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)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Meatballs with a Chance of Cloudspotting

While as a dad I enjoyed the art and humor in the picture book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, I wasn't interested in going to the recent movie. But I had to watch some of it anyway, as a silent film, since it showed on the airliner during a flight back from Japan this summer.

The blog title refers to my distracted style of eating, say, if we are having Italian. If the sky-light is favorable and the clouds are mobilized, I'll excuse myself several times to peek out the window, sometimes to run outside with a camera. My urge toward cloudspotting is in its third year and shows no sign of abating. It began with collecting digital time-lapse movies of cloud formation.

Many cloudspotters dislike contrails because they can make the sky look like a poorly-scrubbed blackboard. Atmospheric studies during the airline-banned three-day period immediately after the 9-11 attacks did show a distinct difference in cloud formation over the continental US.

But they can have a beauty of their own. Here's a garden-variety contrail:


Sometimes contrails linger and spread out.

Next is a distrail, meaning where a jet cuts a slot. I've only seen this in low- and mid-level clouds. The reason that there are two parallel slots is that sequential jets on their landing approach were following the same track, but the cloud here, which looks like a stratus nebulosus, was moving from south to north so each jet cut a new slot.


If the air is just right, high-level contrails can create some spectacular loops and whorls as the contrails are caught in the wingtip vortices shed by wings and the tail empennage. I see these less than a dozen days a year. In my limited experience it's most likely early in the morning, when the stratosphere is extremely calm. It may more likely during the turnaround, a brief time of year when there is low windshear in the stratosphere - that's when NASA launches its ultra-high-altitude scientific balloons. (Here's a link to an article I wrote for Smithsonian Magazine about that facility's work.)

At any rate the air up there has to be near saturation or else the moisture (which is always in the form of ice crystals) will sublimate before something interesting happens. Here are two contrail-curiosity photos, the first a smoke-ring of sorts I caught a month ago:


Here's a string of contrail beads, from two winters ago, low on the horizon at sunrise. Like nearly all the coolest cloud displays, these last less than five minutes, so if you want to catch them keep a camera close to hand.




Thursday, October 28, 2010

Papier Mache + Halloween = Dinosaur Overpopulation

What do bloggers do when not huddled over a keyboard? On Halloween, they could be operating dinosaurs.

This year will be the 20th anniversary of our family's dinosaur display. The star of the show has always been Bronte', a dinosaur neck about fourteen feet long that cantilevers out from an upper window. To a kid, this suggests that the rest of him is inside the house, probably sitting in front of a fireplace. His neck is a Kelly green. In conjunction with a four-way swivel and a hundred-pound counterweight, I can have him raise up and eat leaves off the maple tree, look from side to side, and lean down to greet the kiddies. There's a speaker in his throat connected to a microphone at my side, and his jaw moves when I yank on a wire. There's nothing high tech in the rig; his eyes are painted wide open in a gesture of perpetual surprise.

After two decades of manhandling, storage among the rafters, and snowy evenings, Bronte's paper-mache skin has a well-aged, wrinkly look. When it's snowy, we add a gray scarf. One year a steady drizzle weakened the papier mache (which acts like the fuselage of a monocoque airplane) and his neck broke in half. We finished out the evening by propping him on a ladder. We patched him the following year, adding to his air of longevity.

We began playing with papier while in Texas. Construction of a living fossil starts with a skeleton built up from joists, bolts, and two by fours. Then I give the bones a body with more boards, dowel rods, and stiff wire. I add a skin of chicken wire and strips of gluey newspaper.

Tip: if there are any special effects, install those _before_ installing the skin. Cutting a hole in chicken wire and thrusting one's hands in to for elective surgery is a scarifying experience.

Because such creatures don't look particularly big at the early stages, it's easy to overdo it. Our first attempt was a papier mache claw with dripping red fingernails. Because I wanted it to emerge out of one window and extend to the front porch, it measured the size of a small car upon completion. That's impossible to store from year to year. After moving to Minnesota, we set a size limit of 16 feet in the longest dimension.

... But not a population limit. At its Jurassic peak, besides Bronte', our house had a smoking volcano about five feet high, a cave covering the front door, a large T-Rex in one window, a smaller long-neck dino called Bronte' Junior in another window, a Stegosaurus, and a pterosaur hanging from the entrance.

We found the volcano among the most labor-intensive of the displays, because it had no internal structure but rather was a series of flats that leaned on a central foundation, something like a tepee. We built it in four sections so the flats could be stored during the off-season on racks in the garage above the cars.

Volcanoes are pallid things without smoke. We tried dry ice and various fog and smoke generators, but nothing worked quite so well as a stockpile of highway hazard flares, because they generated a lurid red smoke.  This remained popular until the final year, when one of the magnesium flares melted through the steel bucket we used for a firebox, and came rather close to burning down our volcano. It would have been hard to explain to the firefighters.

Around 2000 the menagerie was cramping our style, at least in the garage, attic, and basement. The great extinction began. After I dropped off Bronte' Junior at the landfill, I looked back in the rearview mirror to see that one landfill guy was holding it up and using it like a big puppet to talk to his co-worker. So I like to think Junior's still in action somewhere.

So now we are one: Bronte' Senior. While running the controls upstairs, I depend on a relative to shill for me in the front yard to listen and call out the kids' first names, so I can strike up a conversation. It's dark on the lawn and there are red and yellow spotlights shining in my eyes between the blackout curtains. Without help I can't tell if the kid in question is dressed as a pirate or a turtle or a Toy Story Army Man.

Yes, our dinosaur is a big fraud, only a paper moon, but otherwise worldly-wise teenagers of the neighborhood still drop by to say hello.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Truman Soap Co: Not with this Ex-President

In this post about the Truman Committee I had mentioned a family connection to Harry Truman; he was the nephew of ex-Confederate guerrilla James J. Chiles, on my father's side.

While in DC last week I was visiting at 4701 Connecticut Ave. and in the second-floor hallway was surprised to see a plaque on a door noting that the apartment (now a condo) had been the Washington home of Truman as a US Senator and for 82 days as vice president, up until FDR's death in April 1945.

