Sunday, June 6, 2021

From the Archives - HAZOP Blues II: The Spawning


If you’ve been paying attention to albertnet, you’ll have seen my first “HAZOP Blues” tale, from my archives, four weeks ago. Despite popular demand, I am running the next installment, written about a week later (and circulated via email because this was before blogs were a thing).

In case you’re wondering, I left this job a few months after penning the below memoir. This was, consequently, the final installment. Like James Cameron, director of Piranha II: The Spawning, I went on to much better things.

HAZOP Blues II: the Spawning – September 22, 1995, 12:28 AM

Greetings from Pasadena.

Things are, if anything, worse now than they were last week, so if you enjoy only upbeat tidings, please forego this missive. But if you’re intrigued by the idea of a sequel that doesn’t cost $7.50, read on.

We’re way, way, way behind schedule on this HAZOP, so the general mood is panic. My boss underbid this job by an amazing amount. It’s tantamount to saying you could build a skyscraper in the San Francisco financial district for about $50,000, in three weeks. So he’s been very tense lately. Add to this, of course, a software problem. This time it isn’t a computer glitch, but operator error. Hang on tight, because the explanation is a bit complicated.

Just before I came down here, one of my colleagues showed me how to use this special HAZOP worksheet-building software, so that I could scribe this HAZOP without looking like an English major who isn’t an engineer. (Normally, the HAZOP leader records his own sessions, but this client wanted a dedicated scribe. Lacking one on staff, my boss pressed me into service.) This colleague warned me that my boss doesn’t quite understand the software, and invariably gets his columns screwed up. The program uses various user-defined columns in which you record various things: causes of problems; consequences; and, safeguards (one column each). Suppose your cause is “valve stuck.” You might have consequences like “higher tank pressure,” “possible line rupture,” and “backflow to vessel piping.” In the next column, you list the various safeguards. These safeguards can either mitigate the consequences (e.g., a relief valve to prevent higher tank pressure, or a vent system to prevent line rupture), or they can prevent the malfunction (e.g., alarm detects malfunctioning valve and alerts the operator). Thus you have two basic ways to set up the worksheet: safeguards either relate to causes, or to consequences.

Basically, you decide which way to set it up, and then you set up the software accordingly. Thereafter, the safeguards scroll appropriately, and you number them properly, and your worksheet is organized logically. The only requirement is, you must always enter data according to how you’ve configured the worksheet—once you’ve configured it, you’re committed and can’t change your data entry protocol. My boss, I’d been warned, sets it up one way, enters the data that way for a while, and then at some point wanders off course, forgets how he’d set it up, and starts entering the data the other way, so that when you look at the worksheet, it makes no sense.

Well, knowing of this problem, I was very careful when my boss and I set up the worksheet together. I asked him very specifically how he wanted his safeguards to scroll. He was emphatic about relating safeguards to consequences. He said he always did it that way. And for the first week of HAZOPing, he was true to his word and followed his format: I numbered the safeguards within each consequence (i.e., starting the numbering over for each new consequence) and everything worked fine. The problem began when, upon reconvening the study after the weekend, he evidently forgot how we’d been doing it.

Here’s how it played out: there I was, recording away, and he was having a bad morning knowing how screwed up this project is, deadline-wise, and he whispered angrily to me, “You’re not supposed to start the numbering over at each consequence. Number consecutively throughout each cause.” I whispered back that I was doing it exactly how we’d done it the week before. This he denied emphatically. I couldn’t argue further, so I obeyed. In short order, our columns were all fouled up. Then he snapped, “You’re screwing up the rows.” What could I do? I pushed on. As the worksheet got more and more bollixed, he got more and more irritated. Eventually one of the Colombian engineers said, “Why are you numbering the safeguards that way? That isn’t how we’ve been doing it.” My boss assured him that he was wrong. Now I really began to worry.

