Archive for the 'Science' Category


Better (or Stranger) Refreshments With Zone Refining

Friends, I always manage to do this by accident. You, having psychological and gustatory urges which I can only imagine, may find that you will want to do this same thing intentionally. -This- is zone refining.

You may already know that, if water is chilled very slowly and uniformly, it may freeze uniformly, suddenly and thoroughly. The freezing point is very precise. It is also different for other substances. Mixtures of substances which freeze differently – such as water & sugar, or water & food coloring, or water & carbon dioxide – will not freeze uniformly. Such mixtures can *un-mix*.

The first time I saw this un-mixing was a delightful surprise. It was delightful because it was unexpected and because I recognized it immediately. The venerable Scientific American magazine had taught me about the phenomenon of zone refining.

I had been eager to chill a bottle of Manischewitz wine, one day during college. I put in in the hall freezer in the Alley 5 kitchenette of Ruddock House. Then I forgot about it.

No, I didn’t really forget about it. I merely remembered it later than I had intended to remember it. It was a stunning sight – a 3/4 full squarish bottle which now had a fairly clear chunk of ice perched over a much smaller amount of concentrated wine. My exclamations brought a few Trolls to the kitchenette doorway. They were happy for me. There was some discussion of the potential of the liquid to offer an enhanced drinking experience.

That discussion, as dorm discussions with random Trolls often do, diverged toward other subjects. ‘Stud‘ offered his opinion that “Three quarters of a lethal dose of anything is a great high.” My retort – that three quarters of a lethal dose of concrete would be really hard to keep lit for smoking – was met with Stud’s expert correction: “You don’t smoke concrete, dummy – you shoot it up.”

Most recently, I did it again with half a bottle of Pepsi. Vitamin P keeps me going, as it did during performances of Stone’s Throw Dinner TheaterOklahoma!‘. It needed some fast chilling one night, and a preoccupation with my role resulted in a chunk of ice and Pepsi syrup. Yum!

Freezing doesn’t strictly require a colder temperature than for liquid. Either (depending upon pressure) can exist at a phase-transition temperature. When a liquid mixture is cooled slowly, it will cool even more slowly at this phase transition. The movement of heat that is cooling serves to make liquid become solid, leaving no extra movement of heat to lower the temperature. Take a look at this phase diagram for water. The ‘mp‘ dot is the melting point (freezing point) that we usually think of – normal pressure, 1 atmosphere. ‘mp’ belongs to both liquid and solid.

Various substances have very different phase diagrams. Here’s Uranium Hexafluoride, the form of uranium that is convenient to use in processing nuclear reactor and weapons fuel. (I would offer a phase diagram for Pepsi syrup, but it doesn’t seem to be available.)

A liquid mixture will have its minute constituents freezing at their individual ‘mp’s. For Pepsi, water freezes at a higher temperature than (prior to) the syrup, which has sugar, flavoring, and coloring. The very transition of water from liquid to solid prevents (temporarily) the temperature from getting low enough to freeze the syrup.

This stuff has seemed understandable to me for over 40 years. I do wonder about one thing – can I circumvent laws regulating the distillation of alcohol by using zone refining (of Manischewitz wine, no less!) instead of differential vaporization (a ‘still’)? Do I need to alert regulators to this potential loophole?


UFOs and Self-Delusions

This is not the first time that I have been irritated at the transparent gullibility and superstitious inclinations rampant in our culture. It’s high time that you read a small selection of my comments.

Yesterday, Huffington Post had an article about a new book, “UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record” (Harmony Books / The Crown Publishing Group) by journalist Leslie Kean. The book’s website states “…she presents irrefutable evidence that unknown flying objects – metallic, luminous, and seemingly able to maneuver in ways that defy the laws of physics – actually exist.” The HuffPost article was the typical promotional article, and I was limited to 35 (35!!! ackk!) words of comment.

Ms. Kean was also interviewed yesterday on MSNBC‘s ‘The Dylan Ratigan Show‘. She stressed that her book was, effectively, written by many “people from very high levels”. The “people from very high levels” are politicians, soldiers, policemen, and others who are all equally un-skilled in analysis. The forward was written by President Clinton’s Chief-of-Staff John Podesta – a nice guy, but not an expert. Ratigan was as well-prepared as we can expect – that is, minimally. He did have graphics presenting skeptical criticisms: pilots aren’t reliable witnesses; UFOs are not merely only solved or unsolvable; the unexplained is not necessarily due to aliens. Ratigan was not prepared to do more than provide a forum for Kean to respond to these points. Kean claims to be a skeptic herself, distinguished from ignorant people whom she calls ‘debunkers’.

Scientists understand that “Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.” — Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). The claims of Kean and other credulous folks are exceptional. They are not default – a priori – claims. ‘Oh, there isn’t a good explanation, so the most bizarre explanation must be true’ is an exceptional claim for which no exeptional evidence is offered.