The units are roomy and well laid out, with many nice architectural details.

After Truman left the White House in 1953, he couldn't have returned to this apartment. The reason is that he couldn't have afforded it, having no income other than a $112 monthly Army pension. At the time there were no pensions for ex-presidents, and no expense account for office space or staff or a library or anything else. It must have been sobering for him to contemplate James Monroe, who had to move in with his daughter to get by, and Thomas Jefferson, who died in debt.

Still, unlike all recent ex-presidents -- some more than others -- Truman declined to trade honor for cash. He turned down lucrative offers including a ceremonial position with a Florida land company for $100,000 per year, a free car, and cash for selling his name for use by the "Harry S. Truman Soap Company." Evidence of the soap offer can be seen at the Truman Library.

Said Truman: "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency."

Truman's fortunes turned after Life Magazine advanced him money for an autobiography, and later he received a pension of $25,000 a year -- the first president to do so under a new law. That was plenty for where he lived, the family home in Independence, Mo.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lessons from WWII: When Only a Czar Will Do

Following up on previous "lessons from WW2" posts about Harry Truman's pursuit of war profiteers, and Henry Kaiser's production miracle. Behind those bright lights were plenty of sparks.

Ramping up the arsenal of democracy in 1940 and 1941 set off fights over money and raw materials that dragged in just about everybody: old and new federal agencies, an Army and Navy intensely jealous of each other, industries, farm-belt politicians, unions, and Congress.

One of the first to hit the headlines concerned the feedstocks for synthetic rubber. Rubber was critical to defense equipment and transport, but Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies had cut off 95 percent of natural rubber shipments to the U.S. How to fill a quarter-million-ton-per-year shortfall with synthetic rubber set off a very public battle about which production process (and therefore which feedstock) to use.

Should the new synthetic-rubber factories depend on ethanol from patriotic American corn farmers, or oil from patriotic American oil producers? Arguments went beyond lobbying to a fistfight between the rubber administrator and a newspaper publisher in a swank Washington club.

Nobody was really in charge of the U.S. war effort -- at first. Take the single commodity called petroleum: by early 1942, six “alphabet agencies” competed to direct the production and consumption of products from crude oil. Harry Truman (along with Republican leader Wendell Willkie) called for one man at the top to oversee decisions and to be responsible for the outcome.

At their urging, FDR finally decided to entrust all war production planning to a single man, a czar of czars, former Sears & Roebuck executive Donald A. Nelson. Industrial historians say this decision was the turning point of the entire war effort, though FDR had delayed the decision almost to the point of disaster.

Nelson oversaw many sub-czars, such as Admiral Jerry Land, the head of the Maritime Commission. Land decided how many ships the U.S. needed, who would build them, what cargoes they would carry, and when they would sail. Land also commandeered all civilian-owned ships (both U.S. flag and also foreign ships that happened to be in our ports) for the duration.

After Nelson took over, the war mobilization became one big tent rather than a scattering of little tents. That is, there was plenty of work and opportunity for all Americans and most businesses, but under a single overarching plan.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Henry J. Kaiser: Miracle Man of the WWII Home Front

In a previous post I had mentioned that Henry J. Kaiser -- hardly remembered now outside of his health-care organization he set up -- is one of my industrial heroes. The amazing story of Kaiser, instant shipbuilder extraordinaire, shows how fast a well-managed industry can fill a production gap during emergencies, even while looking out for its workers’ welfare. I wrote about it in this article for Invention&Technology, and had the privilege of interviewing some of Kaiser's key men at his fastest shipyard, including Clay Bedford.

In 1940, Kaiser was a construction contractor who had helped put up Hoover Dam and Grand Coulee Dam and the Oakland Bay Bridge in record time. Other contractors knew him for his skill at motivating people, his ability to exploit latest technology to raise productivity, and the odd fact that he painted all his concrete trucks pink because pink was a “happy color.”

While Kaiser knew nothing about building 10,000-ton ships in 1940, his company came up with a way to mass-produce them so effectively that it ranked as the world’s premier shipbuilder by 1942. His brand-new shipyards in Oregon and California set speed records for freighters and tankers that have never been equaled.

One very effective method was “athletic industrialism” that pitted vast teams against each other and measured success in quality, cost-cutting, and speed. The man the press called “Sir Launchalot” or “Hurry Up Henry” also took care of his enormous workforce with subsidized housing, free day care centers, and a low-cost health-care system. He laid down a trolley line in Oakland, virtually overnight, to make workers’ commuting easier. Equal in importance to the bridge of ships, he gave heart to Americans at an early stage of the war when no military victories were in sight.

Suddenly FDR’s demands for other war equipment began to look more inspiring than insane. (When calling for US tank production to jump from four tanks per year to 45,000 per year by 1943, FDR had assured his aides, “Oh, the production people can do it if they really try.”) FDR considered Kaiser for the vice-presidential slot in 1944.

What’s the take-away from this astounding turnaround? Peter Drucker found his lesson in Kaiser’s optimistic ignorance: since Kaiser didn’t know how traditional shipbuilding worked, he was free to try new ways. (I believe Kaiser's success was more complicated than that, but Drucker's take on it was interesting.)

Kaiser did more than assemble ships. He created an entire system including iron mines and a new steel mill. Kaiser’s approach still offers solutions for emergency mass production, harnessed competition, cost cutting, and worker motivation. His approach could be applied productively to building the ships needed to tap “ocean thermal energy” from tropical waters. Fleets of giant floating plants could produce liquid ammonia in vast quantities for factories and power plants requiring process heat, and for fueling vehicles as well.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

San Bruno Gas Explosion: NTSB's Preliminary Report

In my previous post on the NTSB's docket page for the San Bruno gas-pipeline blast, I mentioned that the docket was light on data, but the seven photos were worth a look and the Board would be adding more information as it developed.

