Much as I would like to indulge in witty and ironic commentary about the results of the 2016 general election, it would be yet another steaming load of pathetic word paste gumming up the internet. There are no words or sentences you could construct that would make a meaningful difference in the direction our wobbling American culture seems headed for.

I’m left with the conclusion that only civil disobedience can disrupt the unholy congress of corporate media, banking, energy and the foetid red-light district of governmental-industrial conjugation. After all, aren’t the B-school gurus always going on about disruption? It’s good, right?

Could it be that donors and lobbyists amount to a 3rd house of Congress?

Enormous corporations, it seems, no longer have need of our democratic republic. Fortunes are stashed abroad, sheltered in tax havens lest a slice finds its way into public kitty. Thanks for the use of American infrastructure- you know, public education, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Border Patrol, FBI, FDA, NIH, NASA, NSF, public highways, airways, NOAA, etc., etc. Deregulation is creeping forward. We live in a period of reconstruction. Neoliberal doctrines have taken hold and may be near a critical mass in state legislatures, perhaps to bring a modern constitutional convention.

America has become a big barrel of fish, stunned by the high voltage of short life-cycle electronic marvels and easily harvested. We’ve become increasingly compliant with the tightening harness of ever advancing complexity and the cloying whispers of big data.

Neoliberalism has its flying leathers on and wants to take flight. There are minerals to extract, civic institutions to suffocate and public lands to privatize. Like the quivering desire of a lusty 18 year old, capitalism knows only one thing- that it wants more. Always more and in bigger gulps. The second derivative dollars over time must be greater than zero in perpetuity. Our brains soon grow tired of static luxury and comfort. Satisfaction, like our lives, is only transient.

The invisible hand of the market, we’re told, will surely trickle down a baptism of unexpected benefits to the masses, if only the rotten buggers would let the acquisitive have their way. After all, if your taxes are lower, the first thing a business owner will do is to add hirelings. Yes?

Wait a minute … if business is flat, why add staff? Why not keep the premium handed to you by the 99%?  Hmmm.

The gospel of laissez-faire is practically physics, you know. A force of nature both inevitable and irreducible.

Taking to the streets is a form of persuasion that has rewarded many movements here and abroad. In thermodynamics, power is the rate at which work is done through the transfer of energy resources. Anthropological power lies in the ability to allocate and focus resources on a need or desire. Money is power because for a price, you can persuade someone to get most anything done. There is no shortage of those who would step up to the challenge or sell their souls or accept any spiritual disfigurement for the hefty feel of lucre in their hands.

If the tin ear of corporate media are deaf to the reasoned voices of those who don’t buy advertising, then what is left for us to do? Elect a businessmen? This general election cycle a species of disrupter was elected president. This charismatic fellow can work a crowd like Castro or Hugo Chavez or Mussolini or (add your own dictator)? A large crowd in the spell of a colorful and grandiose orator seeking high office meets the show business definition of “compelling.” If the event results in fisticuffs or tempers flaring like Roman candles, so much the better.

Electronic news broadcasting is really just show business. A key element of a good story is conflict. Look at any movie. The writers take a sympathetic character and do terrible things to them. There is a chase, violence and intrigue, reconciliation and a twisty ending. Sound familiar? TV is made to do this and they are good at it. And it sells. Watch Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.

Civil disobedience, as opposed to picketing, makes meaty footage because there is the possibility of imminent violent conflict. It is compelling. As an exercise in power, though, immediate resolution rarely happens. The power aspect comes to play when and if the establishment is forced to confront awkward questions. Often establishment authority is refractory to public scrutiny. Other times it folds like a lawn chair.




More than a few people in my meager sphere of coworkers, family, and acquaintances are of a decidedly conservative bent and apparently bathe in the fetid wellspring of the Fox network for their daily ablutions. I recognize this because more than a few use substantially the same phraseology as they express the similar contentions on politics or of some duplicitous liberal miscreant. Most are admitted non-sciency folk and have heard that the current dust-up about AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming, derives from assertions of a self-serving conspiracy by unscrupulous scientists angling for grants or in service of some deeper, darker purpose.

Like many people I’m trying to follow and comprehend the topic of climate change and AGW. Having taken no more than an undergraduate semester of meteorology and oceanography as well as flight training, I can grasp basic concepts and use some of the vocabulary in a sentence. So, when I’m asked for my opinion I usually just shrug my shoulders and offer a scenario for consideration.

Forget CO2 for a minute. What happens to surface water if the atmosphere and oceans get a bit warmer? It’s safe to say that, generally, there will be more moisture entering the air. It’s a fact that water vapor is a greenhouse gas. Water vapor absorbs infrared energy from the sun. Any influence that manages to cause the atmosphere to hold more water is an influence that will cause the atmosphere to capture more thermal energy and result in warming. Being more buoyant that dry air, moist air can convect to produce clouds.

The change from liquid water to gas is an endothermic process. Energy is absorbed to produce water vapor from surface water. During cloud formation, upwelling air naturally cools and condenses to aerosols and droplets. These may freeze to ice and liberate the latent heat of fusion. This is an exothermic process, liberating latent heat which warms the air causing further convection. So, a parcel of moist air convecting upwards will result in an inrushing of surface air which is drawn upwards to sustain a column of rising moist air. The early cloud building phase of a thunderstorm (cumulonimbus) is characterized by strong updrafts from convection.

So, one might expect storm behavior to change as the relative humidity increases. As the average air temperature rises, the higher latitudes (north and south) might be expected to see some change as well.

