Category Archives: Science, Engineering and Technology

Christians aren’t supposed to know anything about this. But they do.

Revisiting the Adventure of Offshore Oil

It may seem that posts on this blog are slowing down, but elsewhere it’s another story.  There are actually four sites to this “family” and one of them, vulcanhammer.info, is being moved to WordPress hosting.  (The other two, vulcanhammer.net and Chet Aero Marine, were moved around the first of the year.)

Moving a site that large is a major task, especially with all the photos and documents.  It’s had to be done pieces; the piece that’s just been completed is Vulcan: the Offshore ExperienceMy brother said that it was the “experience of a lifetime,” and I’m inclined to agree with him.  There’s a lot of history in offshore oil, history that’s not well-known, and that was one of the reasons the series was first put up in 2003.  I want to focus on two aspects in particular: offshore oil as a form of “inner space” and how years in the industry is a cure for much of the conventional wisdom that plagues our “deep state” types and their hangers-on these days.


To its credit, the oil industry likes to recount its history.  There’s an entire museum in Galveston dedicated to the history of offshore oil, and it’s definitely worth the visit.  The involvement of my family business, Vulcan Iron Works, was primarily in the platform installation segment of the business, and for a long time it got the short shrift in the story.  That’s been remedied to some degree, and I think the contribution of the construction side of the industry is getting its due.

It’s easy, with all the really large coastal projects out there, to forget just what a challenge it was to fabricate and build platforms to extract oil offshore.  Onshore oil had advanced technologies such as deep drilling and geophysical exploration methods, and these had spin-offs in the construction industry.  But offshore, with conventional platforms sometimes exceeding 300 m in depth, it was necessary to develop advanced fabrication and installation techniques.  Without the benefits of directional/horizontal drilling and underwater completion, that meant lots of platforms to the surface, and the Gulf of Mexico–on both the American and Mexican sides, I might add–was a busy place in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  These projects helped to advanced the technology of construction in many ways which still benefit construction not only of large onshore and marine projects but also for offshore wind farms.

The Gulf, however, along with Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf, were relatively easy places to build and install platforms compared to the North Sea.  The Europeans “drew the short straws” in finding oil in a place as challenging to do anything as the North Sea, especially in the area between Scotland and Norway where much of the oil was located.  But thanks to their lack of easily accessible onshore oil deposits (before fracking) and the unstable situation in the Middle East, they had little choice.  Facing a harsh environment coupled with a short construction season, another set of new technologies were developed or improved, including gravity platforms, improved safety equipment in marine environments, quick connectors for pile add-ons, finite element analysis for earth structures, and underwater pile driving.

Although most of these technologies are unfamiliar to most people, they contribute to the improved standard of living that many take for granted.  The outer space program contributed to the advance of general technology and science, and so did the “inner space” program of offshore oil.


Bringing up the Europeans leads one to consider the relationship of their governments to the enterprise.  Like most industries in the US, the oil industry operated in the legal framework with a minimum of government direction.  The Minerals Management Service was the chief agency of interest, but otherwise the enterprise was pretty much self-funded and directed.  When countries such as the UK, Norway and the Netherlands got involved, it was a different story.  We’d see their national exhibits at the Offshore Technology Conference, we’d wonder why this was necessary and sometimes thought their method was mad.

But there was method in their madness.  For one thing, as Dr. Adel Rizkalla of McDermott explained to my brother and me in 1980, their idea was to stretch out the extraction of oil and not only prevent overwhelming their economy with the revenue (something we’d soon learn the virtue of the hard way,) but also to offer benefits from that revenue for a longer time and for a great good to the country.  For another, their approach was part and parcel with the European concept of industrial policy.  Implicit in that approach is that the oil industry was of value to the country.  We’d soon find out that this was better than the alternative, a country whose ruling elites believed that the oil industry was an existential threat to them.

Vulcan 3100 hammer installing piles for Exxon’s Hondo platform off of Santa Barbara, California. In 1752 Bishop Erich Pontippidan noted that “The North Sea has a curious property. In addition to its salinity it also possesses oiliness. It is likely that here or there the sea, just as the earth, ejects oil flows, or streams of petroleum, naptha, sulphur, coal tar and other bituminous and oily juices.” Similar things were noted off of California, without the offshore drilling that is supposed to be the sole cause of this.

