Wednesday, June 30, 2010

If a tree limb falls in the park....

And there is a woman and a baby under it, will everybody hear about it?

Yes, apparently they will. This NPR story smacks of trouble for trees.

I have a story about tree limbs and a man cutting down all the trees in his yard in Atlanta but I don't have time to tell it right now. This is one of my serious pet peeves but it looks like they covered the same thoughts in the comments.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Around Town with my iPhone

I saw this bikini today at TJ Maxx and had to take a picture. Look at the coast of Louisiana and pretend that blue space is the gulf of Mexico.... Where does it put the MC252 oil spill, anatomically?

I haven't updated the blog with a review of my new phone or anything. I haven't figured out how to do my blog on it, well, not with pictures anyway. I'm working on it. I've been a bit distracted by making plans for moving. I had some drama last week renting a condo where the lease on a very convenient location was snatched out from under me while I was waiting in that line. The very next day I found another one available two buildings down that didn't have a sign up yet. I completed the whole process to lease it in just one day. It's available now, so I'll get the key on July 1. I decided I better take advantage of a 3 day weekend to move so I quickly bought a plane ticket for next Friday to get the 7 day advance purchase price. I reserved a truck in Tallahassee to pick up on Saturday, and now I'm mentally planning what all I can fit in the truck and subsequently in the condo.

I haven't rented a place to live in over 15 years. I'm not sure I'm capable of not changing it to suit me. So I'm just going to embrace it and make whatever improvements I require to be comfortable. If I use materials I already have and don't really want forever it should be fine.

The location is awesome. It's across the parking lot from my office. They just signed another year lease there so we'll both stay put for a while. It's just across one 4 lane divided highway from the greenbelt so I'm going to bring my bicycle from home. There aren't a lot of rental properties around it, just a neighborhood of interesting big houses. I picked up the flyer for one that's for sale for $800,000. I can go for a walk and just pretend that's where I live. When I was driving through the neighborhood I turned around to go back and take a picture of this garage door. This is the best looking garage door I have every seen. Timber framed slate roof? Dang! But it works on that stone wall.

Today I made friends with a woman at Home Depot today looking at the oops paint. I helped her pick out black paint to paint a bunch of yard sale furniture and I talked her into getting a Purdy paintbrush. I hope she finds it as wonderful as I do. I just can't stand to paint with a crappy paintbrush. It turns a zen experience into a frustrating mess. Anyway, I'm supposed to call her in 3 weeks when we're both finished moving to go kayaking. Did I just become more interesting because I'm new in town? Or is it the town? Nobody back home would talk to me about oops paint.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


I got up at 4am to go get in line for an iPhone. I'm at Barton Creek Square in Austin. The mall cops weren't letting people into the parking lot when I got here. There were people parked all along the street for a half mile in both directions. I parked and walked back in the dark and got in line. At 5:30 they let the line move up to the mall. We got to stand by the dumpster behind California Pizza Kitchen which smelled lovely in the pre-dawn heat and humidity. The guys in line around me and I took turns going to get our cars to move them off the street. I got my chair out of the car then.

From Apple iPhone4

From Apple iPhone4

At 6am they opened the doors to the mall. The entry way was lined with Apple employees who clapped and cheered as the line moved through the doors. It was like it was my birthday at TGIFridays. At that point it felt like I was about number 200 in line and there were twice as many people behind me. As soon as we got inside an Apple employee came around with a cart full of bottled water and gave one to every person in line.

From Apple iPhone4

Next they separated the people in line into two lines -- people who got their reservation to go through online, and those of us who were unsuccessful. I was moved to another area of the mall where I sat from 6:30 to 9:00, at which point I decided I needed to go get my lappy. The mall has free wifi.

I had been reading a story about Jonestown when I took this picture.

From Apple iPhone4

The Chick-fil-a manager came down the line and gave everybody a free breakfast. She told us they had coffee and ice tea by the entrance to the Apple store. People were too dazed to even be that excited about it. We realized it would just make us have to go to the bathroom. And the mall really didn't make any changes to their standard deal. The lights weren't on in the bathrooms yet.

