Tuesday, August 26, 2014

About A Mountain: A Book Report

About A Mountain by John D'Agata is not really about Yucca Mountain, the proposed site of radioactive waste disposal from the nation's nuclear industry. At first I thought it was, but now I'm realizing it's really about the end of things.

(I included the Powell's book review in the link because I really find I don't want to talk so muc about John's book, which I do recommend, but rather on the theme I think he is covering - which is that everything is coming inevitably to an end, and so it's rather absurd to worry about it, or plan overmuch for it).

Yucca Mountain, as D'agata mentions, is probably the most studied piece of real estate on the planet. I don't think the studies were done to determine the safety or efficacy of storing all of that radioactive poison in a secure place for the amount of time it takes for it to become harmless. That amount of time - probably on the order of 250,000 years - is beyond current planning. Yucca was planned for 10,000 years, but that turns out to be basically just a made-up number that a lot of people will accept as "far enough in the future for us not to worry about shit".

Yucca, as far as I can determine, was really about income redistribution. You know, the kind that rich people don't mind at all, where the monies end up in their pockets. How else can you explain so much money wasted on something that was known by any rationally informed human from the get-go to be nothing more than wishful thinking?

Consider 250,000 years ago, humans, depending upon whom you talk to, were just becoming anatomically modern, and were probably already possessed of the majority of what we consider modern mental faculties. They had domesticated fire, had good facility with stone, wood, bone, leather, and rope technologies. They certainly were working on symbolic thought. I don't think any objective evaluator would have a doubt that these bipedal primates would inevitably split the atom.

(Seriously, nuclear fission reactors appeared soon after an oxygenating atmosphere allowed for uranium salts to be accumulated in water percolating through the right kinds of rock, so it's not a stretch to think that a combination of the same ores, charcoal, water, and monkeys would produce the same criticality through informed empiricism, or even brute force trial and error).

Question is, what about 250,000 years into the future? Any ideas? I can think of one. We are extinct. The rate we are going? With the capitalist free market system devouring everything in sight? With, not just an acceleration, but the next derivative up, a shock taking place throughout all areas of human habitation, I'm guessing we don't make it with the current trend.

I'm guessing D'agata is feeling the same way, which is why he treats Yucca as kind of a silly waste of time. At least that's the impression I got.

When you consider that there are already several million tons of radionuclides circulating through Earth's natural systems due to the past near 80 years of dumbfuckery, an estimated 77,000 tons of high level nuclear waste doesn't seem all that important, especially when we won't be around to worry about it?

In summary, a fun book to read, and I enjoyed it.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Glass Studio Shutdown

It occurred to me I've never documented it. The glass furnace has a big ceramic pot inside it where the glass is held. Thus the term pot furnace. Here is the emptying of the pot:

There is a frax (ceramic wool) plug for access to the pot furnace floor. We need to remove excess glass from off the floor prior to shutdown to avoid cracking the floor. The glass is like taffy, and so we use an oxy-propane torch to heat it up and remove the frax plug:

Then it is simply a matter of gathering the excess glass off the furnace floor and dumping it:

Here is a picture from after we were all done. A shaky selfie. I bet you I drank a gallon of ice water that evening:

Friday, August 22, 2014

Junkyard Planet: A Book Report

Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter. Had I read this book when I was sixteen, I have no doubt I would be in the junk business. There is an excitement to the junk trade that I found compelling. No doubt this is the same excitement people on the Antiques Roadshow experience when they find out the piece of the junk in their attic is worth a significant amount of money.

Take, for example, this story about how Leonard Fritz made his fortune and founded one of the largest recycling facilities in the country:
"Back when Leonard Fritz was first starting out, steel mills had dumps where trash and the residues of steelmaking were thrown away. This latter category was represented by sand, bricks, and bits of steel that fell away during the manufacturing process. Of these steel bits, the most plentiful were the thin flakes that form on the surface of hot steel as it cools. "Mill flakes" as those flakes were called, was pretty much useless in 1938....Elsewhere in Detroit, Armco Steel, a major supplier to the automobile industry, was testing a new type of steel furnace. But Armco was dealing with an expensive problem: preparing ore for the furnace cost roughly $100 per ton. So the designer of the new furnace, a metallurgist who happened to be daughter of the mill's president, did some calculations and figured out that if you added a substance with the chemical makeup of mill scale, the preparation process would speed up and the cost would drop by $99 per ton, to $1. But where on earth could Armco get enough mill scale to feed its furnace. For reasons lost to history, the job of sourcing that mill scale landed in the hands of the metallurgist's young husband, who was visiting the Kelsey-Hayes wheel forging plant near Detroit on July 2, 1938. As it happened, Leonard Fritz was busy screening a three-hundred-ton pile of mill scale in the parking lot of the Kelsey-Hayes forging plant that day, working at an agreed-upon rate of $1.25 per ton... 'Ah, how much of that mill scale do you have there young man?' 'I figure there's about three hundred tons.' 'That won't be enough.' 'Well, how much do you need?' 'What I'm looking for is three thousand tons.' Leonard Fritz was only fifteen, but he already knew a few things, one of which was this: there was a dump in Detroit where mills had been dumping scale for years....'I think I can scrape it up. How much would you pay for it?' The metallurgist's young husband hesitated for a moment. 'Probably thirty-two dollars per ton.' Leonard Fritz understandably lost it. 'WHAT?' he exclaimed...'Well, thirty-six.' 'I'll do her.'...a few months later, shortly after his sixteenth birthday, Armco Steel presented Leonard Fritz with a check for $186,000. It was still 1938."
Point being, the "how" and the "where" can send a ragpicker, or anyone really, into the ranks of those with considerable fortunes. The book has a lot of stories like that, and mainly now involving poor Chinese farmers who take America's (the Saudi Arabia of garbage) scrap, and turn into raw materials for the insatiable appetite of the world.