Offshore oil came into the big picture in the 1960’s, at the same time that the American left first let out the primal scream which has echoed down the halls of history to the present time.  They first tried to put the stall on the leasing process, an on-again, off-again process that only delayed the advance of offshore oil in Louisiana and Texas.  They did manage to keep it out of the rest of the East Coast and eventually got it shut down in California.  The environmental movement was a large part of that; as happened with manufacturing, the oil industry has had to improve its techniques to prevent environmental impact, and that’s another place where the North Sea experience was helpful.

But it was more than the environment that drove the left against the oil industry; it was their other pet peeve, suburbia.  Suburbia wouldn’t exist without oil, not only because of the automobile and commuting, but also because of the economic development that made suburbia possible.  The two were part of a fork that has stuck in the left’s craw for more than half a century, and as the left oozed its way into the nation’s intelligentsia, the potential for the oil industry to hit the wall in the US increased.

Not that there weren’t alternatives.  The most serious was nuclear power, which if it had been implemented on a relative scale to the French, could have solved most of the balance of payments problem and avoided the costly wars we’ve fought in the Middle East.  But that was (and is) unacceptable to most of the environmental community, and in any case would only perpetuate suburbia.

The left’s hope of high prices for a commodity in short supply–the shortness enhanced by their regulatory and legal efforts–never quite panned out; the oil and gas industry has proven more resilient than they thought.  And the forward march of technology, even in the industry’s lean years, has helped.  We got directional drilling and subsea completions, which reduced the cost of offshore oil.  But the biggest game changer has been fracking, which found the left “asleep at the switch” to stop.  It has shifted hydrocarbon based energy towards natural gas, at one time a “luxury” fuel, which is much cleaner to burn.  As a result the need for coal or offshore oil has been reduced, turning the U.S. to become a net fossil fuel energy producer for the first time since the days of the primal scream.

Offshore crews generally worked twelve hour on/twelve hour off for two weeks at a stretch. There was thus some idle time offshore; one favourite pastime was fishing. Derrick barge crews discovered what environmentalists hate to admit: offshore platforms are natural habitats for all kinds of fish and other marine life, which made for good fishing. Welding wire was a favourite type of fishing line, though other materials would get the job done too.

Today we find Europeans following the siren sound against nuclear power and fracking, leaving the wisdom of the past generation behind and embracing yet another American neurosis.  Many of the platforms which helped bring this oil out of the sea floor are being dismantled, their field lives ended; some are left as artificial reefs for fishing, another one of those unintended consequences.  Offshore oil isn’t what it used to be, but it set the stage for better things, and made life good when it was possible, and for that it should be remembered positively.

Another Good Reason Why They Filmed Lord of the Rings in New Zealand

It seems that it, too, is the residual of a sunken continent:

In a paper published in the Geological Society of America’s Journal GSA Today in February, researchers made the case that it should be considered a new continent.

They said it was a distinct geological entity that met all the criteria applied to Earth’s other continents, including elevation above the surrounding area, distinctive geology, a well-defined area and a crust much thicker than that found on the ocean floor.

Covering 1.9 million square miles, it extends from south of New Zealand northward to New Caledonia and west to the Kenn Plateau off Australia’s east.

Readers of The Silmarillion will recall that, after the First Age, most of the western land mass of Middle Earth sunk into the sea.  Places like the Grey Havens, a port for the departure of the Fellowship to the Undying Lands, were very landlocked in the First Age.

So, when Peter Jackson and his troupe were filming the Lord of the Rings, they too were closer to a sea coast then they would have been long ago…

New Series on vulcanhammer.net: STADYN Wave Equation Program

We’re starting a new series on the companion site vulcanhammer.net about the STADYN wave equation program.  This may be a little arcane for most readers of this blog, so it will be over there.

The first installment, however, concerns using a very old language (FORTRAN 77) to generate HTML code, which of course appears on just about every web page out there that isn’t a pdf file.  So the interest may be a little more general…for now.

Enjoy!

Prevention is Still the Best “Kill Switch” for Malware

A very ingenious solution to a very serious problem:

An “accidental hero” has halted the global spread of the WannaCry ransomware, reportedly by spending a few dollars on registering a domain name hidden in the malware.

The ransomware has wreaked havoc on organizations including FedEx and Telefonica, as well as the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), where operations were cancelled, x-rays, test results and patient records became unavailable and phones did not work.

