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The July 8, 2019, online issue of the NY Times featured an article by Dr. Daniel Horowitz, an organic chemist and former member of the US Chemical Safety Board, on the matter of hydrogen fluoride (HF) use in petroleum refining. HF is an acid catalyst used in taking small hydrocarbon molecules and making somewhat heavier hydrocarbon molecules for use as octane boosters for gasoline. This is a critical technology for efficient use of petroleum in the manufacture of motor fuels.

My take on the article is that Horowitz believes that refineries are using an alkylation technology that is too hazardous for workers and the public. He writes that there have been several recent near-misses that could have lead to the release of HF that might have left the plant site and spread into the surrounding communities.

Risk = consequence of hazardous activity x probability of event (Wikipedia).

While actuaries understand how to calculate risk, one wonders how executives go about deciding what is an acceptable risk for other stakeholders like the public. Hmmm. Just a thought.

Thanks to RW for the link.

Learning how to use an Agilent 1260 LCMS (with just the diode array detector, not the MS). Oh. My. God. I last used an Agilent 1200 LC 10 years ago. This bloody 1260 is wildly complex, specifically in regard to the MassHunter data collection and workup software. It’s like a Swiss Army knife with 500 tools on it. The thing is designed for a busy analytical lab with high throughput and heavy documentation, like the boys and girls in pharma would use. I’m just using it for research. It’s like giving a taser to a monkey. It’s just a matter of time before something goes dreadfully wrong. Crimony.

I encountered this interesting article while reading about Octave Levenspiel, a prolific chemical engineer, now deceased. It is entitled Dinosaurs, but it is really about the natural history of our atmospheric composition and pressure. Have a look.

While doing some IP due diligence I ran into a patent that claimed some art of interest to me. The art was very useful, but it was claimed by a Prominent Professor of chemistry at Well Known University (WKU). Digging a bit deeper I found that the patent had expired well into it’s lifetime due to non-payment of maintenance fees. So, let’s look at this a bit deeper.

Prominent Professor files a patent application in 1998 on said art and then shoots off a paper to Well Known Publication. Then in 2003, the USPTO grants a patent to Prominent Professor and is assigned to WKU. Fine.

If the patent had been generating royalties, it seems unlikely that WKU would have allowed the patent to expire. There is no record of transfer of ownership to another assignee either. My guess is that by the time of the final maintenance fee, interest in the patent was slim to none. Seeing no royalty income likely, WKU elects to allow the patent to expire. Not uncommon.

The work produced by Prominent Professor was funded by DoE. In short, Prominent Professor received public funding and then by virtue of filing for a patent, the technology produced by said public funding is denied use by the public unless they pay again for it in a royalty agreement, unless it was under exclusive agreement with another entity. Evidently the art sat fallow for a good dozen years until it expired. Prominent Professor and WKU got a feather in their caps, and industry and the public had to sit on their thumbs during the period of unproductive time.

This is but one example of a sham allowed under public law.

I have been an enthusiastic user of RPN calculators since high school, when Gerry Ford was president. Of course I refer to those made by Hewlett-Packard. My first was the HP-25C. The beauty of the RPN system with its 4 register stack was that it could do fairly elaborate chain calculations without the need for parentheses or an equal key. It is quite intuitive to many of us and was a pleasure to use.

But, alas! The HP RPN calculator has largely gone out of fashion it seems. Only a few models remain on the market and several are financial calculators. The HP-12C financial calculator is a wholly inadequate substitute for a scientific calculator. My 12C now sits in the desk drawer with unused pens and paper clips. All seems lost for the RPN tribe.

Or so I thought. It turns out that there is a manufacturer of Hewlett-Packard RPN clones called SwissMicros. These folks have taken the RPN baton and are running with it. Hero’s, I call them. They knew a good product when they saw it and have saved the day by manufacturing a clone that seems nearly indistinguishable from the corresponding HP unit.

I recently purchased the HP-15C clone called the DM15L. It has the look and heft of the 15C. My use thus far has been cursory, but I look forward to exploring the features. So, here is a shout out to SwissMicros!