In the northern hemisphere one of those changes could be the melting of higher latitude snowpack and glacial ice. Ice and snow pack consists of fresh water. Fresh water is less dense than salty ocean water. As fresh surface water runs onto briny oceanic water, it will tend to stratify according to density with lower density, less briny water tending towards the surface.

The thermohaline circulation, also referred to the Atlantic conveyor, is responsible for the gulf stream current that flows in a northeasterly direction along the Atlantic coast of North America and into the north Atlantic. This current is responsible for delivery of relatively warm water to the north Atlantic. These warm waters are partially responsible for the temperate climate of the UK and northern Europe. One of the most important concepts of climate science is that one cannot separate the oceans from climate. Due to the considerable heat capacity and latent heats of water (relative to air), the oceans are a substantial reservoir of energy capacity in direct thermal contact with the atmosphere.

The gulf stream’s arrival to the cooler north Atlantic where the water increases its salinity and density due to low temperature and evaporation to form a region of sinking water that forms a subsurface current. This current circulates to the Pacific and Indian oceans and eventually back to the north Atlantic in a loop of circulating water. For the north Atlantic, this loop is at the surface and transfers heat back to the north Atlantic in the form of warm surface gulf current water.

The gulf stream submerges between the coast of Norway and Greenland. In doing so, warm water is transferred to the north Atlantic. Should Greenland undergo a sudden warming with subsequent release of melted fresh water, it would be expected that the process of sinking of briny surface water would be suppressed due to the presence of less dense surface melt water from Greenland. The effect would be to suppress the potential energy of descending cold briny water feeding the Atlantic conveyor as well as oxygen transport to the ocean depths. Upwelling water from the deep transports vital minerals to support the food chain. The loss of this upwelling will have a distinct affect on the fisheries.

If it transpires that the loss of heat transport to the north Atlantic results in a general cooling of that body of water to form ice, how is the overall heat balance of the earth affected? Could it trigger another ice age?

The point of this is to offer that a rise in air temperature can lead to consequences that are not intuitively obvious. Talking about global warming should not end with just “warming”. The ramp up to global warming is a disturbance that may have surprising results.

Note: This was written a year ago. The throat and prostate cancers are currently in remission and I have had time to enjoy the new stents in my right coronary artery. In the last few years I’ve been sonicated, dissected, radiated, biopsied, chemically castrated, spiked with positron emitters, poisoned with platinum, and stented. Yes boys and girls, what a delightful time it has been.

It doesn’t take long in one’s treatment regimen to see that a large industry consisting of diverse technologies has grown around cancer. As one is lead through the maze of corridors and treatment plans, it becomes apparent that the treatment centers are backed by some serious industrial might. As I walk into the cancer center my blood pressure is taken by an automated device, a digital scale takes my weight, and a small device with a light source in it takes my blood oxygen. The staff unlocks the terminal with a fingerprint reader and enters the data into my patient file. The doctor and a dapper young resident soon arrive and consult the terminal. Blood tests are short turnaround and performed on site. The onco-doc and the resident look at the results and divine some kind of conclusion from the numbers.

In nuclear medicine, a local 18F provider produces F18-labeled drugs for daily delivery to the rad labs in small leaden containers. Shortly before delivery a radiochemist quickly isolates the 18F (KF?) and prepares the 18F-glucose that the patient will receive as an injectable from a shielded syringe.

After a bit of resting time to allow the radio-sugar to circulate, the radioactive patient is placed on a motor-driven table that slides into an integrated CT-PET scanner for a bit of tomographic wizardry. A 3D x-ray map of the body is reconstructed from the CT beam data. As soon as the x-ray data is captured, the adjoining PET scanner is switched on and the patient is moved into the sensing zone of the device where gamma rays emissions reveal their location in three dimensions. After the data is collected, it is superimposed on the X-ray CT image to show anatomical locations that indicate an excess accumulation of the glucose. Cancer cells, being immortal and capable of mobility, can reproduce at a higher rate that normal cells. This leads to increased glucose uptake and, accordingly, a greater concentration of radiolabeled deoxyglucose in the cancer cells. A greater concentration of 18F-labeled glucose betrays the location of concentrated cells as they light up in the gamma spectrum.

The pharmaceuticals for chemotherapy are often quite toxic so the nurse who administers the drug is required to don PPE for preparation and administration of the dose. Specialized furniture is provided for the comfort of the patient and family. In the infusion suite of UC Hospital patients lie on recliners within a walled space with a view of the outdoors. Many patients watch familiar television programs as poison drips slowly into their veins. Some patients get sick relatively soon and succumb to fits of vomiting. Others are so strung out from the treatments that they lay there impassively. Worried family and friends strive to manage their own fears while trying to be attentive and positive.

Everywhere in the hospital disposable implements are used. The amount of sterile consumables used by a busy hospital is substantial. Sterile wrappers, clam shell packaging, syringes, IV bags, gauze, tubing, etc. I doubt that the shadows of medical and nursing students ever darken an autoclave anymore.

The breadth of technology and applied science in a hospital is staggering. Microprocessors monitor a wide variety of sensors that then produce digitalized output to either a dedicated screen display or to a nursing station.

The whole system at the hospital is devised to use every available minute of the physicians time. Receptionists verify the patient’s identity and assure the computer that the insurance information is in place. Patients are lined up for entry to the examination rooms.

