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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Another day of it!

I fueled up the bike this morning. Pushed the wrong friggin button and selected premium. Crap like that happens when you're running behind at 4:45 in the morning. Man! Who would have thought it would cost almost fifteen bucks to fuel up a friggin motorbike??? Yeah right the Fed's got inflation under control! LOFL. In another 10 years it'll take $150 to fill that bike up.

Another busy day at work. The plant is still shut down for the weekend. A logic and controls guy came up from corporate HQ to try to figure out why our fuel gas heating controls were so whacked out. In order for him to do that we had to fill the boilers and run the pumps that push water through them.

Fortunately the problem is ongoing, so he was able to observe it firsthand. He thinks it's blockage in the system, and I tend to agree. Night shift might take the valve apart if they have time tonight. They have to commence start up at 2:45 AM, with the auxiliary systems in service even earlier, so they probably don't want to get things too torn apart.

We re-connected the lube oil pumps, and got the phase rotation right on all four - not to mention that there were no electrical faults when we energized them. Spent the rest of the day doing pre-start checks and cleaning up trash the contractors left. Got home filthy, hot and sweaty - but it was 12 hours of honest effort, so that was cool.



I found this article on the web today, and after reading it, decided that it was interesting and important enough to mention on this blog. It's an insightful viewpoint from a newspaper editor, on the decline of daily print media.

My initial reaction was: "So what? They are dinosaurs who can't even get their facts right when the local grocery store is robbed". But my viewpoint softened quite a bit as I read and recognized how historically newspapers have functioned to uncover news... and how that function has been undermined by bean-counters in an effort to maximize profits.

*Just like everything else these days!!!!*

Which brought about this generic insight: Are bean-counters ruining our way of life? He mentions doctors and patients in the speech. Is it better to see your harried HMO/PPO physician (who doesn't even know your name) for handful of minutes and have a $10 copay? Or is it better to spend $100 and get some quality?

Once upon a time you bought things that lasted forever. They might go out of style, but they would work and last forever. At some point everything got cheap and shoddy. Even luxury stuff nowdays isn't *durable*, it's just expensive and flashy. Are the MBAs who run the show nowadays taking the soul out of us?

A Harley rider

One of my regular crew members was on vacation yesterday and a guy from another crew covered for him - a call-out. He arrived later than we did.

We had all ridden our motorbikes in - the weather's been lovely and gas is over $3.20 gal right now. At the end of the day we decided to ride home as a group and stop for a (one) beer. The guy who isn't normally on our crew has a new Harley-Davidson Road King. Anyway, he hasn't ridden with us before...

On the twisty road down the hill, he was hanging way back. Then on the straight farm roads leading to town he was hanging way back. Then when we got into town and were going through traffic he took the lead.

When we were sipping our beer, I ribbed him a little, asking if he didn't want to be seen riding with a couple of guys on Japanese bikes :) He said no, he was scraping his footpegs on the twisty part of the ride and so he backed off.... well, that made sense. No point getting in a wreck, especially since he wasn't wearing leathers. So I asked him why he hung back on the straight farm roads. He said he just felt like cruising, rather than riding fast... OK, different strokes. I forgot to ask him why he wanted to be out front when we rode through town though!

Saturday, April 29, 2006


The plant is shutdown for the weekend due to economics. Much as I would love to take it easy and catch up on a few projects, we're too busy for that...

First thing when we arrived, there were four lube oil pumps to be replaced on the gas turbines. The new pumps arrived too late in the outage to get them replaced before start-up, so a crew of contractor mechanics are doing that this weekend - with no support from our maintenance staff.

The motors on these pumps had to be disconnected electrically this morning and will need to be re-connected tomorrow at some point when the pumps are back in place. Fortunately in a previous life (Navy) I was an electrician. Also fortunately this is not a union workplace, so I can do these things without someone screwing me. Unfortunately, I really don't like doing that sort of work anymore, and I also don't get a break from my regular tasks while I'm busy doing someone else's.

Night shift found a couple of nasty pools of oil but could not locate the source of the leaks in the dark. Today after pulling the lube oil pump motor electrical leads, we found and corrected the oil leaks, and then cleaned up the mess.