However, a UK cybersecurity researcher tweeting as @malwaretechblog, with the help of Darien Huss from security firm Proofpoint, found and activated a “kill switch” in the malicious software.

But it’s important to note that Microsoft had released a patch against this malware back in March.  Microsoft, for all the jibes it takes from the digital community, has made updating its software just about as seamless as it can get.  And I haven’t run into the dreaded “this software worked until the update and then…” problem in a long time.  (I actually run Windows, MacOS and Linux on my various machines.)  Either the NHS’ admins didn’t have their machines set to automatically update or they’re still running XP and Vista.  As good of an operating system as XP is, it’s just too vulnerable to keep it online, especially in a network situation.

Lesson: make sure you’ve got your automatic updates working, in addition to the anti-virus software.  Backing up is also important, but with ransomware the hostage files can get into your backup system before you can stop it.

One more thing: the Guardian told us that the UK based researcher “spent a few dollars” registering the domain name.  Have some pride in your currency; “dropped a few quid” would have been better.  (Unless, of course, he was a Remain supporter and used Euros, or a Bitcoin fan…)

So What Will We Do When We Don’t Have to Think?

In this article about my friend Ethan Hereth, the following:

Like others before me, I have the perception that the education of quality engineers in the field of CFD has been falling short recently. It feels to me like there are very few engineers in this arena that grok CFD like many of the founding fathers and engineers of CFD did before us. I feel that the latest generations of CFD engineers have become used to applications that do much of the work, often shielding them from having to really understand the underlying concepts.

That perception has been around a long time.  Forty years ago when I was in the aerospace industry and working for Texas Instruments, I developed some software (had to write the code for it in this language) which automated some of our analysis work.  My boss was impressed with the results, but asked the question: what will happen when we just let the computer do all the work and we dummies just look at the results it spits out without knowing how they were produced?  My answer was that those of us working on the code know, but those who come after are the ones we have to be concerned about.

Well, as we used to say at Texas A&M, next year is here.  Most people who use technology today–and that includes some people in the STEM fields–have no clue how computers do their work, how the answers are arrived at, the theory behind their methods, or how easy it is for bugs (and security flaws) to get into the code that makes the software work.  The result is that, while the computer should make us smarter, the reality is the opposite effect.

The place where fixing that problem starts is in STEM education and the way we look at computers.  We need to get away from the accepted point of view of STEM education as people learning to push buttons in software they use, and we need to teach people how to code, even at the most elementary level.  One of my math professors observed that coding was a form of mathematical proof, and that in turn teaches you how to think.  But that skill is in short supply in our educational system, and if you think the results are not pretty now, just wait until “next year.”

Losing Our Edge in High Performance Computing?

Our Department of Energy and National Security Agency would like for you to believe this:

As China, the US and Japan near the finish line in exascale race, the DOE and NSA are sounding the alarm that the United States is at grave risk of losing its dominant position in high performance computing. According to the assessment of the two agencies, “absent aggressive action by the US – the US will lose leadership and not control its own future in HPC.”

That is the primary conclusion of a report based on a technical meeting between representative of those two agencies held in September 2016. The document, titled U.S. Leadership in High Performance Computing (HPC), A Report from the NSA-DOE Technical Meeting on High Performance Computing, describes how the United States has been losing ground to the Chinese, who appear to be determined not just to win the race to exascale, but to usurp the role of the US as the global leader in high performance computing technology.

But it’s not quite that simple:

As we recently wrote in an article about the state of Chinese supercomputing, they are not as advanced as their top systems would lead you to believe. In the US, there seems to be a distinct tendency to over-hype Chinese supercomputing achievements. Whether that is a reflection of a “grass is always greener” syndrome, is the result of losing supercomputing hegemony in a rapidly democratizing industry, is a tactic to draw in more US government investments into HPC, or is a legitimate analysis, remains to be determined.

HPC is an important part for scientific and technological advance.  Probably the US’ falling behind in this field has its greatest general interest in weather forecasting, as I discussed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, where we have taken a back seat to the, er, Europeans for some time.  It’s interesting to note that the previous Occupant didn’t do much to change that situation, although he was labelled the “scientific President.”

That, of course, is part of the problem: we don’t elevate people with scientific backgrounds to leadership positions in the government. (The Chinese, and many others, do.)  That’s ingrained in our culture, and fortified by the distinctly Luddite 1960’s.  As long as that is the case, we will be forced to present our ideas as dogma and not science, which is what’s taking place in today’s “March for Science.”