From Apple iPhone4

At 9:30 they moved my line forward one section of walkway. They kept us clear of interesections just like we were cars in a traffic jam. And it looks like we're moving again!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Barn Swallows

I saw these barn swallows today under a bridge in Austin. These birds eat insects in midair just like the related purple martins back home. But back home you attract them by putting up empty gourds with a hole in them. These make their own gourd shaped nests out of mud. Only thing we have that does that is wasps. They put stunned spiders in the mud nests to feed their larvae. These barn swallows have to bring fresh food to their babies every day.

This bridge is right by the State Surplus Sale place. It's where they have all the unwanted file cabinets and desks from state offices and all the stuff they confiscate at the airport. Some pocketknives are $1, some are $5, and the Leatherman and Gerber multitools are $20. I already have a pocketknife and a Gerber multitool, but I got another really light Gerber pocketknife for $1, plus some 3 pound dumbbells for $1. They had an awful lot of corkscrews, knives, toy guns, golf clubs, and pool cues. I was surprised by the bin full of key chains made out of rifle ammunition. I didn't know those existed and I can't see why they are a threat on an airplane. And as mentioned in an earlier post, there were two 3x4 shelves full of snow globes. They were all just Texas souvenirs though and nothing cool or I would have gotten one. The furniture was beat up and unattractive and overpriced. If I need a desk or table or chair I think I'll likely look elsewhere.

I'm psyching myself up to go wait in line for an iPhone. At least there's an Apple store only 2 miles from where I'm staying, and 1 mile from my office. They start selling them at 7 am so I hope I'm not too late to work.

Natural color image of the Gulf of Mexico

Even a sheen of oil shows up in this satellite image from the NASA Earth Observatory. If you click the picture it should download the full resolution and let you zoom in.

The oil on the surface is getting damn close to Port St. Joe, Florida and that perfect puffy cloud that's covering Dog Island won't keep that oil from coming ashore there too. I hope they get that boom deployed in Franklin County and the locals feel free to go out there and re-anchor it and arrange it properly. I know they know what to do. There are hazardous waste experts in residence. They should invoice BP bi-weekly until the coast is clear.

I went looking for all the data NOAA is supposed to have online but I couldn't readily find it. I did get one interesting report as a PDF file. If you are used to interpreting water quality data like I am it makes sense, but as with all environmental reports it concludes that they need to take more samples and write more reports. There's oil out there and if they keep at it they can find out how much, where it came from, and where it's going.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Austin Intro

I've been in Austin, TX for 6 days now. I'm adjusting to not being a hermit just fine. My friends from Georgia Tech live in a wonderful neighborhood with interesting things to see.

The first morning I got up and went for a walk I saw some of the famous Austin bats. Unfortunately they had been struck by a car. The larger one got up and flew away while I watched, but the smaller one was more stunned. A gust of wind came along and turned him over and he rested there longer than my attention span so I moved him to the side of the road so I could finish my walk.

Later that day we went to UT to see my friends' son perform in the middle school band camp concert. Across from the music school is a free natural history museum with some lovely fossils and rocks.

Mike told me about a roadrunner he sees frequently at a park near their house. I set out early one morning to try to get a picture, but I took a wrong turn and found a path along a spring fed creek instead. It made me sort of wish I'd brought their labrador retriever and my bathing suit because we could have splashed around in some of the little pools.
Yesterday we went to the IMAX theater downtown to see Hubble 3D. Cheryl and I both got choked up at the scenes of the astronauts grabbing the telescope with the robotic arm on the shuttle. I tried to repress my emotional state by observing, "That's a lot of Kapton tape!" I couldn't help thinking that it would be impossible to be a good astronaut if you were going to cry and get all snotty nosed over stuff like successfully replacing a circuit board without slicing your glove open. There is absolutely no way to wipe your face inside those space suits.

After the movie we walked over to the state capitol and admired the door hinges and how well the air conditioning worked for such a vast space. I suppose all that marble is a serious thermal mass. As we walked to the car we passed the huge complex of heat exchangers and air handlers that I knew had to be there somewhere. 