Three days ago the Board added a three-page report with new detail about pipeline steel, wall thicknesses, segments, corrosion protection, and fracture locations. Now we know this was an above-average grade of 30-inch-diameter steel pipe (0.375-inch, grade X-42, minimum yield strength of 40,000 psi). Thicknesses reported by the NTSB have been close to the nominal, between 0.36 and 0.38 inches. There's no indication in this report of large corroded areas due to pooled moisture, but highly localized stress corrosion cracking is probably something they're still looking into. SCC can happen when corrosion gets a grip on a little flaw in the metal. The combination of corrosion at the tip of a micro-crack, fed with pulses of energy, can cause these tiny cracks to slowly get longer until they reach a critical length, at which they fail at supersonic speed.

The loss of two Comet jet airliners over the Mediterranean in 1954 was probably due to slow, incremental fatigue cracking as the fuselage flexed with pressurization: that's because the cabin inflates, then relaxes slightly as pressure-relief valves balance it out. Remember, in the world of disasters, little things add up!

Yet to come are micro-level test reports about fracture edges and the most likely starting point. The report mentions that "key fracture surfaces" have been cut away for lab analysis and I'd bet these are suspected starting points.

Some info is provided on the 28-foot-long stretch of pipe that, about halfway down its length, includes the rupture that is the special focus of NTSB interest. Right now the description of pipe sections are in text and therefore it's hard to visualize the joints in the length of pipe removed from the excavation. The NTSB writes about the stretch of pipe as two segments: the south segment, about twelve feet long, and the north segment, about sixteen feet long. The "rupture" is between those two.

The north segment includes two short sections (called pups) that were joined with girth welds. Girth welds are where pipes are joined end to end; the other kind of weld is the longitudinal weld, which is done at the factory -- this is where steel plates are rolled into a tube and welded along a seam. Unstated is why the pups are there: were they part of a rebuild since the line went down in 1956? Were they necessary from the first so that the pipe could make a bend at this location, say because it's at the bottom of a hill or it was making a turn? There have been press reports that this area of pipe had enough of an odd shape that the standard testing pigs couldn't slip through; the pups might be part of the reason for this.

In preliminary reports the Board leaps to no conclusions (recall, there is no probable cause finding until the investigation is winding up). Still, a close reading of a preliminary report can shed a little more light about which suspected contributory causes are still "of interest." This list is usually quite a bit shorter than the list of hypothetical ones bounced around by press reports (and commentators like me) in the first two weeks.

One of the live issues continues to be a pressure pulse. Though not one that "pegged the needle," it came just minutes before the rupture. While it could be a coincidence, and likely isn't the whole cause, it's getting the NTSB's attention and rightfully so.

The pressure pulse arose out of a chain of events (in general I call these system fractures).

The timeline started with maintenance work at the Milpitas Terminal 40 miles southeast of ground zero, which is upstream in flow terms. Milpitas has SCADA controls that are part of the pressure regulation. Some cause, presumably human error but not conclusively, caused the 24-volt DC so-called "uninterruptible power" at Milpitas to fall to 7 volts, which dropped all or part of the terminal's SCADA system offline. Without its link to Milpitas, a remotely controlled valve on Line 132 moved to a pre-set uncontrolled position, from partially open to full open. This allowed the transmission-line pressure as measured at a point downstream of ground zero to climb above the maximum operating pressure of 375 psi. The location of these measurements was Martin Station in Daly City.

About 6:00 pm, eleven minutes before the rupture, pressure at Martin Station peaked at 390 psi. Then eight minutes later it dropped slightly to 386 psi, probably due to automatic pressure relief valves. At 6:11 pm it fell rapidly to 290 psi due to the rupture at San Bruno.

At 6:45 PG&E mobilized an emergency team to isolate Line 132. This delay has attracted much criticism considering that the flames were visible 10 miles away and 911 calls began flooding in at 6:11 and 59 seconds. PG&E closed an upstream valve at 7:20 and the downstream valve at 7:40. The total volume of gas released was about 48 million cubic feet. Firefighting work continued at individual homes due to gas-fed flames from the broken house lines. PG&E shut down the distribution lines to the neighborhood at 11:30 pm and the last of the house fires quickly came under control.

Is the pressure pulse a smoking gun, in CSI terms? Maybe part of one. As far as we know from the instrument readings at Martin Station, the measured peak of 390 psi was still 10 pounds below the maximum allowable operating pressure of 400 psi. Just browsing the Web, I see burst-pressures a good deal higher than that for pipes made out of 0.375-inch X-42 steel. But cracks in the wrong places can bring about anything down. If the nearby sewer line work two years earlier played a part, there might not be any marks on the gas pipe at all; a lateral shifting of the soil due to the sewer-line work could have raised the stress on some gas-line welds. The fracture analysis at the Board's materials lab in DC will tell us a good deal.

Here's an example of an NTSB materials-lab report, prepared for the Flight 587 crash investigation. So my advice is to stay tuned, and trust the process.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Land of the Leftovers: Technological Time Capsules

Rhode Island lawyer Leo Connors had always thought that his office on the 30th floor of Providence’s art deco Fleet National Bank Building (now the Bank of America Building) was at the very top.

But one day in 1953 he found an unmarked door opening on a narrow upward stairway. Passing through two more doors, he entered a long-forgotten, rectangular room fitted out as a dirigible cabin. It had wicker chairs, dark leather-lined walls, vintage light fixtures, fine brass fittings, and a liquor closet. Windows on three sides were framed like those of the Graf Zeppelin, which had been thrilling the public when the skyscraper was new. Altogether the dust-covered room looked like an artifact from some pinched-off timeline, an alternate past in which falcons had to share their aeries with blimps and zeppelins.

But the day of powered gasbags never came to Providence. Shortly after the lounge was finished and furnished in 1928, a string of airship crashes erased all hope for a worldwide web of lighter-than-air routes. England abandoned plans for Britain–Egypt–India–Australia route after the R101 flew into a French hill in 1930. Then the United States canceled plans for a dirigible fleet after a series of disasters that culminated in the loss of the Navy’s great aviation pioneer, Adm. William A. Moffett, when the Akron went down in a storm in 1933. Just about everyone else gave up after seeing the newsreel taken at the Hindenburg’s mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Meanwhile, in terms of all-around performance and reliability, airplane builders zoomed ahead of the dirigibilists.