At the next break, while the HAZOP team was off scarfing doughnuts, I pulled up a worksheet from the first week and showed my boss how we’d been numbering. He told me I’d been doing it wrong all along. So then I pulled up the worksheet setup/option screen and showed him that we’d configured the worksheet to relate safeguards to consequences, and had correctly adhered to this standard for the first week. At this news, he bawled me out for screwing up the worksheet setup from the get-go, and bemoaned that now we couldn’t fix it—that I’d basically screwed up the whole project and set us up to fail. At this point I was becoming very annoyed—enough to go after his goat. I told him that he himself had very clearly specified the worksheet setup.

Now he was good and outraged. I mean, who was I, this utterly green, English-major kid scribing his very first HAZOP, after only learning the software a week ago, to tell him he was doing it wrong? Not only had he helped to develop the software—he’d practically invented the damn thing—he’d he’d been using it for many years, over the course of countless HAZOP’s. Did I mean to say he’d been doing it wrong his whole career!? “It’s a hideous thing to contemplate,” I said, “but that there’s what is.” Actually, I knew better than to actually say this. I just sat there, silent.

As if to finish me off, he commandeered the computer and said, “Look, I’ll pull up one of my own worksheets, any of them, to show you how I do it.” He pulled up a worksheet, and to my amusement, the columns were all screwed up. Furiously, he pulled up the setup/option screen, and sure enough, he’d set it up one way and scribed it the other. Now he was fairly livid. “Wait, that’s not a good example,” he steamed. He clicked over to his latest, greatest, most prestigious HAZOP, and said, “Okay, this is a good example. Look at this one: unless I’m totally fucked up....”

He pulled up the screen. I was relieved, but not surprised, to see that it was just as fouled up as the first one. I didn’t say anything: nothing needed to be said. A small silence ensued, during which I put 100% of my energy into not smirking. Then my boss said, quietly, “Well, I guess I’m totally fucked up.” Less than a minute later, his shock had given way to abject panic. He immediately began complaining about the incredible stress he was under, and all the staffing problems he had, and this whole HAZOP team breathing down his neck all the time, everybody talking at once, etc.

Once the panic/excuse phase was over, he segued seamlessly into a newer, more ferocious anger, lashing out at me with everything he had, like a cornered badger. He began making harsh accusations, finding fault with every aspect of my scribing. He began to blame my inefficiencies for the project being behind schedule (which is a joke, since most of the time I’m just sitting there, waiting for the team to come to a consensus so that I can type something).

Perhaps he eventually divined that my response was not guilt and shame, but mere incredulity, for he eventually began to temper his litany with expressions like “I’m not accusing you, I’m just sayin’,” and when he had determined conclusively that I wasn’t going to cower, accept blame, apologize profusely, and commit ritual suicide by self-disembowelment, he began to shift the blame to the rest of the HAZOP team instead. Finally he settled on a single scapegoat, Salim B—, the project manager, for whom I cannot formulate negative thoughts, largely (if perhaps unfairly) due to his benign demeanor and his pleasant resemblance to Frog from Frog and Toad Together, that wonderful picture book I enjoyed as a child.

By now the team was reassembling, and we continued the HAZOP. Notably, my boss continued to force my documentation astray, continued to demand that I force-feed the data into the worksheet in a manner counter to all logic. As if he hadn’t, mere moments before, come face to face with incontrovertible proof of his error, he continued to chase me down the errant path. Resigned to our doom, I gamely continued to mangle our innocent data, hoping that nobody would spot the inconsistencies and errors we were promulgating. Sure, my victory during the break should have been sweet—it’s not every day that you can sit back and watch while your arrogant boss makes a complete ass of himself—but it was a hollow victory indeed, for this wasn’t Me vs. Him, it was Us vs. Chaos, and we were now going down together. He’s the boss, so when he loses, I lose. (And he then wins somehow, because he’s a winner—got it?)

Perhaps the very worst part about the whole sordid affair is that when the day was finally over—eight grueling dog-hours behind us—my boss wanted me to be his pal, and go out on the town with him. We went to a restaurant; over great Thai food he attempted to find common ground with me by belittling every no-good, disloyal, stupid and immoral ex-employee we ever had (and there are a lot of them). I’m no slouch, either; I expertly tossed in detail after heinous detail about every one of them. I built up fabulous psychological profiles explaining the underlying nature of each one: “What S— lacked, essentially, was confidence. He couldn’t transcend his meager fire safety background and meet the challenge of holding his own among registered Professional Engineers and Certified Safety Professionals.” My boss—PE, CSP—nodded sagely in agreement.