 

There are many axiomatic statements to be made about the workplace. I’ll start with this:

Axiom # 1: If there is a hole, someone will fall in it.

The meaning of “hole” can vary a great deal, from a specific system weakness to an actual hole in the floor or ground. I’ve witnessed people falling into both. I think you could argue that Axiom 1 is an example of Murphy’s Law. But the ultimate origin seems to trace back to Proverbs 26:27.

My favorite corollary:

Things are never so bad that they cannot get a whole lot worse.

This sentiment was famously uttered by Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Countries which have been invaded by another have a special understanding of this notion.

Of course none of this is new, just crystal-clear to me this day.

 

After another tedious weekly teleconference our group adjourned and stood up from the table in the conference room.  I was furthest from the door but my normally rapid pace put me in the lead to exit. All at once mid-stride, just as my rearward foot began to move forward, it caught a phone cord that became taut instantly. Consider that a walking stride is a series of balance/off-balance conditions where the walker is constantly catching his/her balance. I had been caught off-balance at the wrong moment in my step.

My recollection of that falling moment brings to mind the droll voice of the bowl of petunias in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Resigned to its fate, its final lament is “Oh no, not again.” I can relate.

Mid-fall my lips came within a hairs breadth of landing face first on an armrest. Luckily I hadn’t shaved that day so I actually had that hairs breadth.  On impact with the carpeted floor my first emotion was one of anger. I had successfully negotiated the cords for nigh on eleven years. But this day it was not to be. This day I would tip like a sack of dirt in front of a room full of colleagues.

After a moment on the floor I spouted an incredulous “Mother F**ker!! followed by an equally enthused “Son of a B*tch!!” Truth be told, it was an utterly sincere cleansing of my dismay. My screens were down and the profanities leapt into the ether. After a few awkward moments I got up and repaired to the solitary confines of my office.

Later I jokingly apologized for my “gravitationally-induced Tourette’s.” I gathered that the unexpected outburst had provided a welcome bit of mirth after a highly technical meeting.

 

In the course of my forays into chemical sourcing or searching for data, I have begun to notice something about product entries in the online Sigma-Aldrich catalog. I’m finding that since the acquisition of Sigma Aldrich by Merck KGaA, MilliporeSigma as it is now known, many of the compounds that I find listed say the product has been discontinued. Is it just fortuitous, or is it not? Is the catalog collection being trimmed?

Have I been collecting data? Pffft! Of course not, silly. It’s just the subjective experience of having found few if any Aldrich catalog entries labeled as discontinued over the past few decades. Recently I’m landing on the pages of discontinued products. Hmmm.

Over the many years, buying reagents from Aldrich has saved countless chemist-days in lab productivity. In fact, the availability of their huge collection of chemicals has driven the direction of much research out there based simply on the availability of reagents for purchase.

I blame the MBA’s. This has the smell of overly smart weasels marketing people.

The electronic news world is a colossal hodgepodge of media jumping on anything new and “compelling”. The weekend’s compelling news du jour is Ret. Adm. Mike Mullen‘s comments on the likelihood of nuclear war with North Korea (DPRK). As a retired admiral and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mullen is a strategic thinker. These days he is very pessimistic of the US finding a peaceful way forward with the DPRK.

Taken alone, this view could be ignored as an outlier. But against a backdrop of other seemingly credible reports, Mullen’s worry could be taken as another indicator of the tempo of concern within much of DC. Consistent with Mullen’s worry is a lengthy 12/14/17 interview with Senator Lindsey Graham written by Uri Friedman at The Atlantic. Graham is an opinion leader on the matter of the DPRK. The article is well written and I must highly recommend it.

The frothy part of this DPRK boil-up is talk of nuclear conflict. The language that I have heard does not distinguish the various scenarios of how a nuclear war would unfold on the Korean Peninsula. One thing that was made clear by Graham in the Atlantic article is that there could be no limited strike on the DPRK. I assume it means defensively or otherwise. Any attack on the North, nuclear or conventional, would have to result in the complete collapse of the Kim regime.