Today ornithologist Joe Zbyrowski uses the now dilapidated dirigible room in Providence as a blind for his raptor studies. We'll never know what the exact purpose was: rich boys' clubhouse, or an honest-to-God boarding lobby for users of the air yachts that Goodyear hoped to build so long ago. The builders provided a door giving access to the parapets outside, so I'd vote for the latter. There are more such reality-jarring time capsules out there ... fodder for later posts.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Before FEMA: Arthur Woods of the NYPD

Early in the Twentieth Century, one man showed the rest of the country how to organize millions of people to handle disaster. He was Arthur Woods, commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD) from 1914 through 1917. The effort he led in the raucous and dangerous city of New York shows how emergencies can be managed effectively at the local level.

It began during his first months in office. Fearing that war in Europe was going to lap onto American shores, Woods ordered the department to prepare for catastrophe. Disaster response and rescue work had never been a formal part of police work before Woods' arrival, but he saw it as the best way to change his department's image. This was at the cost of some friction with the Fire Department, which saw the police as tromping on their emergency-services turf.

The disaster-preparation work that Woods mobilized was more thorough than anything contemplated by today's state or federal emergency responders. Plans were written up to handle mass uprisings on the scale of the 1863 draft riots; all of Brooklyn burning down; the most powerful hurricane ever recorded on the East Coast; and a direct attack by German battleships and saboteurs. How so? The NYPD identified all telephone and telegraph exchanges so officers could guard key equipment from German saboteurs. In case the exchanges were blown up officers were trained and equipped with semaphore signals. That would require standing on rooftops, so officers got ready for that by locating roofs with the best sight-lines.

The NYPD took stock of all buildings that held supplies of clothes, tools, food, and fuel. These inventories were so detailed that index cards showed where all bakeries were located and how much bread each could produce in a day if supplied with a specific quantity of flour.

What if the civilian bakers ran off? Woods had plans for that, too: he sent hundreds of NYPD officers to learn about high-production baking at Army kitchens.

The NYPD mapped churches and schools to provide sleeping quarters for 50,000 refugees, then went on to identify sources of lumber and canvas to erect tent cities if the flood of displaced people filled even that.

In case police officers were called off to do battle with the Germans, Woods trained and equipped a 12,000-man (and -woman) Home Defense League to stand in for the officers. Here's a link to a newspaper page showing 500 clerks of the B. Altman department store training for the HDL by doing calisthenics on the roof.

The Home Defense League, which was probably the best publicized of Woods' efforts, drew from all walks of life for its volunteers, from street sweepers to bankers and stockbrokers. Society women signed up their automobiles for service and offered themselves as drivers, in case of war. It was no tea party: the women donned khaki uniforms and couldn't graduate till they demonstrated how to carry out major repairs, down to grinding valves, troubleshooting carburetors, and disassembling magnetos.

It was a stunning turnaround in civic life for a city that had mostly given up on its police by the time he took office. Who was this man? After graduating from Harvard, Woods started his career as a teacher and schoolmaster at the Groton School (FDR was among his pupils). Then he worked as a newspaper reporter at the New York Evening Sun covering new types of detective work in the U.S. and abroad. He served a short term as deputy commissioner for the NYPD, then went off to Mexico to run a mine in the mountains.

When Mayor John Purroy Mitchel of the Fusion Party won office in a wave of revulsion about the Tammany political machine, Mitchel appointed Woods as police commissioner after two other candidates turned the post down. Mitchel told Woods to take whatever approach he thought best to straighten up the department. Even crime reporters who knew Woods and liked him personally held little hope. No previous commissioner, including Teddy Roosevelt, had been able to achieve more than temporary fixes.

Instead, within three years (and in addition to all his disaster preparation) Woods turned the NYPD into a model of crime-fighting. Woods launched an attack on robbery, pickpockets, gambling, prostitution, and shakedowns. He took on, and dispatched the extortion ring called the Black Hand. Nobody had been able to attack the roots of it before -- a valiant attempt had cost police Lt. Joseph Petrosino his life in 1909 -- but in three years of Woods' administration the rate of extortion bombings dropped by 92 percent.

He valued prevention above all, and to that end he enlisted thousands of children from the tenements into a Junior Police corps, and put a social worker in each troubled precinct. He closed off streets so children could play safely after school. He installed a basketball court at each police station for use by the neighborhood and police officers. Officers were told to get fit or get out.

After Mayor Mitchel lost the election in 1917, Woods left office to serve in the U.S. Army. Despite the short term in office his influence lingers. The reason the NYPD excels in heavy rescue today traces back to Arthur Woods, and his determination to change the police image from "copper to helper."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chile's Other Reason to Celebrate: Earthquake Safety

The miner-rescue count is now 9 and going up by the hour. This piece from the NY Times summarizes why Chile has reason to be proud of persisting with its efforts to locate the miners of San Jose and get them out. And Americans can be proud of assisting with equipment and expertise.

It's easy to forget during the actual rescue, but the first pilot hole to reach Los 33 stands as one of the most remarkable achievements in the entire saga. The men had been out of food for two days when help arrived.

The blitz of media attention is a little embarrassing (I think of the quote about the White House press corps, the "herd shot round the world") but it helps offset the lack of press attention earlier this year to Chile's world-class achievements in earthquake safety. The Maule temblor on February 27, 2010, was extremely powerful (magnitude 8.8) yet caused remarkably little death and destruction. Only one percent of tall buildings were damaged beyond repair. The biggest damage showed up in individual masonry dwellings not built to code, and bridges built before modern seismic code requirements.

While it's unfair to draw direct comparisons to Haiti, because the focus of the Haitian temblor was close to a major population center, I find it striking that while the Chilean temblor released 500 times as much energy as the one in Haiti, fewer than 800 people died in Chile, compared to 220,000 in Haiti.

