Sunday, December 18, 2016

Many Hands

We have an excellent view of the San Francisco skyline from our windows in the East Bay. The city is again on a building binge, especially with the disruptions of constructing the new Transbay Terminal in the downtown area. Over the past couple of months we’ve seen a new spire shooting up, the Salesforce Tower, which is part of the terminal complex. Even though it’s not yet completed, either the central concrete elevator core or the surrounding steelwork which lags it by a couple of floors, the tower already exceeds every other building in the city, and the construction cranes attached to its upper levels—beautiful at night with their white lights—push even higher. This 61-story office tower, at 1070 feet, is projected to be the tallest building in the Western U.S. and the seventh tallest in the country.

Having worked for a number of years as a technical writer in an engineering and construction company, I have some appreciation for the scheduling and logistics problems involved with such a project. Think about it. The site is in the middle of a busy city, without acres of empty land nearby for a laydown area where the construction crew can receive, sort, and stockpile incoming materials. The city has no working freight railroad anywhere nearby to deliver those materials, so everything must come in by truck, in relatively small loads. And the only access to the site is by two bridges and two freeway systems, both of them regularly jammed for hours at a time with commute traffic.

The receipt of all that concrete, steel, glass, and drywall—not to mention thousands of redundant fixtures like various grades of pipe, lighting ballasts, toilets, sinks, and doors—must represent a just-in-time scheduling ballet of mammoth proportions. And once all those fixtures are dumped at the curbside, another ballet involving the limited number of construction cranes—and later, elevator cars—must go on twenty-four hours a day to deliver everything to the right floor at the right time.

We imagine that Egypt’s pyramids were built by thousands of slaves chipping granite, hauling sledges, and greasing the rollers as in those old Cinemascope biblical epics. But thousands of workers are not building the Salesforce Tower—or not all at once or at the same time. On any one day, perhaps a few hundred are involved, and those are parceled out among the skilled trades: excavators, rebar stringers, and concrete masons; high-steel workers and crane riggers; glaziers; pipefitters and plumbers; electricians; heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) technicians; communications and cable installers; and on and on. That work must be coordinated, too, so that plumbers are not putting water and drain pipes in spaces reserved for electrical and communications—now in fiber optics—conduits. And the glass outer shell must be made weather tight before anyone starts putting up interior walls and laying carpeting. Thousands of people do crawl all over the building in the course of its construction, but their activities are as carefully coordinated as the materials and systems they will install.

Think, also, about everything that must go right about planning, designing, and erecting such a building and its systems. In San Francisco we have an example, right down the street from the Salesforce Tower, of just one thing going disastrously wrong.

This part of San Francisco, between Telegraph Hill on the north and Rincon Hill—now the jumping-off place of the Bay Bridge—to the south, is the former cove around which the city originally sprung up during the Gold Rush. First Street is called such because it was the first street along the water. Everything east of there was a shallow harbor cut out of the Bay. The story is that sailors on vessels arriving in the 1850s were so eager to reach the goldfields that they would abandon ship. The earliest businesses were conducted aboard hulks sitting at the quayside and eventually collapsing into the mud. All of the buildings in this area—including the Federal Reserve Bank, which I watched from next door as it was being built—stand on a sea of bay mud above layers of sand and clay. Bedrock, a saddle of the same stone that lifts Telegraph and Rincon hills, lies fifty to a hundred feet down. For the Federal Reserve, I watched the crews auger out black muck in holes two feet wide on centers about five feet apart, then drive in reinforced concrete piles more than fifty feet long, until the site was a sea of square stumps. Imagine, if you will, trying to stabilize a cube of Jell-O by driving into it dozens of toothpicks until they touch the plate underneath.