One of the leaks occurred in a compartment that has a massive fan ventilating it, and the oil drops flew *everywhere* inside. The walls and ceiling were dripping. What a mess. We ended up getting a bug & weed pump sprayer and filling it with detergent, and shooting everything, then going back with a wet/dry vacuum to suck up the water/oil mixture. Afterwards we wiped everything down with absorbents. Yuck. Wasted two pairs of gloves in there.

We're also busy doing a lot of clean-up. Our contractors during the outage were pretty good about cleaning up after themselves, but there's always trash around - which usually ends up getting sucked into the cooling tower. It's better just to put it in a dumpster if you can find the time.

We still need to find time to add oil to the tanks that leaked, which means humping a 55 gallon drum over and finding the pump and fittings to get it in. *Sigh* I'd really enjoy a day off, but got $ greedy and signed up to cover for another guy who is attending some training. So right now I'm only on day four of fourteen straight 12 hour days... Ugh.

I wish I had more energy and time... I haven't lifted in a month, and I can feel the fat building up on my gut. Makes me feel queasy. It took a lot of deprivation and effort to get that fat off in the first place. Oh well. Lots of cCottage cheese and big weights can overcome anything I've done to myself in the past month with free donuts and pizza.

Friday, April 28, 2006


Oh yeah... the silver ETF opened today. I purchased 50 shares. Silver has been going up a lot in anticipation of the initiation of this ETF, so real commodity traders were able to make the last couple of dollars of silver gains before I got in. That's OK though because I'll hang in there a while longer than that.

Silver looks better than gold (although I also hold some GLD) to me for several reasons: It's in much higher demand as an industrial metal, and stockpiles are not that high. With several million ounces being held by the ETF, that can't help but drive prices higher.

Industrial silver users were against establishing the ETF, saying that it would make silver more scarce and expensive for them. Well... Now that I'm in, I kinda hope that silver gets *really* expensive, at which point I'll let them have mine.

Ugly start up

The picture above is the control room, where my daughter is minding operation of the plant. Typical operator attentiveness :) Actually a few seconds after I took this picture she shut off our gate security computer and camera system, hahaha

The control room felt more like misson control during Apollo 13 yesterday. The startup left our entire crew feeling wrung out and exhausted.

The fuel gas heater control loop wasn't working well at all. Hot water from the boiler flows through it to pre-heat the natural gas entering the gas turbines. These gas turbines require heated fuel to run above about 20% load. The gas turbines are also not emissions-compliant until they get to about 40% load.

So connecting the dots, we needed heated fuel to be emissions compliant, but heated fuel was an on-and-off thing. We'd get emission compliant, then something would go wrong with the water flow through the fuel heater. Gas would overheat and the turbine would runback to minimum load, out of emission compliance. What a pain in the neck.

We did learn something though... If you blast enough ammonia into the boiler, it doesn't matter if you are in emission compliant burn mode or not - you can still knock the NOx levels down to permit limits. We didn't violate our air permit limits, as I would have thought.

Meanwhile, the steam turbine was experiencing its own set of difficulties. It kept tripping every time I tried to place it in pressure control mode - so eventually I gave up. I brought it up in manual, and it remained in manual. Each time it tripped, we had enormous boiler pressure swings. For one reason or another the steam bypasses wouldn't open to allow steam to bypass the turbine and go into the condenser, so it went out the vents. And so we very nearly lost the entire plant on low boiler levels as the steam escaped the system.

It was a nerve-wracking 4 hours, but eventually we experienced and overcame all the problems that cropped up, without violating our permits or losing too much revenue replacing electricity that had been sold. Afterwards I wrote work orders on all the messed up stuff and then revised the start-up procedure for cycling - something we will likely be doing every night for the next couple of months until energy prices pick up as the weather gets hot.

Anyhow, I was totally mentally wrung out and had *no* problem falling asleep at the end of the day... unusual considering my typical insomnia.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Valentino Rossi

I thought I'd post a link to a cool video I stumbled across. It's a 5 minute clip of gp motorcycle racing, mainly featuring Valentino Rossi. He's number 46 on the Blue/Yellow Yamaha and on the Orange Repsol Honda. The guy is a phenomenon. There are also a couple of crashes - so something for everyone.