The reason for Chile's rigorous attention to strong design and good construction materials: that southern nation gets the Big Ones. Chile suffered the most powerful earthquake ever recorded, the 9.5 magnitude monster of 1960 near Valdivia. Located on the Ring of Fire and therefore subject to frequent if smaller reminders, Chileans have never forgotten the danger they face. With each earthquake, Chilean engineers study the damage and tune up their building codes. As an example, Engineering News Record reported that the Chilean quake showed the need for more confinement of the steel reinforcement in tall buildings' concrete load-bearing walls.)

Over time, nature takes the bad buildings away and better ones take their place. Here's a link to a piece I wrote on earthquake engineering for Invention&Technology.

We could learn much from the Chileans, such as: "Don't get fancy with steel moment-resisting frame buildings by designing them to the bare minimum of the earthquake code. Go with what's worked." This should have been obvious after the Northridge earthquake, but we need reminders.

Another lesson for the US comes from the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe. Quake-prone regions like the Los Angeles basin put themselves at risk by refusing to mandate the installation of seismic shutoffs on all natural-gas service lines. After horrific experiences in Kobe, where people were trapped in burning rubble and firefighters could not reach them, the Japanese passed a simple mandate that requires gas shutoffs in all occupied buildings, old or new.

In Southern California, because of political resistance, many building owners are not required to install seismic gas shutoffs or excess-flow valves. Why does it matter? The LA basin has two million wooden buildings; an earthquake will start fires, break gas lines and knock out water supplies to hydrants. This will leave firefighters to hunt for ponds and swimming pools. If an earthquake strikes that is big and close, and during a workday when residents are gone and therefore unable to shut off their gas immediately, there is risk of a firestorm big enough to jump interstate highways. While the term "firestorm" was often used in the San Bruno gas-explosion news accounts, a real firestorm is something else entirely.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What's in a Lecture?

Juliet asked of Romeo, "What's in a name?"

My question: "What's in a lecture?" And: "What shouldn't be?"

I started giving "Inviting Disaster" talks in November 2001. The total number of appearances is somewhere past fifty now. In the first few years my audiences were structural and aerospace engineers, accident investigators, inspectors, college students, refinery workers, power-plant operators, safety officers, and emergency responders. Lately the scope has expanded to medical people and business execs. Audiences have been as small as a few dozen people and as big as 3,000.

There's plenty of advice for speakers out there (like "PowerPoint is not a TelePrompTer"). PowerPoint has a place in technical subjects, but those tempted to overuse it should heed the Old Testament, Habakkuk 2:2 --
Write your vision on a tablet so clearly that even a runner can read it.
So that means no shotgun-style PowerPoint slides, loaded with bullets!

I once listened to a biz-whiz do a keynote at a big trade conference. It was lighthearted rambling but he was famous at the time and his jokes affirmed the crowd's world view, so at the end the listeners looked happy enough.

But the rest of us speakers, the non-mega-celebrities, had better work harder than that. For one thing, canny organizers collect feedback from the audience, so they're going to know whether an appearance was worth the time and money. Every speaker can do better the next time, including me. And today's speakers need to be good if they're to hold the Blackberries and iPhones at bay.

Regardless of the speaker's fee, there are a lot of person-hours being used up in a room of a thousand people. This summer I gave a talk to a hospital system that shuts down all surgery suites once every three months so the doctors, nurses, and technicians can hear an hour-long safety briefing, so I was mindful of every one of my 49 minutes (and 30 seconds!).

My work starts about two months ahead of a lecture, to figure out strong connections between my world and the listeners' world. With the advice of event organizers, I work up a short list of subjects around a central theme. Then I develop a speech with the intent that it will resonate with a wide variety of listeners.

If the time-frame and setting works, I like to pause for a few minutes and organize the audience into small conversational groups to share their experiences on some safety question. Afterward I'm happy to sign copies of my books, since that's the best way to get my entire message out the door.

To finish with my one-man mission statement:
Provide dramatic narrative and accurate detail that will energize and bring new seriousness of purpose to listeners who are on front lines of safety and emergency response ... where every minute counts, every decision matters, and there are no second chances.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

San Jose Mine: Hollowed Like an Anthill

When I first heard about the San Jose mine at Copiapo, Chile, I assumed it was like other deep metal mines I've dropped in on over the years, in Nevada, Montana and Minnesota. In traditional deep shaft mines, access is usually gained by riding a cage down a vertical shaft. In mountainous regions, access is sometimes through adits (horizontal tunnels) excavated into the side of a hill.

Using a technique called stoping, some shaft-mine operators have chased rich veins from deep deposits all the way to the surface, leaving a very scary exposed chasm like the one in the old movie Taras Bulba. One abandoned gold mine I saw in New Mexico had blasted out a crevice, at least eight feet wide that ran for hundreds of feet along the tree-lined valley. Anyone who stumbled across that one in the dark was heading for the bottom.

Based on the diagrams and news stories being published, though, the 121-year-old San Jose mine was none of these. Call it a corkscrew mine, because access to the deep elevations (that is, before the collapse) was by driving down a sloping, spiral tunnel. This pathway stays mostly within the giant ore body and gives access to side tunnels. Here's a closer view of the 3D layout from the Daily Mail.

Passing near the pathway route at irregular intervals are vertical ventilation shafts. From the diagrams I saw some elevations of the mine have three ventilation shafts in parallel; at other elevations there is just one; and at some elevations there are no ventilator shafts at all, so air can only get through that level of the mine by following the pathway. Two days after the initial collapse of part of the spiral pathway on August 5 (which may have blocked one of the ventilator shafts at the same time) rescuers tried to slip past the collapse zone by using the only other navigable ventilation shaft at that level, but their efforts triggered that shaft to fall in as well. Confusing! And frustrating!

That left no other expeditious way for rescuers to reach the miners besides setting up their big drills away from the hollowed-out area and its spiral pathway. Using some pretty amazing navigation they angled the masts slightly so as to intersect a portion of the mine that's 2,000 feet deep and that offers access to the miners' refuge. The 26-inch bit from the Schramm T-130XD Rotadrill rig that broke through yesterday opened an escape route through the ceiling of their workshop. Given the bit's hammering and a stream of gravel that had been coming down the hole for days, there was no doubt among Los 33 that help was on the way.

