Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

30 April 2010

Oil Spill April 30 Update: The Whole Story?

On Yahoo News this morning is yet another story from the Associated Press about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. See the story HERE. One part caught my eye.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara faced questions on all three network television morning shows Friday about whether the government has done enough to push oil company BP PLC to plug the underwater leak and protect the coast.

At a depth of 5,000 feet underwater, you don’t just go down and “plug a leak.” It’s not that simple. No ROV is going to be able to go down there and stick a giant cork in the hole. 5,000 feet is a looooong way down. Go out on some straight stretch of road and look at something a mile away. That’s how far the leak in Mississippi Canyon 252 is from the surface.

In truth, I have no idea how you would go about accomplishing such a task of stopping this leak. But I know that it cannot be easy. Drilling the hole in the first place is hard enough. And I know that nothing will happen quickly. Some reports indicate that it may be as much as 90 days before the leak can be stopped. Let’s hope those making such predictions are being unnecessarily pessimistic so that if it happens in 30 days we’ll all be happy.

Meanwhile, oil continues to leak out every hour of every day.

Watching the local news, I see that the predictions show that the oil will spread out to the east. This is probably due to the strong outflow current from the Mississippi River more than anything else. Below is a graphic I lifted from an online Associated Press article. Sure enough, it shows that one part of the oil slick has now spread eastward beyond the Florida state line. However, there are two factors in where the oil will go from there: water current and wind direction.

From this point, there’s a good possibility that the spill could drift northward to the coast with onshore winds. I hate being a pessimist, but in my mind I can see oil on beaches as far east as Panama City, Florida.

Of course, there’s always a possibility that a strong cold front with north winds could come and push the oil further out into the gulf. There, wave action and the sun would break much of it down.

As a pilot for Petroleum Helicopters, I often saw small oil spills out in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil companies are diligent about not spilling oil but it happens. Even small amounts of oil make a very big mess. If a mechanic on a shrimp boat or workboat does an oil change and the guy tosses the old filter over the side, you can absolutely tell where it lands by the sheen it produces until all the oil percolates out of it.

On a calm day, spills are very apparent, and they linger. They are also easily spotted in rough water, but a funny thing happens: The waves quickly break up the oil to nothingness. But in this case we’re talking about a whole lot more oil. This stuff ain’t going away on its own.

This whole thing is odd. It’s like watching an explosion in slow motion. And as this event progresses, I get the feeling that we’re still not getting the full story.

29 April 2010

Oil Spill April 29 Update: It Gets Worse

We were originally told that the uncontrolled leakage from the well exposed by the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was only about 42,000 gallons (or 1,000 barrels) per day. Today (Thursday) the Coast Guard has come out and said that the figure may be as high as 5,000 barrels per day...which is 210,000 gallons.

It is interesting that the reporting of the spill has subtly shifted to using barrels instead of gallons. "5,000 barrels" sounds a lot better than "210,000 gallons," eh?

Doug Suttles, the Chief Operating officer of BP's Exploration and Production Division initially contradicted the Coast Guard's new estimate. But when pressed on ABC's Good Morning America, he rather dourly admitted that it may indeed be that high. And he should know - they certainly had some idea of the amount of oil in the "payzone" they were drilling into. You can see the interview
here (after the obligatory commercial, of course) if the box below does not show a video.

Robin Roberts does her best to put Mr. Suttles on the spot. He tries to weasel on certain issues. For one thing, he is quick to say that the lease-block that the Deepwater Horizon was in (Mississippi Canyon 252) is owned by "BP and a few other companies." This is probably true, and those partner-companies are keeping a very low profile right now. When Roberts presses him on BP's responsibility for the leak, Suttles tries to directly deflect the blame by saying that Transocean owned and was operating the Deepwater Horizon - almost as if BP had little to do with the overall operation.

Drilling rigs have a device called a "blowout preventer" which is supposed to automatically close off a well in the event of an accident. While the Deepwater Horizon did employ such a device, it did not work in this case. Obvious questions will have to be asked.