A number of ‘UFO’ photos were published by HuffPost. I reproduce the first two here, under copyright Fair Use for scholarly analysis. My analysis will require more than 35 words. It will demonstrate that Kean cannot be a skeptic, because she is incapable of allowing for the possibility of explanations that are in plain sight. Photos 1 & 2 “photographed in 1971 by a mapping aircraft” contain obvious evidence of the exact nature of the ‘disc’.

Photo 1 is an enlargement of Photo 2.

The Huffpost caption for Photo 2 is: “Backing up from the close-up of the disc in the previous image to see it in context, the larger photograph shows the object over a lake (the darker area) with the terrain to the left. The sun is reflecting off its upper surface. This UFO was photographed in 1971 by a mapping aircraft of the Costa Rican government flying above it. The camera ran automatically under the fuselage, shooting the terrain every 17 seconds; the disc appeared only in one frame. Extensive scientific analysis has been performed on this image of an opaque disc with no visible means of propulsion. © Collection of Bernard Thouanel

It is an incandescent reflector lamp in a fixture, within the aircraft.

Note these features:
1. The reflector surface’s circular edge is visible as a dark line at the bottom and left edges of the disc. Mirrored surfaces will appear dark when reflecting light away from a viewer.
2. The glass bulb protrudes almost spherically so that the dark line (1) is visible through the glass.
3. A hemispherical filament shield, typical of projector lamps, is the dark round spot at the apex of the shadow ‘V’.
4. The support for the filament shield curves upward from the shield to the base (neck) of the bulb. It is not illuminated.
5. The shadow ‘V’ is precisely the shadow seen in a conical reflector.
6. A light lazy ‘Z’ just outside the left edge of the bulb is a common sheet-metal shape for the supporting fixture; the lazy ‘Z’ is the end of this ring of sheet metal, perhaps exposing the cut bare metal that is otherwise painted a dark color.
7. The focus varies within the image; it is better at the bottom and fairly poor at the top. Focus of a distant object, outside the aircraft, would not vary.

The seeming coincident of capturing an external object during a once-in-17-seconds exposure from a speeding aircraft is resolved by noting that the lamp would be inside the aircraft, where focus could be highly variable. The camera would be shooting through a window. The lamp would have been turned off, since the support for the filament shield is not illuminated. Another light source, turned on inadvertently for a few seconds, illuminated what may have been the only shiny object in the camera bay. It appeared as a result of a reflection in the window for (perhaps) only one frame.

I understand that, in a situation which may produce bewilderment and consternation, it is easy to mis-identify something. I have witnessed exactly that in my only encounter with a UFO.

I arrived home after sunset and stepped out of my car onto the driveway. There was a moderately loud throbbing sound. I tried to locate it, but there was no apparent direction. The sound seemed to come from all around. In a minute, I noticed the source of the sound: a large, cigar-shaped glowing object in the sky. It was moving appreciably. I recognized it immediately as a UFO.

I went to the front door and called for the Kids’ Mom and My Favorite Daughter to come outside. They noticed the throbbing as readily as I had. I intentionally allowed them to be puzzled by it briefly. Then I directed their attention to the sky.

They were astounded. It was absolutely inexplicable to them. It was not inexplicable to me. I allowed them to only become slightly concerned, and I identified the Unidentified Flying Object.

It was especially easy for me to do so, because I had encountered this UFO earlier in the day. It had followed the highway as I passed by, driving from Springfield to Joplin. It was the Goodyear Blimp. Our house was near the Joplin Airport, and it was orbiting near our house in preparation for landing.

The throbbing sound of the blimp’s engines was reflected by houses and trees, to seem omni-directional. The glowing cigar shape was due to illumination of the bottom of the blimp’s envelope by city lights. The top of the shiny envelope was not visible, because (with low specularity) it reflected city lights upward.

I do not accept, in a situation which is clinical and unemotional, that a ‘skeptical’ person would be oblivious to obvious evidence. When Kean looks at a photo, in an unthreatening and unemotional setting, and cannot see a light bulb, it demonstrates that she is bringing bewilderment and consternation with her.


Fire & Ice

You are getting something different today. That’s right – no flaming liberal progressive rants! I want you to know a too-secret first aid technique. Pay heed, friends, and either you or someone you care for may someday be spared pain and injury.

I am a fair-skinned fellow. I have never tanned appreciably, but I have had a number of excruciating sunburns. One particularly nasty sunburn was the result of a camping trip in mountains near Pasadena, California during college. When the chill morning air relented, I lay on my back to enjoy the warm, bright sky. I did not consider that altitude increases sunlight’s ultraviolet (sunburn-causing) strength. Later that day, after returning to school, my chest erupted in angry hues.

This sunburn was not the usual stinging nuisance. It was a second-degree burn, and it HURT. I resorted to the ‘remedies’ that most of us have tried: ointments, topical anaesthetics, etc. I rubbed and sprayed several things onto my insulted skin. The next day, that insulted skin started to fall off. I had added injury to the insult. It was a painful lesson that made me wary of sun exposure for many years.

