Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Hurricane Ida Check In 🌀

We're fine. Negligible damage in Lakeview. Reach out if you need a hand in the Lakeview/ Uptown area. Stay safe.

Monday, May 31, 2021


1,2,3. Is this thing still on?

Been busy, but still thinking about blogging. Still reading what's left of the Nola bloggers. Mostly on Twitter and Instagram these days. Disliking the latter more and more. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Happy Hostilidays!

Happy Hostilidays, Terminator Edition.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Farewell Patches

After many years, I've now parted ways with Patches, the '62 Chevy.

It's helped me through several moves, I've learned a lot working on her, but it's time for someone else to work on it. It's going to a good home (a dad with a 13 year old son). They'll take good care of her.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Building the Panama Canal

PBS: The American Experience - The Panama Canal.
"America can do anything it sets its mind out to do."

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Mining Disaster Books

As the massive oil bust continued to take its toll, I eventually found myself in a new line of work, so to speak.  I'm doing work that's both in line with what I was doing previously, but with some new context: hardrock mining. 

I strongly believe that all engineers should, ideally about once a year, read an engineering disaster book.  You a lot when everything goes massively sideways and you point to that and say, 'not that. not that ever again.'

The Deep Dark
The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine
     This one focuses on the Sunshine Mining Disaster of 40 years ago where 91 people died.  It has a very good introduction to mining terminology in the beginning (what's a drift, what's a rib, what's mucking).  In the middle, it focuses on the lives of the miners and, in my opinion, really drags on and on.  Quite a few miners also just basically sat there and suffocated to death; the initial feeling was the fire would be dealt with quickly and they'd go back to work, so they didn't want to evacuate.  There are about 2 pages at the very end of the book where they (too rapidly, I think) skip over what caused the disaster.  While never definitively solved (arson was an early theory, but that's pretty unlikely), the book presents a pretty compelling case that a combination of wood storage, oxyfuel cutting, and especially early spray foam caused the fire.  The spray foam reminded me strongly of the Brown's Ferry candle incident.  Don't miss those 2 pages because they're a key part of the book.  I'd wish the editor had gotten the author to expand on those 2 pages and tighten up the middle. 

Thunder on the Mountain
     The most recent disaster covered, this book is the most expansive, in terms of scope, of the three.  It covers the modern coal market (with it's bifurcation between the dying thermal coal market and the growing metallurgical coal market), politics (West Virginia politics and the rise of Don Blankeship as kingmaker), the disaster itself.  On both of the other books, some miners were able to save themselves against great odds.  On the Upper Big Branch mine, none were.  There was one particularly gruesome detail that one person was missing for a very long time, even though rescuers kept walking right by him.  It was only when the stench became overpowering that someone looked up...  Ew.  Talk about a gruesome way to go.  A particularly interesting part of the book was where they got coal industry insiders who didn't work for Massey (and a few who did) who slammed the hell out of how Blankeship operated.  It reminded me of BP after Macondo.   

Fire and Brimstone
Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mine Disaster of 1917
     Unquestionably the best written of the trio, Fire and Brimstone chronicles the oldest of the disasters, the 1917 Speculator Disaster where 168 died.  This book also covers the political fallout of the disaster and the context with the Anaconda Mining company's chokehold on Montana.  This book is definitely my favorite of the three.  The thing I was really amazed with was how, despite very primitive technology, how well the workers were able to immediately respond to the disaster, despite extremely primitive technology.  Some workers immediately understood the dangers of the fire and began building bulkheads to entomb themselves and survived the disasters.  The bravery of the rescuers using very primitive breathing rigs was also remarkable; the equipment was very limited, but they worked within those limitations extremely well. 

Cliff the Triceratops

Boston Science Museum.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Tools of the modern engineer

Work is still kinda slow for me, but that's also been giving me extra time to ponder how to go about completing good quality engineering work in an efficient manner.  

There are a few things that all modern engineers should have that I've found to be indispensable.  