At a university hospital, physician/professors on duty may have students and residents in tow to observe the great variety of disease states covering a wide range of illnesses. In a recent visit to my head and neck onco-doc, the three polite medical students took turns noodling the scope in my throat to get a thorough look-see. I had all I could do avoid laughing while the students took turns carefully manipulating the slender optical fiber device as it twisted about up through my nasal spaces and emerged below the uvula. The monitor displayed in sharp definition the glistening pinkish tissues in the treatment zone. As before treatment the primary tumor was not visible to the eye.

The industrial cancer business is vast, staffed by highly educated people, data driven and supported by a web of supply chain industries. The extent of the integration of data management is apparent as soon as you check in. Before the appointment is granted your identity and insurance status are verified by the accounting system and copayment is taken. An assistant guides you into a room where digital equipment takes your vital signs and the results are loaded into your patient record on the spot. You wander into another room and the nurse records the purpose of the visit and takes note of your vital signs and history. Soon the doc ambles in, logs into the data system and reviews the information. The appointment begins in earnest.

Those of us in our late 50’s have lived long enough to witness the gradual takeover of electronic and data technology in every aspect of our lives. In the early 1960’s, most of our lives were entirely analog. Television, radio, film, music, automobiles, and general business activities were largely conducted with technology that was fundamentally analog in nature. That is, energy was manipulated or work done via frequency or intensity modulation of electrical properties or by machinery powered by distant turbines. Devices driven by binary math and Boolean logic were around obviously but were only just beginning to enter the consciousness of common folk.

The point is that computer technology has, over a short interval, applied novel decision making or influences on the most intimate elements of our individual existence: The conduct of our wellbeing and how we process the never-ending stream of bewildering sensory input into our consciousness. Applied to the present discussion, health care providers and patients today face a torrent of data in the form of images and measurements that must be wrought into some kind of picture that people can comprehend and use to make plans. Inevitably there are data that, while accurate, are irrelevant to a given issue. And inevitably there are still questions that cannot be answered honestly owing to a fundamental lack of understanding.

For the patient there is a bewildering stream of science-based information and not so sciency information. There is a tendency in people to pay attention to optimistic product testimonials by other afflicted individuals. Magazines and cable television telegraph anecdotal sales pitches at people desperately seeking relief and even a cure. Many people feel the allure of anti-establishment messages promoting dietary plans. There is much talk of anti-oxidant, cleansing and herbal approaches to the treatment of disease states. The fact is, substances which might very well have cancer-preventative properties may be quite useless in the treatment of cancer.


Over the last few decades the notion of political correctness has been held, particularly by conservative and conservative protestant evangelical elements in the electronic media, as evidence of moral decay or wrong-headed concern for frivolous sensibilities. Political correctness has been hailed as a form of speech expressing hypersensitive and exaggerated deference to the sensibilities of groups or to certain political beliefs. The words “political correctness” and “liberal” themselves have become epithets through repeated accusatory statements attempting to poison the well of progressive credibility.

Born in 1957, my growth and schooling has been coincident in time with a good deal of what is now called political correctness (PC). My perception of what lead to PC is not hard to describe. Over these years, especially in the 1960’s, there was a conscious attempt by progressive, fair-minded people to remedy the effects of centuries of bias and oppression of minority groups by the caucasian dominated power structure under the heading of Affirmative Action. The civil rights act of 1964, the voting rights act of 1965, the Stonewall riots, assassinations, counterculture, expanding feminism, and a controversial land war in Asia lead to a large scale pushback of the establishment.

During 1960’s the threat of nuclear annihilation and the domino theory of communist aggression had already been in the popular conscious mind since the early 1950’s or before. Add to this the internal upheavals listed above and you have a period of great anxiety and turmoil. For many young people like myself, the notion of equality and fairness to all was imprinted by television, teachers, and a few adults. But especially, seeing the growing integration of black Americans on television programs gave way to a strong normalizing effect on myself and others in lily white Iowa. I began to suspect an essential arbitrariness of racial discrimination.

By the time I moved west and entered high school in 1972 the notion of racial equality was openly embraced by many of my fellow students and found in a few readings assigned in school. Busing desegregation was in full swing and news of controversy filled the airwaves. That is, when the Watergate congressional investigation was not playing.

I have come to think that the origins of PC has evolved from this era. In my view, PC is an attempt to level the playing field for diverse groups seeking equal treatment and opportunity. It was manifested in law by way of operational practices in hiring and equal protection in general. The military embraced racial equality in a large way through recruitment and promotion. But perhaps the most obvious form of PC is in language. The use of epithets and slang that demeaned a person’s race or religion gradually became taboo in many parts of the country. Since the 1970’s this taboo on demeaning language and treatment has broadened and institutionalized to include gender, sex, and sexual preference.

In my college years a ban on epithets and belittling or demeaning language was part of the institution’s mission statement and policy. When I eventually taught at the college level, we were expected to speak and treat everyone in a fair and civil manner, respecting the individual and their rights to their beliefs and speech.

Research has shown that the nuances of grammar in a language affect the way the speaker perceives people and objects (see Boroditsky below).

The fact that even quirks of grammar, such as grammatical gender, can affect our thinking is profound. Such quirks are pervasive in language; gender, for example, applies to all nouns, which means that it is affecting how people think about anything that can be designated by a noun. How Does Language Shape the Way We Think?  Lera Boroditsky [6.11.09].