I'm writing the blog today from Mozart's Coffee Roasters on the shore of Lake Austin. Free wifi and the new lappy has a powerful battery that will run for 10 hours. I am excited about moving to Austin. There is enough opportunity for alone time with nature to keep me happy and there seem to be a lot more people here that I can identify with. I only know a handful of people that even know what Kapton tape is, and I'm pretty sure Cheryl is the only other girl I know that has ever heard of it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I want my iPhone 4!

I can't get my order in for a new iPhone! And apparently a lot of other people can't either. I blame ATT. I get through the Apple part fine but when it gets to AT&T to confirm eligibility it throws up. I meant to do it in the middle of the night but it slipped my mind. Dammit.

My old Nokia phone is completely hosed. I can't talk for 2 minutes without the call being disconnected. I need me a new iPhone!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Send out a probe

The Japanese sent a rocket (Habayusa) to get a piece of an asteroid and bring it back to earth. It just got back. That's freakin' cool, I don't care who you are.

I've been thinking a lot about probes the last couple of weeks. I mean the Star Trek style. Where people in tidy uniforms sit looking at electronic displays and when something is happening in the hostile environment outside their control room they order engineering to send out a probe. A light streaks out across the video screen. And then they get readings on what the conditions are out there.

That's what people expect from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Only probes are people like me. And the act of shooting us out of the Houma version of the Enterprise is not a harmless act of remote sensing. And we don't have telemetry and a data link to return the data instantaneously. People have to physically bring bottles of water back from sea, hand them off to fresh-outs who pack them painstakingly in ice chests to prevent any leaking so FedEx won't put them out on the side of the road. And they go off to a lab in some distant city where they are handled by more actual people.

Now they COULD install remote monitoring equipment with telemetry and a data link that could sit there and send back data without any people burning gas. They could have audio monitoring underwater to gauge the level of biological activity. They could have buoys with conductivity, density and temperature sensors measuring the water constantly. But I suppose it's better for the economy to pay people to do that work? I don't know, I suppose I have no problem with the redistribution of wealth, I'm just annoyed with the spin that claims any of what BP is doing is at all related to preventing harm to the environment.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Friday, June 11, 2010

Free to demobilize

I offered to be the sample courier in my station wagon that doesn't give me sinusitis. The administrative person said she would ask around about that and told me to go eat lunch. She found me in the cafeteria and said I was free to demobilize. 11 days into my 14 day deployment? Well alrighty then! What does THAT say about BP?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Washed out of the boats

Well I flunked field work. After 6 days of going to a boat ramp every morning I was informed by my boss that my team members reported that they didn't think I liked working in the field. So my boss said I could try doing something around the operations center instead. I was thinking of something like preparing histograms and scatter plots in Excel to start looking for trends in the data they're collecting -- you know, science. But they were thinking something more along the lines of making deliveries. Of course that is more logical. They are in fact paying me less than a quarter of the rate I used to charge for thinking and problem solving anyway, so it is right for them to remind me to do nothing pertaining to my education or skills gained beyond the age of 16.

I actually liked going out in the field. I primarily enjoyed the sightseeing. My favorite days were the two when we got rained out and I could take pictures on the way back. There's all kinds of things to see here.

I also liked riding in the boats and seeing the vastness of the marshes. The first day I went out there were terrible thunderstorms first thing in the morning and I sat in my car and read my book for an hour and a half then my colleague called me from across the parking lot and said we were calling it off. I saw this interesting pirate sculpture at the gas station where I made a pit stop. I have that same outfit. Only I'd be armed with a GPS and camera instead of a pistol and cutlass.

The next day I went to that spot again. Me, four guys I didn't know and a boat driver went out in a 20' Boston Whaler. The air boat was for back up. We raced some storms to do a little work. The ride back to the landing we got drenched with spray. My new XL rain jacket kept me dry in the sitting down place. I was delighted to be able to just unzip the legs of my fancy nylon britches when I got to the car.

The day after that I went to another site even farther away. It was lightning and raining before I even left my hotel. I called my colleague to see if we were calling it off and he said to go there anyway. There were a ridiculous number of fiddler crabs on the highway. The captains of the two boats call them tooloulous. After they called off the trip for thunderstorms after all I took some animal pictures on the way back.