Most of the piles under these buildings go down to bedrock, or we hope they do. For the Millennium Tower, a high-rise condominium for the super-rich, however, the builders used a more modern system. Or so the story goes—there are competing legal claims. But it seems that instead of driving the supporting piles to bedrock, they took them down to the layers of sand under the mud. The idea was that the pressure of the pilings would compact the sand, and the sand would grip the pilings, and the whole thing would stand on friction without having to touch rock. Apparently, it works elsewhere in the world. But no one planned for massive excavation right next door, part of construction for the Transbay Terminal. Dewatering that later site changed the soil composition under the Millennium Tower. The tower has already sunk 16 inches below the sidewalk level, continues to sink, and is also tilting a couple of degrees off vertical. Fixing this problem—if it even can be fixed, in a building that is already completed, with all its units either sold or rented out—will be not only an engineering but also a legal problem.

I know from my own experience, working alongside construction engineers, that every project has its underlying assumptions, like using friction piles in the foundation. Every project has its compromises with the planning commission and the building inspectors. And every project has its share of errors and oversights. The condominium complex where we live had three notable issues early in our occupation. Concrete roof layers were poured without a slope, so that water would not drain from the fiberglass roofing materials installed above them. Foam bearing strips were improperly shortened in constructing the garage, so that the floor pads came into direct contact with the underlying concrete and could not dissipate the shock of moving cars; the floor pads then began to crack and spall. And six-inch-wide vertical drain pipes were connected at the bottom to four-inch-wide horizontal pipes, on the theory that hydrostatic pressure—or something like it—would overcome the volume difference; the result was sewer backups into apartments on the lower floors. All of these issues had to be taken to court, remedies sought, and fixes installed. Litigation like this happens all the time.

New ideas, like using friction piles, are continuously developed, tested, and used in the construction business. In most cases they work well, save time and cost, increase efficiency, or add some other benefit. In almost all cases, the owners and occupants of the building never notice a difference. This is the way construction practices and standards are improved. It’s the way technology advances—until someone digs a three-story deep pit next door to a building supported by friction piles and begins drawing off groundwater.

It’s a wonder that, with all these risks, we don’t have more sinking buildings, more technical blowouts, more errors that cannot be fixed with any amount of money. But we don’t. Most of the construction taking place in the 20th and now the 21st century has been flawless. Elevators work. Interiors are heated and cooled behind curtain walls of glass. Water runs hot and cold on the 60th floor. Drains don’t back up when you flush. The lights come on when you flip the switch. This is the effect of engineers, soil experts, planning departments, contractors among all the different trades, and building inspectors—all of them doing their jobs. And lawyers and judges get to adjudicate the few cases where things actually go wrong.

Human imagination and ingenuity are powerful forces. Human planning, scheduling, logistics, and the cooperation to push an office tower a thousand feet into the air in a matter of months—those are even more powerful forces. The next time someone tells you that ancient structures like the pyramids must have been built by space aliens because poor old human beings simply don’t have the knowledge, the skill, or the organization to accomplish these marvels, well … just look around you.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Love and Freedom

It is a plain fact that human personal relationships are almost never completely reciprocal nor symmetrical. In any communion between two people one partner will almost always feel more, give more, or demand more.

This doesn’t much matter when the relationship is based on negative feelings like loathing and hatred. Those relationships are practically unilateral. One can hate a person without knowing or caring whether the antipathy and disdain are returned. We hate one on one, but we must love—if there is to be any relationship at all—two by two.

It is a curious fact that, while hatred is unipolar, love is always bipolar. That is, what you feel and want for the loved one is certainly different from what you feel and want for yourself. To love a person—to really love and form a lasting relationship with them, and not just engage personal feelings of admiration, desire, or lust—you must be willing to give up a portion of your freedom for their sake. And to make the relationship work, you must be willing to give the other person their freedom in return.

