Monday, July 30, 2012

"Rust Never Sleeps"

It slowly eats away at steel night and day; See about the rusty pumps for one example.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Hole in the Bottom of the Sea

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Stop the BP Oil Gusher
A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Stop the BP Oil Gusher
A Hole in the Bottom of the Sea focuses on the post-blowout oil spill response (capping, top kill, top hat, etc.). In Fire on the Horizon, the rig didn't blow until page 200 or so. In this book, the rig blows up on page 30 and the well intervention lasts past page 200.

The writer has a background as a science writer for National Geographic. On the plus side, that means he has a firm understanding of things like measurement uncertainty, error bars, etc. On the downside, he has no technical background so there are some errors that are pretty blatant (for instance, he confuses erosion and corrosion, two completely different processes) that still make it into this edition.

Note that I picked up the post-Fukushima paperback copy. This book has been through at least 3 editions, from what I gather. That probably fixed a lot of earlier errors.

The writer has one soapboxy-bit: 'We now live in an engineered world and we'd better accept it.' Achenbach also probably managed to have carnal knowledge of his thesaurus as he wrote this book.

If you're interested in the well intervention (and only the well intervention) this is a great book, but the definitive Deepwater Horizon book has yet to be written. I'm waiting on David Hammer to write it...

Grover sings "A Hole in the Bottom of the Sea"
"Model Bloat"/"Keep the Weight Down"/"Put the project on a diet"

Weight managment is especially key on thing where weight-performance tradeoffs are key (like cars, planes, rockets).
"Just because 1 woman can make a baby in 9 months doesn't mean that 9 women can make a baby in 1 month.

On the problems with 'fast-tracking' projects. See also: The Mythical Man-Month.

Vermillion Parish seen from Space

Article from Wired.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Engineering Sayings:2

Fast, Good, Cheap... Pick 2.

Engineering and especially project management is often the art of compromise. You'll almost always be short on something/pressed on something. A good engineer doesn't give up or put out a crap product, but he will, for instance exceed his budget when crunched of schedule.

Engineering Sayings: 1

"Belts and Suspenders"

Multiple, redundant safety systems.  Also sometimes overkill.

Ex.- How can you pick a conservative engineer out of a crowd?  He wears both a belt and suspenders to keep his pants from falling off.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Piper Alpha: The worst disaster in the history of offshore

Many years before Macondo, there was a much more deadly disaster offshore in the North Sea.

Piper Alpha was the largest platform (by production) in the world in its era (317,000 barrels/day, peak). It was built in the North Sea by a consortium run by Occidental and Dr. Armand Hammer.

I recently picked up Fire in the Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster by Stephen McGinty. The book was only published in 2008 (the incident happened in 1988), so enough time has passed to be able to sort things out.
Fire in the Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster
In addition to time, the Piper Alpha incident had the benefit of the Cullen Report (summarized here), which is a Royal Inquiry. In the US, we have this pesky thing called the 5th Amendment, which protects people from self-incrimination. Under a Royal Commission, they just do away with that. Someone doesn't want to talk, they just lock them up until they feel like spilling the beans. Lord Cullen never had to actually do that to anyone, but I'm sure having a bazooka in your pocket, as Secretary Paulson once said, doesn't hurt.

There were many, many lessons learned from Piper Alpha that are now standard on offshore operations today (SSIV's, Temporary Safe Refuges, etc.). One of my favorites is intumescent paint:

It expands, forming an insulating layer that keeps major structural items intact long enough for an evacuation. In Macondo, 10 people on the drill floor died basically instantaneously. Only 1 person died after the initial explosion (a crane operator who fell and was incapacitated and later burned). All others were able to make it to a safe refuge and the Deepwater Horizon stayed structurally intact for quite some time (~36 hours!). There's actually some disagreement out there as to whether it was the fire that finally killed the rig (high temperature weakening of steel), or the haphazard firefighting dousing the wrong areas in water and flooding the hull (ballasting down the ship, causing it to capsize).

One sad parallel between Macondo and Piper Alpha was the confusion that all too often accompanies disaster. In Piper Alpha, loved ones waited at a hospital in Scotland. One by one, helicopters would land and there would be those who would find out their loved ones made it. Eventually, there were no more helicopters and the families were notified that's all the survivors. Sadly, for another two days, some clung to a rumor that a 'Russian freighter' had picked up most of the rest of the crew and was steaming to a port with the radio broken. Some of the families even drove up to the port to wait on a freighter that would never arrive.

In Macondo, noted fuckface Jiff Hingle, Sheriff of Plaquimines Parish* spread a rumor that a survival capsule was found and contained all of the 11 missing. MSNBC** and Fox News reported that as fact. One of the widows was actually on the phone with her husband's employer getting the news her husband would never return when she saw on the news the report and went on and on about how "he's alive" while the TO employee was patiently trying to explain that the report was false and he died on the rig. Also, both the UK, under a Socialist Prime Minister, and the circa-2010 MMS had almost exactly the same Inspector:Platform ratio.