I can't decide what to call this last creature. I could go with wild boar, but I think it's a sow. And if it was really wild then how come I was able to pull up next to her on the side of the road, roll my window down and take her picture without even turning down the stereo? I'm going with vehicle-tolerant furry pig on the loose.

Saturday I went back to that same spot again. The boat drivers I knew, and two of the science team were the same. My colleague was different. The one I worked with before went back to his regular job. This other guy decides that me and the other new guy (Federal) who are essentially in training should go on the other boat. We are a little confused how we will be trained when we aren't even on the same boat. But they insist and off we go. We pound through a vicious 3 foot chop for 45 minutes. It is hard to really participate with the process with that many extra people. Some of the stuff they were doing was directly incompatible with what the head guy told me to do. So I just kept my mouth shut and rode along. After doing our job we had to go all the way back to the operations center and turn in the data to NOAA. Working in the field is a long exhausting process that starts at 5 am and ends at 9 pm. Sunday we do it all again. The boat captain and the extra Federal guy and myself, coincidentally all older by some 15 to 30 years than the people in the other boat,  agree that we are very sore from the day before. The bay is a lot calmer the second day and it's a pretty good time, although the rest of the team keeps wanting to ignore the instructions I've been given by the boss back at headquarters. I'm the only one with cell phone coverage because I have ATT and they all have Verizon. My instructions were to call in when we get on the water, at mid day, and when we get back. So I call in and the boss says to come on back in and they say no, they want to do two more locations. So I just keep my mouth shut and wait, really wishing I could go to the bathroom and not drinking water because of it. Which gives me a severe headache.

Monday I go to a new place with a new team. I don't know anybody, but fortunately the boat drivers are the same. They have different boats though. Once again my third colleague in the field so far insists that I ride by myself in the other boat. We have a bay boat and an airboat so I go in the airboat. (I have my sound pressure level meter with me so I check to see how loud it is. 120 dB. That's really loud. When all the engines are turned off the sound pressure level in the open water of the bay was 70 dB. That's surprisingly loud too. The ambient sound level in the woods at my house is 58 dB. That's why I can hear every truck passing by from half a mile away.) I finally get a chance to fill in the paperwork when we get out on a sandy island. This is the only time I got to touch the official paperwork in the 6 days I was in the field. The other sites we did that day they didn't let me get involved. Well, me being in the other boat and all....

Tuesday I went back out with the same person from my company plus an extra woman who just got into town from California. The state and federal people were different, and I was in a different boat with a new boat driver. Of course all the official parties were on another boat again.

Then that night my boss has the sit-down with me to tell me about the reports he's getting that I don't like field work. I told him I would do fine if I was out there by myself, it's just not a feasible situation to participate in the filling out of forms from a separate vessel. Plus I'm extraneous. You only need a consensus of the three agencies. Adding another opinion doesn't improve the quality of the data.

Basically I have real concerns about the use of precision giving a false sense of accuracy. I suppose it's the engineer in me clashing with the scientists. To me the important thing is to achieve consistency in the assumptions from site to site. That is just not happening. The data is going to be analyzed by people who weren't even out in the field in an Excel spreadsheet where the estimated values are reduced to a single number with no error term. I could have either had a big clash with the 11 different people I worked with to insist on consistency and productivity, or I could just shut up and look at the dolphins. So the report came back that I don't like field work, which I suppose is better than being accused of being stubborn and impossible to deal with. I am glad they didn't take it personally.

I am grateful to not be out in the sun all day anymore. It is hot. Which is a problem for most people. The safety people have declared that our teams have to come off the water by 12:30 because of the heat. For me the main problem is the UV radiation. I have to cover all my skin with long sleeves, long pants, boots, hats. My hands stick out and they've gotten browner than my arms. Another problem is not being able to go to the bathroom when I'm out on these little boats.

Finally I am bothered by the fumes. The two-stroke outboard motors on these boats make terrible fumes. And since I'm usually following another boat I have to breathe a lot of it. I was worried that the oil would smell bad, but in truth the oil-burning boat engines bothered me more than the creosote and paraffin smell of the oil slick. After talking to my brother about it one night I realized what a gigantic carbon footprint this whole operation has. Thousands of cars going hundreds of miles a day, hundreds of boats. There were 7 vehicles going to these boat ramps every day, sometimes over a 200 mile round trip, just for the one team I was on. Then there are the boats themselves which pollute way worse than the cars. It's really quite ridiculous.