Oddly, Suttles also claimed to not know anything about a remote-controlled "acoustic switch" that Roberts made mention of and which is required by other countries (not the U.S.). Wouldn't somebody like Suttles know about such things? But again, Suttles weaseled by saying that the rig had all of the required safety devices. He didn't add (but should have), "...required by the U.S. governing agencies, that is."
HERE is an article in the Wall Street Journal that talks about the "acoustic switch."

You know that everyone and anyone with access to the media has to weigh-in on situations like this. Sure enough, Ron Gouget, the former oil spill response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has come out and said that the burning of oil on the surface should have started *much* earlier. Apparently, the burn plan was pre-approved for just such an eventuality. Gouget seems puzzled as to why the burning wasn't started until the oil slick had already started drifting northward with the wind. Read the article in the Mobile, Alabama PRESS REGISTER newspaper

This is all very interesting to those of us who live along the gulf coast and who are now looking forward to having our beaches befouled by crude oil. I don't know how bad it will be here in Pensacola - we may get lucky. But certainly the Louisiana coastline, and the beaches and barrier islands along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts are going to be..."impacted" as they say, no doubt about it.

Two final thoughts: 1) We can now be sure that any plan to drill for oil off the coast of Florida will surely be shot down. As ol' Bush the First used to say, "not at this juncture." (Or maybe he never actually used that phrase.) 2) In the coming weeks, I'm sure that there will be tourists who drive down to the gulf coast on their vacation and complain that the beaches are spoiled by oil. I wonder how many will note the irony?

28 April 2010

Oil Spill

As someone who worked as a helicopter pilot in the oil support industry for 13 years, and as someone who drives a gasoline-powered car, I have come to view the domestic oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico as “pretty safe,” environmentally. Well that’s all changed now with the explosion and sinking of a drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon that was owned by a company called Transocean LTD and working for British Petroleum (BP).

A quick word about oil production: Normally, you drill a hole in the ground and find the oil. A drilling rig performs this action. Then a “jacket” is placed over the wellhead(s). On this “jacket” will be certain equipment to process and clean the oil to a certain standard before it can be sent into the pipeline to the refinery. Out in the Gulf of Mexico, this process is complicated by the fact that the rigs cannot sit on the seafloor, and it must drill down through water. Holding the rig in an exact position is tricky, depending on the depth of the water. There are various ways to do it.

Transocean's Deepwater Horizon was a semi-submersible drilling rig. The rig structure itself was mounted on huge pontoons which provided flotation as it was towed to the desired location. Once on-site, the pontoons are filled with water, sinking the rig to a predetermined level and stabilizing it in the water. Huge anchor cables fan out from each corner to the seafloor, positively securing the whole mess in one place. “Semis” can drill in incredibly deep water, down to about 10,000 feet.

Above: An example of a semi-submersible rig. Pumping water into the legs will sink the rig down to where the legs turn from gray to orange.

Above: This is the Deepwater Nautilus, the same type and size of rig as the Horizon. It is being transported on a ship (a huge ship!), and the underwater pontoons can clearly be seen.

The Deepwater Horizon was operating in 5,000 feet of water, just beyond what we call the “shelf” in the Gulf of Mexico, where the shallow seafloor near the shoreline suddenly drops off a cliff.

There are supposed to be all sorts of safety devices to prevent the accidental spillage of oil. But that’s difficult when the primary purpose of your equipment is to drill a hole in the ground and you don’t know when/if you’re going to find oil. If the spinning drill-pipe is compromised, the automatic subsurface safety valve (SSSV) might not work. Which is what happened when the Deepwater Horizon blew up on April 10th and subsequently sank.

As I write this, BP is using remote-operated vehicles (ROV’s) in an attempt to manually close the SSSVs. Until they do, and even if they can, uncontained oil flows from the wells at the rate of 42,000 gallons per day. This oil rises to the surface where it forms a big slick. The location of the Deepwater Horizon was just south and east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. What this means is that if the oil slick drifts to the north, it will most likely affect the swampy shoreline of southeast Louisiana, as well as the beaches of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Needless to say, plenty of folks are worried, from environmentalists to those involved in the tourist industry. As you might expect, here in Pensacola we are watching this with particular interest as we could be in the line of fire. It might not be as bad as the Exxon Valdez spill, but it could be a disaster nonetheless for the gulf coast.