The US military develops and refines war plans in preparation for any contingency. But, I’m curious how the psychological impact of the use of nuclear weapons will play in the various war cabinets of the world. After all, the nuclear-bomb genie has been kept in the bottle since August, 1945. Will a first use on or by the DPRK lower the threshold for other nuclear states?

A nuclear weapon married to a missile is a highly engineered machine that is at the apex of multiple military technologies. Expertise and a minimum of infrastructure in metallurgy, nuclear physics, chemistry, propellants, and delivery vehicle technology is necessary for accurate execution of a strike. For the DPRK to maximize the punch of its limited nuclear armaments, a strike relying on accurate delivery of a nuclear war shot to a remote or hardened target would require their leadership to gamble on layers of unproven or unrefined technology. The Kim regime may be a political malignancy, but they are not stupid.

Suppose the DPRK is able to strike some important targets with its nukes. Surely some in the North’s command know the consequences to follow. Decapitation of its leadership and annihilation of its war making capacity are a certainty.

For the US, the use of a nuclear war shot on the DPRK is not an inevitable result of physics like the apple that fell on Newton’s head. A release from the US nuclear arsenal is a choice and thus psychological in both application and long term consequence. Would a US nuclear response to a nuclear strike- anywhere-  by the DPRK make sense for the US in the subsequent post-war world?

The last big war, WWII, started conventional and ended nuclear.  Since then, the threat of mutual nuclear conflagration has helped to keep the peace by serving as a deterrence. Mutual Assured Destruction, MAD, is credited, superficially a least, with keeping armed conflict a strictly chemical explosives activity. What happens to the ground under the psychological pedestal supporting MAD when a nation-state uses nuclear weapons thinking it could win a conflict? How would the various national policies on first use change across the world and what do the likely outcomes look like?

There are many issues that follow from conflict with the DPRK. I hope that as much energy is given to the diplomatic scene as the theatre of war.

What seems to have gotten lost in the public acrimony over anthropogenic global warming is the disposition and fate of the overall web of life- the biosphere. We hear bits and pieces about the bleaching of reefs, endangered apex predators, and the loss of Amazon rain forest. These are important of course, but they are components of the entire biosphere.

Recently the Whanganui River in New Zealand has been granted the same rights as a human being. Likewise, the government of India has granted legal rights to the Ganges and the Yamuna Rivers. According to an article in The Guardian, this new legal status in India will allow the ” … courts broader scope for intervention in the river’s management.” It remains to be seen how the new status will affect the current practice of discharging raw sewage and industrial waste in to the rivers.

Naturally, this assignment of legal status to rivers is an anathema to right-thinking capitalists or political parties. After all, to the capitalist what is the countryside but a map of interlocking private properties of which on the surface, crops are grown and subdivisions are built. And what is the ground beneath our feet but a cache of mineral resources to “recover” and soil to be farmed to exhaustion as we please.

The concept of private property is sacrosanct in the capitalist countries. Western cultures have evolved very elaborate rules and customs around ownership. Briefly, to own something is to have the exclusive right to use and enjoy an object, land, or intellectual property. The firmament supporting this custom is the existence of an accepted codex of practices and statutes backed by the authority of the state. The thing to note is that ownership relies on cooperation, volunteered or enforced. Ownership is not based on physics. It is a concept that exists only to the extent that there is broad agreement that it not be violated.

In exchange for living in a stable society with career opportunities and lifestyle options, those of us not born into wealth are disinclined to rob or attack those with large fortunes. That is part of civilization. But here is a question. What if an egalitarian and wealthy nation, where comfort and safety is at least possible through hard and steady work, becomes unavailable through machinations by undisclosed self-interested parties?  Like boiling the frog, a slow transition from better times to poorer times may happen without panic and civil unrest.