Until I watched this video I wasn't aware that GP bikes were powerful enough to smoke the rear tire under acceleration. It's pretty impressive to watch them slide the bikes sideways out of the corners as though they were on a dirt track. The difference being that they can't stabilize by putting a foot down like the dirt-trackers do... If I were spinning the rear tire, I'd certainly lose the back end of my bike. Anyway, here's the link to the video.

Another link to another site. Loads a little quicker...

Motorbike stuff

Most of my recent posts are about work. I love what I do, and I'm up to my eyeballs in it right now, but that's just one facet of my life. I'm fond of motorbikes. If you look at one of the links to the right, there's one to the bike that I ride to work on a daily basis.

Now I'm posting a picture of the bike that I've had since I was in high school... my baby. I've had this since 1979, with a separation while I was on board the submarine. It's a 1976 Kawasaki KH500. Actually this one isn't mine - mine is covered in the garage. Unfortunately these aren't practical daily drivers. They're wheelie-prone (unintentionally) and have the most awful flexible frames in the world. The handlebars really get wobbly when you dive into a curve. For straight line acceleration though, they are super-fun! The original crotch-rocket!

Kawasaki built two-stroke street bikes for a number of years, culminating with the three-cylinder 500cc Mach III H1 and 750cc H2 models. The Mach III series ended with this model in 1976. The early bikes were pretty raw and uncivilized. By the time 1976 rolled around they had de-tuned the engine, and increased the angle of the front forks to minimize wheelies when the two stroke engine hit its power band.

I always felt this bike never delivered the performance it should. It always felt so muted when it hit the power band... so in 1991 I took it apart and made a few changes. I put in a set of older model pistons and cylinder heads, added expansion chambers on the exhaust, and increased the size of the main jets on the carburetors. There was a definite improvement! It still bogs down when you let out the clutch, and feels a little anemic below 3000 rpm. But about the time you get across the intersection, it's coming onto the pipe, carburetion and timing all at once. If you dare to leave the throttle wide open, it'll pick the front wheel off the ground. Not bad for an old heavy bike to power wheelie without "popping" the throttle or clutch!

Monday, April 24, 2006

A rough day

Worked again today (and after tomorrow off, I'll work the next 14 days straight. These are 12 hour shifts. In two weeks, I'll have worked more hours (168) than most people do in a month. Uncle Sam's gonna love this!

I wish I was in Bill Gate's tax bracket. Come to think of it, the tax penalty would be a lot less if all that money was coming in from capital gains, instead of my having to actually work and *earn* it. Why is the tax system set up to penalize people who *produce* more than those who enjoy passive income?

Mind you, I'm not complaining - just curious... Is it because retirees need to keep more of their fixed income, or is it something more sinister? Is it because congress decided the Sam Walton heirs deserve a lower tax bracket? Do they deserve it because they empoy so many people in a higher tax bracket?

Whatever the story, I shoulda been more selective about picking my parents. Life would be so much easier if I'd been born into a family that set me up a big trust fund! :)

We crawled all over the steam turbine, and both gas turbines, and both boilers, checking valve positions and ensuring all the instruments were connected and in service following calibration. It's a big job, as there are about 5000 valves and breakers to contend with. Not that all of them were touched, but there is still a lot to stay on top of.

I completed filling the steam turbine generator with hydrogen which the night crew started, filled the #1 boiler in preparation for firing, removed a couple of equipment clearances, and then... damaged the cooling tower.

We started a circulating water pump (big sucker - it moves about 60,000 gpm) without having properly filled the system first. I thought we had it filled... So we started the pump, and when the first slug of water hit the cooling tower, an 18" fiberglass pipe came loose, and poked out the side of the tower, tearing a hole in the corrugated panel. About 10 feet of pipe was sticking out. Ugly.

The good news is that we have five cells remaining in the cooling tower, and it isn't so warm yeat that we will need the sixth. The other good news is that the vendor wasn't busy. He rounded up a crew and they came right up from the LA area. They were on site within a couple of hours.

We left the night shift crew with some significant work that I would rather have had finished - mainly bringing gas into the plant and preparing the fuel systems for operation. But GE was still signed onto the equipment clearances, so there was really nothing we could do to but wait for them to finish up.