* A good quality, durable digital camera.  Modern digital cameras have gotten so good, so cheap, and its by far the best way to bring ground truth into the office.  You can take photos of meters and instruments, as-built layouts, clashes, ...  They are just so damned handy.  
     I personally keep an Olympus Tough.  They make a few different types, one upmarket one with a ~50-mm lens, one older point and shoot, and one that's video/action-cam oriented.  The Olympuses don't take quite as nice a photo as my old Canon, nor do they have a great interface, but they are 'bludgeon-someone-to-death-with-it' durable and cheap enough where it won't hurt too much if it gets crunched by a bulldozer.  
    Another key to digital cameras over cell phones is that often folks are more comfortable with you taking more photos; smartphones, because they are linked to the internet for quick uploads, can make people uncomfortable in certain situations.  Point and shoots you can snap away and it always seems like you want more photos than you took when you get back to the office.  

* Good steel toe boots.  And by that, I really mean Red Wings.  Wal-Mart specials might be good enough for a once-a-year-in-the-field office worker, but once you have to be in the field for an extended period of time, accept no substitutes.  Red Wing stores are also excellent at fitting you to what your shoe size should actually be.  Many Red Wings are also still Made in the USA and last and last and last. 

* Navisworks.  
Image result for navisworks
    As design becomes fully 3D, 4D, (and more D's are added by marketing departments), a tool like Navisworks becomes invaluable.  Navisworks is a lightweight, very easy to use, very powerful model rendering space.  Navisworks Freedom is completely free and is good enough for viewing.  Navisworks Simulate and Manage require licence fees, but they are lower than competing products while being much better. 
    I have also seen some construction sites getting very creative with it.  I've seen folks using Navisworks models loaded onto tablets (that worked OK; durability and interface being somewhat limited) and using Job-Boxes with computers inside (that one being pretty nifty).  Construction downtime is VERY expensive and companies are being creative in minimizing it.  

* Adobe Acrobat.  By that, I mean a FULL version of Adobe.  Acrobat can do clean markups of drawings, it can combine drawing sets into a single binder, and, my personal favorite, make drawings text-searchable.  If you want to find 1 line to revise in a giant pack of drawings, hit control-F, search for a line number, and find the impacted drawings.  Adobe Acrobat, when used to create text-searchable PDF's of legacy DWG's can unlock a huge amount of data that's been input and not being fully utilized.  Legacy DWG files can be filled with nameplate data, horsepower, model numbers, ...  There's a lot you can do with such a simple program if you are creative in how you use it.  

One more little random sidenote: AVEVA acquires rights to EDD, PDMSi from Shell dated 8 Feb 18.  

Another note about working efficiently: one of the biggest changes over the last 10 years is the accelerating use of "High Value Engineering Centers" / "Low Cost Engineering".  It's been forcing EPC's into a "race to the bottom", degrading the quality of deliverables (one of the reasons why I think Construction sites are getting more and more creative), and a host of other problems.  Many EPC's are performing poorly financially (I've heard of margins as low as 5 or 6%, which, when you consider risk and difficulty, is pathetic) and only being kept afloat by industry consolidation (CB&I being gobbled up by McDermott being just one example of cheap access to capital being used to reduce competition instead of build value).  In design, the best way to work is to do things exactly once; rework, especially late in the game, destroys budgets and schedules.  If you can create an environment where you always have what you need (other discipline's deliverables, vendor data, site conditions) at your fingertips, you've got the best chance to design it right the first time.  There's definitely room for improvement.  

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Statue of Liberty

Give us your weird,
your poor,
your huddled asses 
yearning to be spanked,
the wretched refuse and 
your gleaming whores.
Send these, the homeless,
healthcare-lost to me,
I lift my go-cup beside
the famous door!

Krewe du Vieux 2018 in the bag

All Hail King Dick.  Richard Campanella.

This was one of those magical Krewe du Vieux years.  Everything looks like it's going to be a disaster up until the very last minute and then everything just comes together.  At noon, there was a 100% chance of a severe thunderstorm forecast for just when we were going to parade, but all we got was some aggressive misting.  The weather turned out to be perfect.  Just cool enough to make the costumes work, wet enough to keep folks from getting too dehydrated, not too wet where it depressed turnout or ruined costumes. 