What happens when well educated young people graduate from college having completed a course of studies also taken by their parents and they find that the career paradigm has changed. In fact, the system of paying for career skills and credentials has changed dramatically in since the 1970’s. Today much more of the cost of higher education has been shifted to the student and family. At one time higher education was viewed as something the state substantially supported. Over time, through competition for students, schools have upgraded their facilities and have added premium offerings in terms of programs staff, and facilities. It is a kind of creeping featurism that organizations are prone to.

If clear thinking citizens are alarmed about this but cannot get the attention of political figures, what are they to do? The indebtedness of college graduates has become a serious threat to their futures. This is a serious societal issue that is not self-healing. How much restraint and respect for the system and the people behind the curtain who run it are they entitled to? I’m beginning to believe that civil disobedience or the threat of it is all we have left.

What has happened more than once in history is that an uprising occurs when an underclass or other aggrieved or marauding groups decide that they will no longer abide by the agreements supporting the ownership of property. One element of the French Revolution giving rise to the overthrow of Louis VXI was that the French aristocracy and clergy were not paying taxes to the King. The state was going bankrupt and food was in short supply.

The Earth-Moon oasis as viewed from Saturn.  Image Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Desperate people did what desperate people will do- they revolted. Heads actually rolled and the establishment fell. The question for the USA, by analogy, is this: what is the limit of tolerance to income inequality and decreasing spending power that the 98 or 99 % of the US population are willing to withstand? As the middle class continues to collapse and wealth continues to accumulate in the hands of a small number of groups, at what point is revolution the only option? Add to this the increasingly remote and inaccessible legislative and executive bodies and you have an established oligarchy or plutocracy that finds itself in a defensive posture.

Are baby boomers an aberration?

Perhaps the post WWII American middle class expansion is the exception to the rule? Maybe great wealth inequality is the natural condition absent something like the baby boom after WWII. I would offer that one of the conditions that was different about the US baby boom period is that the transition from 1930’s technology to 1950’s technology resulting from the war was exceptionally rich in new industrial goods. This period saw the birth of the nuclear industry including power, weapons, materials, mining, propulsion and medicine. Advancements in aviation and aerospace grew dramatically through the war and has kept going to the present day. The invention of the transistor and the television became huge economic drivers as well.

It is good practice to return to fundamentals now and again. The earth is an oasis of life on a wet rock in the vast vacuum of space. Presently, it is the only habitable spot for as far as anyone can see in any direction. We living things are stuck here with nowhere else to go. Plants, animals, insects, birds, and microbes are born, live, and die here. Who is to say that one or other living species should be forced into extinction? Who are humans to thoughtlessly poison or crowd out other living things?

Unfortunately, our species has evolved stories whose passages claim that we have dominion over the earth and its living things. Taken literally this doctrine has given license to ignore the rights of all the other living things. We could sit back and allow habitats to collapse, fresh water supplies to become polluted and scarce, populations to rise, and mindless consumption of resources to accelerate. Or not.

Think about how people perceive the world around them. The atmosphere looks infinite when you direct your gaze upwards. No upper boundary can be viewed. But it is a fact that the 500 millibar level (1/2 atmospheric pressure) of the atmosphere is at 18,000 feet (+/- a bit) in altitude above sea level.  At this altitude, approximately half of the molecules in the atmosphere are at 18,000 ft or below. This altitude is only 2000 ft below the summit of Denali in Alaska. Certainly nowhere near infinity.

Given the reality of the limited depth of half of our atmosphere, anthropogenic warming might seem a little less implausible. Now add to the picture the world-wide loss of land habitat through development, depletion of the fisheries, the recent sharp decline in insect populations, agricultural monoculture, desertification, etc. While people are preoccupied with belligerent politics, exponential economic development, and just their own lives, the biosphere is continually loosing vitality.

These deleterious human-induced trends will eventually self-correct through wars, famine, epidemics, and other unthinkable events. The question is then, what does it take to arrest a slide into a more cruel and uncivilized world?

We can begin by reminding people that a few decades ago a there was a social movement in the US that recognized the merits of resource conservation. Reduced consumption is the only way that we can maintain our advanced civilization in the face of rising global population. More at a later date

 

 

 

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