Monday, April 19, 2010

How an Engineer Eats Oysters

Grasp the lemon in your hand. Firmly squeeze the lemon juice all over the oysters.

Next, mix your cocktail sauce. Add approximately 40/60 ketchup/horseradish and stir. The real judge is the smell and the color. The cocktail sauce should have a pinkish hue.
Next, open a package of crackers. Take one out. Spread on a layer of cocktail sauce 1/8" thick. It should look like this:
Every hole on the cracker should retain some cocktail sauce.

Take your oyster fork and free the little guy from the shell. Place him on the cracker.
Down the hatch!

Repeat at least 11 times.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Notes on the 2010 Tulane Engineering Forum

Got a chance to attend the 2010 Tulane Engineering Forum yesterday. It's been evolving into the most interesting engineering conference in the city. There's a good chunk of the city's P.E.'s that attend it every year, including lots of business owners. There's also always at least one presentation every year on the state levees. Partly because of the technical proficiency of the audience, you get some extremely in depth and thorough debate.

Last year's introductory session {PDF} was given by the Corps and I'm told they spent the whole time praising all the things that are being fixed up and all the good things the Corps has done. I'm told that there was some interesting back and forth at the end of their presentation, but I don't know the details, so that's all I'm going to say about that for now.

This year's presentation was by Dr. Dalrymple, Dr. Bolard (PE), Dr. Christian (PE), and Dr. Reed. They were a part of the National Research Council's team that worked for the Corps on LACPR, basically the task force that Congress appointed to design "Category 5 Levees."

As we all know, to date, there is no solid plan for Category 5 Levees. The most up to date thing the Corps came up with was a "menu of options" (111 in total) that was slammed when it came out. The Corps, despite billing themselves as the premier coastal engineers in the country, left it up to Congress to make the ultimate determination of what would get done. While there are some political implications (see Oyster's post), the panel went through some of the scientific and engineering challenges that also pose problems.

First to present was Dr. Dalrymple. His main points were the lack of a "sediment budget" for the lower Mississippi River. The loss of sediment load and sedimentation action is the #1 coastal loss issue, according to him. This was one of his slides:
Sediment Load

As a side note, if you were to poll the top 100 coastal Louisiana experts on what the biggest problem is, probably 95 would say either canals, primarily for oil and gas exploration, or sediment loss, primarily due to levees confining the Mississippi River. When you have someone from the Corps speak, they tend to play up the canals and when someone from the oil industry speaks, they tend to play up the sediment loss. All four presenters, while nominally affiliated with the Corps, were heavily into the sedimentation camp.

Dr. Dalryrmple went on to comment about to designing a "Category 5 Levee" system. It would be more accurate to describe what New Orleans needs as a 400-1,000 year level of storm protection. No matter what is built, some local cooperation is needed for non-structural mitigation strategies, such as zoning, building codes, and buyouts.

In the end, Dr. Dalrymple held a fairly pessimistic view of the future. When asked what was the NRC's influence on the Corps' plans, Dr. Dalrymple described it as "subtle." The audience of engineers nervously laughed.

Dr. Bolard was the next to present. He once again railed against the failure to take advantage of sediment, both with beneficial use of dredged materials and how we're still directing the majority of the sediment load that comes past the city off the continental shelf into hundreds of feet of water. 125 Million Tons per year of sediment are wasted in this way. Dr. Bolard pointed out that all of the plans from the Corps assume that we'll have basically the same coastline as we do now in 50 years, despite the fact that we lose 24 square miles of coastline per year and that trend has been more or less unchanged for 80+ years! The bulk of Dr. Bolard's remaining presentation was a complicated discussion of the Corps' attempt at using MCDA to whittle down the 111 plans into one or a few actionable items. He described the multiple attempts as failures, for a variety of reasons.

Dr. Christian was next to present and he had by far the best presentation of the group. I'll actually skip over most of his presentation because I want to come back to it in a later post. He mostly talked about the "600-lbs. gorilla in the room: the Corps' performance before during and after Katrina." He started off by listing things that Corps has done into 3 categories: things that have been blamed on the Corps, but aren't really their fault, things the Corps has done well, and thing the Corps has done "not so well."