The streets were quite slick with Bourbon Street Gumbo, but everyone came well prepared with good boots.  

The crowds were large and very well behaved (and when they weren't, it was in a good way).

Fantastic KdV last night.  Parade Thoughts:
* Battery powered LED's are great to incorporate into costumes.  Strong and bright and long lasting. Very waterproof and lightweight.
* The foggy French Quarter is mystical.
* The Spank Crowns were a hit. Light and easy to carry lots of them.

* We had the prettiest Mulicorn, Claudia.

Today will mostly be a day of recuperation.  

Thursday, December 28, 2017

What to do next

My previous post focused on the largest Louisiana industrial employers for 3 reasons:
1- they impacted the most people
2- there's the most public domain information on them, so they are the easiest to talk about
3- they are reflective of general trends
There are other small and medium firms that have gone through similar struggles (or might even be thriving), but the big ones are the easiest to talk about.  

I also ended on somewhat of a down note.  I'd like to throw out a few ideas on some various projects that might help right the ship.  Some of them are Megaprojects, which carry special risks as megaprojects are by definition extremely complex, difficult to execute, but, if successfully executed, can be home runs.  A poorly executed project could have the result of looking like Mississippi's Gulfport Port expansion debacle or the Kemper Gassification Plant boondoggle.   Always be on your toes...

Just throwing a few ideas out there, with simple pro/con's for brainstorming, in no particular order:
* LIGTT (nicknamed "Leg-It") or similar truly deepwater port.  
Image result for Louisiana  LGITT deepwater port
(Photo: Advocate).
Pro: Deepwater port would built upon increased traffic from the Neopanama Canal.  Draft does limit access to the Port of New Orleans, especially during the fall when river levels fall and harvests (exports) are at their strongest.  
Con: Expensive ($2B?), lots of dredging.  The biggest risk is vulnerability to a big storm.  A monster storm would wipe the slate clean, like what happened to Gulfport after Katrina.  On the flip side, quite a few Gulf Coast ports are extremely vulnerable to a direct hit from a monster storm, so LGITT wouldn't be that much riskier than the competition.  Heck, the Port of Houston got walloped and it's well inland and was hit by merely a Category 4.  

* Gas-To-Liquids (GTL).  
Pro: utilize cheap natural gas to make higher value added products, usually diesel and lubricants.  
Con: CAPEX intensive.  It requires a large spread in price between gas feedstock and (high) liquids price.  Gas prices are currently cheap, but liquids pricing not enough right now to really justify the initial capital investment.  Both Shell and Sasol have recently pulled the plug (after strongly considering it).  It might happen someday, but not likely anytime soon.  Something like more efficient catalysts might cause a breakthrough, though.  Don't count it completely out.  

* Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)
Con: I have mixed feelings about this one.  I worry about too much a rush towards this at once where too many players enter at once and the whole market tanks.  I'm not the only one thinking that.  I also wonder if it's not better to add as much value to raw materials as possible before export rather than just exporting our natural resources on the commodity market.

* Space-X and/or NASA heavy lift vehicle built at Michoud
Pro: Hell yeah!  Huge manufacturing facility with access to the Intracoastal Waterway allows really big things to be chucked into space.
Con: $$$$$$$$$$$$$$ :-(.  I can at least re-read The Martian sometime and dream.

* Deepen the Intracoastal waterway
Pro: this would benefit many coastal areas, but especially Louisiana.  
Con: this would have to be done at the federal level.  The costs would increase exponentially the deeper you went.  Right now, it's ~12'.  If you went deeper, say, 25', that gets really expensive fast (at least in certain segments).  

* A second Baton Rouge bridge across the Mississippi.
Pro: Anyone who's driven through Baton Rouge between Noon and 6 PM on a weekday in the past 20 years will tell you it's sorely needed.
Con: Probably >$1B.  The state is broke and would be the most obvious candidate to fund much of the bridge.  PPP looks to be the popular choice at the moment and that means tolls, probably high ones, for quite a while.  Louisiana only has a handful of bridges with tolls (despite having lots of waterways) and don't like paying tolls.  