While it may seem that rescuers could have saved themselves some time by taking a shortcut and just drilling through the maze of pathways and old ventilation shafts, the debris piled up in old excavations is pretty sure to damage or jam the drill bit. In fact an encounter with such debris 880 feet down in one old section of the mine stopped the Schramm operation for several days in early September.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Chilean Mine Rescue: Schramm in the Lead

If all goes according to Plan B, the actual rescue could be underway on Tuesday, pulling the men 2,070 feet to the surface of the CopiapĆ³ mine. The crew now dubbed "Los 33" has been down there since the mine collapse on August 5.

Almost at the finish line is the Schramm T130XD Rotadrill, a tire-mounted machine used for drilling wells down to 7,000 feet. The drill operates by a diesel-driven air compressor mounted on the rig and uses a combination of hammering and rotation. Schramm Inc. is a privately held company based in West Chester, PA.

In a manner of speaking, the Schramm rig's bit (manufactured by fellow PA company Center Rock) already reached the miners on August 22, but with a small pilot hole. There are three drill rigs in all (literally, a "three deep" rescue plan): the others are the Xtrata 950 and the RIG-422. The latter is a bigger machine than the other two and doesn't rely on a pilot hole.

Now the Schramm crew is in the last stages of reaming the borehole to a final diameter of 28 inches. Why not more? This is the size of the table opening on the rig, so the bit can't be bigger than that.

There are other jobs to finish besides drilling, and risks to manage. No borehole can be perfectly straight, and rocks can come loose from the side, which breeds concern about the 21-inch-wide rescue capsule jamming on the way up or down. A video camera will be lowered to inspect the sides for trouble spots. The uppermost section of the borehole -- a few hundred feet, and maybe more -- will have to be lined with steel casing since this is where rock is likely to come loose. And the miners will probably have to help out by blasting out the bottom of the borehole. Otherwise the bit could jam, given the angle in which it's entering the mine.

So ... kudos to the organizers, drillers, and particularly the team that will be heading down to organize the rescue from below: they have to make this perilous trip twice. Not a job for the claustrophobic, but as a West-Point-trained IBM manager told me once, "You have to know the point of crisis. That's where a leader needs to be."

Of course, if the owners of the mine had laid it out with two well-separated access shafts all this wouldn't have been necessary.

I wrote about the history of really big boreholes at this post, including the Fenix & Scisson work to drill a 90-inch wide, 6,000-foot-deep shaft for the 1971 Cannikin H-bomb test on Amchitka Island, Alaska.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Unquiet Helicopters

I wrote about helicopter noise in The God Machine and last night was reminded that this problem is still with us, despite some research and many assurances from helicopter users. This while sitting through Game One of the Twins-Yankees playoff series.

After the Twins' early lead got knocked out of the park in the sixth inning, I needed some kind of distraction. I found it by watching a helicopter that was orbiting the stadium, presumably to gather video for the TBS broadcast. It was flying wide circles in a clockwise direction, staying outside the footprint of the ballpark.

Why clockwise? The pilot-in-command of a helicopter sits on the right side, so his visibility of the ground is best on the right side when the ship (as pilots say) is orbiting.

The helicopter was noisy enough to attract the attention of some fans in our section.While details were hard to discern in the dark, from the profile I'd guess it was a turbine-powered, four-bladed model from Bell called the 407.

The Bell 407 uses the popular single-main rotor design for lift, with a tail rotor to counteract the torque from the main rotor. The tail rotor is essential to keeping the helicopter under control and pointed in the right direction.

The blades of the main rotor and tail rotor were making most of the noise that Twins fans were noticing, along with minor contributions from the turbine exhaust.

A helicopter's noise changes greatly as it approaches, passes overhead, then recedes. If you have the opportunity on some sidewalk or rooftop, stop and listen the next time one's coming your way. You'll notice that the helicopter makes a pounding noise as it approaches. But keep listening as the helicopter is almost overhead. As abruptly as if someone flipped a switch, the pounding noise fades and is replaced by a penetrating whine from the tail rotor. After the aircraft is moving away, the thrumming picks up again but at a lower noise level. The larger the helicopter, the louder the noise, because the blades have to be bigger to support them in flight. The Black Hawk and Chinook are among the loudest in the US fleet.

The pounding noise that shakes the windows is from the main rotor. The reason is the noisy and fuel-wasting phenomenon called blade vortex interaction, or BVI.

As the rotor turns, tiny tornados called vortices tear loose from each blade tip. The next blade to arrive smashes through those whirlwinds. This result is blade slap that with larger helicopters, can be heard for a mile or more. With a rudimentary sound gathering device, Vietcong fighters could hear BVI noise from American UH-1 Huey helicopters a full five miles off.

Most BVI noise from a moving helicopter is blasted out in the forward direction, as if from a bullhorn. The strongest effect is on the right side because the advancing blades (which in US models, are on the right side) in striking the tip vortices throw the energy forward and somewhat to the right. Unfortunately for residents who live near heliports, BVI noise is particularly loud along the flight path when a helicopter is on final approach.

Was there ever a totally quiet helicopter? We wish! An air-ambulance pilot told me about attending a neighborhood meeting near his hospital, in which residents pressed their desire to reduce noise levels. A resident asked him, "What about that Whisper Mode, why don’t you use that?" The pilot replied, “That’s only available in Hollywood.” The resident replied with some indignation: “I don’t care where you have to go to get it, just get it!”

Notwithstanding the compelling special effects of plot churners like Endangered Species, there is no Whisper Mode that can silence any full-sized helicopter at short range. That is, a Bell, Sikorsky, Aerospatiale, or Agusta can't hover a hundred feet from an office window as in Blue Thunder and take pictures without attracting a lot of attention.

But, that said, some surprising advances have been made in learning how to cut back on noise generation. But commonly these modifications add expense while also reducing the payload of the ships, so the most effective methods are not yet in general use.