Eventually, I repeated the mistake of severely burning my chest. I did not repeat the treatment from years before. I tried ice & water, mainly to relieve the pain. Incredibly, after a lengthy chilling, the pain stopped. The sunburn never blistered. As new skin grew, the old, sunburned skin flaked off – it looked like dandruff!

Other episodes have confirmed the efficacy of cold for treating burns. Even burns from direct heat can be treated. I have singed myself several times with soldering irons (a standard tool for Electronics Engineers) and flecks of molten solder. Such burns would normally blister (‘edematous swelling’) and become itchy or painful. Ice & water treatment has always alleviated the problem. It sometimes, with prompt application, effectively ‘heals’ the burn. That is, blistering and irritation (redness) are prevented, and the damaged skin remains attached until few skin has grown under it.

Here is the procedure:
1. Partially fill a sealable plastic bag with ice cubes and a little water.
2. Squeeze air from the bag and seal it.
3. Apply ice & water promptly after being burned.
4. Refresh the ice as it melts.
5. Keep ice & water on the burn until it starts to hurt MORE due to the discomfort of cold.
6. Keep ice & water on the burn a while longer, at least until the area is fully numbed.
7. If burn pain re-occurs, treat again.

Water is included with ice primarily to insure that the temperature is no lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Colder (freezer) temperatures can be painful and possibly harmful. Water also spreads the cold between and beyond the ice cubes. Ice & water will not freeze tissue. The body delivers a lot of heat (especially via blood flow) that keeps tissue above freezing. The skin will get pretty darn cold, though. It will melt a lot of ice during treatment.

Air is removed from the bag of ice & water to allow it to lay against the treated area. Towels may be used to support the bag in position, as long as they do not get between the bag and the treated area.

Prompt application is very important. Much damage from low-grade burns is caused not by the burn, but by the body’s response to injury. This inflammatory response moves body fluids to the injury, causing blistering that separates the skin from its supporting tissues. Many other elements of the inflamatory response that are valid for infection are harmful for burns. Cold and several medications reduce the inflammatory response. NSAIDs – Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory – over-the-counter Drugs are examples.


1. Rub affected skin – even to apply lotion.
2. Apply anything (some lotions and anaesthetics) containing alcohol.
3. Insulate ice & water bag with anything thicker than a T-shirt.
4. Depend on any treatment for severe burns without seeking medical help.


1. Chill the burn immediately.
2. Chill using sealed bags of ice & water.
3. Apply ice & water at least until skin is fully numbed.
4. Take anti-inflammatory over-the-counter medications that are safe for you.
These may include aspirin and other NSAIDs.
5. Take analgesics such as acetaminophen if needed until treatment relieves pain.
6. Wear soft, loose clothing (if needed) over the burned area.
7. Continue ice & water treatment while seeking medical help for severe burns.

A similar treatment for soft tissue injury is known as RICE. This acronym stands for ‘Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation’. It is somewhat different from burn treatment. Soft tissue injury requires less chilling – the injured tissue needs good circulation, which chilling reduces. Please consult RICE guidelines and seek medical help for soft tissue injuries such as bruises.


Fuzzy Wuzzy or Killing Machine? The Case for Responsible Pet Ownership – Part 1

My favorite Guest Blogger, the Little Red-Haired Girl,
has returned to share her concerns about a topic that is important to very many of us.

