree day, but not yet. The snow must leave and the robins must come back before they make their appearance.

A Winter’s Eve Entertainment

jerry fort Photo copyright Husker.com

It was hard to be a Nebraska basketball fan in the middle 1970’s. Still is, as a matter of fact. Though the team has broken through and has participated in multiple NCAA tournaments, they still have not won a game in the tournament, nor have they won any conference championship since 1950. They did win the NIT in 1996, but no luck whatsoever in the NCAA. They are now the only power conference school who has never won an NCAA tournament game.

Nebraska played basketball in the Nebraska Coliseum. This red brick building was lovingly referred to as “the barn”, and held about 9,000 people if a shoehorn was used to cram them in. There was an arch centered over the court, and there were stands in the south end. The north end only had bleachers, and then there were bleachers that lined both sides of the court. The place was so small and tight that if you were on the front row, you had to move your feet so that a player could throw the ball in. When the place was full on a frozen Nebraska winter night, the warmth and crowd noise was overwhelming.

There was a tradition at the games that everyone stood until the first points were scored by Nebraska. One particularly bad game, we stood against Oklahoma for over 8 minutes of playing time. That was the year when the football team scored 77 points against Army. The basketball team, on the other hand, never scored more than 76 points in a single game. Needless to say, it was a quixotic challenge to be a Nebraska basketball fan. The team did have a winning record my last 3 years, but the frustration had built up.

Nebraska had one guard who had the most unusual shooting style I’ve ever seen. Jerry Fort was the guard who would hold the basketball directly over his head, then flick his wrist to propel the ball towards the hoop. He had a long-range shot that would have been of more value if he played in the 3-point shot era. His shooting style and the Nebraska Coliseum bleachers are shown in the picture at the top. I may be in the picture, since I attended every home game during my 4 years in college. But I was unable to find my face in the crowd. You can see how close the feet in the first row were to the playing surface.

College students being as they are, we were convinced that we knew everything, and so even though in our senior year the team had a good winning record, we were leading cheers against our coach, Joe Cipriano. He went by the diminutive of Cip, and so we were calling out to “Fire Cip”. One game we had assistance from one of our dorm floor residents who worked in the computer science program. He was able to write a program that printed out on those old green computer printout sheets the words FIRE CIP across multiple sheets of paper. A group of us sat together, and at an opportune time during the game, we unfurled the banner and chanted our little chant. Some of the crowd joined us, but the chant never reached full volume in the place.

The game ended, and I was walking out with my roommate, Sam. Sam was tall, about 6’4″, and we had just left the court area and were walking next to the trophy case. Suddenly Sam was accosted by this small person, probably about 5’7″, who took a swing at Sam and was ready to go at it with him. I grabbed this guy by the arms and pinned him up against the trophy case, where a lot of the football championship hardware was displayed, and told the guy to calm down. He did, I released him, and we went back into the cold February night air for our walk across campus. Back then, in college, I gauged whether it was cold based upon whether I had ice crystals form on my mustache by the time I got to my destination. I think that night, it was cold.

We got into our room later, and found out from a friend that the person who had accosted Sam, was the coach’s son. Never did hear anything more about the incident. Nowadays, with all of the increased security and police presence, we probably would have ended up being charged with some sort of offense, but not then.

My senior year in college was the last year that basketball was played in the Coliseum. The following spring in 1976, my graduation ceremony was held in the new Devaney Center. We even had President Gerald Ford give our commencement address, although I couldn’t tell you one thing that he said. Since I left campus, even the Devaney Center has been supplanted as a basketball arena, though it is still used for women’s volleyball for the NCAA champions. I guess I must be getting old when my memories are two basketball arenas behind the current arena. Well, hope springs eternal, and I will be rooting for Nebraska basketball to shed is oxymoronic status, and win a game this year in the NCAA tournament.