And the Living Is Easy (2018 Version)

2018 fawn

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

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

 2018 flood

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

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

 

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

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

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

 All pictures by the author.

 

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

Yankee Stadium

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

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

Aaron Judge

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

Ellis Island

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

Statue of Liberty

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

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

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

All photos by author.

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

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

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

Charleston Chamber Orchestra

 

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

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

 

Three Degrees of Separation

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where the Wild Threats Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chemicals I Have Made – Hydrogen Peroxide

hydrogen peroxide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tumbling Tumbleweeds

Tumbleweeds

Photo copyright of the Huffington Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnet 1

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

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

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

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

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

magnet 2

 

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

 

Chemicals I Have Known (and Made) – Hydrogen Cyanide

hcn

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.