The BP Operation Center in Houma has expanded to such an extent that today I saw people from OSHA, the Department of Labor, and the local fire marshall. The fire marshall laid down the law on people plugging in their computers around the walls of the cafeteria. In the week I've been here the number of cars parking there every day has doubled. It's utterly nuts. Everybody has completely lost contact with the big picture. They are so involved in their part of the thing they just work themselves into a nervous state and don't realize that they could just say no. Nobody says, "Wait, this could be doing more harm than good. Let's take a step back and run the numbers." They are terrible at using technology. Driving electronic data from Venice to Houma every day is ridiculous. Having everybody use their personal cell phone to coordinate everything is not very efficient. They could be using text messaging to send updates to predefined mailing lists from their computers at HQ in case of an emergency, but the company phones have texting disabled. Lots of places where a voice call will break up from poor signal strength you can get a text message through fine.

So as I type this I am feeling pretty sick. Sore throat and sinus congestion. All those days in the field in the open air with oil and dispersant and engine fumes and cigarette smoke and the cologne of country boys I was fine. Plenty of dilution in the open air. But tonight I had to drive a rented cargo van to pick up ice chests full of water samples. My sensitivity to the outgassing in the enclosed space has done me in. I flunked out of the field and I'm afraid I'm going to fail being a courier as well. Misanthropy got me in trouble with the first one, and chemical sensitivity is going to get me in the job I could do all by myself. I don't really know what to do. I guess I can suggest they let me use my own car. I offered today and they said no, though. Maybe if I explain why it's important. I just feel like they can easily find somebody else who is fine in a rental car. I'm just not a good employee am I? It may turn out that being a hermit is not a choice but a necessity. My nice boss is gone tomorrow, back to his regular job for two weeks. I have no idea what happens next.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I miss high tech

My friend Brian Davis sent me a link to these great pictures on Spaceflight Now of the Space X Falcon launch. I made friends with Brian from YouTube during the days after the Solar Dynamics Observatory launch when we were all trying to figure out what the hell happened in my sonic boom video. The Falcon had a neat vapor cone effect too. We don't know what it is. I'm too exhausted from pounding through rough brackish water in a fiberglass boat to formulate an explanation. The rocket condensation is pretty and I'm glad for something engineered to focus on for a few minutes. (What was I thinking getting involved in the squishy sciences?! Most interesting part of the day was visiting with the boat captain who told me he can't read. He has an iPhone.)

Phil Plait had a little debunking to do about the Falcon launch too. Apparently Australians saw it in orbit and immediately gave it mystical properties. Not a UFO. Is identified. Use science and math.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wait, where?

Last week I'd never even heard of Morgan City and now I'm staying there. I just got back from a walk along the wharf looking at the big shrimp boats in the Atchafalaya River by the historic district. They have a neat walkway along the top of a big concrete wall that looks like a sound barrier on the interstate. I suppose it's to keep water out, but it has giant openings you can drive a truck through. The fact that they have a historic district must mean it's hard to wash Morgan City out to sea. I'm sure some storms have tried.

I agree that a storm surge on fire would be a worse scenario, but I don't think it counts if it's utterly implausible. I've been told that weathered oil isn't very flammable. I'm thinking it would be especially hard to get it to burn in the rain. I don't think being a mousse would make any difference. I have no first hand knowledge of this, but I have made salad dressing. Probably more water entrained in there than air. I read an article online that said they've got some fluffy tarballs over in Pensacola today. Wonder if anybody has tried to set one on fire.

There were strong thunderstorms all day today so I didn't get to go on an airboat. Will try again tomorrow.