    Human beings have been fascinated and beguiled by their fellow non-humans for hundreds of millennia.  We have studied, bred and successfully domesticated cattle, horses, cats, dogs, sheep, chickens, goats, camels, llamas, emus, geese, ducks, parakeets and many more animals than I could possibly name here.  Our motives for doing so relate to our need to be able to understand and control our environment and to have a ready supply of food, labor, transportation and other materials at our disposal.  Finally, a very important motivation, and one that I would like to focus upon in this article is our need for companionship
     Our pets, or as some term them, our companion animals, are an important part of the human experience.  Our ‘critters’ melt our hearts with their innocence and their affectionate ways.  For some of us, they complete what would have been an empty nest, filling a void left by an absent child or spouse.  They make us laugh, wonder, and even give us a reason to get up in the morning.  (I’m thinking of my eleven-year-old tabby Beamer, and the way she insists that I wake up every day at 5:30 a.m. whether I want to or not!) To sum it up, they become a part of our family. 
     Like any family member, though, they have their ups and downs; their good and bad traits.  As with other family members, often we become so emotionally involved with our pets is hard to act with the necessary objectivity when problems arise. Two issues have been in my mind lately and were precipitated by separate and seemingly disparate incidents.  The first issue relates to some recent attacks by pit bull terriers in our area: one involving a toddler who was bitten by a relative’s dog, the other involving a woman out walking her Yorkie, and who was attacked by two pit bulls roaming at large in the neighborhood.  The second issue relates to the irresponsible ownership of exotic or wild animals, as exemplified in the horrific attack of a pet chimpanzee upon a Connecticut woman and the subsequent tragic events following the attack (the chimp’s owner just died a few days ago, possibly because of the stress she underwent after this all went down.)
   At the risk of raising some hackles (and I know I will) I would like to first discuss (calmly, please!) the issue of dog breed legislation.   Let me preface this by saying I have never been personally attacked by a breed of dog considered ‘dangerous’, although one of my children has been.  I will elaborate on this attack a bit later because it is a very telling incident, and says a lot about the emotional blindness that some people have about the breed of dog they choose to own. Yet all dogs have a set of behavioral characteristics that are universal in varying degrees.  Let’s look at some of those behavioral characteristics.
     First, and probably most important, dogs show ‘pack’ behavior.  That is, they understand a hierarchical society with an alpha leader (can be male or female, by the way) who determines when, where and how the other animals eat, sleep, breed and rank in the pack.  Pack behavior is a combination of aggression, submission and cooperative behavior.   Responsible dog owners educate themselves about dog behaviors and breed-specific traits and take on the role of alpha animal in the relationship with their pet. 
     Other dog behaviors of note relate to the way dogs feed, mate, play and mark territory.   Here are some of the behaviors that when not controlled can give owners headaches at least, and at worst result in personal injury and legal trouble. Dogs dig, bury, herd, mark territory, track and trail.  They show aggression when they feel threatened or when a stranger intrudes upon their territory.  Do dogs know the difference between right and wrong?  As far as we know and can determine, no, at least not in the way human beings understand the difference between right and wrong. Dogs act on instinct and it is up to we humans, who supposedly possess higher intelligence and morals, to act the part of the alpha animal and give their pet a place in the hierarchy that makes them feel comfortable and secure.
     If we start from the premise that dog behaviors are instinctual and that the dog’s owner is responsible for controlling the dog’s behavior, we can assume that laws governing owner responsibility are reasonable and necessary for public health and safety.  Most people agree that these laws are a good thing.  But now let’s talk breeds. 
     This is where the humans start to get a little emotional.   So I’m going to pose the following question knowing full well that the hackles are now beginning to rise and that pulse rates are already starting to go up.  Why do pet owners choose dog breeds that have (rightly or wrongly) been deemed ‘dangerous’?  This is a question that has been studied by psychologists over a period of several decades, and especially over the past thirty or so years that the incidence of dog attacks have been more widely reported in the media. 
Let’s start with a list of the ten most ‘dangerous’ breeds of dog.  According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the Centers for Disease Control, the ten most dangerous breeds of dog are as follows, roughly in this order, with descriptors of the most typical bred-in behavioral characteristics.
10.  Dalmation : sensitive, intelligent, can be human aggressive.
9.    Boxer : energetic, playful, headstrong.
8.   Presa Canario : not generally human aggressive, can be dog-aggressive, powerful, fearless.
7.   Chow Chow : independent, aloof, needs lots of behavioral reinforcement.
6.   Doberman Pinscher :  alert, intelligent, loyal.  Only attacks if feels threatened.
5.   Malamute :  Energetic, needs lots of exercise, may become destructive if bored.
4.   Husky : Energetic, intelligent.  Not a good guard dog due to gentle temperament.
3.   German Shepherd :  intelligent, alert, confident, fearless. 
2.  Rottweiler : great guard dogs, keen territorial instincts, aggressive temperament.
1.  Pit Bull Terrier : people-friendly, not good guard dog for that reason, can be dog-aggressive.
     It strikes me as obvious why people choose to own dogs from this list.  Many of the behavioral traits listed here are positive ones.  And yes, different breeds possess the aforementioned characteristics in varying degrees; moreover, each dog is unique and has a special appeal for each owner.  I myself am partial to Boxers and would like to own one someday.  But I am going to wait until my cats have gone to kitty heaven, and maybe even until after I retire to take on this demanding breed, who will doubtless require close attention and training.
     In the name of journalistic balance and fairness, I feel it necessary to show another list, this one consisting of the ten most family-friendly breeds and I wouldn’t be surprised to find some of the same behavioral traits on the list.  Let’s see if my theory holds true…my sources were the Animal Planet website, and  These are in no particular order:
1.  Newfoundland :  gentle giant, tends to drool.
2.  Pug : very sociable, not aggressive, good family dog, not good guard dog
3.  Staffordshire Bull Terrier (related to pit bull terrier) : Not prone to human aggression, but can be dog-aggressive.  Good alert barker, but friendly.
4.  Labrador Retriever : energetic, needs lots of exercise, not aggressive.
5.  Keeshond : intelligent, good alert barker, but not human aggressive
6.  Golden Retriever : intelligent, not human aggressive, good service dog.
7. Collie : gentle, active, but can be aggressive if poorly bred.
8.  Standard Poodle : intelligent, active, not human aggressive.
9. Irish Setter : Energetic, good alert barker, not human aggressive.
10. Pit Bull Terrier : people-friendly, bred for dog-aggressiveness, so best to have as a single pet.
     Yes, it’s beginning to look as though there are some common traits here.  I’m seeing lots of : “active, intelligent, not human aggressive, can be aggressive if poorly bred, can be dog-aggressive, gentle giant, good family dog, not good guard dog,” etc.  
     Finally, I’m going to cite a list from Dog Obedience Advice.  Here is a list of some breeds to treat with caution, in that they have been known to show aggression toward humans.  In no particular order:
1. Chow Chow
2. Old English Sheepdog
3. Llasa Apso
4. Rottweiler
5. Chihuahua
6. Toy Poodle
7. Dachshund
8. Jack Russell
9. Giant Schnauzer
10. Cocker Spaniel (Cockers are especially worrisome as a fair number of them are prone to a genetic disease called ‘rage syndrome’ where they will suddenly snap into spontaneous violence, not against strangers, but against family members.  Sadly, when this defect is found, it is best to put the dog down.)
     If you take a quick gander again at the first list I made, probably the most striking commonality you will find is that these are all big muscular dogs.  List #2 and #3 contain medium and small breed dogs.  The dogs on all three lists are also quite popular breeds.  It stands to reason if you have a decent-sized population of a given dog breed in a particular area, and if you are compiling a list of severe attacks, you will probably come up with a higher percentage of the so-called ‘dangerous’ dogs.  A Rottweiler or a Pit Bull will certainly do more damage than a Chihuahua, although a Chihuahua may be more aggressive.   Pit bulls have a particularly lethal bite style, a bite-and-shake Terrier bite style and they are bred for ‘gameness’ (fight to the death) and have an extremely high tolerance for pain.  Pit Bull bites can cause deep tissue damage, ripping muscle from bone, and these dogs have almost preternaturally strong jaws.  
     Am I saying that Pit Bulls are ‘bad’ dogs?  No, no, and again . . . a big NO !!! But it would be disingenuous for me, or for any Pit Bull owner, to say that the potential for fatal injury is not there.  The fact is that nearly 70% of fatal dog attacks in the United States and Canada over a 27-year period from 1982 until 2009, were by a combination of Rottweilers, Presa Canarios, and Pit Bulls and their mixes, with Pit Bulls leading the pack. My sources are a study by Merritt Clifton, the editor of Animal People, a periodical for animal advocacy, and a three-year study of fatal dog attacks at, another animal and victim advocacy website.  Perhaps it is a bit simplistic for me to say this, but the more I learn about dog breed legislation (which the HSUS is against, by the way) the more I have come to believe that irresponsible dog ownership is the greatest factor which results in dog attacks.