If ever there were a worst-case scenario for semi-submersible rigs this is it. BP is blaming Transocean, and to no one's surprise Transocean is blaming BP.

It goes without saying that the best and the brightest minds are looking for ways of containing this oil – not just the stuff on the surface but the oil that is still coming out of the wells at the seafloor level. BP has theorized that they might be able to invent and build some sort of capture device that they could put over the wellheads, and then suck the oil up to awaiting storage/tanker ships on the surface. Trouble is, this has never been tried before. If it worked, it would give them time to drill another, adjacent well so they could then tap into the existing well and seal it off. It gets complicated to explain.

The U.S. Coast Guard is attempting to corral oil at the surface and set fire to it. This actually has been done before, so we’ll see how well it works this time.

All of this leaves me more than a little ambivalent. There are those who call for more drilling in the U.S. in order to end or at least reduce our “dependency” on foreign oil. Me, I’m not so sure. As “safe” as you make something (and BP has a reputation for being one of the most safety-conscious oil companies in the Gulf of Mexico), accidents can and do happen, as we found out on April 10, 2010. We are dependant on cars powered by internal-combustion engines that run on gasoline. This simply will not change much in the near future. Thus, we are necessarily tied to the petroleum industry. For good and for bad.

And as for the mess with the Deepwater Horizon, this is bad.

17 April 2010

Then Came Barbanes (Part I)

Can a television show change your life? In my case one did just that.

In the fall of 1970 I had just turned fifteen. On tv there was a show called "Then Came Bronson." It was about a newspaper reporter in San Francisco named Jim Bronson. Disillusioned by the suicide of a close friend, Bronson quit his job, discarded his old life, “dropped-out” and took off on a red Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle, traveling around the country with just the clothes on his back. No responsibilities, no ties, no job, no mortgage, no nuthin’. Just him and his motorcycle. For money and food, he worked when and where he could. Every week brought him into some new town with new people and a new adventure. (It was sort of like "The Fugitive" without Lt. Gerard chasing him around.)

Talk about freedom! Hoo-man, to an idealistic teenager, it didn't get much more romantic than that. I was hooked.

I had "sort of" been interested in motorcycles up to that point. A guy across the street owned a red and white Honda 350, which seemed like the coolest bike on earth at the time although in reality it was quite small as motorcycles go. Bronson's mighty Sportster on the other hand, was awesomely big!

The producers must have spent a ton of money on “Then Came Bronson.” The episodes were all filmed on-location (i.e. not in an L.A. movie studio) in the states surrounding California (Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado...). How expensive must it have been to send a complete film crew on the road for weeks at a time? Holy cow! That would never happen these days. Few shots were done indoors. Many episodes had helicopter aerial shots! What must that have cost?! It's curious that so much money must have been spent on a show that only lasted one season: twenty-six episodes in all (plus the two-hour movie pilot). NBC must have had money to burn back then.

Publicity shot from the made-for-tv movie costarring Bonnie Bedelia.

Granted, Michael Parks was not exactly a major movie star commanding high pay, but he had appeared in a few noteworthy things. And he did ride motorcycles, which helped. And he did sing too, which also helped. Many of the episodes featured songs from his albums (all three of which I bought, of course). And a song of his played over the closing credits, one that became something of a minor Top-40 radio hit (and one that still gets played regularly on XM Radio's 70’s Channel). You may even remember it…

Going down that long, lonesome highway
Bound for the mountains and the plains
Sure ain't nothing here gonna tie me
And I got some friends I'd like to see again

Aside from his riding/singing qualifications, Parks was a peculiar choice to play Bronson. For one thing, he subscribed to the James Dean school of acting - which meant he mumbled and shuffled his way through scenes, relying on shrugs, grunts, farts, and the occasional microscopically raised eyebrow to convey emotion. He must have been a nightmare for Directors. The dialogue, what little there was of it, was often incoherent and/or incomprehensible. You'd find yourself turning the volume all the way up and yelling at the screen, "WHAT? SPEAK UP, DAMMIT!" It was aggravating – oh, man was it aggravating! Television shows shouldn't be that hard to watch. And "Then Came Bronson," to be honest, was.