On the things the Corps gets blamed for, but isn't really their fault, he claimed: split responsibility, Louisiana politics, and a few other minor things. He gave one example of a specific floodgate that has 5 different entities "controlling" it (railroads, roadways, the local levee board, and the Corps). He said that they looked up the operation procedures of each of the organizations and each one assumed that someone else would close the gate in the event of an approaching storm! Also, Louisiana's political scene doesn't do us any favors nationally when hunting for funds to build the levees.

Dr. Christian's list of things the Corps does well were Task Force Guardian, IPET, and the Corps' hydraulics and hydrology understanding. He particularly singled out the Vicksburg office for their understanding of hydrology.

Dr. Chrisian's list of things the Corps does "not-good" was pretty scary. First, he says that all too often you'll have a representative from the Corps, say that the Corps has never had a failure. He says that if you put enough modifiers and adjectives in there, you can get a strictly factual statement, but, in the end, THE LEVEES FAILED!
NOAA via Wikipedia

It's sad to say, but the Corps failed, the Corps failed, the Corps failed. He said it needs to be drilled in that the Corps' levees failed from Katrina's glancing blow under stresses far below their design capacity. The Corps-built levees resulted in the worst civil engineering disaster in American history. Dr. Christian was adamant that that fact not be overlooked in any way.

Dr. Christians other two serious criticisms was the Corps' geotechnical and soils analysis, especially with the New Orleans office is fundamentally flawed. He said that was his professional opinion and that he knew there were lots of people with the Corps that would take strenuous objection to the statement. Note that the debate safe water level in the outfall canals has been extremely contention because of just this issue.

Dr. Christian's last "not so good" Corps procedure was that peer review, while successfully implemented under TF Guardian and IPET, has become a "box-check" and not a real concerted effort. Getting any information out of the Corps is like pulling teeth and there's outright hostility to "outsiders" looking over the Corps' design process.

Dr. Christian made a lot of bold statements, but between the slides and his response to engineers' questions, he seemed to back them up, IMHO.

Dr. Reed was the last one to present. She spoke of the need to manage flood protection, navigation (remember, the reason New Orleans exists), and coastal restoration. We managing the lower delta (where to chop it off) is the big issue for the next 50 years. We don't have the sediment load to preserve everything that exists today, so we need to do some triage. She also mentioned that Mississippi is extremely concerned with any effort to gate the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain because of its effects on Mississippi Gulf Coast storm surges (probably increasing them).

Where does all this leave us? One attendee who saw both plenary sessions (2009 Corps and 2010 NRC/LACPR) described them as presenting "quite a different picture." Currently, we have no plan for Category 5 Levees. The Corps says they'll come out with a plan 'this summer,' but we'll see if/when it comes out and if it's just another "menu" of options. The full presentation will also eventually be uploaded to this page.

NOTE- Minor edits. Also, Dr. Christian praised the Times-Picayune coverage of the situation. He says they've done a better job of informing the locals of the challenges facing the city than anyone has ever given them credit for (and it's not like they've been ignored).

UPDATE- Looks like Mike Schleifstein made it. His article looks along the same lines as mine, but I've got a few more details and he's got a few more links. Also, he caught that the new due date for "Category 5 Levees" is July. I just caught summer.

UPDATE 2 - Presentations Online

UPDATE 3 - The Corps' summer plan is out and it's yet another "Menu of Options"

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Books on Edwin Edwards

One of the things that always frustrates me is learning history that's too recent for the history textbooks, but before I started to regularly read the newspaper. I've been interested in reading up on some recent Louisiana history and the Leo Honeycutt biography caught my eye:
Edwin Edwards
Leo Honeycutt's "Edwin Edwards"

