Off We Go, Into the Wild Blue Yonder

rocket launch space discovery
Photo by SpaceX on Pexels.com

We are living in a golden age of exploration. Part of the human nature has always been to push the boundaries, whenever and wherever there was incentive. The spices of the Orient, along with unknown riches, tempted the explorers of Europe. Now, we are in a race for space. With the recent launch of the Perseverance mission to Mars, that planet is now infested with both unmanned rovers, and orbiting observers. Participants in this infestation include India, China, the joint venture between the Russians and Europeans, multiple missions from the US, and the mission from the United Arab Emirates that recently launched. For millennia humanity watched the planets, convinced that they held great influence over our existence on Earth. Though we may laugh at astrology today, it is undoubtedly responsible for the growth of knowledge about patterns in the cosmos, due to the need to know what the positions of the planets were at the time of the birth of individuals.

Indeed, astrology still has millions of adherents, convinced that the orientation of the planets hold the means to provide order to a seemingly chaotic life. But once our understanding of the cosmos went beyond mere observation, to a systemic search for knowledge, we have been merciless at trying to uncover the mysteries of our solar system neighbors. We have seen evidence of great floods on Mars, and the search continues to see if we can find direct evidence of life elsewhere, either from the past, or tantalizingly, still alive somewhere under the Martian surface.

Now there are private businesses aimed at the conquest of space. These are not just the vanity projects of the new tech aristocracy, but serious attempts at commercializing both near Earth exploration, and eventually solar system exploration. It will be difficult to provide a positive cash flow from these activities, but what we’ve seen is that companies are willing to fund the immense investment in space vehicles. We’ve weathered the gap between NASA’s shuttle (2 catastrophic failures out of 135 missions), to launches to the space station from US vehicles. What is different now is that it is a private corporation, SpaceX, that has contracted with NASA for a series of launches. The first of these launches just splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, completing a seemingly flawless flight. SpaceX is in competition with Boeing, Boeing concentrating mainly on heavier launch capabilities. Since private enterprise is funding the research, they will be looking for payoff well beyond what government contracts provide. And that is why there truly is a new age of exploration, one that will result in humans setting foot on Mars sooner rather than later. The moon will also be revisited, and with the current missions aiming at prospecting for ice on the surface of the moon, it may actually be possible to build a base on the moon itself.

Why do this? Well, I for one think it much better to use humanity’s creativity in exploration, rather than in building munitions and munition delivery systems. Although there has been significant advances in our understanding of physics, metallurgy, and chemistry through the development of better means of destruction, the use of these tools comes with immense human suffering. And as we’ve seen in the recent explosion involving ammonium nitrate in Lebanon, it does not take a lot of technology to spread a lot of death and destruction.  Spending the money on science to increase our range and knowledge instead of on destruction seems a much more humane way to proceed.

Besides, there is much to learn. Even beyond the possibility of life on Mars, there is the tantalizing thought that life may exist underneath the ice caps covering the oceans of the satellites of the larger planets. The question we have is whether life is ubiquitous in the universe, spreading wherever the chemical conditions couple with the source of energy to power life. If we do find life outside of our planet, it will have immense repercussions among the world’s religions. They must see if their theology can adapt to life existing in multiple locations, and allow for a creator that likes to experiment, rather than one totally vested on earth. I have always thought that limiting a creator to a single site in this immense universe did a disservice to the creator, since it imposed such tight restraints on its capabilities.

The age of exploration we live in goes well beyond the physical limitations of earth. We have been exploring the intricacies of the genome, learning the secrets to manipulate the formulas of life for our own benefit. Tools such as CRISPR, and DNA sequencing improvements, are leading to the possibilities for us to deal with the microscopic universe. Those abilities are coming into play now with the unprecedented speed in which vaccines against COVID-19 are being developed. Back a generation ago, we would not have to knowledge to sequence the genome, learn its tricks for attaching to cells, and develop multiple ways to fight against this novel virus. It would have taken years of painful trial and error work to possibly come up with a vaccine. Today? We may have 3 modes of action incorporated into vaccines, and testing could be complete within a year from the initial confirmation of the virus’s structure.