My brothers and sisters made fun of Bronson unmercifully. But to me the character was the epitome of cool. He was a sensitive and philosophical loner, with a laconic sense of humor and a good understanding of people. Still, he was highly opinionated and was not shy about sharing them. He could fix anything - a stretch, considering that he was a sensitive (ahem) writer from (ahem) San Francisco. (The back-story was that he grew up on a farm.) Aside from the requisite leather jacket, Bronson’s uniform in every episode was a dark blue t-shirt, a pair of corduroy pants, sunglasses and his ubiquitous Navy "watch cap." He was not exactly your typical leading man.

"Bronson" was a clean show. You would never imagine the protagonist doing or dealing drugs, as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper did in the dreadful movie, "Easy Rider." (In a recent radio interview, Parks still referred to Fonda's co-star as "Dennis Hop-head.") No, Bronson was a loner/pacifist drop-out who eschewed violence and almost never raised his voice in anger. Not a bad role model, actually.

What was puzzling about the show was the lack of plot. Many episodes had no discernable plot at all. Bronson would roll into someone's life (usually a pretty girl - sometimes two!) at a critical point, and then spend the next 55 minutes mumbling and shuffling as the situation just sort of resolved itself. Or didn't. There were no car chases, no explosions, no shootouts...no real "drama" of any kind. Just Mr. Mumbles and his rumbling Harley Sportster escape vehicle. The end of every "Bronson" show had him riding off into the sunset like some modern-day cowboy, leaving the audience wondering, "Was there a point to that?" Hey, I say that and I'm a fan! I guess the show was supposed to be the opposite of the car-chase/action genre.

Here's a little three-minute clip of the pilot movie. It's the final scene. Here's the set up:

Bronson ditches his former life and heads out on the road. Right off the bat (as happens in real life), he runs into Bonnie Bedelia, who is herself running away from...something unexplained ("a life of privilege and wealth" is only implied). He lets her ride along with him. They roam around for days, from California to New Orleans and, get this, he never even finds out her name! Yeah, right. (Ah, the wacky, free-wheeling '60s!) Throughout the movie they endure a tense, awkward "relationship" of sorts. She is surly and non-communicative, yet demanding. Why Bronson keeps her around is anyone's guess - it never makes sense. (And it's not the sex: He clearly doesn't want it and neither does she.) They get into a bad crash which lands Bronson in the hospital with major burns. When he is finally released, he sees that she has rebuilt his bike to showroom condition. Bronson is overcome with joy and gratitude. We join them at their tearful, emotional good-bye...

Odd ending, no? You keep expecting one of them to SAY SOMETHING. Like, "Hey, thanks for the ride, bub, but I'm going back to my rich life now," or, "Hey, thanks for rebuilding the bike, babe." You know, the stuff NORMAL people would say. But noooooo....

All of the episodes and the pilot movie are available on DVD (which I bought, naturally). It's interesting to watch them now where you can pause and go back (or skip through the boring parts). It's great seeing the shows again.

"Then Came Bronson" made a big impression on me. It sparked my passion for motorcycles (which burns still), and planted the seeds for cross-country camping trips. I swore that one day I would have a red Harley-Davidson Sportster and one day I would quit my job and chuck it all and roam around the country, free as a bird, meeting people and solving (or not solving) their problems.

Teenagers do like to dream.

16 April 2010

The Efficiency of General Aviation

Scooter said, “I’m trying to get the lat/long coordinates of that site for you.” Scooter is the new manager who’s been hired to oversee all of our mobile home dealerships. We were putting together a two-day round-robin trip of five of our “stores” in Alabama. The site he was referring to is that of a store we’re thinking of opening in a new city.