The book features extensive interviews of Edwin Edwards made while he was in prison. Frankly, the book stinks. The beginning is actually quite good and the book covers quite a lot of non-EWE-related Louisiana recent history, which I appreciated. The chronicling of the media's influence on campaigns is one of the best parts of the book. I also like how much the anti-Edwards camp is exposed as hypocrites (Foster for being pro-Duke, pro-gambling and Buddy Roemer for being the "father of legalized gambling in modern Louisiana"). Towards the end, though, the book became unreadably bad. James Gill was quoted extensively, but only at the end when it served the author's bias. There were a couple of quotes that, when a fuller quotation was given, would have conveyed the exact opposite of what Honeycutt was trying to portray. The book also had some minor typographical errors throughout, but for a first edition that was sort of rushed out, I'll forgive. The blatant pro-Edwards bias ruins the book towards the end. I couldn't finish the book, it was that bad.

Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards
Tyler Bridges' "Bad Bet on the Bayou"

Instead of finishing Honeycutt's book, I picked up Bad Bet on the Bayou. It is a history of gambling in Louisiana from the Louisiana State Lottery Company to the conviction of Edwin Edwards. The earlier history is fantastic. I loved how it described pre-suburbanization Jefferson Parish as nothing but thugs, scoundrels, and prostitutes. Sometimes, you'll hear suburbanites complain about all the corruption in New Orleans, but the shit that went down in the 'burbs is amazing.

Tyler Bridges really stuck it too Edwards. He got a little too preachy at times. His most effective passage was when he chronicled the damage done by gambling addiction to a half dozen Louisiana families.

After reading both books, first off, I would have never read nearly as much of the Honeycutt book had I read Bridges' book first. I'm also ardently anti-gambling and Bridges' book only reinforced my views. The best way to stop gambling is math education, but if we did that, half the state education budgets would be in the red!

As far as EWE goes, I think that Edwards' first two terms were OK, at least he didn't push gambling. His third was crap, but then again, it was the oil bust, so anyone would have had a hard time. Edwards' fourth term, well, I'll let the man describe it for himself:

"The best thing that could happen to me would be to win the election and die the next day"

-Edwin Edwards to John Maginnis, just before the runoff election against David Duke

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Scott Cowen: "You're not going to remember your major"

On January 17th, 2006, after students were back, Scott Cowen held a meeting with the engineering students to explain the Renewal Plan.

The entire meeting, IMHO, was to blow smoke up our ass and not run away with our tuition dollars ($40K/year at that point). Tulane had already pissed off a lot of parents by keeping the Fall 2005 tuition money.

The meeting ticked off the engineering students quite a bit. Fortunately, some of us recorded it and caught a real gem from Cowen that pretty much sums up his fuckmookishness:

"Question: 20 years from now, 30 years from now you will remember you came to Tulane. You're not going to remember what you major was or ... [garbled] ... but you will remember Tulane University."

-Scott Cowen
January 17th 2006
Meeting with engineering students

That's the quote, word for word (23 minutes in on Side B). Told to a bunch of ENGINEERING students. It doesn't matter what, say a Civil engineer learns in school, it only matters that they went to Tulane.

Unfortunately, the quality on the tapes is terrible. Cowen's booming voice is the only thing that the mic picked up.

Side A:

Side B:

If anyone would like to give a stab at cleaning up the audio, that would be greatly appreciated.

NOTE: Some minor edits. Also, the version of this post has embedded audio players that don't seem to show up in Google Reader.

Emerald Coast Food

Emerald Coast
Candice and I enjoy vacations to the Emerald Coast in Florida. One of the problems we encounter every time is where to eat. Most of the restaurants there are, frankly, terrible. I know I'm spoiled because of New Orleans, but the restaurants are over-priced, poor service and the food just sucks. What makes it so inexcusable is the abundance of incredibly high quality ingredients. They have vegetables from Georgia, citrus from Florida, and seafood from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic isn't too far away, either. The measure of most restaurants in the area is now how good they are, it's how little to they screw up the top-quality ingredients.
The Red Bar
Fortunately, in the land of mediocre restaurants, there is one redeeming one: The Red Bar. From what I understand, it's one of the oldest restaurants in the area and was founded by a Belgian guy (who made sure the bar kept Stella Artois on tap!). They serve breakfast; the waffles are wonderful with house-made whipped cream, strawberries, and powdered sugar. They also are just the only place along the coast that knows how to cook vegetables. There are only about 6 or so main items on the menu at dinner time, but by keeping it simple, they don't screw it up and they're amazingly consistent. The Red Bar is the only place I'd recommend to another New Orleanian in the area without reservation. The prices are good, the service is excellent, and the food is great. I'll give it my highest compliment: it could survive as a pure restaurant in New Orleans, even without the beachside locale.
Evening at the Red Bar
The only drawback is if you don't eat dinner there early, it gets really jammed up with an incredibly long line.