Many ask why do we spend money on exploration, when we cannot meet our needs on earth. My answer is that it is through exploration and research that we discover the ways to increase the economic pie, thus allowing for a greater share for each individual. It is only through the growth of economic activity engendered by the discoveries from research and exploration that we can avoid the Malthusian fate that would otherwise engulf us.

Summer Reveries

Summer flowers

It is good to know in the midst of all of the concurrent crises we face, that nature  proceeds at its own pace unconcerned with all of the worries humanity has. Thus we return to summer in West Virginia, where the biggest issue is whether the cowbird will be successful in laying an egg in the wren’s nest up in one of our flower baskets.

We are loving it out in our outdoor living room, where we enjoy our coffee and newspaper in the mornings, and use its space for our afternoon cocktail. In between we can read or just watch  nature as it visits our porch. The finch feeder is in use most of the daylight hours, with the purple finches unafraid to visit while we sit there, though the gold finches are shy and only visit when we are not present. We were treated to seeing a hummingbird chase a finch away one day, though what the finch did to draw this attention is unknown. This year we are not seeing any non-conforming finches, where a brood is raised that includes a foreign egg from a cowbird. Last year we saw a young bird that was unable to use the finch feeder, though it tried valiantly. Instead, it chirped and waited for its father to deliver a seed directly to it, since it could not reach into the feeder with its own beak.

A wren built a nest in one of our hanging flower baskets. You can see it dart in and out, and it often scolds us, especially when we are at the table with our coffee. That puts us directly next to the nest, and that is obviously too close for the bird’s comfort. But it is the cowbird couple that is the most interesting. Last week I saw the couple, with the male perched a few feet away while the female scoped out the nest. At that time there were obviously no eggs there, and they flew away. But just yesterday I saw the female eyeing the nest again, and this time the wren flew directly at the cowbird, chasing it away. It remains to be seen if the battle will have future acts.

The fallout from the finch feeder keeps other birds busy who do not have the physique to feed directly from the feeder. Often we can hear the whooshing of the morning dove wings as they fly away after having poked through the rubble looking for intact seeds. And chipmunks cross our porch regularly, stopping sometime to search for seeds, while other times stopping under the hummingbird feeder and lapping up the spilled sugar water. Then they hustle off to whatever their business is.

This year I’ve seen not only the neon blue skinks skitter across the porch, but another color of skink. They are fast and you have to really be watchful in order to see them. So far they are the only reptiles we’ve shared our space with.

The flicker loves the hummingbird feeder. It will hang off of the feeder, and you can see it drinking as it brings the liquid into its beak and works it down its throat. The hummingbirds know that they cannot force the flicker away (too big), so an uneasy detente exists where the hummer will visit the side of the feeder opposite the flicker. It is amazing how much entertainment you can get out of a half-cup of sugar dissolved in water. We have seen at least one hummer battle, but know that more are to come as the alpha male perches on the wires leading to the house, keeping watch and driving away any other hummers who dare to intrude on its designated home turf.

2018 flicker

Several years ago we had to take down the hemlock tree that graced our front lawn due to storm damage. We replaced it with ornamental trees that won’t grow as tall so as to threaten the wires. The ornamental cherry directly in front of our porch is growing daily, as you can see the new leaves stretching higher each time you look at it. It may never give us shade, but that doesn’t matter to the birds who use any location as a handy perch.

We have apple trees which have very seldom given us apples. Not because the apples weren’t produced, but because the squirrels get to them first. But until this year, they’ve always left the crab apples alone. The tartness of them must be a turn off even to voracious squirrels. This year, though, the squirrels are taking the crab apples right off of the trees and eating them.

Squirrel

It is good to take the time to really see the world around us. If nothing else, this time of physical isolation and separation from the rest of humanity, has intensified the desire for watching the world of nature. It is good to realize that the life outside does not care about human pandemics, or divisive politics, or any of the other matters that occupy the airwaves. Just hearing the sounds of birds, and the chirring of the crickets helps to put things into perspective.

A Quilt For All Seasons

Anne's quilt

I’m turning this post over to my wife, Carrie, who wanted to share a little bit about the quilting  process, and how it is healing emotionally. Let me just say that this is the first quilt she has made in a long time that was not blessed by our cat Napoleon, who died in early December. Napoleon blessed the quilts by laying on them as Carrie put on the binding.

