Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Obscure Lingo from the Machine Frontier

Back from my 42nd public-speaking gig. The one this week was in Miami, doing a keynote for a congress of the forensic engineering division of the American Society of Civil Engineers

While there I added to my collection of trade lingo, accumulated during more than three decades of research into the machine frontier. This first one is from the Miami conference, and was new to me:

Spike-killed ties: These are cross ties in railroad tracks in which the spikes have worked loose, and have been pounded back in repeatedly. After so many times, the wood is weak and the tie has lost its grip. Spike-killed ties are bad because they lead to wide-gauge derailments

Blue line: This is what USAF mission planners call the path that pilots of low-observable (aka stealth) aircraft are supposed to follow while in enemy airspace. The idea is to travel where the radar fence is weak, wherever possible. As all geeks should know, stealthy aircraft aren't "invisible" to radar; they're just hard to pick up. The best route is one where the airplane is lost in the noise, and only resolved for brief intervals, if at all. 

Iron roughneck: Automated tool to attach, and detach, sections of a drill string on an oil rig. This substitutes for human roughnecks who relied on tongs and chains. 

Rabbit tool: Small hydraulic device used by firefighters to force open steel doors in steel frames. 

Burning bar, aka thermic lance: Pipe filled with metal rods, fed by oxygen at the operator's end. Once ignited at the other end the metal burns at a very high temperature. The flame will burn through any substance in its way, including diamond. Here's a video:

Dead leg: A section of pipe that's been left behind, supposedly sealed, after work in a complicated set of piping, typically a refinery or chemical plant. According to the Chemical Safety Board, dead legs can be dangerous because they increase the chances for pipe breaks.

Alarm storm: A wave of automated alarms when a bunch of things going wrong at once. I've heard it used among power-plant operators and surgeons. 

Gin pole: A derrick-like framework that tower builders use. It's installed temporarily on the mast. Because it's massive enough to bring the whole tower down in a collision, they take extra care whenever moving it. 

Jesus nut: A Vietnam-era term for a fastener at the top of the rotor mast in Huey and Cobra helicopters. 

Battle short: A desperate measure in the Navy during combat, in which safeties are bypassed to save the ship, say, overriding a reactor scram. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Light a Candle for the 50th Anniversary of the Northeast Blackout

Following is the first section of my article on how the big blackouts of 1965 and 1977 came about (photo credit, The Guardian). 

It was the first time I wrote about a system so complex that no single person could stay on top of it. That realization laid the foundation for Inviting Disaster later. 

The rest of the feature can be accessed at the Invention & Technology issue archive

Learning from the Big Blackouts

Two nights of darkness, in 1965 and 1977, showed how fragile the nation’s power system could be

James R. Chiles

Fall 1985  | Volume 1,  Issue 2

Normally night spreads from east to west with the rotation of the earth, but the evening of November 9, 1965, was different. Darkness also spread from north to south. Southern Ontario went dark first, much of New York State a few seconds later, then most of New England, and finally New York City. By 5:28 P.M., thirty million people were stumbling toward any light available. Subways stopped and furnaces chilled, and America briefly lost one-fifth of its electricity. What was the cause? Maybe a generator failure, maybe sabotage—for several awkward days no one knew.

America’s electric-power network is so vast that solar flares affect it and so convoluted that the start-up of one generator affects others thousands of miles away. It is perhaps our most complex technology. But the 1965 blackout—and others that have followed—taught that complexity does not equal sophistication.

In the twenty years since that catastrophe, power companies have been working with mixed success to prevent more outages. Transmission lines have greater capacity now, control centers are more computerized and hold tighter reins over power flows, utilities cooperate and share more information, generating stations have emergency power to restart generators thrown off the grid by electrical jolts, and operating procedures have been revamped. Still, major outages happen every year, benighting thousands and occasionally, as in New York in 1977, millions of people, but many in the industry are confident that another 1965-scale blackout is unlikely.

Smaller blackouts can be costly too, though, and some observers fear that the stability of the network is threatened by certain utilities’ financial problems and by economic pressure to move electricity long distances from power-rich areas to utilities dependent on oil-fired power plants. In parts of the country, such long-distance purchases of economy power are pushing transmission lines to the limits of safety by straining their capacity.

In 1965 the utility industry was about eighty years old. America’s first central power station had started supplying a small district of Manhattan in 1882. The idea didn’t catch on for several years because building owners could provide for themselves more cheaply by buying generators and putting them in basements. But the price of central service dropped by 1886, and the new electric streetcars were increasing daytime demand dramatically. The same advantages of reliability and savings that then led isolated users to join in a central system also persuaded utilities to link with one another once high-voltage alternating-current equipment was available.