In memory of Dusty, brother of Beamer and nemesis of Zule, whose troubled life ended too soon.


When Management Can’t Manage

It is guaranteed that Management will manage – anything they do can be regarded as ‘managing’. How they manage, and what results from that, are highly variable and uncertain.

There is no way that an outside observer can say, given a particular situation, how a company’s Management will handle it. Without specific foreknowledge of the personnel & practices of Management at that company, no standard of conduct can be applied. This contrasts greatly with the practices of other professions. Medical personnel have, for many situations (including ’emergencies’, which are routine for them), protocols for handling the situations. Engineers, especially for disciplines that depend upon public funding, have practices and formal methods which may be expected to be applied to an arbitrary scenario.

The history of man-made disasters is littered with a detritus that illustrates these points. I do not have the data for a statistical analysis to verify what I believe to be true. I do have numerous anecdotes, from personal experience and from highly-publicized incidents, which have a consistent pattern.

An excellent example is available from the Shuttle Challenger ‘accident’ in 1986. The shuttle, with a crew that included the first participant (a civilian) from the “Teacher in Space Project“, exploded during the ascent after launch.

Shuttle booster engines were solid-rocket boosters (SRBs) which were made in segments. The segments had, at their joints, elastomer O-rings to provide a seal against the hot, high-pressure gases of the SRB. Launches in cold weather had a temperature limit – the O-rings stiffened with cold, and could not provide a seal.

Earlier shuttle launches in cold weather (and within temperature limits) led to Management questioning of Engineering. They asked, in essence, ‘Hey, the O-rings were fine at 6 degrees Centigrade. They’ll do just fine a tad lower, won’t they?’ Since that ‘tad lower’ was not really beyond limits, Engineers conceded the point. Subsequent launches, which managed to broach the limits, brought more insistent appeals from Management: ‘Hey, we flew with no problems 1.5 degrees under limit, so maybe you guys are being too cautious’.

It went on like this until Challenger’s last launch. Engineer Roger Boisjoly did his damnedest to intercede with Management when he learned that launch conditions were the coldest ever. He was over-ruled, and disaster followed.