 

I am a quilter. Pictured here is the quilt that I have sent to my niece Anne, who is a 2020 high school graduate.

I had been working on this quilt since back before Christmas. While it was in progress, shortly before Christmas, something very distressing happened to me. (I don’t want to go into details).  One afternoon, I carried that distress one afternoon to my sewing machine.

Before I go on, let me explain a little about how this particular quilt block is constructed. You start with two contrasting squares of fabric, sew them together in a certain way, then cut them in a certain way, press open, turn,  re-sew, press, cut again, turn again, sew one more time to finish the block. Laying them out in rows and sewing the rows together forms the all-over pattern pictured.

So that day, as I watched the blocks form in front of my eyes and saw their beauty, the distress I was feeling just seemed to melt away. A couple of hours of doing this and a great happiness replace the distress.

So, I guess the moral to this story is that we all need beauty in our lives. Whether is doing something visual, like quilting, or making music (which I also do), the human spirit needs beauty.

Quilt closeup

Finally, I know that a comforter from Target is just as able to keep my niece warm when she is able to go to college, but a quilt also covers her with love and lets her know she is not alone.

This is why I quilt. And, indeed, quilting is one thing that has kept me sane during the social distancing.

Emmanuel Parish, Cumberland – A Gem

Emmanuel_Espiscopal_Church_Cumberland

The church on the hill. The hill that used to be where the fort stood back in the French and Indian war days. The fort where they dug trenches for the troops to walk through without risk of drawing enemy fire, trenches that were simply covered up by the church built above in 1850. Emmanuel Parish church in Cumberland Maryland has a history that can simply not be matched by many churches in this country.

Imagine a church located up above the hardscrabble town down by the river. Just across the river, a few hundred yards away, was Virginia. It was a common path for those traveling the underground railroad to take advantage of the tunnels underneath the church. Even though Maryland was a slave state, just a few miles to the north was the famous Mason-Dixon line and the free state of Pennsylvania. Today, the tunnels serve to store electrical switchgear, and the guts of the HVAC system. But always with an ear towards the past, and the footsteps of those who long ago passed through these trenches on their way to a hoped-for freedom.

My family was able to hear about the history of this church and learn the stories from its docent, Ron Growden. It was wonderful to hear him tell the stories and hear his descriptions of the church and its wonderful Tiffany windows and altar. As in many older main-line Protestant churches, the wealth of the church in the past still shines through the memorial gifts given long ago. Only this time, the gifts were manifested in three large stained glass windows commissioned from the Tiffany company. A scene showing the adoration of the shepherds was built, with the window aimed to capture the sun from the east, intended to direct the morning light of the sun  through the image of the Christmas star above the stable. Subtle shadings of blue in the Virgin’s dress were made by increasing the thickness of the glass, making the garment come alive.

Adoration of the shepherds

In the rear of the church, the windows represented the second coming, with angels carrying horns matched by the trumpet en chamade pipes extending perpendicular to the rear wall.

Second coming Tiffany

But for me, the real highlight of the windows was the one depicting the story of Rizpah. Though I am relatively familiar with the bible, I was unaware of her story. How she was a concubine of Saul, and had bore him two sons. How when David took over the throne, he gave Rizpah’s sons up with the other male descendents of Saul to the Gibeonites, and they tortured and killed them. Then Rizpah stood guard over their corpses both day and night to prevent their bodies from being desecrated by animals. In the depiction in glass, her image was borrowed from the statue in New York Harbor, and she held a torch in her hand that lit the ground around her and on the bodies of her sons suspended from crosses. The light that emanated from her torch was golden, and soft, but through Tiffany’s artistry, it becomes a striking focal point for the wall. It is difficult to turn your eyes away from the Art Deco influenced glass portrayal of a strong woman.

rizpah

Though the church has an extensive past, and the money available to the church in the past was evident in the art work made available for future generations, the present state of the church is similar to many other old main-line Protestant churches. Ron told us about the efforts to make the church part of a National Park Service site to commemorate the underground railroad, which would help to off-load some of the support costs for the building. But when we came back to the church the next day on Sunday morning, the morning of the annual meeting for the parish, the attendance was only slightly more than what we experience in our own parish church in Charleston, West Virginia. St. John’s Charleston shares a long history as a flagship downtown church in an Appalachian city worn down by deindustrialization. It too has vivid portrayals in stained glass, although it does not have anything like Tiffany windows to share. But the attendance at services continues to slide, and it seems like the type of religious service it offers is less and less desired as our nation continues its secularization.