But you cannot give up everything for love. That makes you weak and powerless—not to mention resentful. Some things in our traditional culture you are supposed to give up, like the opportunity to have romantic attachments with other partners, or the sense of personal ownership and entitlement that lets you criticize and abuse the beloved person for not meeting your own high standards. Some things you are advised to give up, like the freedom to plan your life for your own protection and benefit, or to spend your non-working hours however and with whomever you wish. And some things you would be a fool to give up, like your strongly held beliefs and the positive elements of personal taste and choices—hairstyle, wardrobe decisions, food preferences, innate body language, and other noninvasive qualities—which define your sense of self, your character, and your public image.

At the same time, you grant the person you love the freedom to make all these choices for him- or herself. But you do not—and really cannot—grant another person total freedom to be entirely selfish. You may want that person to be free to make choices, but if there is to be any relationship at all, you want at least some of those choices to include you and involve your perspective, advice, understanding, and commitment. Without this involvement, you are engaged in a one-sided affair—a romantic crush, unrequited love, or some form of hero worship—and not in a relationship at all.

What every couple must learn to do is compromise. This means knowing where the warm hearth stones are laid, what and where the boundaries lie, and where extend the distant lands full of brambles into which you do not want to venture. Entering into a romantic or personal relationship is a back-and-forth testing between two people—like two male stickleback fish pushing out from their safe nesting grounds into foreign and other-dominated territory—until they establish zones of comfort, lines of approach, and areas of avoidance.

And still those zones and areas will be asymmetrical in any relationship. For the partner who feels more and gives more, the home ground will be narrower, the freedoms feel shallower, and the danger zones extend farther. For that partner, the developing relationship will reach a point of sad resignation. The beloved person has become a known and tested quantity. More caring and more giving from that person are simply not forthcoming. The choice is then to live with—and under—the unspoken rules of the relationship or to throw them over, seek a new partner, and start fresh.

For the partner who feels less and—either consciously or by default—demands more, the relationship might seem perfect. This partner has broad freedom mixed with rich levels of attention. The home ground is broad, and the danger zones are diminished, if not entirely gone from mind. And yet this partner, unless they are a total emotional and moral zombie, will have a sense of unease. The ground beneath their feet will feel slippery and unstable. They will know, even if unconsciously, that the emotional universe has a rent, a dark spot, with the cold vacuum of space waiting beyond it.

At one extreme—just a step shy of the relationships built on hero worship and unrequited love—exist the marriages so lopsided that the husband can beat his wife and still demand her respect, or the wife can humiliate and demean her husband publicly and still expect to receive flowers. These relationships are doomed, waiting only for the submissive partner to rise up, make a life-changing decision, and leave.

At the other extreme—in relationships built upon mutual frankness and understanding—exist marriages where the partners know and respect the other’s choices and wishes, laugh at the same jokes, mourn the same losses, and despise the same iniquities. These are two people who will finish each other’s sentences. They will decide at the same moment to walk out of a bad movie. And they dance through life in a flurry of small, thoughtful gestures, favors, compliments, agreements, amnesties, and absolutions. These relationships endure, not because they are perfect, but because the sharp edges are all worn off, and life is more rewarding and stimulating in that other person’s company than it could be with anyone else.

These are the dynamics of human love and freedom, as I understand them—at least for the world that goes around two by two. They are the creeks and forks of the rivers that lead to great and endearing love stories, tense dramas, and bitter tragedies. They are the tools of a novelist who hopes to understand the human condition.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

My Story of Oil

When I worked at Howell-North Books in Berkeley, editing volumes of railroad history and Western American, I learned many interesting facts. One was that the word “ore,” from the viewpoint of a miner, has no exact definition. Sure, the general meaning is material that can be mined and refined at a profit. But that doesn’t tell you what percentage of a shovelful of dirt constitutes ore and the rest waste in any particular sense, because the values keep changing based on the methods used and the current state of the market. An independent mercury miner hand-working a seam at the now-defunct New Almaden mine in California might discard any load with less than ten percent cinnabar as waste not worth hauling back up to the surface. The operator of an open-pit, steam-shovel copper mine in Arizona might take two pounds of metal out of a ton of ore—or one percent—and call it a rich mine.1

The same thinking applies to a barrel of oil. There is no standard definition or composition of the commodity we call “oil.” Sure, there are benchmarks for pricing, like “West Texas Intermediate” (WTI) and “Saudi sweet light crude.” But every field produces oil with a different proportion and weight of underlying hydrocarbons. And each refinery is optimized to take oil of a particular quality from a particular region.