The fallacy which led Management to cause the disaster is ‘confirmation bias‘. It may have also involved the psychology revealed in the fascinating diversion known as ‘Auctioning a Dollar Bill’. When someone gets around to bidding 99 cents, someone must bid $1 – break even. And at that point, some damn fool will tell himself, ‘It’ll only cost me a penny, and I’ll win!‘. That opens the floodgates, and the dollar bill may find a new, proud, incredibly foolish owner for $5, $10, $50, or more.

A subsequent disaster investigation included Prof. Feynman‘s minority view: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

At this writing, we watch the daily horror of oil erupting from a broken well pipe, 1 mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. This economic and environmental disaster will result in reams of analysis and commentary. I offer an anticipatory viewpoint.

There is a lot of excellent Engineering in oil & gas drilling. The BP Deepwater Horizon originally set a ‘blowout preventer’ which is designed to handle ‘worst-case’ scenarios. It has a shear mechanism that is supposed to, either by operator action or by its own backup ‘dead man’s switch‘, cut the well pipe and close it. It failed to do so. It should not have been one device. Blowout preventers are sometimes stacked, providing different mechanisms to shut off a well. They may be stacked with other safety devices. It would have certainly been as prudent to do so for an extremely inaccessible wellhead, as for wellheads in less extreme locations.

An Engineer looking at the situation prior to drilling would do a risk-benefit analysis. What are the risks to equip the well various ways? What are the benefits? Equipping a well with a single blow-out preventer (albeit a version with differing and redundant activation mechanisms) carries a different risk than having redundant blow-out preventers. The benefit of redundancy? A greatly reduced chance of environmental catastrophe.

A Manager would also do a risk-benefit analysis. The risks of having redundant blow-out preventers are clear: higher initial cost, delayed initial oil production, and higher maintenance costs. The benefit is less clear, because to a Manager, a 1-in-1000 chance of disaster is, for that single well, equivalent to zero. I am confident that BP Managers have been saying ‘We couldn’t have anticipated having a huge floating rig explode and sink, severing all control of the blow-out preventer. We chose the most prudent and fiscally sound configuration possible.’

I do wonder if any BP Managers have been considering ‘How much is this costing BP in loss of production, clean-up costs, and lawsuits compared to a more reliable wellhead configuration?

My first assignment for ‘Big E‘, a company which is mostly known for making batteries, was as the first of two support Engineers on one of the two most important joint ventures in all of Big E. By ‘all’, I mean the entire corporation, which then included about 5 other divisions.

The joint venture was for the development and production of a battery charger. This was not, according to the cautious information proffered during my interview, a routine battery charger. It was a Marvel. It could charge tiny batteries extremely rapidly without heating or degrading them. The technology was being provided by the joint venture Partner, a European person of significant eccentricity. He even had a patent.

At 8:00 sharp on the first day with my assignment, I was given the confidential portfolio. It was about 3/4 inch thick. I scanned its somewhat disorganized contents for relevant material, and settled upon The Patent. I did not find a ‘marvel’.

What I did find was comparable to the following. Gardeners sometimes use fertilizer dispensers in-line with a water hose. The dispenser is typically positioned between the hose end and the nozzle. If positioned between the faucet and the hose, the fertilizer would be delivered identically.

The Patent was for a electronic equivalent of that example. A conventional and well-known electronic circuit was patented for having a component in an atypical, but equivalent, position. (The Patent Examiner, we learned months later, had awarded the patent on precisely that narrow basis and not upon any other novelty.) It was a fertilizer delivery device.

An hour with this patent and some supporting documents convinced me that the marvel was bogus. I spent another two hours searching the portfolio to insure that I hadn’t missed some ‘secret sauce’. I had not.

I met with the Boss for a review after lunch. After reviewing his understanding of the situation, and determining that he had nothing surprising to add, I explained the situation. It was something of a revelation to him, although he did have some bewilderment. After all, he had traveled to Europe and had held a tiny battery in his hand while it was charged extremely rapidly without heating – or so it seemed at the time.

The next year & a half was dictated by Corporate Management according to a Stage-Gate Process. A Stage of development was followed periodically by a review and a determination whether to proceed – the Gate. The Stages were pre-planned as if the Project was known to be valid and worthwhile. The Stage-Gate Process served to implement confirmation.

The blatant reality that the project had no technical basis in fact was not a consideration. I was repeatedly assured that later Stages would test the real capabilities of the project. Corporate Management, deeply committed to a pig-in-a-poke that they had loudly and publicly bragged about at its inception, acted as if the puny Engineer’s objections would disappear as each Stage successfully passed its Gate.

No intervening incident could affect their resolute commitment to the Project. A massive fire in a prototype was explained away by the joint venture Partner, who had direct access to Corporate Management both in the offices of Big E and in numerous cocktail lounges.

A Stage, just short of final financial commitment and contractual consummation of the joint venture, arrived to actually test whether the project had a functional, practical, marketable, manufacturable, and profitable product. It did not. The joint venture Partner was a bit delusional about Engineering, for which he was not trained or knowledgeable, so the project was deficient in even routine Engineering aspects.