Our son was outed at the church that day. He is actually an organist, and has lived in the area for over three years without having revealed that side of his skills to the community of organists. That is a community that is very welcoming, since there are fewer and fewer young organists coming along. Whether he takes advantage of the opportunity and begins an association with this church, I don’t know, but it never hurts to give a gentle guiding touch in a direction that his parents think will help him in his future life.

I wish to express my appreciation to the church and to its website, for the pictures used in this post. The church’s website is https://www.emmanuelparishofmd.org/

The Silence of Sounds

neon

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

We’ve entered the darkness once again. The darkness of Mordor sprawls across the landscape, pouring out of its source in the now-fouled house of White.

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

The vision that has crept across this nation over the last few years is the stale vision of white superiority, the failed belief that European civilization is superior to any other version found across the globe. The seeds have found fertile ground and have sprouted.

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of silence

The visions I have seen over the last few years can never be unseen. Children crying as they are separated from their family by a government that cared so little for them that they could not set up a system to eventually reunite parents with children. Humans crowded into chain-link cages. Lit tiki torches marching along Charlottesville streets, eliciting the famous “Good people on both sides” quote. And still the silence remains deafening from the Republican members of Congress.

In restless dreams I walked alone

Narrow streets of cobblestone

As in a trance, we march. No, not alone, but en masse, thousands and thousands in protest. The energy that we all had those first days. But as time passed, the momentum has slowed, while the acts of evil continue to spew from the powers wielded by this administration. It now seems that we do march alone, if at all, trying to stem the tide.

‘Neath the halo of a street lamp

I turned my collar to the cold and damp

When my eyes were stabbed by

The flash of a neon light

That split the night

And touched the sound of silence

Every so often, something so egregious manages to break through the din of the mundane atrocities littering the landscape. It might be a joint meeting with Putin attended only by the principles and an interpreter. It might be a fawning show of sycophancy in the cabinet meeting where all pledged eternal devotion to this dour denizen of denial. It might be a report of an attempt to extort the leader of a nation into doing opponent research for his next campaign. Things so brazen, so outrageous, that I cannot but believe that this surely will break through the stone wall isolating his supporters from his true nature. But each time, I turn away disappointed as his spin control succeeds in removing the outrage from the nation’s discourse.

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence

The cacophony emanates from the television shows. One side fawns, makes every excuse for the behavior, and claims the real villainy came from those who would deny his immense electoral victory. The other side squirms, is so eager to denounce the actions that they violate their journalistic ethics and report poorly sourced stories that are eagerly denounced by his supporters. Both sides talk over the other side, and no one is convinced or persuaded to change their opinion. Now the opposition is more interested in purity tests than it is in the nuts and bolts of selecting a candidate who can take down the tyranny spreading from its center.

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows

Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you”

But my words, like silent raindrops, fell

And echoed in the wells of silence

I took up the mantle of a blog shortly after the election. I shared items of science, of daily life and the changing of the seasons, and politics. Lots and lots of politics. I enjoyed especially the pieces I put out that used satire to express a point. For a long time, I was part a forum where active discussion occurred on all types of posts. I enjoyed my “minor league forum” and was a respected poster and commenter. Then, the forum disintegrated, and I fell into a bit of a posting depression. It is difficult to continue to pour out your thoughts when you get little or no feedback. I have felt that my words were indeed, echoing in the well of silence.

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

The neon god that took over the office of the President represented all of the glitter and gloss that a celebrity could muster. Yet when all is said and done, there is no more substance there than a bunch of gas excited by an electrical current.