Relative to that, there are other questions.  What’s unscientific about the Chinese (or anyone else) getting advanced capabilities?  Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the Chinese, who have pushed STEM education with their people to degrees unimaginable here, would get this result?  Or anyone else?  Why should we have a monopoly on this?  Why don’t some of our people just emigrate like theirs, if this place is so “unscientific?”  Perhaps the “March for Science” should be called the “March for Academic Patriotism,” although the rest of the campus would go bonkers if they did that.

The road to dominance in HPC is a long one, and not particularly straight.  It’s like my description of the arc of justice: it is not necessarily smooth, continuous, or differentiable.  For a field which is all about binary thinking, the results of change can be complex and have unexpected outcomes.  But if we spent as much time inducing significant systemic changes in our own system and not constantly playing the “blame and shame” game, we’d be further down the road to solve our HPC “fading glory” problem.

HT Pointwise.

An Anglican Divine Gets the Point

Growing up at Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church was my first exposure for the rector to have an earned doctorate.     That exposure came from Hunsdon Cary, who “oversaw” the beginning of the Church Mouse resale shop and whose relatives got the property boot from Jon Bruno.  This has generally not been the case with the churches I have haunted since that time.

St. Michael’s Church, a charismatic Anglican church in Chattanooga, TN, is graced with the Rev. Dr. C. Bruce Hilbert as a permanent deacon.  Recently Pointwise, a firm in Dallas that specialises in grid generation, featured Bruce on their blog as a user of their software, and congratulations are in order.

But that in turn brings up another point: Bruce’s doctorate is in Computational Engineering, the same as mine.  For those of you who are getting nervous about stuff like this, it’s a relief.  Bruce is one of those Anglican divines who gets the point in every sense of the word, because we all know what happens when church becomes pointless.

Soils in Construction, Now at Waveland

It’s official: the construction management textbook Soils in Construction, Fifth Edition by W.L. Schroeder, S.E. Dickenson and D.C. Warrington is now at Waveland Press. As someone who has dealt with contractors for his entire working career, I know that an understanding of the essentials of soil mechanics and foundations is crucial for successful–and profitable–completion of […]

via Soils in Construction, Now at Waveland — vulcanhammer.net

What College Used to Look Like, and a History of Tau Beta Pi

What a “college man” used to look like, in this case my grandfather, C.H. Warrington, who is at the right. He started out at the University of Illinois but ended up at Lehigh, where he graduated with a Civil Engineering degree in 1912. (It was another eighty-five years before a member of the family would obtain another civil engineering degree.)

Lehigh is best remembered in engineering academia as the birthplace of Tau Beta Pi, the premier engineering honour fraternity, and gave the fraternity its seal brown and white colours. However, my grandfather wasn’t the Tau Beta Pi type, let alone a member; he was more comfortable with what was referred to as the “Gentlemen’s C.” My experience teaching has informed me that the Gentlemen’s C is very much alive and well in engineering!

Tau Beta Pi

Speaking of engineering’s premier honour fraternity, below is an account of the founding of Tau Beta Pi, from the 1912 Epitome, Lehigh’s yearbook (pp. 199-200):

THERE exist in the college world three well-known societies, membership in which signifies college honor, in the manifestation of high scholarship. They are Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi and Tau Beta Pi. The first of these finds its membership in the men pursuing literature and the arts. The second selects its men from those who have shown distinction in the sciences and who have performed some research work. The last, Tau Beta Pi, of which we write, enrolls the honor men in engineering courses. Of the three Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest, having been founded in 1776, while the dates of founding of the other two were separated by only one year-Tau Beta Pi, 1885, and Sigma Xi, 1886. The existence of Tau Beta Pi is owed to Prof. Edward H. Williams, Jr., an alumnus of Yale and of Lehigh where he became Professor of Mining Engineering and Geology. The motives leading to and the circumstances attending the formation of this society are interesting and worthy of record in a book of this nature.

As valedictorian of the class of 1875 at Lehigh, Prof. Williams had been elected an honorary member of the Sigma (New York) chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and was anxious for the establishment of a chapter of that society here. There were, however, two obstacles standing in the way, first, the fact that the council, in whose hands the granting of charters lay, met only once in six years, and, second, the strong objection in Phi Beta Kappa against the admission of technical men into its membership. Owing to the highly technical character of Lehigh’s courses the likelihood of an establishment of a chapter here was very slight and even with a charter granted the membership would be confined to a very small number.