The second major joint venture was also problematic, and the Corporate Management, which was so easily convinced that they could pick winners, was convinced to find other employment.

I was rewarded, at the next salary review, with the information that one of those departed Corporate Managers had, before he left, ordered my annual salary adjustment cut by 1/3. I guess that settles the question of ‘Who’s to blame?’, huh?

The failings of Engineering are usually exceptions which confirm my assertions. The famous Verrazano Narrows bridge collapse was due to faulty Engineering. A previously unfamiliar phenomenon – vortex generation in winds – combined with natural vibration modes of the bridge to allow a high wind to shake the bridge to bits.

How many bridges since have failed due to ‘resonance phenomena’? Zero.

How many Managers use the same delusional thinking and make the same mistakes as their predecessors? That, unfortunately, is as common as tar balls on a Louisiana beach.

This post is dedicated to Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Teacher in Space,
and Shuttle Challenger crew Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka,
Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, and Gregory Jarvis.


Poe’s Law was incomplete – Stone’s Law is absolute

I tried. I really, really tried.

‘Dr. Rand Paul, Civil Rights Patriot‘ was a test of subtle interpretation. Many folks, here and on other blogs, took me to be a True Libertarian. My comments that Rand Paul is not a consistent Libertarian were received especially enthusiastically by Libertarians, who take him to be a Traitor.

It was natural that someone (who is more closely aligned to my political & social views) would be sufficiently offended by the parody to describe me as “sickening filth“. No problem there – I understand the confusion.

I offered explanations here and on other blogs ‘Rachel Maddow vs Rand Paul‘, ‘NOW ASK HIM ABOUT BROWN VS. BOARD OF EDUCATION‘, ‘Rand Paul: Views on ADA and the Civil Rights Act‘, & ‘I’m Sure!‘. Some responded in good humor. Others knew better than I !

‘NOW ASK HIM ABOUT BROWN VS. BOARD OF EDUCATION’ changed the original link, “UPDATE. A Paul defender agrees …” to “UPDATE 3. The “Paul defender” mentioned above says in comments that his post was a parody. I want to believe him, but …“. They are willing to consider my comments, thank you muchly.

‘Rachel Maddow vs Rand Paul’ changed the link to Hey! Get This… from “Jim at heygetthis has more” to “Jim at heygetthis has more (although he doesn’t realize it)” after my explanatory comment. My comments truly get short shrift (what the hell is a shrift, anyway? is a long one better?) here.

I quoted Poe’s Law ad nauseum:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.

That doesn’t really provide a thorough commentary on my experience in this episode. I propose a new, enhanced version of Poe’s Law. Newtonian Gravity needed Einstein’s General Relativity, so why not make a Good Law even better?

Stone’s Law:

Even with a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t insist, despite overt profferings of revelatory explanation and analysis, to be the real thing.

{ Permission granted under Copyright to re-use this statement
if quoted exactly and completely, including the title “Stone’s Law”. }

People believe that blimps, eerily lit by the nighttime glow of a city, are alien spacecraft or ultra-secret government spy drones.

People believe that, regardless of the realities of Physics, only a bullet fired from the Grassy Knoll could have produced the kinetics (observed and reproduced) of the JFK assassination.

People believe that antibiotics won’t really work unless they offer earnest appeals to a Deity. They also take the antibiotics if they have an infection.

People believe most of what they believe for emotional reasons. Facts, or at least alternative explanations, have such miniscule influence on their thinking that they will not deign to check the facts or examine the alternative explanations.

Herein resides a great strength of Science: it is a system which explicitly guards against superstitious human tendencies. It has mechanisms to correct – even if slowly and frustratingly – errors, misinterpretations, and oversights. Much of the rest of life is, by comparison, a free-for-all, devoid of rules.


Why I Have Always Wanted To Be A Teacher

One of my earliest friends at Caltech, Dr. K, gave me some excellent advice. After I described some of my twisted history from Caltech, he told me that I needed to write an essay on Why I Have Always Wanted To Be A Teacher. Being the open-minded procrastinator that I am, his advice languished on my frontal lobes for months. You may now witness my active response to his friendly and expert advice.

I am the son of a man who loved Science. Dad had an inquisitive and creative mind. Recreation and work were intertwined in his mind, for no recreation could go unstudied, and no job could escape at least a small exploitation for pleasure. It was unavoidable that I would be introduced to Great Wonders, by reading the perpetual supply of National Geographic magazines, by watching the great and beloved ‘Mr. Wizard‘, Don Herbert, or by faithfully reading The Amateur Scientist in ‘Scientific American‘ every month.

I have always loved Science and found joy in discovering nature.

School did not provide the stimulating experiences that I had at home. My classroom experiences were generally frustrating, especially for being a child who tried hard to behave well and as expected while other kids disrupted class.

I can make a difference in students’ experiences as a Teacher.