In another post I'll describe Hughes Tool's work on their one-off “500P” model during the Vietnam War, along with more recent experiments in quietizing the machines.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Shaped Charges: The Other Two Types

Following up on my September post , which was about the conical shaped charge as it appears in the warhead of a Hellfire missile or RPG round. Conical charges depend on explosives backing a hollow cone, commonly of metal. I wrote an article on the subject for Invention&Technology.

This post finishes up with a description of the other two principal types of shaped charges. The linear shaped charge is a sort of explosive rope that can be draped across or glued onto the object to be cut. When detonated it can cut massive steel beams and open holes in reinforced concrete walls, so it's commonly used in demolition work and other applications where one thing needs to be quickly separated from another, such as spacecraft. The V-shaped metal of a linear shaped charge is hammered into a sort of chisel blade by the longitudinal explosive, and heads out at hypersonic speeds. Here's a link summarizing NASA's experience with them during the Apollo program, including one model called the "guillotine."

The latest shaped charge, the explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, relies on explosives packed behind a shallow metal dish to forge and launch a dense cylinder of solid metal. American troops in Iraq learned to dread the EFP’s ability to disable even the heaviest MRAPs and tanks in the U.S. inventory. The weapon, about the size of a large coffee can, packs so much kinetic energy that the penetrator either smashes through vehicle armor or causes a grenade-like burst inside, from metal splintering off the interior of the vehicle’s own armor.

Unlike the jets produced by conical and linear shaped charges, which are unstable in flight and therefore limited in range to a few inches or a few feet at most, the EFP can destroy targets at a hundred yards or more. Researchers have even tinkered with the explosion to forge little aerodynamic fins in the back.

(While the EFP remains the biggest threat to tank crews at this time, tacticians are also having to think about the kinetic energy penetrator, a fast-moving, dense metal rod that's fired from a tank's main gun and hits an opposing armored vehicle with greater mass and force than an EFP. An example is the Armour-Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot. Radically new defensive techniques, perhaps employing sideways-sliding armor plates powered by their own explosive charges, will be required to stop the long-rod penetrator.)

Shaped-charge researchers of the future are said to be looking at multiple shaped charges, which would simultaneously erupt from the nose of a massive earth-penetrating bomb.

Designers would also like less liner metal wasted in the slow-moving slug and more crammed into the devastating, fast-moving jet. With such efficiency in mind, engineers are looking into a new type of shaped-charge liner using chemically-reactive materials, which might reduce fouling in oilfield applications and be useful for new warheads. As far as I know, there's no breakthrough on that front yet.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

San Bruno: NTSB's Docket Page, and More

A few updates on the San Bruno pipeline-blast investigation.

Here's my tally list of factors that still look like candidates for the root cause analysis, based on news reports and press conferences: overpressure in the pipeline; tied in with this, possible SCADA malfunction or fatigue-induced operator error (see this wrap-up from the Mercury News about a possible power glitch that could have affected readouts and controls at the PG&E Milpitas control center; unrepaired corrosion that could have weakened the pipe wall due to moisture outside the pipe or some kind of liquid that gathered at low spots inside the pipe; collateral damage from nearby construction, possibly the earlier pipe-bursting work on a sewer line nearby; or some problem caused by modifications to "Line 132" after it was laid down in 1956.

For those who don't follow the progress of NTSB work but would like to, the NTSB sometimes puts up a docket management page showing the progress of its work on a major incident. A tweet from NTSB pointed to the San Bruno docket page . There's not a lot on there right now -- only seven photos -- but in general dockets are where we technology-watchers find PDF versions of contractor studies, blueprints, pre-disaster inspection reports, metallurgical studies, and many other pieces of worthy information. While these materials are not official Board findings they are the raw material on which the Board will build its final report.

These are very important for reporters preparing for a press conference. I first learned about docket pages when reading up on the I-35W bridge collapse. Here's the docket page for the Minneapolis bridge disaster in 2007. The list of resources can grow to be quite long, and the indexing isn't necessarily easy to use. But nobody said research was supposed to be easy!

From the San Bruno docket, here's the best view I've seen of the full section that flew out of the crater, with a close-up view of one end. The pipe was originally entrenched with about three feet of dirt cover.

I did a bit of reading on pipeline construction of the 1950s and surmise that the pipe was fabricated from rolled sheets of carbon-manganese alloy with a yield strength between 50,000 and 55,000 pounds per square inch. Just a guess!

We'll have to wait for reports on whether corrosion played a role. NTSB metal experts can tell a great deal from studying broken metal, such as whether stress corrosion cracking played a role. They turn their microscopes on all the edges, looking at where ductile fracture changed over to brittle fracture. (An important subject but one for another post.)

Note in the photo that a long line of weld bead on the left of the photo, on the inner wall of the pipe, shows as intact. This weld most likely would have been by arc-welding machine at the pipe factory. Factory welds are ideal for quality: If an arc weld has been well executed it can be stronger than the plates to be joined. Welders call a good bead a "stack of dimes" (particularly in TIG and MIG work) and this bead looks like one of those, from a distance.

But arc welds at field joints, where ends of pipe are joined at the job site, are a different matter. Most difficult to execute is the welded section at the bottom of a pipe: were they done by machine, or by a guy with a welding rod, crouching in a trench and working overhand? Overhand welding is the most challenging work-setting for an arc welder, even an expert. (One of the Kaiser innovations leading to record-setting Liberty ship manufacture during WWII was to revolve huge sections to minimize overhand welding - Henry J. is on my short list of industrial heroes, but that's something for another post.)

Here's an aerial view of the site. This shows where the principal plume of fire moved, toward the north-northeast. Here's an overview map from the LA Times showing street names.

Take a look at this photo on the NTSB docket, a street-level view of the crater on the eastern side of Glenview Drive. In the foreground you can see where the pipe section landed after shooting out of the crater. Most likely it would have tumbled in mid-air, so it could have landed upside-down. Note also that the crater (28 feet by about 70 feet) seems to be where the street is crossing a shallow valley. This would suggest corrosion is somewhat more likely than if the section had been located at the top of a hill.