If, as Boroditsky argues, the subtleties of language can affect perception of the world around you, then it follows that caution must be applied in the nouns and verbs we use in reference to one another lest we infer meanings that are offensive, unintended or slanderous. Plainly we do this all the time with people we know and care for. In regard to those we do not know, is it defensible to make broad assertions that are demeaning or belittling? It will be defended by the meek and the bellicose if bystanders do nothing. And that is what has been happening over the last few decades over conservative talk radio, TV, and even religious broadcasting. These broadcasters repetitively spew divisive rhetoric meant to drum up anger and frustration in it’s listeners. It has worked well. If this kind of rhetoric didn’t work, do you think they would use it anyway? Anger and conflict attract audiences and audiences attract advertisers. Ad revenue encourages purveyors of truculent and intransigent rhetoric to continue. Witness the popularity of Rush Limbaugh with his golden voice and vitriolic diatribes.

If a child grows up hearing and using language asserting that skin color defines people as “other” or “lesser” or “lazy”, this distinction as other or lesser or lazy can become normalized in the child’s thinking.

So, what is wrong with the language of political correctness if it is the attempt to promote fairness and equality? Like any aspect of language, it inevitably undergoes meaning-creep. PC may devolve into ridiculous conflicts when people overreact to a perceived slight and claim that they have suffered some mental trauma. Likewise, PC may cause institutions to enact policy overreach in an effort to avoid perceived threats based on a breach of PC.  Like any social meme, PC can be taken too far. But that doesn’t mean that the concept is without merit.

If we truly want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then it must apply to everyone. Why wouldn’t we clean up our language a bit, if for no other reason than to enjoy reciprocity?


Thus began Mr. Toad’s wild ride.

In the past I have written posts on the adventure of having two stage 4 cancers and the journey down the rabbit hole one takes as treatment goes forward. Three years ago I had surgery, radiation and cis-platin for throat cancer. Three years later my throat or oropharyngeal cancer is undetectable. Of course, this is good news.  What remains of the experience are the lasting effects of intense radiation exposure in and around the target volume. I developed the normal array of after effects: stunted salivary glands resulting in chronic dry-mouth; periodontal disease and the loss of a few teeth; a substantial loss and distortion of the sense of taste; inadequate thyroid function requiring medication; difficulty in swallowing dry foods; radiation scarring on the neck; and lymphedema where 33 lymph nodes were removed from my neck. I’ve adapted and manage quite nicely to plod down the timeline much as before.

My situation with the stage 4 prostate cancer (Gleason 8) is stable. One of the treatments for prostate cancer is chemical castration. Since testosterone has the effect of accelerating the growth and spread of prostate cancer cells, the commercial drug Lupron is used to down regulate the production of testosterone. Loss of body hair and muscle mass as well as the onset of hot flashes were some of the highlights of my experience. A substantial nulling out of the sex drive happens as well.  Effectively I spent about two years as a eunuch.

It’s been nearly a year since the Lupron injections have stopped. I’m getting a more strength and some body hair is returning. I’ll leave it at that. The radiation treatment was intense in the target zone, but largely without significant discomfort overall. The tricky part of external radiation treatment of the prostate is it’s proximity to the bladder and the bowel. Fortunately, modern IMRT equipment is capable of modulating the x-ray beam intensity as well as shaping the beam with a multileaf tungsten collimator as it rotates around the patient.

After 11 months since the last Lupron shot, my PSA has increased only slightly from being non-detectable.  The return of testosterone after having it shut down for 2 years is a weird experience for a fella. But weirdness is normal in the world of cancer treatment.

Now we’ll pivot to a different topic.

A delicate parting thought for friends and family of those with cancer. Invariably a well intentioned friend or family member will say that their thoughts and prayers are with you or that a prayer group is holding you in the light. Another expression of sympathy might be that there is a reason for everything and that God has a plan for all of us, and as the story goes, our lives have purpose after all. Such sincere well wishes are expressed with the best of intentions, but for myself and other non-theistic people it rings hollow and offers little consolation. A prolonged and agonizing illness is part of some plan? Seriously? If a person set forth such a plan we would rightly consider this foul individual a psychopath worthy of punishment.

People express these sentiments when presented with an existential conflict- it is when the need to connect their belief system with reality the observable world is confronted with the paradox of the divine sanctioning of pain, suffering and untimely death. The need is met by the supposition that there must be divine purpose rather than the unthinkable alternative of the illness happening in the stark emptiness of a godless universe. If such a universe existed, what possible purpose could there be in existence? Well, yada yada. I’ll take this topic up in a later post.

Here is an alternative for your non-believing friends and family. Consider renewing and expressing gratitude for their love and friendship. Confess what the person means to you and commiserate with their condition. Let your emotions flow. Hold their hand. A bit of listening goes a long way too. Mirth is always welcome- the regaling of past exploits, funny stories or people, jokes or the sharing of what experiences you have in common. A light heart and cheerful smile is always welcome in sickness and in health.


An article I read in Spiegel online deserves comment. My German is too paltry to be of use so I read Spiegel because it is in English and seems credible.

The article in question is titled “Russian Foreign Policy: ‘We Are Smarter, Stronger and More Determined’ ” and is the transcript of an interview by Christian Neef of Spiegel. Neef interviewed Sergey Karaganov, known as the honorary head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and Dean of Faculty at National Research University Higher School of Economics in Russia according to Wikipedia.