When I was growing up in Northwest Indiana, it was easy money in the steel mills. It was also some of the foulest air you could hope to breathe. That foul air was from the coking process, where they bake the volatiles of out of coal and turn into coke, and the volatiles, in turn, coke gas, are burned to produce a shitty brown haze. That haze - and jobs at the mills - is mostly gone now. Globalization was bad for the employment conditions of the area, but good for the air. Keep in mind, steelmaking didn't go away, it just got more efficient - and when you consider that a ton of scrap converted back into steel in electric furnace equals a ton and a half of iron ore, a ton of coal, and a half ton of limestone, that isn't so bad.

The scrap industry, as this book points out, is one of the greenest industries around. It may be true that a lot of horrible work-place and environmental practices occur in the developed world, where much of the scrap is recycled and purified, but these places have trouble enough just to produce clean food and water. The last thing on many people's minds over there are work conditions. (And besides, as standards of living improve, so does a demand for quality of life and environmental standards).

The majority of the book takes place in China, the majority of the action revolves around metals, and the majority of the capitalist hero characters are Chinese. Not that there are not good things happening here in America, but honestly we are all pampered poodles, not willing to do the dirty work anymore, even when we can profit from it. We have to remember that, if there was no boom in China, most of our crap would end up in landfills here, or burned, or illegally dumped.

Many of our broken things are sent to China, where they are repaired or repurposed, and sent on to the developed world. Part of this reuse is the resourcefulness of people in the developed world, part of this is our own wastefulness, and the distressing tendency of manufacturers to discourage repairs in favor of buying new products (and that can change, but it requires the consumer to demand it).

As Mr. Minter points out, recycling is really not an indefinite process. The quality of product inevitably declines, and so recycling is really outsourcing of trash to somewhere else. What Americans can do, is to follow the other two points on the recycling can: reduce and reuse. Problem is our way of life discourages wearing of hair shirts and the practice of austerity. And so we continue to consume and dispose...

Still, it is better than not using the stuff again and again. When you consider how much energy and effort has been used to extract and purify so many things from the earth, it seems rather a waste to dump them all back in again.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Glen O. Reeser, RIP

My friend Glen passed away yesterday. Here is his obituary. I'm not ashamed to say I got teary-eyed reading it. This is the second friend I've lost to cancer, and it's never gets easy.

In May of 2013, he announced he had Stage Four lung cancer, and tumors in his head. After consideration and debate with his family (his sister had gone through a nightmarish treatment of cancer and died miserably), he opted for treatment. That was a good thing, as he gained an extra year and a half from it, and after treatment when he was feeling OK, he had good year. He went on trips with his wife to places they wanted to go, he got visits from his many friends and family, and visits from his "kids", international students he had hosted over the years.

I actually didn't know Glen all that well. Glen was always was a little restrained. Always had a little formality in his relationships with me (well, so I perceived). It may be because he was a little Scandinavian? (I'm reminded of the joke about the Norwegian husband who loved his wife so much he almost told her).  My grandfather was the same way. There was always, despite some informal events, always a distance in there. Not surprisingly, like my grandfather, I found out after the fact that he was extremely charitable and altruistic and helped out a lot people without their knowing. That's a very high bar for me to work at.

I transported Glen to and from chemo and radiation treatments when my schedule allowed. I also drove him to and from the bar on Thursday nights this spring and summer. (Harper College ceramics night class had a long tradition of after-class drinks and pizza on Thursday night).

I think as a thank you, he built a hot wire device for cutting shapes out of plastic foam. I've never used it, and didn't have the heart to tell him. I guess I'll have to use it. It's really slick.
Glen's Hot Wire Foam Cutter

Glen was a heavy smoker. Since I smoked for thirty-five years, I kind of have that sword of Damocles hanging over my head. Ah, but, probably no. Not in my family history, and they were all heavy smokers.