Regional grids started forming: the Pacific states, the Southwest, the Southeast, and the Upper Midwest. The first big interconnection in New England came about in 1913 because the utility at Turners Falls, Massachusetts, had a surplus of cheap hydroelectric power to sell. Interconnections multiplied rapidly across the Northeast during World War I, when defense plants needed power in amounts that isolated utilities could not supply. In 1959 Ontario Hydro joined the Northeast Interconnection, which then changed its name to Canada-United States Eastern Interconnection and acquired the acronym CANUSE.

November 9, 1965, was—until the blackout—an ordinary day. From New York City on the southern end of CANUSE to Ontario in the north, the weather was clear and cool. As the sun dropped, lights went on. Power stations all over the Eastern Interconnected System—CANUSE and the other big systems it was connected to—opened water and fuel valves to meet the need.

One of these was the Sir Adam Beck No. 2 hydroelectric plant, set on the Canadian cliffs near Niagara Falls. Most of its output was going west and north to Toronto, across Lake Ontario. The Beck plant was working a bit harder than usual because the Lakeview power station near Toronto was having problems with its machinery. The load on Beck’s transmission lines reached the point at which an obscure relay, installed in 1951 and last adjusted in 1963, ordered a circuit breaker to disconnect one line. This started a chain of events that no one could have predicted exactly, because alternating current finds its own pathways through the multitude of combinations possible in a large power network, which is itself changing every minute. At 5:16 and eleven seconds, the system began to move with frightening speed.

When the Beck relay ordered the first westbound transmission line cut off, 375 million watts of power crowded onto the four other westbound lines. In less than three seconds they tripped out in turn, and at least 1.5 billion watts rushed into America across two other lines strung over the Niagara River. The surge of electricity tried to reenter Canada at the Massena, New York, interconnection, but that interconnection overloaded, and the surplus power turned south, down the backbone of the CANUSE transmission system.

Relays interpreted the power surge as a short circuit and started signaling circuit breakers to separate the system into islands. Shuddering under the impact of all these circuit breakers and the wildly fluctuating current, generators slowly fell out of the sixty-cycle-per-second, threephase lockstep that the alternating-current networks demanded. One island, which took in southeast New York State, New York City, and much of New England, was suddenly short of generation capacity, with a severe deficit in the northern end pulling great pulses of power from the south. The deficit grew as the electrical chaos forced generators off the network.

Continued here

Friday, October 16, 2015

How to Park Your Super-Crane

People who are following news connected to the destruction caused by the Liebherr L11350 super-crane that fell backward at the Grand Mosque in Makkah, KSA, may have wondered what such a crane would have looked like had the contractor (Saudi Binladin Group) stowed the machine in case of bad weather, as directed by the manufacturer. 

So here's a photo of what this particular model looks like when safed. Except for the lack of a back mast to the detached counterweight, this Liebherr L11350 is rigged similarly to the crane at Makkah, which was an "SDW" arrangement (Photo, Mace Ltd):

The thin, red and white structure on the far left is the luffing-fly jib, labeled in my previous post and diagram. Its latticed counterpart on the right side is the derrick mast. 

Normally the jib would be way up in the air, topping the boom, but it can be angled down with winches and pulleys that allow the jib angle to be changed (in crane language, "luffed") from the operator's seat - in this case, pointed so far down that the tip of the jib touches the ground. 

We don't know why the crane parked on the plaza by the Massa wasn't routinely parked this way. Lowering the boom and jib might have needed restoration of counterweights that had been removed, along with the need to round up operators and riggers rated to use this machine. Maybe bringing the jib to the ground would have interfered with pedestrian traffic. In general, I'm guessing, it seemed easier to leave the main boom and jib at a near-vertical angle. 

But easy doesn't mean safe, as I wrote in Inviting Disaster

If there's interest I'll post on the amazing, if narrow, niche of super-cranes. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Best in Class: Precision hoist work with helicopters

Passing along this video of a helicopter crew and riggers assembling a tower atop the Incity skyscraper in Lyons, France, by raising sections on a long cable:

Whether it's short-lining or long-lining, moving external loads by cable takes extraordinary skill: to pilot the helicopter while looking far below, to keep the load from swinging and then to set the load within an inch or two of the desired spot, and to avoid tangling or hitting things along the way. 

While researching The God Machine I heard many stories of pilots who brought themselves down while carrying loads on cables.