There is also one alternative to The Red Bar: get the great ingredients and cook it yourself. The groceries there are pretty good and cheap.
Goatfeathers in Blue Mountain is the seafood supplier to most of the restaurants in the area. The grouper-type fish are local and very fresh. You can generally get something in the afternoon that was swimming in the morning. Try this recipe, for one.

Gill for Congress

Gill for Congress
Originally uploaded by Noladishu
Backstory here. Go WORLD CHAMPION New Orleans Saints!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sunday, April 4, 2010


7 minutes, 40 seconds in. FYYFF. Treme is now my favorite show in the world and I haven't even watched one episode.

Dump Cowen, Not Engineering

Today the Times-Picayune gave their Loving Cup award to Scott Cowen. I'll grant that Cowen has done some good things with the Cowen Institute and New Orleans Public Schools and keeping the doors open at Tulane, one of the largest private employers in the city.

But, even the article mentions the shuttering of engineering at Newcomb. There's no getting around the fact that in the aftermath of the the Federal Flood, the largest engineering disaster in US history, Cowen axed the programs that could have made the most difference. In his own words, "If they don't fix the levees, everything we've done [with the Renewal Plan] is for naught."* What are we going to do Dr. Cowen? Sue our way to Category 5 Levees?

In early 2006, there was a huge student protest on campus. Hundreds (thousand plus?) of students marched around the administration building. They demanded Cowen's resignation over the Newcomb and engineering cuts. Not a single news organization covered it. I'm posting a couple of photos to prove that it did indeed exist.

* Citation coming.

Update- More:
"Football players build great levees"**


** Tulane's football program, despite as favorable accounting as they can possibly manage, runs a deficit of at least $2 million a year. It was not effected by the "Renewal Plan."

UPDATE 2- From Tulane's last E-Week battlebot competition:
Cowen Bot
"Cowen Bot: Destroying that which others have worked so hard to build"

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Offshore Imperative

We've been hanging out on the beach in Florida and I've been reading a history of the offshore oil industry (nice timing, Mr. Obama). One of them, The Offshore Imperative, has struck me as the best history of the domestic oil industry I've ever read. Usually, the histories are either blatantly pro-industry, glossing over all drawbacks, or have serious omissions (no M. King Hubbert in The Prize).

The Offshore Imperative is a history of Shell Oil Company, the American subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell. The title comes from the fact that Shell Oil, in order to meet its reserve replacement requirements, had to go offshore to find oil. All of the onshore oilfields were either taken, depleted, or required political connections that a foreign company could never hope to attain (for example, LA Block 340 that Huey Long's Win or Lose Oil Company sold to Texaco). It used its advantages in geophysics, geology, and engineering to its advantage. Dollar for dollar, nobody beat Shell at the offshore game.

Normally, I flip through the acknowledgments and just ignore it, but this one I read through and I discovered this book had some interesting history. One of the last presidents of Shell USA commissioned the book to be a corporate history of the entire company, including refining, marketing, etc. The author begged to do a history of just the offshore work, but the president said no. The author got his funding went through the Shell internal archives and interviewed all sorts of retirees and was progressing with the book when Shell got hit with a string of reorganizations and the Shell Reserves Scandal. The president that hired him went away and his replacement ignored the book project, demoting the book project to the purview of the PR department, who seized it as a chance to put out a glorified press release. Eventually, the author was told that Shell didn't want the history anymore and he was released from his contract. The author used all his research to put together the history of the offshore industry he always wanted and the run-around he got from Shell management served the book extremely well, in my opinion. He got a lesson in the dark side of the oil business that gave the book a better balance and perspective (but I don't think that anyone will be confused and think the Greenpeace wrote the book).