I recall a time last year when I helped Glen move some e-waste out of his basement for recycling. He was heavily into the chemo stage and had lost all his hair and weight and strength, and so I had to haul all this stuff on my own, which was fine with me. He told me he needed a break and went outdoors. When I hauled up a load to my car, I found him smoking a cigarette, and he looked a little guilty.

"Are you going to give me shit?" he asked.

I replied "You already got lung cancer. What more can happen?"

He was miserable enough as it was. Why try to quit?

I really didn't expect him to make it through last summer.

At the school, I only had to give him grief in a professional capacity once, as lab tech. He was making ceramic drums, and was using goat skin for the drum heads. The goat skins were stored in his locker and were really starting to stink up the place. And so I said to him "Dude! You got to do something about those rank goat skins!" He laughed and got them out.

Glen had a work shop in his basement that included a nice metal lathe. One time he brought in a remarkable little brass device, which he placed on a hot coffee mug, and it oscillated in a very charming way.

"Oh!" I said, "A Sterling Engine!"

He nodded and said nothing, but later I found out from the ceramics professor that he had said "Leave it to Kurman to be the only one to know it was a Sterling engine!"

I puffed up with pride, delighted to be absently complimented by such a smart guy.

And he was a smart guy. And a good guy.

I heard a cop story once about a man who's son was murdered, and he wanted to pray over the body. the cops told him not to do it, because his son's mangled body would be his last memory of him. That's not true. We choose the memory we wish.

So, the memory I have is from two weeks ago, when I went to visit Glen at his house. Glen , my former student aide Scotty, Glen's wife Martha, and Glen's sister Mary Jo all sat on the porch. It was a pleasant warm sunny afterrnoon. We had beers. We had laughs. We had good conversation. Even though he needed a walker, Glen was active, aware, engaged, funny.

Everyone enjoyed themselves, and that afternoon is where Glen will reside for me.

Friday, August 1, 2014

W.I.P.P. and the Texas Shredder

Forgot to mention the other day, I had a desire to visit the Home of the Texas Shredder, which is in Canutillo TX, just north of El Paso. There was no effing way I was even going to bring it up with my honey that we go there, though I (because I do love to go on tours of industrial manufactories if I can get in on them) desperately wanted to see one of my favorite pieces of technology.
Ah, no. Not this Texas Shredder.
THIS Texas Shredder.
I also wanted to visit W.I.P.P. but doubt I could, and so had to satisfied with driving by the place after we went to Carlsbad Caverns. (W.I.P.P. was directly on the drive back to Amarillo).

Now, why would I want to visit a weapons-grade-but-"mixed down" plutonium depository? Surely the twelve-year-old-boy in you can answer that. You will also perhaps remember that W.I.P.P. was in the news earlier this year?

Actually, these items are all within a theme rather unsuccessfully explored some time ago, in two essays: Deep LogisticsThe 100,000 Year Project. I'm not sure that exploration was needed or warranted, as the question about future deep time orientation = deep morality involves something that, as my honey sagely put it to me, is something that requires more than wisdom, a something deeper than wisdom that lies stratigraphically just beneath it, and is certainly connected to biology.

Quite simply, a good start is stewardship: resource management and materials reincarnation.

I point to the Texas Shredder as an example of a solution (recall that once upon a time, scrap cars in the US were a HUGE environmental problem, and probably, without fanfare, the last remnants of that problem were hauled out of the woods in, say 2008 or so, and turned into little tiny recyclable pieces of steel in places like Thailand, China, Kenya...), but also perhaps the very earliest manifestations of the maws of Sneetch Machines.

Surprisingly, and perhaps a result of living a harsh and frugal life, places in the Southwest point in the direction we need to go. Perhaps Texas (and Texas, please, you haven't been a frontier state for a hundred years, so cut the shit already) can start by switching from carbon exploitation to carbon management, and from there to the other elements and compounds.

So, there's that. And then W.I.P.P.? The Union of Concerned Scientists considers the project the best of  nothing but worst alternatives. I'm not sure I agree.

I view the disposal downblending and sequestration of 34 metric tons of plutonium as something that we may regret in a unique way. After all, 34 metric tons of plutonium is extremely useful in the right environment - the outer Solar System. Problem is, the time when that utility is recognized to be useful in thermoelectric generators could be far in the future or never.

But I would prefer, if we are going to think about anything that we, anything that we use, that we think about in the long term rather short-sighted.

I read an excerpt, and as a result, now plan on reading a book called "About a Mountain", by John D'agata.

Surprisingly, it is in the juvenile section of my local library. That's probably a good sign.