Karagonov is quite blunt in his distrust of NATO and confident in Russia’s determination to take it’s place as the dominant Eurasian power. Just a few bits of the interview-

Karaganov: The Russian media is more reserved than Western media. Though you have to understand that Russia is very sensitive about defense. We have to be prepared for everything. That is the source of this occasionally massive amount of propaganda. But what is the West doing? It is doing nothing but vilifying Russia; it believes that we are threatening to attack. The situation is comparable to the crisis at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to the stationing of Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles and the American reaction?

Karaganov: Europe felt weak at the time and was afraid that the Americans might leave the continent. But the Soviet Union, though it had already become rotten internally, felt militarily strong and undertook the foolishness of deploying the SS-20 missiles. The result was a completely pointless crisis. Today, it is the other way around. Now, fears in countries like Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are to be allayed by NATO stationing weapons there. But that doesn’t help them; we interpret that as a provocation. In a crisis, we will destroy exactly these weapons. Russia will never again fight on its own territory …

July 13, 2016. Spiegel Online International.

It should not be a surprise that Russia has been steadily acquiring a gleaming confidence and a recharging of energetic nationalism under Putin. Too much ink has been spilled on Putin the man rather than Russia the state. I would question whether sufficient resources are being applied to diplomacy with this confident Russian state. I sincerely hope that our elected officials have the intellectual bandwidth to understand what is happening.

I shall now veer in a somewhat different direction.

It is my impression that the Fourth Estate in America is consistently failing in it’s responsibility to participate in the very democracy that facilitates its existence by not keeping the spotlight on the powerful.  Worse yet, a distracted, flaccid American populace consistently fails to hold this pillar of our society accountable.

Elected officials and the agencies they fund are only too willing to keep our country on a perpetual war footing because the production of war materiel keeps people employed and stockholders fat and happy. Defense dollars pour into military installations in the US and the world round to maintain staff, pay contractors for supplies, and drive money into the local economy.

The influential petrochemical industry is only too happy to warn of the dire consequences of lost American influence in the far flung oily spots of the world. That the US is willing to send and keep forces abroad to protect petroleum interests- in the name of liberty- only adds credence to the meme that oil is worth almost any sacrifice in blood and treasure. Against such a longstanding and compelling circumstance, how can elected officials support alternative energy technologies that might undermine the profits of big oil who we’ve fought so hard to support?

Politicians find strident support from the electorate by the evangelical rhetoric of flexing our military might for God and country. And liberty, if you were lucky enough to be born in the US. They well know that a large segment of the electorate is susceptible to all of highly produced emotional imagery of flag waving, weeping veterans kneeling before a tombstone, and country singers belting out patriotic lyrics. Yet with all of the concern for American veterans, nobody has demanded satisfaction on the following question: Are we being careful enough in choosing where we send our troops? Is it based on rock solid information and against qualified threats? The youth who become our troops are national treasure. Yet we send them into battle spaces where combatants look like non-combatants and are fighting over conflicting religious doctrines. When they come home injured we turn them loose in a shamefully inadequate Veterans Administration hospital system. Perhaps a bit of time on the 4th of July and Veterans Day should be devoted to a meditation on this rather than beer and burgers? Is this our best effort?

Electronic media have a clear conflict of interest in their focus on the costly horse race aspects of politics. “Money has corrupted our electoral politics!!” is the shrill cry. But what fraction of that filthy lucre is channeled to the very media in the form of political advertising?  More than a little, perhaps?

Once again we will have conflicting superpowers vying for global influence and resources. With Russia on the rise, do we have the unity and compelling interest to avoid armed conflict with them? What caliber of elected officials do we need to grapple with a future that seems sure to bring the threat of nuclear conflict back? Are we ready? We have never needed a quorum of mature adult voices demanding civilized behavior as much as we do today. Heaven help us all.


We’re back from a refreshing June visit to Iceland. I can recommend a visit to this gentle country to anyone and without reservation. If you’ve traveled in other parts of Europe, there will be no surprises; if not, the cultural shock will be minimal. Driving the paved roads is a breeze, traffic control minimal, everyone speaks English and credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere.  The unit of currency is the Icelandic Krona or ISK. As of today the exchange rate is 122.85 ISK to the dollar. Gasoline was in the neighborhood of 208 ISK per liter, so gas seems a bit spendy to an American. I would compare the prices one will encounter as a tourist to be in the range of a visit to NYC or Boston.

Flight arrival happens at the town of Keflavik (KEF) southwest of Reykjavik. Reykjavik is a half hour drive north from the airport. The famed Blue Lagoon (Bláa lónið) spa is a short drive south from Keflavik. Be warned, reservations are required and the earlier the better. Our experience was that they would not allow walk-in visitors to gain or even schedule entry. Online registry is done exclusively. This spa is an artificial body of geothermal hot spring water that has its source from the adjacent geothermal plant Svartsengi.

Iceland is a country with 330,000 inhabitants, 200,000 of which live in Reykjavik. The population density is low. It is like taking Boulder county, Colorado, and plopping the population onto an area the size of Kentucky. We saw none of the garish tourism blight in the form of signage and souvenir shops so ordinary in the US. While folks back home were sweltering in the heat we enjoyed the benefits of North Atlantic climate, namely 55 °F temperatures and drizzle.

The only bit of unpleasantness for us was getting through US customs in Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) on the return trip. We arrived at MSP within a day of an explosion at an airport in Turkey. Consequently the TSA sphincter had already slammed shut at American customs and passport control entry points and security theatre had gone full Hollywood.

From Denver the total flight time on Delta to Keflavik was about 8 1/2 hours. We arrived on the summer solstice so for our 8 days in country there was effectively no darkness, just a few hours of twilight.