I'd kinda like to be there for the start-up in an hour... but I also would like a day off before going 14 straight. I think I'll take my little one to the park and feed the ducks today instead - and then... off to the pizza place and fun zone! :)

Hydrogen cooled redux

Overtime on Sunday is usually pretty easy money. Yesterday however I earned it :) Unit 1 generator was ready to fill with hydrogen, so I started with that. While that was in progress a number of other jobs came up. I noticed a 5-10 gallon oil spill in the steam turbine containment - quite a bit of oil having seeped out of the explosion doors, so I sopped that up with absorbents, located some detergent, and washed it down.

The circulating water system repairs had cured (some two-part painting on a couple of corroded spots) was completed, so I closed the manway doors, and we filled it with water to see if the doors would leak.

I did the final walkdown and closed up the Unit 1 inlet plenum (where I'm squatting in one of the previous posts). This is one place where it's critical to find any loose items... a nut or bolt can get sucked into the engine's compressor, wreaking all kinds of havoc. There are 17 stages of rotating blades, all machined to 1/1000 inch tolerances. They spin 60 rotations/second. If anything besides air goes through, it can bounce around and batter the blades, knocking pieces of them off, creating a cascading effect that eventually leads to a rotor that looks like a well-gnawed corn cob.

Anyway, I found a small piece of welding slag from some repairs that were done on the inlet duct. I don't *think* it would have caused a catastrophic failure, but it wouldn't have done the blading any good. The airfoils are computer designed and machined, so they don't need any random dings.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


I was asked to come in on Sunday and Monday for overtime. GE has finished doing the highly technical and specialized work on the gas turbines and closed them up. Now it's time for us unspecialized and not-so-technical people to get everything aligned for operation. There's a lot of work to do, and it's difficult for 3 man crews to accomplish.

I also happen to want the money. Yesterday I moved the RV to a different storage unit and paid a year in advance to save 15%. It still cost $500. Between that and replacing everything I lost in the lunchbox the other day, I figure that will suck up everything I earn today and tomorrow on overtime *sigh*.

Well, at least I'm not going backwards financially. I really don't know how most families do it...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

DJIA - inflation adjusted

Talk about not being compensated for market risk! Check out this chart (the one further down in the article). It compares inflation vs inflation-adjusted return on the DJIA since 1924. Note that for the most part the inflation-adjusted gains of the market merely keep even with inflation-induced losses. Ugly. Only since 1995 has there been an (anomalous) overperformance of the DJIA with respect to inflation.

Gas price today

I took the Exploder (Ford Explorer) today to fuel it up... and whoosh there went fifty bucks. Of course the price is already up from yesterday morning by a dime - now at $3.16/gal. Good thing gasoline prices are too volatile to include in core inflation. Otherwise people might notice that prices are going UP!!!


So maybe I ought to share what's up at the power plant. We're at the end of an outage where the major work has been a hot gas path inspection on both combustion turbines. For other maintenance reasons we also purged all three generators of hydrogen. Hydrogen is commonly often used as a cooling medium on mid/large size electrical generators - 100 Megawatts and up.

Last night I filled one of the three generators with Hydrogen gas. It's seldom a fun or smooth process. The air has to be swept out of the generator with CO2 to very high purity, then the Hydrogen is used to remove the CO2. When you initially begin feeding hydrogen into the machine, you always question if your analyzers are are properly aligned, if it's really full of CO2, or if you are adding Hydrogen to air (explosive mix). Eventually you start seeing the hydrogen on the gas analyzers, but that's only after 30-60 minutes of feeding hydrogen into the generator.

Afterwards I buttoned up the main condenser, filled it with water, and started filling one of the boilers. I chickened out filling it completely though. The level indicators on the boiler were each reading a different value before we started, and I knew darn well it was empty! So we filled it for half an hour and we still saw no level, and at that point I decided to avoid flooding anything, and we stopped filling.

We released a few equipment clearances and got ready what equipment that we could. We got a lot accomplished for just two of us. The other fellow on my crew is out sick right now.

When I awoke today work had called, and they would like me to come in on Sunday and Monday. No problem! This is the fun part of power plants. I can't believe they pay me so well to come in and play with big, big toys. Sometimes it's hairy (like the generator fill), but it's an intellectual challenge and lots of fun happens when you push the go button. I'm an adrenaline junkie, and to me a cold start is like a six-hour long aircraft take-off.