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And the sign said

“The words of the prophets are

Written on the subway walls

And tenement halls

 

Maybe Banksy has it right. All art is temporary, and the ephemeral nature of a painting on the side of a building is as good and as valid as any old Dutch masterwork from the Renaissance. Yet in this day of the 4-hour news cycle, where a provocation can be answered with a response and then superseded by the next outrageous announcement or act, maybe there is a place for things that have a little more substance, and stability. Maybe things like the Constitution have a place as guidelines for our body politic to do its job and not just either fawn in supplication, or wail and bemoan in protest. Maybe, just maybe, we should place duty to the nation ahead of party and take real action.

 

And whispered in the sound of silence”

Instead of Simon and Garfunkle, let’s let William Shakespeare have the last word: It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Words to the Sound of Silence copyrighted by Paul Simon.

 

Tribalism

nazi_party_rally_grounds

This post is the fifth in a series of seven posts describing existential threats to our way of life and our civilization. It describes the increasing tendency towards tribalism seen across the globe. As our commerce and culture have become intertwined more tightly with other nations, a backlash has developed. That backlash has taken the form of nationalistic, xenophobic, populist political movements burgeoning within many nations. It evokes memories of the 1930’s, and the mass Nuremburg rallies that provided the German peoples with a sense of solidarity that really did generate the belief that it could be Germany Űber Alles, Germany Over All. The tendency within those countries that have surrendered their government to these populists is to denounce dissent, generate fear within the populace, and decry any attempt to hold them accountable, especially attempts coming from a free press.

So the expression of this populist anger is to return each country to a golden age, when the virginal nation was unsullied by the globalist villains who only wish to plunder the wealth of our nation. And a virginal nation needs to return to the state of racial purity that it held in its golden age. This may be the defining struggle of our age, where the old ideals of racial purity confront the reality of the world today. Borders cannot be seen from space (except for the South Korea / North Korea border in a picture taken at night). The world has been brought closer together by the technologies of the modern age. Whether it is transportation systems allowing mass movement of people and goods, or whether it is the internet which erases most borders for global communication, or whether it is multi-national corporations that search for the optimum global supply chain solutions, our prosperity and continued survival is now dependent upon not just those who live in this nation, but also those in other nations. The nationalist movement wishes to reverse this trend and allow each nation to float along independent of all other nations.

It remains to be seen whether the strategy of the populists can be successful. On the economic front, success has come when there are multi-national organizations that set the rules and provide a framework for transactions. But it is the desire of the populists to revert to a time when it was “us against the world”, leading to a plethora of bilateral agreements. Nations view each other using the lens of win/lose when it comes to trade relations. But once you get accustomed to looking at things through a lens of win/lose for economics, it colors your perception in all other forms of relations. Soon diplomatic relations are reduced to transactional relationships, in which one party is expecting to “win” against the other. We saw where this led in the 1930’s. One party in Europe insisted upon winning against its neighbors time and time again, eventually causing Germany to become emboldened to take direct military action against its neighbors. We have the same framework today, only the weaponry is orders of magnitude more powerful. Consider what would happen if India and Pakistan allowed their decades-long struggle over Kashmir to escalate to the point of using nuclear weaponry. Will China, lying downwind of the fallout pattern, be able to resist taking sides in this one-upmanship battle? And that’s only one of dozens of potential conflicts that can either result directly in nuclear exchanges, or cause another party to be drawn in to use them.

The structure of the post-war world has prevented further use of nuclear weaponry for over 70 years. That structure is fraying at the edges, and needs to be revised to reflect the issues of the modern world. But the desire of the populists is to tear up all arrangements and rely solely upon the internal resources of each country. Were all international organizations and alliances to be struck down, the vacuum that results will not be filled with peace and harmony. Instead, particles of strontium 90 and cesium 137 from nuclear bomb detonations will likely fill the void in the atmosphere as the children leading countries lose their tempers and cause the loss of the lives of millions of people.

This is not one of the problems that is solvable using science and technology. It is very unlikely that we will be saved by an alien civilization that uses its advanced technology to deactivate any nuclear explosion. That is what it would take to tackle this risk from a scientific perspective. Instead, this is a case where if the other problems can be addressed using science and mathematics, the economic conditions will improve to the point that the populists are rejected by the citizens of their nation. Otherwise the nuclear genie will show up and let us know that it has not gone back into its bottle, even though it has stayed silent for a long while.