Our experience with accommodations was positive. Most nights we stayed in a guesthouse. These are essentially a B&B arrangement, but the proprietors were not resident in the same building as may be the case in other countries. Breakfast is optional so be sure to select it when booking a room. I used and had not a speck of trouble with it. However, once in country I did notice that the guesthouse options were much more extensive than what appeared on the website.

There are several ways to explore Iceland. There are numerous day tours available from Keflavik and Reykjavik as well as more extensive guided bus tours. A colleague took a 12 day self-driving tour through an agency called Nordic Visitor. They drove themselves from point to point around the Island on the ring road. Nordic Visitor pre-arranged for accommodations and excursions like glacier hikes, etc., along the route.

Center, The island of Surtsey in the Westman Islands, Iceland.

Center, the island of Surtsey, newest of the Westman Islands, Iceland.

We took a chance and planned our own tour with a rental car. Not knowing the scale and drive times between places of interest was problematic. Highway speed was 90 kph at it’s greatest and often 40 to 70 kph in many locations. In town the speed was usually 30 kph. I took a conservative approach and stayed within what turned out to be about 7 hours from Reykjavik. Really, this was too conservative and prevented exploring the eastern side of the island. On the positive side, this approach prevented us from spending all of our time driving.

Iceland is a geologist’s paradise. It arose from the divergent drift of the Eurasian and North American plates at the mid-Atlantic ridge – a global feature that dominates its geology today. The island has many active volcanoes as well as glaciers. Many of the volcanoes are actually under a glacier. When they erupt there may be large floods as the ice melts from the volcanic heat.

Heckla as viewed from the island of Heimaey 6-16

Hekla as viewed from the island of Heimaey 6-16

The volcano Hekla near the south coast of Iceland is part of 30 volcano systems on the island.  The picture above was taken from the island of Heimaey in the Westman Islands. These islands make up this volcanic archipelago. Incidentally, nervousness about the state of Hekla lead our car rental agency (Budget) to offer volcanic ash insurance to it’s customers.  I’ll admit- I bought it.

This post has been updated. Th’ Gaussling, 6/4/16.

If you work with chemicals at the level of chemist in a production environment, chances are at some time in your career you’ll be called upon to help decide when a material is too hazardous to use in manufacture. It can be in regard to raw materials or as the final product. Your organization may have protocols or institutional policies or memories relating to certain classes of substances. Some companies, for instance, will not use diethyl ether in its processes. Others may require hydrocarbon solvents *absolutely* free of BTX. Some companies are so fastidious about worker exposure that the faintest whiff of solvent constitutes a breach. One world class company I know requires R&D chemists to include a process hazard analysis, review, and an inspection for all R&D reactions performed in the hood.  Whatever the company, most have fashioned some kind of boundary as to what is permissible to have on site and what isn’t.

Large chemical companies tend to have large EH&S departments with well established SOP’s and protocols with regard to personal protective equipment (PPE) and the measurement of occupational exposure to substances. Larger companies may have an OSHA attorney on retainer and staff members specializing in regulatory compliance.

One might suppose that smaller chemical companies may not have the depth of hazardous material experience that the larger companies have for many reasons. Smaller companies may have smaller capital equipment and a smaller staff. But smaller companies may have a greater organizational freedom which can lead to a great variety of projects. A great variety of projects often means that a great variety of materials are used on site. As such, a smaller company might very well have considerable expertise in a wide variety of chemical substances and, consequently, a wide variety of hazards.

While a smaller chemical company may have considerable expertise in handling its hazardous materials, it may be lacking in infrastructure for administrative controls and regulatory compliance. A wise CEO watches this aspect as closely as the actual operations.

Whether large or small, eventually a company has to draw the line on what hazards it will bring on site. The chemist has some very sober responsibility in this regard. Through the normal ordeal of process development, the diligent synthesis chemist will find the optimum path from raw material to product. All synthesis consists of the exploitation and management of reactivity. But there is always the “deal with the devil”. In exchange for a useful transformation, properly reactive precursors must be prepared and combined. A mishap with a 1-5 liter reaction on the bench top is messy and possibly an immediate threat to the chemist. But that same reaction in a 50 gallon or 5000 gallon pot can turn into the wrath of God if it runs away. The chemists judgment is the first layer of protection in this regard. All process chemists have to develop judgment with respect to what reagents, solvents, and conditions are feasible. Economics and safety come into play.

A runaway reaction poses several kinds of threats to people, equipment, and the viability of the company. There is the immediate thermokinetic threat stemming from the PV=nRT, meaning that energy can be dumped into PV work leading to the high speed disassembly of your equipment. A prompt release of heat and molecules kicked into the gas phase may or may not be controllable. Especially if the runaway leads to non-condensable gases. A runaway has a mechanical component in addition to the chemical action.

An runaway may cause the reactor contents to be abruptly discharged. Several questions should be answered ahead of time. Where do you want the contents to go and what are you going to do with it once it is there? Catchpots and emergency relief systems are common and resources should be invested there.

A question that the wary chemist must ask is this: What if a cloud of my highly useful though reactive compound gets discharged into the air or onto the ground? Do the benefits of this reagent outweigh the downside costs? Even if a release is not the result of a thermokinetic disaster like a runaway, explosion, or fire, a simple release of some materials may be consequential enough to require the evacuation of a neighborhood. Once your materials have left the site in the form of a cloud or a liquid spill and you make the call to the fire department, you have lost control of the incident. Even if nobody gets hurt or exposed, the ensuing “regulatory compliance explosion” may knock you down.