What grabbed my attention immediately was the first sentence talked about how M. King Hubbert, a Shell geologist, predicted in the 1950's that US oil production would peak in 1970 and go into terminal decline from there. He was widely scoffed at at the time, but his prediction turned true and despite massive discoveries at Prudhoe Bay, offshore Gulf of Mexico, and skyrocketing oil prices, nothing has topped 1970 peak production of ~10 MMB/D. Normally, within the industry, Hubbert, despite his major contributions to fluid dynamics and geophysics, is sort of ignored or laughed at. The fact that a "corporate" history would mention him right off the bat was a good sign.

The other thing that struck me throughout the book was the huge role New Orleans played in the development of the offshore oil industry, not so much on the business/finance side, but so many of the engineering, geological, and geophysical advances from the 50's to the oil bust of the 80's happened in New Orleans. Bright spot seismic, OEDECO's Mr. Charlie & Blue Water I, and the engineering behind the tallest offshore platforms was all done in New Orleans. The city was, in a way, the Silicon Valley of the energy industry and that all ended with the oil bust of the 1980's. Houston stole New Orleans' crown. One question I've pondered is was there anything New Orleans could have done better to keep its crown?

A huge chunk of the early oil industry's personnel were Cajuns. One Shell geologist, Rufus LeBlanc, a "self described barefoot Cajun boy from Bayou Tigre" worked out the basics of sedimentary geology and, more importantly, was mentor to the next generation of Shell geologists. When Pecten Cameroon needed skilled workers, it was Cajuns that filled in. According to the book, they "felt right at home among the mangrove swamps, sweltering humidity, and French-influenced culture and cuisine."

When Shell did screw up, the book didn't shy away from the gory details. Much of Shell Oil's pre-WWII production came from the wetlands surrounding New Orleans and there are extensive citations to Bayou Farewell (another excellent read) and the scientific papers talking about the contributions of pipeline canals to wetland erosion. This Jazz Fest sign is a lot closer to the mark than some would have you believe...

If I could summarize the book in 8 words, it would be this- Shell Oil: Brilliant engineers and geologists, dumb businessmen. Whenever Exploration and Production (E&P) lost control of the wheel, bad things happened. Shell blew billions of $'s on unsuccessful drilling off the coasts of Virginia, Oregon, and Alaska, meanwhile the MBA's constantly penny-pinched in the Gulf of Mexico, an area of proven oil production and already existing oil infrastructure! I'll grant them that hindsight is 20/20, especially with business decisions, but there were some dumb decisions made. For example, there was a budget meeting where they had to decide between seismic shots of northern Alaska, of which Shell had zero data on, or extremely expensive drilling off the coast of Oregon. The Shell engineers correctly deduced that it would take at least 2 billion barrels of oil to be economical in Northern Alaska, so the executives pushed the drilling program instead. Unfortunately for them, Prudhoe Bay Oil Field has produced 13 billion barrels and counting. Another screwup was in the late 80's/early 90's, Shell was really hurting for cash and it invited BP on as a partner. Shell had a huge competitive advantage in its extensive oil leases held in deepwater fields that nobody else had the expertise to develop. While Shell defused costs on one big project, BP turned the knowledge gained to their advantage and, as of the books printing, BP (not Shell) is the largest acreage-holder for deepwater Gulf of Mexico.

The book is worth a read for anyone interested in oil industry history. I'll definitely keep it around as a reference. Given the recent news, here's a question to ponder: Will the offshore industry blossom anywhere else in this country? West Coast, Florida, and the Baltimore Canyon (VA/MA/NC) were pretty much busts when they were drilled in the 70's and 80's. Offshore Alaska found plenty of gas and non-commercial quantities of oil, but in order to justify huge costs, discoveries need to be at least billion barrel sized. We'll have to see.