 

Lafayette, We Were There

indiana-18105__340

The road back was familiar. Over the hills of northeastern Kentucky, skirting the Cincy metropolitan area to the south, passing the temptation of another visit to the monstrosity called the Creation Museum, and then on through the level fields of Indiana. Onward to Lafayette, a city I had known for my entire life. Now I was to go back there for likely the last time, for the memorial service for my Aunt, and to pay my respects to her.

At times like this, you remember snatches of the past. The barely remembered scene where there was a house in a little hamlet alongside the railroad tracks where the road bent in a curve. The baseball games with the cousins in the front of my Grandmother’s house. The house out on US 52, where I learned the mysteries of CB radio back in the late 1960’s with my cousin, before the coming of the trucker CB onslaught. The small condo community on the edge of Lafayette, where my uncle died. The vacation condominium in Destin, where over the decades we saw the town convert from the Luckiest Fishing Village, into a miniature version of Myrtle Beach, with attractions and traffic that emulated that other destination resort. And finally, the house my aunt shared with her last husband, the 60’s modernistic version of an architect’s vision of the future, with three wings set at 120° angles away from the central core. Floor to ceiling glass walls filled the central wing, with heavy doors sliding open and leading you out onto stone patios. The thing that really dated the house though, was the fully capable fallout shelter you entered from the closet next to the front door. You climbed down a metal ladder into a room that, when I saw it in the early 2000’s, was not outfitted with survival supplies, but with games and battery-operated lights for use on those occasions when it doubled as a tornado shelter.

My immediate family knew her as Joyce. It was not until her last marriage to Allen that I learned her first name was Peggy, and that is how she was known to her friends. As my wife said at her memorial service, Joyce was a good name for her, since joy is the largest part of that name. She exuded joy, and welcoming. We often used their house as a way stop either going to my parents in Lincoln, or coming back to West Virginia. Our boys loved to put nickels into the genuine antique slot machine in the office. And Allen and Peggy were always happy to see us, and show off their latest projects. For Allen, it was his unending work on the wooded hillside that he was continually working on. He was able to improve upon the wilderness that came with the property, building paths, taking down scrub trees and planting more suitable foliage, clearing the debris down in the small creek. That work occupied his leisure hours that weren’t otherwise consumed by golf or Purdue sports. For both Allen and Peggy were huge Purdue supporters, and for decades had seats behind Gene Keady and the Purdue basketball team in Mackey Arena. I would look for them whenever Purdue had a home game on TV.

Peggy was known far and wide for her cooking. Whenever we made it to their house, we always had more to eat than we needed. And it was good. Universally good. We had many wonderful memories from meals we ate in that house. But she was not just a purveyor of food for humans. She had a wide range of animals that recognized a soft touch when they came across one. Many stray cats would come for the food and water she left for them. Also sharing in the bounty were the raccoons that came at night. Of course, she did have her cats that lived inside of the house as well.

My last trip to the house was for a Nebraska – Purdue football game back in 2013. I was definitely an outsider, with my red apparel, but even then I was still made to feel welcome. Even after the game, which ended up 44-7 in favor of Nebraska. I didn’t realize at the time that it would be my last visit to the house that was always so hospitable. Soon Alzheimer’s paid a visit to Peggy, and she spent her last years in an assisted living facility. Allen soldiered on, but his heart gave out this past November. Then, on Christmas eve, Peggy joined him again.

It gives you pause to realize that you are visiting a town for the last time. The memorial services for Peggy and Allen brought the remains of my father’s family together once again. Once more, we reminisced at Arni’s Pizza, with its small square pieces. But now that my Aunt and Uncle are gone, there is no more reason to go back. I have one surviving aunt on my mother’s side. On my father’s side, my cousin John is now the patriarch, he being all of a year older than me. Nothing gives you a bigger appreciation of your own mortality than to realize that almost all of your relatives you knew growing up and through your adulthood, are now gone. Life does go faster than we can imagine when we were children playing outside, unaware of the adult concerns and problems that we too would one day share.

 

 

Technological Change Over A Career

Control room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chemicals I Have Known (and Made) – Acrylonitrile

acrylonitrile-500x500

 

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!

Denali.jpg

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.

Salmon.jpg

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.