A chemical process incident can have mechanical consequences, chemical release issues, and the matter of fire. Substances that are pyrophoric have automatic ignition problems that may be surprisingly easy to deal with, especially if they are liquid. Liquid transfer systems can be inerted easily and pyrophoric liquids can be transferred airlessly and safely. Pyrophoric solids are another matter. There  are few generalizations I can make about pyrophoric solids. Inert solids pose enough handling issues without having the added complication of air/water sensitivity. All I can say about pyrophoric solids- waste or finished product- is that you will need solids handling equipment, a big supply of LN2 and procedures for passivating hot filter cakes. Production glove boxes and Aurora filters are particularly useful. Also required is a space on the plant site where you can open up a container and let the contents burn if needed. If air gets into a container of pyrophoric solids, it’ll begin to get hot. That is when you need to have an open spot where it can smolder or ignite harmlessly and not bring the facility down. Crowded industrial parks are a bad place for such material handling.

When designing a chemical handling space, it is important to think about what happens in a fire. Flammable liquids are under the constant influence of gravity and will run to the low point on a floor. The question you must to ask beforehand is this: Where do I want the burning liquid to go? There are good choices and poor choices. Preferably a stream of burning or flammable liquid should run away from evacuation pathways and exits as well as anywhere other hazardous materials or combustibles may be contained. To some extent this is moot because indoor spaces should be covered by a fire suppression system. But outdoor spaces may be problematic in regard to crowding of a tank farm and drums and cylinders.

Burning pools of organic liquids radiate considerable energy per sq ft per sec (power in Watts). The temperature of nearby objects will rise rapidly to the flash point and the ceiling spaces will accumulate smoke and hot gas. Drums and cylinders filled with flammable liquids or gases will eventually overpressure and release their contents adding to the mayhem. The release can be in the form of a BLEVE or a flood of flammable liquid leading to a widespread pool fire.

There are resoures available to quantitate the risks of such releases. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) is well organized and provides much literature on the topic of chemical plant safety. In particular I am thinking of Dow’s Chemical Exposure Index Guide, 1994, 1st Edition, AIChE, ISBN 0-8169-0647-5.  This handbook takes the reader through calculations aimed at estimating the risk and likelihood of chemical releases.

Also available is Dow’s Fire & Explosion Index and Hazard Classification Guide, 1994, Seventh Edition, AIChE, ISBN 978-0-8169-0623-9.  This handbook supports the use of a quantitative risk analysis chart for the use of a risk and hazard index for generating numbers associated with process activities for cost/benefit analysis. It is well worth the addition to your library

Such flammable liquid scenarios can begin many ways.  Forklift and maintenance operations are particularly rich in opportunity for a fire. The physical location of flammable liquid storage must be well thought out. Ideally a warehouse fire should not be allowed to spread to capital equipment locations. This helps to keep workers out of harms way and contains the magnitude of the financial disaster as well.  Since most chemical plants seem to grow organically over time, unfortunate choices are usually made in regard to incident propagation.

One type of propagation incident can be ameliorated through the clever use of architecture. I am aware of one tragic incident where an explosion occurred in a processing space of a facility that had grown over the years by the addition of contiguous manufacturing and warehouse spaces. A rabbit’s warren of interconnected rooms and hallways accumulated over time. At the moment of the reactor explosion, the room and adjacent spaces were badly damaged by the blast overpressure as you’d expect. However, since the building was interconnected the overpressure propagated throughout many other distant spaces and delivered considerable structural damage to the facility. Overhead doors were bent outwards and windows and man doors blown out. Extensive damage may have been avoided by the simple expedient of providing open air walkways to separated buildings rather than enclosed hallways between adjoining areas. Of course, the benefit of this depends on the who, what, where, when, and how, but eliminating pathways for a blast wave is a cheap and easy way to start.

When is a substance just too hazardous? This is fundamentally a business or policy decision. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the organizational leadership to draw the line on the risks that are deemed acceptable. It is the ethical responsibility of those knowledgeable and experienced with the proposed chemistries to combine information with pragmatics to provide persuasive feedback to the decision makers in charge.

There are plants that routinely manufacture nitroglycerine, phosgene, chlorine, phosphine and HCN. Workers spend their careers in these places.  Most risks can be abated by properly engineered processing and packaging. It really comes down to personal choice. Is that ammonium perchlorate plant that just offered me a job operated safely? These reactive and/or energetic materials all have properties that lead to demand for their use. Somebody is going to supply that demand. We chemists have to look inward and then act with our eyes wide open and our heads on a swivel. Myself? I wouldn’t work in a nitroglycerine factory, but I’m glad that someone does.’

[Added 6/4/16 by Th’ Gaussling] I happened to go back to this post and in doing so read a comment by “Bob”, which you can see in the comment section below. Here is a copy

“I actually believe that as a society should keep the safety rules relaxed a bit in academia. Academia, for better or worse, is our national chemical research institution”

So underpaid grad students, postdocs and staff working at  a univeristy are less human, and less deserving of safety than their for profit brethren?

That’s diabolical Mr. Gaussling. Pure evil incarnate. For whose gain do you sacrifice their lives?

I want to address this now better than I did back then. To Bob I say this: Everyone has a right to a safe workplace. Academic institutions as well as industrial operations must use best practices in regard to worker safety. This is axiomatic. Plainly I did not articulate my contention as well as I could have. I will do so now.