In the Piper Alpha disaster, Fast Rescue Crafts were worth their weight in Myrrh. My favorite part of the whole book was the story of the Silver Pit's FRB. It pulled more people out of the water than anyone else. It made several 'easy' rescues early, but then took an absolute beating later on when it edged in near the inferno to pick up survivors. They have a load of 3 survivors on board, 4 crewman on the boat, including the coxswain. The boat is leaking and the motor is starting to sound like it's on its last legs. The coxswain spots someone directly under the inferno waving for help. The platform was collapsing into the sea and just the heat flux from the fire that close would give you bad burns, but the Coxswain asked his boatmates, "...Are we going to go? We're his only hope."

The response was a chorus of "GO!" The coxswain puts the throttle down, they go in full speed and with no margin for a second run or even slowing down (with the inferno over their head and the platform literally coming down in pieces all around them) and the crew grabs the swimmer out the water and pulls him in to safety. He survived, despite bad burns.

The FRB goes back to its mothership, offloads survivors, then despite massive damage, wonky engines, and the boat sinking underneath them, it goes back out to try to rescue more. The FRB was all used up from their antics and sank beneath their feet. The coxswain bobbed in the North Atlantic satisfied he had done absolutely everything possible to save people. The final death toll was 167 with only 61 survivors. 33 were rescued by the Silver Pit's FRB.

There is one direct link between Macondo and Piper Alpha: The Tharos / Deepwater Marianas. The Tharos was a dive support vessel that someone billed as an 'offshore fire engine' on the side. It had some design defects and didn't save as many lives on Piper Alpha as it probably should have. It later got converted to a MODU. That MODU spudded (started the drilling) of Macondo. It on the scene for both Piper Alpha and Macondo.

* Source: "A Hole in the Bottom of the Sea" by Joel Achenbach, page 44
** Source: "Fire on the Horizon"

Saturday, July 14, 2012

High School Reunion

Ms. White's Homeroom Class by Noladishu
Ms. White's Homeroom Class, a photo by Noladishu on Flickr.

So, I just found out at the very last second my high school reunion was tonight and did manage to catch up with a few people.

For those of you checking in, here's Ms. White's homeroom class from freshman year. Found a print of this going through some old boxes a while back. Sorry about the scan quality.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Polonium: The best and worst poison

So, while up in New York, I picked up The Poisoner's Handbook from The Strand. The subtitle is 'Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York'. I loved it. It's a murder mystery with heavy doses of history, politics, and science. I'll give it one of the best compliments I can give a book: it reminded me of Rising Tide (one of my favorite books of all time).

Poisoning has always sort of been a "coward's weapon" (killing in secret without the chance of glory, like open battle). The 'Hassassins' terrorized the Middle East, until their downfall in the 14th Century. Poisoning has slowly been dying off due to advances in medicine and science. Doctors can cure a myriad of poisons and forensic scientists can extract tell-tale clues of poisoning, leaving the assassin (and those that order the hit) vulnerable to retaliation.

Except for 1 obscure poison: Polonium. It looks to be more in use than we realize. There's the famous Litvinenko poisoning case in 2006, but it looks like there is at least one more from 2004:

Excellent report about the possible (probable?) use of polonium to assassinate a head of state. I definitely recommend the second half of the video where they go through how they investigated. Great work.

Why is polonium such a great poison? Well, for background, I'll highlight the brain teaser about the 4 radioactive cookies. Polonium is an alpha-emitter. You can hold it in your hand and be perfectly safe. You can have a vial of water with enough polonium to kill dozens and have it just sit there and it won't be easily detected and won't harm a potential assassin, but you sprinkle it in, say, the target's tea or on the target's sushi and they ingest it, they'll die a slow, painful death over 3 weeks and doctor's won't be able to figure it out or cure it...

...Except if you have a radiochemist specifically looking for polonium. Then, even sub-milligram quantities of polonium can be revealed and analyzed. You see, during the early stages of the Manhattan Project, scientists knew plutonium could also be useful to make a bomb and would be much easier to manufacture than Uranium-235.

Years before, chemists had developed a branch of analysis called microchemistry which could handle tiny amounts of chemicals weighing as little as 0.001 gram. But not even such a tiny bit of plutonium was available. So the chemists at the University of Chicago under Glenn Seaborg began in April, 1942, to develop a new method which could handle chemicals which weighed no more than 500 micrograms (1 microgram equals one-millionth of a gram) or about 1/5000 the weight of a single dime. ... This method is known as ultra-microchemistry.

From the data Seabourg's team extracted, engineers were able to then refine designs of nuclear reactors and bomb components months before usable quantities (kilograms) of plutonium were available.

Moving from plutonium to back to polonium, very small amounts of polonium can be extracted very far after the subject is poisoned. It's like a heavy metal; it persists and doesn't break down. It will radioactively decay, but you can still track the 'daughter-products' and that breakdown allows you to even track when the polonium was created. With a large enough sample, from tracking the isotopes of the polonium, a good radiochemist can even tell you which reactor made the polonium. All of these factors make it a very BAD poison to choose.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"Longest Time" Biology Music Video

Via Boing Boing
The part with the skittles is a particularly good, yet simple demonstration of evolution.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The 125-Year Old Brooklyn Bridge

brooklyn bridge
Built by Washington Roebling, with help from his father and his wife Emily, the Brooklyn Bridge is a milestone in the history of civil engineering. It's also a damn pretty bridge. My wife and I took a bunch of photos as we crossed over the bridge on foot.