Motorbike antics

This is what's left of my lunchbox - actually a big beer cooler - after something went wrong with my bungee cords yesterday afternoon. The cooler sits on the back of my motorbike on a luggage rack, right behind the "sissy bar" (backrest). It was my last night shift, and I had to leave early for a safety meeting at the plant. So I left home in the afternoon for a night of work.

The fellow I ride to work with couldn't locate the keys to his motorbike for several minutes when I arrived at his house. By the time he found them, we knew we really had to hurry to get to work on time.

When we finally got clear of town and onto the highway we started going triple-digit speeds to make up the lost time. Actually it was very low in the triple digits - my commuting bike is old and not too fast - a '79 KZ650 if you are curious.

When I'd almost reached work (just to the bottom of a nice twisty road winding to the top of a hill), a guy coming from the other direction pointed at me. Clueless, I continued for another couple of miles, while noting how my bike was suddenly shimmying slightly in the curves, hahaha.

Eventually we caught up with a slow-moving vehicle and backed off, and I caught up with my ride partner. He pointed behind me, and this is what I saw, dragging from the back of my bike's luggage rack by the only remaining bungee cord. It's pretty clear that one or both of the bungee cords held onto it for a while, long enough for the rear tire to chew into the hinge and open up the box. The lighter contents probably caught the wind and were gone!

Amazingly the cooler was dragging on its bottom. My food, daytimer, security badge, and blue ice were all still inside. What popped out was expensive though: I lost a pair of ski pant pullovers and a heavy pair of ski gloves that are nice to have in the mornings. Worse, I lost the liner to my leather jacket. Worst of all, I lost my prescription eyeglasses - I was wearing my prescription sunglasses at the time.

So... I spent the night at work wandering around in my heavily tinted sunglasses, no doubt looking very cool, but feeling like an idiot. Then I rode home at sunrise in those shades, without the benefit of pants, heavy gloves, or jacket liner. They were nowhere to be found along the road, of course.

Today I spent several hundred dollars replacing most of that stuff (plus a replacement lunchbox and new bungee cords, LOL), but was unable to obtain a jacket liner. The people who sold me the jacket were *most* unhelpful. They wouldn't even make a call to their wholesaler on my behalf. It must be nice to be a merchant in Bakersfield. Another fool will walk into your store 10 seconds after the previous unhappy customer leaves... Looks like they don't need my return business. Hopefully I'll be able to find a source for the liner on the internet. Leather gets a bit chilly directly up against the skin when it's cold out.

To top it off, I ran out of gas on the way home in the morning! I almost made it to my regular filling point on reserve. Had to push it across one intersection. $3.06 per gallon! Glad I'm riding these days at 40mpg instead of driving the truck at 16mpg! Ouch.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The economy April 20,2006

I am not at all sanguine about the US economy at this point... haven't been since August of last year. Most of my assets are in cash. I have a handful of shares in GSK and WMB, with a more significant stake in GLD. Still kicking myself for selling BTU on a correction a year ago.

There are a number of things going on that, while not actually alarming, are making me uneasy about being fully invested at this point. In no particular order: The collapsing housing bubble, negative savings rate, understated inflation, dollar instability, federal and current account deficits. There is more, but I'll save all that for later posts.

For right now though, (just to have some substance today) here's an unsettling chart: The header says 1990-present, even though the x-axis shows 2000-present. What's worrisome is the drop-off at the end, and the implications for consumer spending through refi home equity extraction.

I don't believe that home equity extraction is good (the opposite, in fact) but it seems to have been the only thing propping up an otherwise anemic economy.

That's it for right now though... I just got off work and rode home on a chilly morning, and so my fingers don't want to work very well at the moment! :)

Welcome to my Blog

OK, I've decided to start a blog of my own. It'll be interesting to see if there's any interest in it!

I'll be discussing some of my own interests here - interests that change from time to time, I hasten to add!

So... let me start by showing a picture of something that I really like: Power plants! Here I am at the inlet of one of the gas turbines where I work as a technician.

Here's another picture, this time at the exhaust end. Really I'm not that fond of taking pictures of myself, hahaha, but it's useful to do that to understand the scale of things.

Some other interests of mine are applied science and engineering, motorcycles, weight-lifting, antiques, ghost towns, economics and finance. I anticipate posting on all of these things from time to time, in addition to anything else I find intriguing! Hopefully others will discover this blog and contribute. I'm looking forward to the interaction.