I proceeded to spin elaborately sycophantic soliloquies: “I’ll never forget when you first saw the problem with S—, months before he left. You hit the nail on the head when you questioned his loyalty, way back in February. I think you knew his flaws even before they became obvious to the rest of us. It’s like you said, the cream rises to the top, and we’re better off without him.” My boss had never said these things—indeed, he had promoted S— only a month before—but that wasn’t about to stop him from savoring the memory of having totally nailed it. With great satisfaction, he dragged out his well-soiled cancer analogy, acidly lancing the tumors he had removed, and ordered us another round of beers. By the end of the meal, a dozen epitaphs later, I was beginning to feel sick.

Then we went out and shot pool, splitting (alas) a pitcher of beer. Our playing was absolutely abysmal; at one point, my boss managed to launch the cue ball off the table, where it rolled all the way into the bar. I, his obsequious little helper, shamelessly chased it down and retrieved it.

Now, we’re as chummy as ever; our worksheets, which continue to twist crazily on the page, are a taboo subject. More than ever before, HAZOP is a grind. Fortunately, I’ve developed a knack for recognizing, among the rambling discussions, the special lilt to an engineer’s voice (be his accent Indian, Colombian, French, British, or Turkish) that tells me he’s settled on an idea that should be recorded. Like never before, I swing to the music of valve numbers and failure modes. Between data inputs, while the team argues pedantically over the likelihood of a 2D low-low shutdown if the stage two crude discharge separator were to encounter a closed block valve at startup, I drift off into mental oblivion, fantasizing about being run over by a truck during lunch.


An alert reader wrote to ask me how much of this I made up. Rest assured, nothing here is fabricated ... the sad tale is 100% true and (as I wrote it while still in the thick of the action) it doesn’t even suffer from the natural erosion of memory.

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Saturday, May 29, 2021

Biased Blow-by-Blow - 2021 Giro d’Italia Stage 20


You know how bike race announcers bite their tongues when a doper mops up the asphalt with his competitors? Or they leave it unsaid when a rider is just being a douche? Well, I don’t. If  my approach bothers you, go find some unbiased coverage from a responsible journalist. Otherwise, read on for the climactic final mountain stage of this year’s Giro d’Italia. It’s gonna be a doozy, with three Category 1 climbs!

Giro d’Italia Stage 20 – Verbania to Alpe Motta

As I join the action, the riders have a whopping 83 kilometers to go, almost all of it uphill. They’re just beginning the feared Passo San Bernardino, which is over 30 kilometers long and climbs over 5,000 feet! There’s a breakaway, of course, but it’s got only 3:41 on the peloton, and they don’t look to be absolutely hammering. I mean, check this out:

How hard could he be going if he’s taking a leak? Didn’t anyone tell him breakaway riders are supposed to be full of piss and vinegar? Why’s he getting rid of it? Maybe his directeur sportif told him, “If you get in a break, you have to just empty yourself,” and the rider misconstrued him.

They’re interviewing Matteo Tosatto, the manager of the Ineos Granadiers.

INTERVIEWER: Are you scared absolutely shitless by the resurgence of Simon Yates, and the way your boy Bernal has seemed to falter in the last couple mountain stages?

TOSATTO: No, no, we are completely confident. Our program is well defined and our team has done what’s necessary in preparation to put up the right power numbers, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more, say no more, am I right?

INTERVIEWER: Bernal rode with panache in the first two mountain stages—maybe a bit too much panache, and isn’t it pretty clear he’s starting to fade now?

TOSATTO: Well, his panache was inappropriate, because we’re the team that gradually beats everyone to death in the most boring fashion possible, but his ability to recover is almost literally superhuman. With our “marginal gains” program, trust me … fate will not jam.