This photo above is actually the buttress where the cable holding the bridge up is tied into basically a giant weight.
After this, we also got some awesome pizza under the bridge.

Book Review: "Fire on the Horizon"

It's about 2 years since everyone was glued to their TV's watching ROV's try and plug a hole in the bottom of the sea. Since then, numerous books have been published chronicling the explosion and the spill. Here are just a few writups of the multitude of books:

9 Books - LA Times

Publishers have no shortage of books - NY Times

In Book Form - MoJo

Each book focuses on a slightly different aspect of the disaster. After reading a few reviews, I chose Fire On The Horizon: The Untold Story Of The Gulf Oil Disaster by John Konrad and Tom Schroder.
Fire On The Horizon: The Untold Story Of The Gulf Oil Disaster
Konrad holds an Unlimited Master's licence and has worked for many years on oil rigs. In his off time, he started a Maritime site called GCaptain. It's actually how I first heard about the Deepwater Horizon fire (one of the reasons I picked the book; they beat everyone else to the punch).

The book gives excellent background to the leadup to the disaster. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the rig's construction in a South Korean shipyard. The maritime background of Konrad helps out a lot. The book nails the maritime aspects of the disaster. Konrad also knew some of the members of the crew, since he worked for Transocean for a time and graduated CUNY Maritime at about the same time as some of the maritime crew.

The cultural aspects of life onboard a rig, while probably not telling 100% true stories, does convey the culture pretty well. They do a good job in humanizing the crew of the rig.

I have two big criticisms of the book. First, the book is overly kind to the boots on the ground. Normally, I'd agree, but I'm not quite sure in this case. I think there is some blame that deserves to say with the field team. The book also really lets Captain Kutcha off light (although I believe Konrad was friends with Ktucha, so there's one explanation). The other criticism is when they get to the complicated petroleum engineering of the actual well construction, it's just a poorly written summary of David Hammer's writing. They lean on the Picayune's writing without giving anything new nor do they even properly summarize it. It takes them more than half of the book to even get to the drilling operations. Pages 128-130 really needs some editing because it's clunky and if I didn't know exactly what they were trying to explain before I read a sentence, I'd be lost. That was pretty disappointing. I'll hunt for another book to compliment that part.* There's also very little coverage of the oil spill (the first half is background, then 1/3 is the actual Macondo well and fire, then the balance is aftermath, spill, widows, etc.).

There's also one thing that I knew about, but didn't realize. What did the Titanic and the Deepwater Horizon have in common? Not enough lifeboat space. A major problem with current lifeboat standards is IMO rules on dictate lifeboat design based off "50th-percentile" standards. In other words, the lifeboat design is only meant to accommodate the average member of the public (~160 lbs.), not the average rig hand. On a Gulf of Mexico rig, almost everyone weighs at least 180 lbs. and there's guaranteed to be at least a few 280-300 lbs workers. The Deepwater Horizon only tested its full lifeboat capacity once in Korea, and that was with 110-lb. Koreans. Once in the Gulf of Mexico, given the larger crew, the Deepwater Horizon couldn't actually conduct a full evacuation without resorting to the use of inflatable rafts. If you also had any seriously injured personnel on a stretcher, you'd lose another 6 seats per stretcher on top of that!

This isn't something new. I heard about this years ago. Here's an International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) notice from before the Deepwater Horizon incident:

Anthropomorphic compatibility. Most SOLAS-approved lifeboats have been approved on the basis of an assumed occupant mass of 75 kg (≈ 165 lb). The IMO has recently revised its requirements to increase the assumed occupant mass for lifeboats on most new installations to 82.5 kg (≈ 182 lb). IMO did not alter the associated seat width standard, which remains 430 mm (≈ 17 in), when increasing the assumed occupant mass to 82.5 kg. A so-called “Gulf of Mexico standard” is being used by some that assumes an occupant weight of 210 lbs (≈ 95 kg) with a corresponding seat width of 21 in (≈ 530 mm). This matter is also being addressed by coastal State authorities in the North Sea.

Every project I've worked on has used 220-240 lbs. as an average weight. A company I work for actually did a survey of their employees entitled "How Big is Bubba's Butt" that was the source of the higher figure. It's also common to leave room for one stretcher without compromising seating capacity. Also, davit-launched inflatable liferafts are unreasonably complicated to use in an emergency situation.

Every large Gulf of Mexico installation should be audited to ensure that they can actually conduct an evacuation in a realistic manner. Tests should be robust (a sign of a nice and rigorous test is failure, like this one). Not leaving enough margin for actual crew weight or overly complicated launching isn't sufficient.

* Debating between Bob Cavnar's book and Achenbach's book. Anyone read either?