* Electrified freight (passenger?) rail
Pro: This was one that really fascinated me on The Oil Drum (back when that was still kicking).  It can be a silver BB that hits lots of birds with one stone.  
Con: would be most effective if done on an interstate basis.  

* River Diversion South of New Orleans
Image result for Is It Feasible to Build New Land in the Mississippi River Delta?
Pro: We could start cleaning up the environmental mess we left in this state.  Can help buffer against future storm surges.  2 paired diversions (one on the eastbank, one on the westbank somewhere downriver from English Turn).  
Con: I might be dead before this thing ever gets off the ground.  It's been discussed for ages, but money and permitting are perennial headaches.  

Just something to noodle a while.  

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Deindustrialization of South Louisiana

The oil bust has started to level out, but we're still seeing the effects of the deindustrialization of South Louisiana, it's been touched on by The Advocate and Library Chronicles  and I'd like to take a moment to discuss it a bit further.  It's had some coverage in the media, but nobody has ever really managed to tie together a lot of threads to my liking.  

Louisiana went from ~172k manufacturing jobs to just ~135k.  Employment isn't even flat, not to mention lagging population growth.  

(From The Advocate)

Some of this is natural boom/bust cycle of mineral extraction, but lately there's been more than that.  
The above graph is mining/logging (upstream oil and gas) employment in Louisiana from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  You can see the big dropoff that led to the latest oil bust (the worst bust in at least a generation).  There's been somewhat of a boom in the downstream (refining) and midstream (pipeline) side of the oil patch, but that's been somewhat muted and hasn't completely softened the blow.  The recent runup to ~$65/bbl also hasn't done a lot to revive job growth.  

Louisiana used to also have a more diverse group of manufacturers.  For example, Michoud used to crank out external tanks for the Space Shuttle program.  

As the shuttle program slowed to a crawl after the Columbia explosion and eventually ended, Michoud went into a semi-dormant state.  It's not shuttered; they still make several things at Michoud (structural components for the F-35, some big LNG tanks, and components of the delayed Space Launch System [SLS] program).  Michoud is a special facility; if you want to send something big into space and launch it from the Cape, you pretty much have to build it at Michoud so a renaissance someday under, say, SpaceX isn't out of the question.

Louisiana's largest industrial employer up until very recently was Avondale Shipyard.  I recently read a book, The Yard, by Michael Sanders, that was primarily about Bath Iron Works, but talked quite a bit about how healthy Avondale  at that time (2001)  in comparison to the other Navy shipyards.  I half expected the book to end with the closure of Bath and success of Avondale.  Avondale had the cheapest labor pool of any of the major naval shipyards, had large facilities, and out of all the naval shipyards had the best track record of doing commercial/nongovernmental work.  One would think that those advantages would keep the yard open.

Unfortunately, as we all know Avondale Shipyard closed.  There's still a very small amount of engineering and drafting work being done at Avondale, but it's pretty much closed.  Recently, the floating drydock was towed away (for scrapping?) in South America:
Photo via WGNO.

Without that floating drydock, Avondale will never be a real shipyard again.  That drydock has a side that drops away and allows for large vessels to be onloaded, floated out, and gently launched in the water.  Launching a big ship the old fashioned way (via a Ways) is too risky and too complicated to do for large vessels in as tight and congested a waterway as the Mississippi.  Building a new drydock would cost at least $50m on top of acquisition costs for the shipyard.  I heard a rumor Huntington Ingalls is asking $40m for the site; the Port of New Orleans, one of the few potential buyers heard that price and laughed.

Why did Avondale close?  There's always a plethora of reasons for something big like this (many detailed here), but a few I'll touch on are first off, the general downturn in naval shipbuilding (after the buildup of the 80's combined with the demise of the Soviet Union, just not as much of a need), the demise of the domestic shipbuilding industry after the elimination of Tittle XI of Commercial Differential Subsidies in 1981 (more here and here in Chapter 10 of "Staying Afloat"), the failure to adopt more modern construction techniques (Avondale was actually the first US shipyard to install an automated panel-line welder, but later lagged in the adoption of "Group Technology" shipbuilding practices), and the consolidation of the industry.  That last one is the final nail in the coffin, as Avondale and Pascagoula were both owned by Newport News Shipbuilding [Northrup Grumman] and as there was less work to go around, the corporate parent picked which child it wanted to live and which to let whither away.