I remember when the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was approved, all the oil produced on the North Slope was legislatively earmarked for North American refiners on the basis of “energy independence.” Then the obvious place to ship Alaskan oil was the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. But that refinery was optimized to take raw product from the fields of Indonesia. This oil from the Far East is more like coke than crude. If you spill it on the water, it doesn’t spread out to form a bright, rainbow sheen; instead, it contracts into floating clumps like bits of cork. So, at the time, a deal was made that allowed North Slope oil to be sent to Japanese refiners, and Japan traded it barrel-for-barrel with the Chevron refinery for their take of Indonesian oil.

When I was at the end of my last freelance, novel-writing gig in the mid-1990s and the money was running out, I needed to get back into the corporate world. The fastest way to build my resumé after such a hiatus was to hire out as a contractor rather than hope to be employed directly. So for a number of years I became a Kelly Temp. I worked for a season as administrative assistant in the Control Systems Engineering Department at Royal Dutch Shell’s refinery in Martinez, California. And as is my practice, I used the opportunity to ask intelligent questions and learn everything I could about the business.2

I can remember as a child, when the family drove from Philadelphia to New York, seeing the oil refineries of New Jersey five or six miles away from the highway across the tidal flats. I can remember smelling them at that distance, too—a rich, funky, sulfurous odor, like a mixture of hot tar, rotten eggs, and farts. So as an adult, when I went to work at Shell, I mentioned to my supervisor that the site didn’t smell like a refinery. He replied that if I ever did smell anything, I should report it, because the company would then pay me $25. “If you can smell something, that means we’re losing product somewhere.”

In the earliest days of refining—oh, late 1800s to early 1900s—the process was pretty simple, based solely on thermal cracking. These people were what modern refiners call “oil boilers.” They would heat the raw crude and feed it into a tower that drew off the fractions—based on the number of carbon atoms in the hydrocarbon chains—that settled out by weight. Lightest, and coming off the top of the tower, were the gases with one, two, three, or four linked carbons surrounded by hydrogen atoms: methane, ethane, propane, and butane. Since most refineries had no large customers for these byproducts and couldn’t be bothered to compress and store them until they collected enough to sell, they just lit a flare at the top of the tower and burned them off. In the middle of the tower came the liquids with between five and sixteen carbons: from pentane to hexadecane, represented by gasoline (octane, eight carbons), kerosene (decane, ten carbons), typical diesel fuel (dodecane, twelve carbons, and heavier fractions), and bunker C fuel oil (pentacontane, about fifty carbon atoms).3 And at the bottom of the tower would be the residues: tars, waxes, and the stuff that is used to make asphalt. Mixed in with the straight-line hydrocarbons chains would be those with odd branches and cross-connections. Along with the oil would come impurities that are not exactly hydrocarbons, like the carbon-ring molecules benzene, toluene, and xylene. You can also find other compounds, like sulfur, which makes the oil categorically “sour.”

Each type of crude oil yields varying fractions of these products. You can guess that “sweet light crude” has only small amounts of sulfur and large fractions of the liquids useful in blending gasoline, kerosene—once a lantern fuel but now burned in jet engines—and diesel fuel. You can also guess that heavy, sludgy oils, like that from the Indonesian fields, contain a lot of tar and wax.

In the old days, the refiners took what they could get from the oil by fractionation. The 42 gallons in a standard barrel might, in a really good grade of crude, yield only twenty or thirty gallons of highly prized gasoline, and the rest would go to less valuable byproducts. And of course, the gaseous fractions were still flared off as waste. This explains why oil prices are pegged to benchmarks with known qualities. The quoted price per barrel is always adjusted locally for the grade of oil and its fractions.