Getting ready to get ready

So I've been in Louisiana for two days now. This is my third night. Hotels are hard to come by. I'm staying 25 miles away from the BP Operations Center, which was formerly a training center. It's sort of a familiar feeling to be here. It reminds me of working at the Olympics. Everybody is very focused. Nobody has a life outside of work. They have daily and weekly goals in their little area of expertise and it all hopefully comes together. There are environmental contractors, the coast guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR), and the Louisiana State Police out front with their mobile command center. There's a whole shitload of stuff going on and it's amazing that they've got it all under control. They have security scanning you in and out with a bar coded badge. There's caterers fixing three meals a day, just help yourself. They have a place for you to take your clothes to get them washed and you get them back later that day. My group is headquartered in a room with an overhead crane and a roll door. It's set up with plastic folding banquet tables all lined up two wide in rows with people face to face and back to back. There are about 5 rows about 9 tables long with people on laptops just elbow to elbow. There are a couple dozen people from the company that hired me and the rest are from other agencies and consultants. There are about 200 people in the field for the dozen or so sitting in the operations center, just for the project I'm working on. There are so many people here working on this project they had to create a big gravel parking lot between the building and the highway overpass that probably accommodates more than 500 cars. They have those big construction lights to light it up at night. There's heavy equipment working on the other side like they are expanding the parking even more. I had to wait for somebody to leave before I could park after my physical today.

I had to get a baseline physical before I can go do my job. Since yesterday was a holiday I did it today as soon as they could make the arrangements. I've never had an OSHA mandated physical before. When I got to the Occupational Health Clinic there were 35 other people already waiting. By the time I got called back to the exam area I was shivering from the air conditioning despite getting a jacket and sweater out of my car. I was also thirsty and hungry because I was told to fast ahead of time. The next 4 hours included measuring my height, weight, temperature and blood pressure. Testing my peripheral vision, near and far vision and color blindness. Some cursory visit by a doctor to look in my ears and throat, listen with a stethoscope to my chest, and check for swollen glands. He also made me stand on my tiptoes, touch my toes and stand up with my arms out and my eyes closed. I don't know what any of that was for. I had a chest x-ray, peed in a cup, and got 4 test tubes of blood drawn, which I REALLY didn't like. I got an EKG, which was neat. And I did a hearing test and a test of my pulmonary capacity. In between these steps I sat in an intermediate waiting room with tough looking men who were doing the same bullshit. One was a kid who was just working for the summer at a steel fabrication plant. Other ones were oil rig workers and a heavy equipment operator and some other assorted laborers. We compared notes about all the first aid and CPR and safety courses we had to take. Then we bitched about how hungry we were and speculated about how much profit we could make if we got a pizza delivered and sold slices in the waiting room to people who had already had their blood drawn. We decided there was a huge revenue opportunity going to waste because there was no vending machine in that secondary waiting room. Most of us had been there over 6 hours by the time I left. I got done first because all my stuff was being sent to a service in California and all the doctor had to do was sign a Release to Work form for me after a cursory check of my obvious results. Those poor fellows said they had to do that shit once a year, and a lot more stuff too, like water survival tests that are basically to see how good you are at controlling the panic response. It's nice OSHA is making sure there's documentation of the level of fitness of people in dangerous jobs. Too bad it's such a miserable thing to have to do.

Tomorrow I have to drive 57 miles to a marina to get on an airboat to go see what the deal is out there. I'm not actually working on cleanup. Before they clean up stuff they have to assess how much damage was done. The environmental scientists (me) working for BP go out with somebody from NOAA and LaDNR and we all agree on what to put on the report. It seems like a solid plan of checks and balances and conflict of interest control. The thing about scientists is we don't really have much agenda other than wanting to accurately and precisely as possible quantify some kind of measurable data. I have a healthy dose of engineer in me too so I like defining a problem and thinking of new ways to solve it. In school I was interested in underwater sound. I learned about a method of using a wall of bubbles to stop the noise from pile drivers from going into the water column. A few days ago I started wondering if bubbles would be useful in keeping oil away from an area. I met a guy from Seattle today who has worked with bubble walls. (Pile driver noise can kill salmon). I asked him what bubbles would do to oil? Could you put a line of bubbles in front of a beach and create a barrier to oil? He didn't know and he looked like he was thinking the same thing I was -- How do I mock that up to see what happens? If anybody has a fish bubbler or something and can whip up an experiment, let me know what happens!