Pascagoula also had an added advantage in that last fight: Pascagoula was awarded nearly $2B to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina; Avondale didn't get such an award [but did have significant disruption to its workforce housing in Katrina].  Taxpayers basically bought Huntington Ingalls a brand new shipyard.  If you could only keep one shipyard open, which would you choose: the brand new, modern, efficient one or the old one that has airdraft restrictions (bridge height)?  There was a GAO audit against Pascagoula and they didn't get to keep all of the $2B, but they kept enough to make the difference.

The other major industrial employer in South Louisiana that used to employ nearly as many as Avondale (at least when times were good) was McDermott's large fabrication facility in Amelia, Louisiana.  The Amelia facility started in 1956 and went on to build some of the largest and most complicated offshore structures of anyplace on earth.  It actually outgrew its first location on Bayou Beouf and moved further down the bayou.  When times boomed, it'd be end to end jackets spread over hundreds of acres with thousands of workers.
1977 Press Photo Project Cognac, Drilling Platform for Shell Oil Company
Being attached to a highly cyclic industry, the workforce size rose and plunged with the price per barrel, but McDermott seemed to hold onto enough talent during the busts to be the quickest on their feet when the boom returned.  One example of how I've heard is the McDermott side of the story of the American Queen.  Everyone hated working on the American Queen.  The vessel was actually built mostly on spec by McDermott without a really firm contract up front.  The fab yard never really wanted to become a shipyard (oil patch and shipbuilding being dissimilar enough), but the management knew a boom would later come and wanted to hold onto as many hands as possible.  Suppliers got pushed around and annoyed, workers were ridden hard, but eventually the ship was finished in 1995, just in time to clear the yard for Shell's series of TLP's mostly built at McDermott (whose hulls were built overseas and generally integrated to the Topsides elsewhere).  While it was a rough project that McDermott didn't make a profit on, the boat filled timesheets and a lot of folks learned good lessons from that project.  The American Queen didn't do well under the first operator, who went into bankruptcy, but the new owner is doing quite well, so I've heard.  It seems that American tourists are too terrified of getting beheaded by ISIS to go on Danube cruises and are sticking closer to home.

So, it came as some surprise when lots of rumors of the Amelia Fab yard's closure started to come out in the early 2010's.  Oil prices were still well over $100/Bbl.  But, McDermott, who used to be the top name in offshore fabrication had been slowly supplanted by Kiewitt Offshore Services (KOS) in Ingleside, TX.

One of Kiewitt's keys was the HLD (Heavy Lifting Device):
Candice and HLD

Engineers should never be allowed to name anything because HLD is a horrible name; the largest crane in the Western Hemisphere should have a cooler name than that.  The HLD allowed the lifting of bigger, more complete modules for deeper water, more complicated platforms.  One story I've heard is that the HLD was actually a "design in a drawer" that originated with McDermott engineers, but management didn't have the vision to see the market and balked at the pricetag. Those engineers quit, convinced Kiewitt to enter the market with a substantially lower, innovative bid that beat McDermott to win one project and Bullwinkle Constructors LLC (a limited liability corporation Kiewitt partnered in) was later converted into KOS.


McDermott Amelia's days were numbered as the rumors turned out to be true.  McDermott shifted its operations to Altamira Mexico, where they've hired a thousand workers this year, even in a down market.  Their New Orleans engineering office was also shuttered as everything consolidated to Houston.

The upswing of a sustained oil boom are over.  The state now has a hangover with massive job loses (in fact, Houma-Thibodaux currently has the fourth most depressed economy in the nation (ranked by census tract), TOPS perennially teetering on insolvency and the state's budget is in shambles.  What comes next?  Does everyone just pack up for Houston?  I sure as hell hope not.  What comes next is we get up, figure out what comes next, and do it.

Update: Chouest predicts 2018 will be yet another slow year. Chouest is one of the last medium sized industrial manufacturers left in Louisiana.

Upperdate: Minor corrections for clarity and spelling.