Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Monday, March 12, 2018


Eli, 1950
Eli (1925-2014) in his college graduation photo.

Today, the twenty-fifth of the Hebrew month Adar, is my father’s Yahrzeit - the anniversary of his death.

There are traditions to be observed. When the day begins, we light a memorial candle, a candle that will burn at least 24 hours. Watching it flicker on the mantel in the darkened family room always makes me think of the transience of life while simultaneously reminding me of the soul’s eternal nature.

At sunrise I attend the morning service. I recite the ancient words of the Kaddish, a doxology that, despite its association with mourning and bereavement, makes no mention of death. And I intone the mournful litany of the Memorial Prayer.

After services, I treat the minyan crowd to breakfast - my way of thanking them for ensuring that enough people are present at services. It’s a peculiar local custom, but one I enjoy. (We observe birthdays the same way.) Today is a bit different because we have an appointment which requires that we postpone our group breakfast, but them’s the breaks.

All this rigmarole is intended to keep alive the memory of our Departed Ones, and I therefore cherish it... but, strictly speaking, it is unnecessary. For I keep Dad’s memory alive in so many little ways.

I see traces of his hand in my signature. Traces of his wit in my shaggy dog stories, poems, and horrible puns. Marks of his creativity in our daughters. And certain tunes - the ones he would play on the grand piano that graced his home for as long as I can remember - always bring a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat.

The Memorial Prayer

Eil maley rachamim, shokhein bam’romin, ham’tzei m’nuchah n’khonah tachat kanfei ha-sh’khinah, b’ma-alot k’doshim u-t’horim k’zohar ha-rakia maz-hirim, et nishmat avi v’morati Eliyahu ben Ya’akov she-halakh l’olamo, b’gan eiden t’hei m’nuchato. Ana, ba’al ha-rachamim hastireihu b’seiter k’nafekha l’olamim, utz’ror bitz’ror ha-chayyim et nishmato, Hashem hu nachalato, v’yanuach b’shalom al mishkavo, v’nomar amen.

Exalted, compassionate God, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the holy and pure who shine with the splendor of the firmament, to the soul of my my father and teacher Eli, son of Jacob, who has gone to his eternal home. Master of mercy, remember all his worthy deeds in the land of the living. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. The Lord is his portion. May he rest in peace. And let us say: Amen.

Thursday, March 8, 2018


As I was sorting through the amazing pile of Olde Crappe in my home office, I saw all kinds of businessy stuff that I had tucked away for Gawd knows what reason, there to moulder unlooked-at for decades. Major account plans, customer presentations, all kinds of charts and graphs and ancient company literature... all of it destined, finally, for the bin.

Among this mountain of bin-fodder was the documentation for something even older: a design basis memorandum for one of my engineering projects. Its exact nature is unimportant now. Suffice it to say that it was a minor (but environmentally critical) part of a very large operation, one that has by now been replaced at least twice by completely new technology. Sic transit gloria Elissoni.

Seeing all of this triggered some memories of that time over four decades ago when I actually earned my bread by doing chemical engineering work. Serious work... for it’s not a trivial discipline, chemical engineering. At college, ChE’s had to declare their major a year earlier than everyone else, and our first year attrition rate was 50%. Those of us that survived that first year called ourselves the Dirty Dozen, and I am proud, forty-four years later, to have been numbered amongst them.

Yes, I was an engineer; and engineers learn many things, both by formal university-level schooling and by compulsory attendance at the School of Hard Knocks.

The following is a story of one such Learning Experience. Read it, and be both amused and appalled. Afterward, there will be a short quiz.


Many years ago, in my very first assignment with the Great Corporate Salt Mine, I helped debottleneck a plastics plant.

Debottleneck? Is dat de neck of de bottle?

Well, yes, Mr. Dialect Comedian, but at the GCSM, we used the term as both noun and verb.

To debottleneck a manufacturing process is to remove (you guessed it) bottlenecks. Narrow spots in the line. It is a way of expanding capacity by making a few, relatively inexpensive changes to an existing operation, rather than by simply throwing money at the problem and constructing a second production train. Debottlenecking makes the operation more efficient. And a “debottleneck” is a project that expands a plant’s capacity by (you guessed it again) debottlenecking it.

Got it? Good.

The GCSM had a plant, back then, that produced a certain amount of polypropylene plastic. We installed a bunch of new equipment and were able to increase capacity dramatically... by over 50%, if my recollection serves. My job (in case you’re curious) was figuring out just what to install, how much it would cost, and how much capacity improvement we would get from it... in an age of slide rules. No personal computers, no electronic spreadsheets.

Once the new equipment had been installed, it was time to start up the newly-expanded plant and let it flex its new muscles. To make sure it actually worked and that those millions of dollars we spent actually accomplished something. And that meant spending a lot of time at the plant, both in the control room and running around on the unit. Catching samples, measuring temperatures, that sort of thing.

If you have never been in the control room of a chemical plant, it’s an imposing sort of place. These days it’s a lot like being on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, with a lot of computer terminals... but 35 years ago, computer-controlled processes were still in their earliest, most primitive stages. Back then, the myriad operating controls were all manual, with many of the parameters recorded graphically on continuous plotters. Every few hours, the operators would record key settings and process parameters on a huge “horse blanket” spreadsheet the size of a tabletop... using pen and ink.

Running the process meant knowing the right settings for hundreds of temperature controllers and valves. And the “butterfly effect” - where small changes sometimes have large, unexpected results - was in full force.

There was one part of the process - a fractionation tower - that was misbehaving one morning. And so, as the resident Contact Engineer, I made a minor adjustment to a critical flow rate. It seemed trivial at the time, but it had an effect that was... not desired.

Correcting that effect created its own cascading series of changes... all of which needed their own corrections. And compounding everything was the fact that any change to a given setting took a certain amount of time - anywhere from minutes to hours - to work its effects. You could see the impact on the chart recordings, which would oscillate like a struck gong when a tweak was made, gradually settling back down to a new steady state. “Lining out,” we called it.

Getting that part of the process back under control was like wrestling a bear. In a vat of Jell-O. Dangerous, messy, and unrewarding. Eventually, I managed... but only after developing a serious respect for the sensitivities of Complex Processes.

As we watch our legislators and our new administration struggle to bring the economy under control, keep in mind that they are also trying to operate a complex system, one with mysterious lag times, uncertain cause-and-effect pathways, and that is subject to the vagaries of human behavior. The tiniest of tweaks - not to mention wholesale changes - will have unpredictable effects, effects that will manifest themselves on unpredictable timetables. And add to that the overall brokenness of the system... and the fact that it is being run not by Economic Engineers, but by Political Bumblefucks.

It’s enough to keep me awake at night, it is.

* * *

And now for the quiz: When did I originally post this? (No fair looking it up on Google, ya doof.)