Several Teachers, in a few special moments that demonstrated their love for others and their ability to teach more than an academic subject, touched my life. My 4th-grade Teacher gave me a simple reassurance, something no other Teacher had devoted one minute to, that saved me from a debilitating personal shame. My 8th-grade Journalism Teacher, in a triumph of practicality over dogmatic control, used my sotto voce whisperings to admonish noisy classmates on the proper way to talk in class. My Senior English Teacher came to my defense when classmates protested my use of a word that they did not know. They complained about the ‘egghead’ vocabulary that ‘no one’ could know the meaning of. She told them that they were the ones who needed correction, and that they should take the opportunity to learn. She told them that I would not have used a word without knowing its meaning. Then, she trusted me enough to put me on the spot and asked me to define the word I had used.

My classroom experiences occasionally included valuable contributions to my life from Teachers.
I want to be like them.

My excellent public-school performance, dandy SAT scores, and guidance by Dad in writing college applications led me to attend the California Institute of Technology – Caltech. This was big-league stuff, a very selective admission to a great incubator of Scientists. I wanted to be a great Physicist. I discovered, through difficulties in college, that I did not yet have the discipline needed to achieve significant things in Science. I also was experiencing a period of spiritual growth, which gave me a heightened concern for the education of the general population, as compared to the education which advanced students experienced. I became determined to contribute to the advancement of Science understanding for the great majority of students who would not become Scientists.

Science research does not need me. Science education needs me.

Caltech did not appreciate my newly-asserted attitude. Caltech liked (oh – I checked: they still do) to quote Theodore Roosevelt, who, in an address at the Throop Institute (later Caltech) on March 21, 1911, called for “the one-hundredth man … with … cultural scientific training …”. They actually take that to mean Science first, culture second. That is fine, but it did not match my goals. When my academic struggles re-occurred, I had the privilege of meeting with the Academic Review Board. They were dis-impressed by my goal to teach, and I was offered an explicit and involuntary opportunity to study elsewhere.

Elsewhere was home. I returned to Springfield, attended MSU (then SMSU), and did what I could to end the agony of college. That meant taking the path of least resistance – a Physics degree. It also meant that, with a newly-acquired fiance, I did not have vast credentials to acquire the necessary employment to provide for The Kids’ Mom. I finagled a job as Test Equipment Technician at the Zenith TV factory. This evolved, in successive steps on the path of least resistance, into an Engineering career.

It was an accident of my life’s history that I did not start my career as a teacher.

The years as an Engineer were not devoid of contact with teaching. The Kids’ Mom was a Teacher (and a mighty good one). I provided occasional help for her preparation for Math and Science classes. Also, as occasionally happened in college, someone (often a co-worker) would need tutoring.

Tutoring, and helping a little with class prep, were too-infrequent
and eagerly-sought opportunities to teach.

Tutoring was strangely unsatisfying. No student ever needed to be tutored twice. Typically, they would seek tutoring while struggling with C‘s and D‘s. After a tutoring session, their test scores would raise by two or three grades – to A‘s and B‘s. They felt comfortable with the material and could handle it without further help.

I can accomplish the ultimate goal of teaching: teaching students to teach themselves.

One of the terminal conversations that I had with my last Engineering boss included a very brief discussion of mentoring. I suggested that my skills and experience were being misused, and that I could, as a minor element of my work, convey my skills and experience to other Engineers. That suggestion was not received favorably. The expedient of assigning me to plug some leak in the dike was judged to be necessary and a 100% full-time commitment.

The biggest disappointment from my Engineering career is that my employers placed no value on mentoring, and refused to devote resources to perpetuating experience and knowledge.

The Little Red-haired Girl has been amazingly supportive, despite the equally amazing frustration of the situation, during my hiatus from employment. She has listened patiently while I re-examined the prospect of becoming a Teacher. She told me “Go for it“. I love her for that. I also love her for being a Teacher – a person who was truly born to teach music. It makes me feel good to be close to such a fine Teacher.

It may not be a coincidence that both The Kids’ Mom and the Little Red-haired Girl are Teachers.

I have recently begun helping in several Middle School Science & Math classes for a few hours a week. It’s a good thing.

Today, Ms. C let me play Teacher. Her 6th-grade Science class got a short presentation on applications of quartz and other piezoelectric materials. It’s a big and noisy class (usually), but they were all quiet and pasted their eyes on me for 10 minutes! They eagerly asked interesting questions and they were interested in each other’s questions.

Today, I tutored a student, ‘Bob’. Bob has certain personal distractions that interfere with learning. I can see that there is progress despite the difficulty, and that my little academic assistance may make it a bit easier, some day, for Bob to overcome the distractions in life.

I have always wanted to be a Teacher because I can do it well, I can make a real difference, and I care about the people I teach.

♥ Help for Haiti ♥


Basic Understanding

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.
- Edward R. Murrow

Intellectual Property Notice

All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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I use Wrinkled brand skin conditioner to keep that worldly-wise, I-have-put-up-with-more-crap-than-you-can-dish-out, old-codger look.

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