We have to assume that junior chemists are likely grow to be senior chemists in an organization. The role of a senior chemist in industry for example, may be quite varied through her/his career. A senior chemist who has stayed in the technical environment will almost unavoidably have been confronted with a large variety of questions in regard to circumstances and outcomes relating to hazardous materials and tricky reactions. Moreover, a senior chemist is likely to have been promoted to a level that also involves supervision, the drafting of SOPs, work instructions, MSDS documents, emergency planning, laboratory design, etc.

In my view, a senior chemist as described above has an ethical and moral responsibility to coworkers, plant operators, material handlers, and customers to oversee chemical safety. A chemist at any level has a responsibility to make known to all involved what dangerous circumstance might arise with any given chemical operation. Either in relation to the hazardous properties of substances that may be released in mishandling, or in regard to hazardous processing conditions that can lead to danger.

I’ve used the word hazard(ous) and the word danger(ous). We need some clarity on this. If you Google the words and stop with the dictionary definitions you will be left with the shallow notion that they are synonyms. If you dig deeper, say at the website of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (OSH), you will find a definition of “hazard” that I find particularly useful. To wit:

A hazard is any source of potential damage, harm or adverse health effects on something or someone under certain conditions at work. [italics mine]

The same fuzziness in definition exists for the word danger(ous) as well. A definition I prefer is below:

A dangerous occurrence is an unplanned and undesired occurrence (incident) which has the potential to cause injury and which may or may not cause damage to property, equipment or the environment. [italics mine]

This definition is borrowed from the University College Cork, Ireland (UCC). I believe this is a good definition and it readily sits apart from the definition of hazard above.

The key difference is that a hazard is any source of potential of damage … under certain conditions.. whereas danger is a condition brought on by an unplanned or undesired occurrence. Next, lets consider these terms in the context of chemistry.

On the shelf in the fire cabinet is a glass bottle of phosphorus oxychloride, properly sealed and segregated. As the POCl3 sits on the shelf in the cabinet, I would argue that it is only hazardous. If, however, you pick up the bottle and in walking to the fume hood drop it causing it to break and spill the contents in the open, you’ve caused a dangerous situation. It’s an imminent threat to health and safety.

Conversely, let’s say that you carried the bottle to the hood, used it, then returned it to storage without incident. In the reaction the POCl3 is consumed and in the workup the residual acid chloride is quenched by water. Congratulations! You have taken a hazardous material, used it safely, passivated the actives during workup, and eliminated at least the acute hazard relating to POCl3.

In the first situation, a hazardous material was mishandled and became dangerous. In the second situation, the hazardous material was handled properly, consumed, and residuals passivated. In this case a hazardous material was used safely and to positive effect.

Seem trivial? Well, it’s not. This difference in meaning leads to a confusion that is especially acute among the non-chemist population. But my point leads to the question of how students are taught to use hazardous materials.

I spoke of relaxing safety requirements in academia. An example of such a thing might be the use of diethyl ether. This useful solvent is banned outright in some chemical manufacturing operations across the country owing to the flammability. Even in their R&D labs. This is corporate policy handed down by those responsible for risk management, not scientists. In some industrial labs, woe is he who has an unexpected occurrence like a boil-over or a spill.

I believe that Et2O should remain in academic research labs for both the research value and for the development of valuable lab experience by students and postdocs.

You learn to handle hazardous materials by having the opportunity to handle hazardous materials.

Ether is only a simple example of what I’m trying to communicate. In order for chemists to graduate as experienced scientists with working familiarity in the properties of substances, they must have experience handling and using a large variety of substances, many of which may be substantially hazardous. And by hazardous I mean much more than just toxic. A substance may have a reactive hazard aspect that is a large part of it’s utility.  To safely handle substances that pose a reactive hazard, a chemist needs to have experience in using it. And killing it. The chemist must try to gauge the level of reactivity and modify the use of the substance to use it safely. If you’ve made or used a Grignard reagent you know what I mean. Expertise in laboratory chemistry only comes through direct experience.

Hazardous reactive materials do useful things under reasonable conditions. Non-hazardous, unreactive materials find great utility in road and bridge construction.

If we regulate out all of the risk by eliminating hazardous materials in academic chemistry, what kind of scientists and future captains of industry are we producing? What we can do is to put layers of administrative and engineering protection in the space where the hazardous transitions to the dangerous.  Academic laboratory safety is promoted by close supervision by experienced people. Limits on the amount of flammables in a lab space, proper syringe use, safe quenching of reactive residues, proper use of pressurized equipment, and a basic assessment of reactive hazards present in an experiment will go a long way to improving academic lab safety. Experienced people usually have a trail of mistakes and mishaps behind them. If we corporatize the academic research experience to a zero risk condition, we may kill the goose that lays the golden egg.


The US Chemical Safety Board has approved and released the final report on the Macondo /Deepwater Horizon  blowout and explosion of 4/20/10 in the Gulf of Mexico. The report is in two volumes and does include an animation of the sequence of events. I have found the CSB animations to be particularly helpful in understanding the key features revealed by their investigations.

The CSB recently released their final report on the ammonium nitrate fire and explosion in West, Texas on 4/17/13. A few months after the release of the final report the ATF announced a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest of person or persons responsible for the industrial fire and explosion that killed 15 people.

If the forensic aspects of industrial accidents is of interest to you, I’d recommend having a look at the CSB website. Knowledge of various initiation and propagation modes in past industrial accidents is useful for those of us trying to prevent initiating events on our own sites.


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