But that was the old days. In a modern refinery, like the one I worked at in Martinez, the operation uses all the fractions. The operation is more than just a cracking tower; it’s a complete chemical plant. After the cracking step, the gases, the lightest liquid fractions, the branched hydrocarbons, and the carbon rings are all broken into simpler, straight-line molecules and then knit back together into gasoline, jet fuel, or whatever the plant wants to make. The heaviest fractions are broken into lighter molecules and then knit together into more valuable products. As the American meatpackers used to say, “We use every part of the pig but the squeal.” And then the modern refiners blend for the designated octane level4 and put in additives for engine cleaning, anti-knock performance, and environmental protection—these days including a percentage of corn-based ethanol—in keeping with federal and state regulations.5

If you drive by a modern refinery, you may still see clouds of white stuff coming out of pipes and boiling off some of the buildings. These days, that’s just steam venting from a heating process or condensing out of a cooling tower. Most refineries still maintain a flare, but it is not part of regular operations and is used only in emergencies. No matter how safe and well run a modern refinery may be, the various processes are still handling volatile, flammable products at high temperatures. Sometimes a batch deviates from its nominal operating parameters and might explode or burn, injuring personnel and damaging the plant. In that case, the control system automatically dumps the batch down a pipe that leads to a nozzle far off in the middle of a gravel field. There the product can be mixed with air and burn away without endangering anyone.6

So that’s my trip down memory lane. Oil is a fascinating and complicated business. And, like almost every other industry, the state of the art is constantly evolving toward greater efficiency, lower costs, lower environmental impacts, and greater dependability. This is a good time to be alive.

1. And when I worked at Kaiser Engineers in Oakland, we produced a massive, twelve-volume engineering report on an iron-ore mine in Ivory Coast. This was to be a vast complex on new ground, with an open-pit hematite mine, mill and slurry plant, pipeline to take the slurry to the coast, pelletizing plant to turn the ore into shippable form, stockpile and ship-loading facilities, and a new harbor, plus housing and amenities for all the workers. The proposed ore was rich, 42 percent pure iron. But because the mine was 400 miles from the coast, most of that through treacherous mangrove swamp, and the cost of money was high at the time, while the world market for iron was weak, the partners simply could not justify building the plant. All that glitters is not gold, especially when it’s on the backside of the Moon.

2. Part of my weekly duties was to back up Control Systems Engineering’s computer records. Although the hardware and software that ran the plant were modern and up-to-date, the backup system was a relic from the old IBM 360 days. So I learned to mount, feed, and start reels of nine-track magnetic tape—those big cabinets with spinning reels and loops of tape that spelled “computer” on the television shows I grew up with in the 1960s.

3. Generally, the fewer carbons there are in the chain, the more thoroughly the fuel burns—that is, breaking more of the available carbon-to-carbon bonds at once—leaving fewer unburned hydrocarbons to flush out as soot and particulate. This is why methane burns more cleanly and with higher energy than gasoline, and much more cleanly than lump or even powdered coal.

4. When I worked at Shell, the Control Systems engineers told me a dirty little secret: that they sometimes had difficulty making fine adjustments in blending the octane level; so their medium and premium grades of gasoline always carried a few percent more octane than was strictly required by law. So if you care about your engine’s performance, go to the big yellow seashell sign. (But, then, maybe they grinningly tell that to all the newbies.)

5. California has its own mix of additives, required by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). That’s why the world can be awash in oil and gasoline, but if there’s been a fire or other shutdown at a California refinery, supplies will be tight and the price will go up.

6. The flare went off once when I was on the Shell property. It wasn’t an accident; one of the engineers was testing a new way to ignite the errant product stream more efficiently. The blast and roar shook the surrounding buildings.