I thought about it for a bit, and then said, “Never mind the lat/long. Just get me the street address. I’ll Google it.” Or Bing it. Or Mapquest it. All three internet services have satellite views available that you can zoom in pretty damn close. Google has a “street view” feature which takes you down and shows pictures taken from a car or truck that apparently drove along every street in America. Alternatively, MSN/Bing maps has a neat “Bird’s Eye” view feature which shows pictures taken from a low-flying airplane. The detail from both is incredible.

In the old days, finding the location of a “site landing” was an iffy thing. Latitude and longitude coordinates were offered, but they were not always accurate. The proliferation of personal GPS’s helped greatly, but there’s a catch. Aviation charts are marked in degrees, minutes and seconds while many GPS’s inexplicably read in degrees, tenths and hundreds of minutes (unless deliberately selected to read degrees/minutes/seconds). It can be confusing.

Anyway, we got the address. I went on the internet and printed out aerial pictures of the likely site, then I plotted it on my aeronautical sectional chart (correctly, as it turned out), and we flew right to it. The site was exactly like the picture. Easy as cake. You’ve gotta love new technology. It makes my job so easy.

The whole two-day trip was a lot of fun. We visited three stores on Tuesday, then overnighted in Birmingham, Alabama. Next morning, we flew to the potential new site, and then to our dealership in Dothan, which is the only store at which we cannot land on the premises and have to use the nearby airport. Eh- by then I had to get fuel anyway.

Since our dealerships are spread out all over the state, the whole trip would have taken three days if Scooter had to drive. The helicopter made it possible to do it in either one long day or two easy ones. I think it’s really cool when we can use the helicopter in the way it was designed and intended: Point to point, land where you need to be.

It might seem ostentatious to some, but the helicopter is an incredibly useful and powerful business tool. The image of general aviation (i.e. all non-airline flying) has taken some hits recently. The debacle created by the “Big Three” automakers gave the country the impression that business jets were nothing but frivolous, luxury perks for the rich. But that’s far from the truth. The airlines simply do not always go where you need to go, when you need to go there. What all “business aircraft” do is save an enormous amount of time while increasing productivity immensely. And a helicopter is an awesome business aircraft, even our “little” Bell 206.

So instead of a grueling three-day business trip, Scooter arrived home to his wife and daughters by five p.m. of the second day. Only one night spent on the road. He was happy, and I was happy that we could demonstrate how convenient and efficient the helicopter can be.

07 April 2010

The Future of Computers

I'm assuming everyone knows what the iPad is. You'd have to be holed-up in a cave to have missed all the hoopla surrounding its introduction. Many claims have been made about the device - mostly about how it will free us from carrying around our bulky, cumbersome laptop computers all the time. And hey, I'm all for that!

Here's the commercial for the iPad.

To keep the iPad pricepoint low, Apple left off some important things. Like a camera. And a USB port. And a card reader. Nevertheless, the faithful will likely buy every one. Steve Jobs will get even wealthier. If that's possible.

It is natural to assume that the market for these "tablet" type of devices is going to heat up and get competitive.

Hewlett-Packard makes an awesome touch-screen desktop computer called the
"Touchsmart 300z." Everything is contained in one huge monitor, so there's no conventional tower cluttering up the floorspace. Simple. Clean. Uncluttered. $800. My boss has a couple of these, and they are so incredibly easy to use. You hardly need a keyboard or mouse anymore. And if you do, they are both wireless, as they should be.

H-P has decided to market a tablet similar to the iPad. It's called the Slate. Having more time to develop it, H-P addresssed the shortcomings of the iPad and did Apple one or two better. For now.

Check out this promo:

I love the docking station that it slides into.

Here is the story on the Slate from Yahoo News.

I love new technology, especially when it makes my life easier. These new tablet computers are awesome. I wasn't crazy about the iPad when it was introduced. But the Slate? I want one!

06 April 2010

Just Say No

“Wanna take the mountain bikes out?”

We were sitting on Matt’s back deck, post-breakfast, enjoying the beautiful Sunday morning. I almost did a spit-take with my coffee. “Taking the mountain bikes out” was about the last thing I wanted to do. Go back to bed? That was probably the first.