In other words, corrosion is still on my list of possible contributing causes, along with collateral damage from nearby sewer work. An alarm-flagged overpressure of 11 psi over the upper end rating of 375 psi doesn't sound like enough on its own to cause a catastrophic failure -- heavy iron like this, even 54 years old, should have enough safety margin to handle that pulse. It's possible, of course, that actual pressure spikes were considerably higher than 386 psi. SCADA records should reveal more detail than the fact that "hi-hi" alarms were triggered.

But as outsiders like me continue to speculate, it's reassuring to know that Board experts are on the job. They're not dismissing any possible root cause without good reason.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

London's Early Prominence in Apocalypso-Literature

Gardening chores done for now, I'm back at the keyboard and finishing my earlier post on post-people literature.

One reason that the first modern writers in this field used London as their setting for civilization's collapse could be the grip that the legend of the “London Stone” had on literary minds, in the way that it linked the distant past and distant future. Note this ancient saying:
So long as the stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish.
This carved, oolite limestone block was once the most celebrated remnant of London’s ancient origins. Local lore has variously claimed the Stone to be from the settlement built by the legendary founder of London, Brutus of Troy; or maybe a Druidic stone from a worship ring on Ludgate Hill; or perhaps the city’s milliarium, a milestone used by Romans for measuring road distances.

More likely is that the Stone simply broke off from a long-forgotten Roman monument near Walbrook, the rest of which might still rest a dozen feet under the pavement of Cannon Street.

The Roman city of Londinium itself lay mouldering for more than a century after the Romans scooted in 410 AD. The victorious Saxons preferred to live just to the west, outside the walls, in a town called Lundenwic. Apparently they found the Romans ruins too spooky for comfort, though they erected a cathedral there. Occasional discoveries of mammoth bones during Saxon times could have led them to believe that Londinium had been built by giants.

The name London Stone first appears in property records from the Tenth Century. The name of London’s original mayor, Henry FitzAilwyn de Londenstane, signified that he was born in the neighborhood of the Stone’s original location. At the time, circa 1160, the stone lay smack in the middle of Candlewick Street.

In 1450, the invading rebel Jack Cade thought that striking the stone with his staff and proclaiming himself Mayor of London would get him a quick promotion. Cade was wrong about that, but he did help trigger the War of the Roses and earned a place in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2. (Side note: In the play it's one of Cade's henchmen, "Dick the Butcher," who utters the familiar line "first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.")

Since then the Stone earned mentions in works by Shakespeare, Kipling, Dickens, and Blake.

While embedded in Cannon Street, a constant annoyance to operators of wagons and carts, the London Stone carried more than historical significance. As one example, the spectacle-maker’s guild took pairs of unlicensed spectacles out to the Stone to be ceremonially smashed. Later it was grubbed out of the street and in 1798 mortared into a wall of St. Swithin’s Church. German bombers flattened that structure during the Blitz but the London Stone survived the attack, as rocks will, and can be seen today. It's behind a sheet of glass, which is behind a protective grill, which is in a wall, at 111 Cannon Street, London EC4.

The World Without Jon Stewart -- Or Anybody Else

Bookstores are building great heaps of the long-titled The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race. According to the cover, information in the coffee-table book will help out aliens who drop in to tour the ruins we left, millions of years hence. Comedy lovers will probably find the book a good deal more sobering than his show.

The idea of an unpeopled world will be familiar to those who watched the History Channel series Life After People or readers of the book The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

And before those was my 1984 article for Smithsonian on how three great American monuments would age if abandoned by civilization. Most honored by sf lovers is, or should be, the 1949 classic by George Stewart, Earth Abides.

But long before all these was a haunting poem in Old English called The Ruin. There is no record of which Anglo-Saxon poet wrote it. It is at least 1,200 years old and the only text we have comes from a half-burned manuscript inside The Exeter Book. No other copies have been found, so some sentences are fragmentary. But enough remains to suggest the poet was musing on the Roman rubble of Bath … about those who built it and then were wiped out.

A snip:
Bright were the castle buildings, many the bathing-halls,
high the abundance of gables, great the noise of the multitude,
many a meadhall full of festivity,
until Fate the mighty changed that.
Far and wide the slain perished, days of pestilence came,
death took all the brave men away;
their places of war became deserted places,
the city decayed. The rebuilders perished,
the armies to earth. And so these buildings grow desolate,
and this red-curved roof parts from its tiles
of the ceiling-vault. The ruin has fallen to the ground
broken into mounds, where at one time many a warrior,
joyous and ornamented with gold-bright splendour,
proud and flushed with wine shone in war-trappings;
looked at treasure, at silver, at precious stones,
at wealth, at prosperity, at jewellery,
at this bright castle of a broad kingdom.
Another poem from The Exeter Book, called The Wanderer, has some of the same deeply reflective mood:
A wise hero must realize
how terrible it will be,
when all the wealth of this world
lies waste
as now in various places
throughout this middle-earth
walls stand,
blown by the wind,
covered with frost,
storm-swept the buildings.
Chilling! If you're preparing to sit down with the Book of Exeter on an overcast and wintry day, my advice is prepare a flagon of mead and build a roaring fire in the hearth first.

The "post-people" genre took a step forward in 1817, when a writing contest sponsored by Leigh Hunt’s Examiner prompted two poets to muse over a giant statue depicting Ramsses II, then lying in pieces at the ancient capital of Memphis. The more famous of these was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who structured his work around an inscription found there, translated as, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/ Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Ozymandias is known to just about every lover of poetry. But how many can recite anything by the other entrant who wrote about the statue, Horace Smith? Mr. Smith's poem On a Stupendous Leg of Granite imagined some visitor in a far-off time stumbling across the ruins of London.

Because of the way Smith linked the distant future to the modern world -- moving beyond the apocalyptic Christianity of The Ruin and The Wanderer -- I regard his poem as the start of modern post-people literature.

Author John Richard Jefferies picked up on Smith’s vision in his 1885 novel After London, pitting his protagonist Felix against a feudal society that had taken root from the city’s rubble.

Why did both writers target London as ground zero? Yes, London was then the economic center of the Western world, but there's a legend involved too. I'll pick that up in a later post.