One of the striking sidelights in the helicopter world is that pilots have the authority to punch off a cable-slung load if they are sure it is going to cause the helicopter to crash: not a happy ending, particularly if there's a person on the end of the cable. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

More on Dreamception: A simply amazing app

Following up on my thumbs-up report about the Dreamception iOS app when applied to ice photos ... Here's a before-and-after, with new Dreamception output on the right (in low resolution, here):

There are a lot of permutations given all the filters available, and the exact combination has a lot to do with whether the images are interesting or just flukey. 

tags: #deepdream, #icerules

Monday, October 5, 2015

Crane Down at Masjid al-Haram, September 11

About the crane disaster last month in Makkah (Mecca in its westernized spelling). A Liebherr L-11350 crawler crane tipped backward in a windstorm, killing 109 people in what forensic folks call the laydown zone. The worst area of destruction was where the 100-ton mast and jib dropped on the roof of a very long building on the east side called the Massa. The upper end of the jib crashed onto pedestrian areas on the other side of this building (photo AFP)

When the crawler crane fell over it also came close to destroying a tower crane, a Liebherr 335, also located on the east side of the Massa.

Here's how the roof damage looked: 

The "W"-shaped object above the Massa roof, projecting into it, is where the two jib struts join up with the upper end of the main boom, and the lower end of the jib (see below for a diagram). The jib struts provide a support for the jib. As the crane fell over backward, the two jib struts acted like twin piledrivers, smashing into the third and second floors of the Massa

Here's a link to the only public video I've seen of the crane going down (but I'm sure the Saudis have a lot of CCTV footage):

Here's a diagram of the basic components, before and after:

How big was it? As this crane was rigged (called an SDW arrangement in the manual), the tip of the L-11350's upper structure called the "luffing-fly jib") reached more than 600 feet off the ground. 

It's classed as a super-crane: while not the world's biggest crawler crane, it's close. The lift capacity under ideal conditions is 1,350 metric tons. It's a popular crane for refinery turnarounds and wind-farm projects. 

How long had it been on the plaza? More than three years. It was part of a big Saudi purchase from Liebherr in 2012. 

What was the crane doing there? It had been parked and inactive for some time. Details on usage are fuzzy; given past photos taken by pilgrims and posted online, the crane hadn't gotten much use lately. We're told that it was to be used again after the September 2015 Hajj, as part of ongoing expansion of the Masjid al-Haram and the Massa in particular. Here's a diagram of the location. 

What do the initial reports say? Authorities have been interrogating employees of the contractor, Saudi Binladin Group, which has filed an insurance claim. While this particular windstorm was unusually powerful, the crane manufacturer says it was a mistake to park the crane with its boom at such a high angle (85 degrees), where it could catch the wind. 

What about the cleanup? Because the 2015 Hajj pilgrimage was to begin less than two weeks after the wreck, work went on around the clock. Experts decided structural damage to the plaza at the base of the crane was so severe that the removal of the lower chassis (called the car body) would have to wait until after the Hajj, so this area was screened off from pilgrims. 

The focus was on removing the main boom and derrick mast from above the eastern plaza, and pulling the jib and jib struts off the roof -- and without causing more damage to the Massa, which is heavily used by pilgrims. 

If there's interest I'll post on how a team from Aramco got this done, with advice from heavy-life expert Mammoet, which I mentioned in this post about strand jacks

Sunday, September 20, 2015

DeepDreaming with Ice Photography

Will be posting an infographic on the Sept. 11 Mecca supercrane disaster soon; meantime, on a lighter subject, here's a note on what I'm doing with my stock of macro-ice photos. 

As followers may know from
 my Interstellar fan poster, ice photos taken with a macro lens can have an uncanny aspect, suggesting something not quite of Earth. So when I heard about DreamCeption for IoS, that sounded like something I should check out. 

Sure enough: here's an example of patterns that Dreamception added to one of my ice photos, Fire Cave

That's at low-resolution. Here's a sample of what Dreamception can do at a higher resolution, from a small portion of the upper right of the image:

That's impressive for the consumer market. The processing load must be substantial, which is why it runs in the cloud on supercomputers. 

The app's based on earlier work at Google, originally set up so that its artificial-intelligence program, called DeepDream, could recognize elements of photos, say, distinguishing a dog from a doghouse. Turns out that DeepDream can work the other way, superimposing details onto photos in a search for patterns and meaning. Filters such as "afterlife" impose buildings, faces, and all kinds of crazy things on ice photos: 

Using the Dreamception app on an iPad is easy -- just upload an image from your Camera Roll folder, select a filter, hit submit, then save back to the Camera Roll. It's possible to process an image with one filter and then apply another filter to that result. 

After some experimenting, I think the most striking results come that way, from using the filters in series. For higher resolution you may have to break your image into pieces and recombine the Dreamception output with a graphics app, such as one of my faves, ProCreate

ProCreate's layer tool is also a good way to restore some of your original image, in places where Dreamception's patterns don't make sense. That's what I did for the center of Fire Cave