I should’ve just said no and left it at that. Mountain bikes? Please, I'm 55, not a kid anymore. And another thing, it’s been a looooong time since I’ve been on a bicycle - or more accurately done any exercise of any sort. I get winded walking to the mailbox and back – and it’s, like, twenty feet each way (although the return is uphill). I’m so out of shape I can’t even jump to conclusions. When you open the dictionary to the phrase “sedentary lifestyle” there’s a picture of me. I think a four-hour after-dinner nap is just a prelude to a good night’s sleep.

So I really should’ve just said no. But Matt had that look on his face when he really, really wants to do something badly.

“See, there’s this park…and it’s got these lakes…and one of them has a paved trail around it, and the other has a hiking trail but you can ride bikes on it… And it’s really pretty…You’d like it.”

“Uhhhh yeaaaah, that sounds like fun,” I allowed…err, lied.

But really, what else did we have to do? I was up in Atlanta, visiting Matt and Alisha for the weekend. The weather was absolutely stinking gorgeous. We could have just stayed on his back deck, drinking Rum and Cokes and hanging out until it was time for me to go back to Pensacola. And I would’ve been fine with that. Although I am in many ways a typical “Type A” personality I am often perfectly content to just sit there and contemplate my navel. Which I can hardly see any more. Matt, on the other hand always needs to be doing something. Like riding stupid mountain bikes. Yes, stupid mountain bikes.

Back in the day...you know, ten years ago, he and I used to do all kinds of fun stuff like that. We were riding and hiking and camping fools. Now we’re both older and heavier…a lot heavier…and we can only dream of the healthy, strapping, Greek gods we used to be. He’s closer to it than I, of course, being younger. Okay, I lied, I was never really Greek godlike. But I don’t have to tell you that. I’ve loved and drank beer for far too long. Six-pack abs? Hah. My belly resembles the whole keg whereas Matt’s – at least at one point some time ago – was…maybe…a four-pack. But not anymore.

But hey, I gotta give him credit - Matt intends to work out at least once a week. And by that I mean he pretends to work out once a week. More often than not he and his neighbor-slash-workout buddy Joe never make it all the way to the gym, especially if they have to stop at one of those dad-blamed red lights along the route - which just kills the incentive, you know? So instead they (and don’t tell Alisha!) detour into a sports bar called the Hail Mary where the only workout they get is from the strenuous lifting of glasses of Long Island Ice Tea from the counter to their cakeholes.

So anyway, this past Sunday morning while most of the world was in church celebrating the rebirthday of Christ, we two heathens loaded the mountain bikes into my Jeep and headed to Tribble Mill County Park. And it was just as Matt described. Easy trails, relatively flat, really pretty, lots of shade. No heart-attack for Bob (we stopped a lot). And I did not crash (we went slow). Which was something of an Easter miracle. I must’ve looked like one of those circus bears-on-a-bicycle. With a baseball cap.

Tribble Mill is a great, big park (800 acres), and we had it pretty much to ourselves at first. But oh boy did it get crowded! After doing the two loops…a couple-three, four miles…we loaded up and got out of there. Great park but it’s not exactly Gwinnet County’s best-kept secret.

By mid-afternoon we were back on Matt’s deck, enjoying Rum and Cokes and grilling some great steaks. Hey, if God didn’t intend for us to eat animals, why did he make them taste so damn good? Alisha made some wonderful spaghetti squash, and some roasted asparagus, and some mashed ‘taters (and gravy, of course), and some black-eyed peas, and… And any calories burned off earlier in the day were more than made up for with supper. It was oh-my-God good. Even I would come back from the dead for a meal like that! (Matt often tells me, “You’re going to hell,” and I can almost see him mouthing those words as he reads that last sentence.)

The bike ride had been fun, I'll admit it. But part of being an adult is knowing when and where to say no. I should have exercised that privilege while I was up in Atlanta. Yes, that’s the only exercise I should have done.

So now, dammit, I’ve got to get my own bike out, air up the tires and start riding again…you know, keep the momentum going so I can (hopefully) lose some of this weight. Because next time I go up to visit, I’m sure Matt will have some other cockamamie thing he wants to do that will involve risk or exertion...and maybe both. And, as usual, I won't be smart enough to say no.