Prof. Williams was aware of the necessity for the recognition of a man’s ability other than the diploma which he received, and further that the recognition should be given while the man was still at college, and not as he was just passing out through her portals. The attitude which some men had towards a diploma can best be shown by the following incident: As the valedictorian of one of the ’80 classes came from the stage after graduation Prof. Williams congratulated him, to which he received the reply” …… ‘s got one too.” The fellow in question had flunked every examination in his four years of college. There was no limit to re-examinations in those days and he had taken enough until he had passed.

These were the motives leading to the formation of the society. The details of organization are briefly given as follows: Prof. Williams’ conception of the society was that its membership should be taken from those men whose grades showed them to be in the first quarter of the class. Their rating must be above 75% and they must have no conditions. In practice this was to work as follows: At the end of their Junior year the men standing in the first eighth of their class became eligible for election and at the beginning of the Senior year the first quarter of the class became eligible. The election of these men, however, was not to be on the basis of scholarship alone but in addition the men must possess high morals, qualities of good fellowship, and manifest a healthy interest and rational participation in college activities.

To start such a society so that election into it would be sought and so that its .establishment would be firm and give promise of vigorous growth was a matter requiring much careful work. How this was accomplished is best told in Prof. Williams’ own words, and we quote from a letter from him on the subject, giving the Editor of the EPITOME this information on request.

” …… Now, too many cooks spoil the broth of society building; so I decided to take nobody into my confidence. I knew what I wanted and I went to work alone.

“I first drew up a constitution and provided for granting new chapters, for an executive council, and for alumni advisers to act as a balance wheel to keep things going in line, and I made it hard to amend this instrument. I then drew up By-laws for Lehigh.

“Next, there must be a body of alumni behind the affair before the first undergraduate was let in. I delivered the valedictory for ’75 and so was eligible to the society. I took the old faculty records and calculated the standing of every man who graduated, during his four years; drew up a list of the men in the order of their stand. They must be in the first fourth of the class and also have a general average of 75. Having the eligible men of the past, I had Edwin G. Klose, of the Moravian Book Concern, buy a series of special fonts of type, which are now in the possession of the society, a lot of electrotypes of the society key, and some other matter and print a lot of diplomas. . ….. I signed them as secretary, to which office I elected myself. The answers I received from the boys were refreshing. One valedictorian said he would value it more than his diploma.

“Then I had my friend Newman, of John St., New York, file out a society key, to see how the thing looked. Then I was ready for the undergraduates. I went slowly, however, and it was May, 1885, before I told Irving A. Heikes, the best man in ’85, to stop after recitation, one morning, and asked him if he would like to be the first undergraduate to join a society. He wanted to think it over, and finally said ‘Yes,’ so I initiated him. He took post-graduate work, I think, and in the fall he and Professor Meaker, who helped me initiate the classes for several years, and Duncan, ’80, initiated the men from ’86 and the Wilbur man from ’87.

“For several years I was elected president of the society and directed the body till it began to have a good number of alumni and many representatives in the Faculty. It took like hot cakes and soon its elections were looked for. “I wanted to have Tau Beta Pi in full blast before Phi Beta Kappa came, as it would not then be looked upon as an imitation by a lot of men who could not get into the latter. In deference to the general tradition I limited the membership in Phi Beta Kappa to students in the liberal courses, and I had the charter given to a council of a few graduate members, Mr. Kitchel, Albert G. Rau, myself and a few others.

“This is the way Tau Beta Pi came to Lehigh. It was the culmination of a lot of work covering four years. I could not give as much time to it as I wanted, owing to the growth of my department. Breckenridge was elected an honorary member. Heck became president and a ‘member of the advisory board, and then it began to form chapters outside. While the founding is wholly my own unassisted work, the spread is due to others …….. “

In June, 1910, the society had a membership of 3680 divided among 24 flourishing chapters, located at institutions of acknowledged leadership in the instruction of engineering. The twenty-fifth anniversary was celebrated here at Lehigh last June and the attendance and enthusiasm in connection with the convention gave every evidence of the solidity and prestige of Tau Beta Pi. J. L. B.