Okay, that was unfair. Tosatto was speaking Italian, and I don’t speak a word of it. I was just guessing at what he said, or what he’d say if he were being less elusive than his role would obviously require him to be.

The peloton is starting to shrink as the climbs wears on. This far into a Grand Tour, everyone is just so tired. Here an early breakaway rider is caught, even as the gap increases to those still ahead. Look at Team BikeExchange setting tempo on the front for their leader, Simon Yates. Yates sits third on GC, 2:49 behind Bernal and just 20 seconds behind Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) who is second overall.

The breakaway is down to four riders. I love it when the broadcaster puts their names on the screen so I don’t have to look them up.

Oh, I’m sorry, were you starting to chafe at my suggestion a bit ago that Bernal, that fine, upstanding young man, might be doping? Well, let’s look at his performance on Monte Zoncolan:

For those who follow these kinds of numbers, a watts per kilogram (w/kg) value over 6.3 says a rider is almost certainly doped. Not that I necessarily worship at the altar of that theory … take it how you like.

The breakaway’s lead is coming down as Team DSM drives the pace for their leader, Romain Bardet, who lost a lot of time early in this Giro but has been rising in the GC and now sits sixth at 7:32. He’s just, 22 seconds behind Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) overall.

Getting back to whether or not Bernal is doping, consider his time up the Zoncolan vs. that of Gilberto Simoni, who hailed from the Lance era when pretty much everyone was lubed. It looks a bit suspicious that Bernal went faster. But honestly, I cast my aspersions mainly because Team Ineos isn’t going to change its stripes. They’ve been the heir apparent to US Postal’s doping tradition since the Sky days. I’m convinced their program is alive and well, especially since they never even admitted guilt for Froome’s positive test. I mean, if McDonald’s came out and said, “Our food has always been shit but we’re going upscale now, all organic and grass-fed beef,” that would be slightly more believable than McDonald’s saying, “Our food has always has been really good for you, and it still is!”

This break is so doomed. They’ve dropped another minute and their gap is just 1:42 with over 60 kilometers left to race.

Man, look at this brutal course!

The break is now under a minute ahead as they crest the Passo San Bernardino and dress up for the big descent.

The wind is blowing pretty hard and with all that snow it must be frigid. Let’s contemplate for a moment that baseball games tend to be canceled if it even rains. And there’s no wind chill factor in baseball. Just sayin’.

Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R Citroen Team) takes fifth place in the KOM, sprinting away from the peloton. In all likelihood he’ll seal his overall KOM win today.

The Team DSM guys are hammering the descent and have a bit of a gap.

So, to catch you up on what’s happened since my last report, Bernal showed uncharacteristic weakness on Stage 17, when he chased down an attack from Yates and then suddenly seemed overextended and relied heavily on his team to limit his losses. He conceded almost a minute to Yates that day as Dan Martin (Isreal Startup Nation) took the stage win. And then yesterday Yates attacked again, and Bernal didn’t respond, instead having his team drive tempo to control the damage. Bernal had a pretty good poker face during that stage, especially compared to João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) whose face was contorted with pain, his tongue all hanging out. But Almeida took 17 seconds out of Bernal in the last 500 meters or so, which tells the real story. Bernal was very bullish in his post-race interview, saying he was really pleased with his performance and not worried at all about maintaining his GC lead. But look at his expression in this unguarded moment during his warmdown:

Surely he’s been cagey in interviews so as not to give comfort to the enemy.

And now the Team DSM guys catch the break.

Ineos lines out the front, bringing the gap down from 20 to 17 seconds. They’ve still got six or seven guys in the somewhat depleted peloton.

It’s starting to rain as Ineos drives through the valley. Hmm, I wonder how many cobblestoned sections there are ahead…

Cripes, I’m actually feeling chilled just watching this. BRB, gonna go grab a wool cap.

We didn’t see any attacks from GC contenders on the first pass, of course, but surely its sheer length wore them down for what’s ahead. We could well see a big attack or two on this next one, the Passo di Spluga (or Splügenpass in German, which seems to be the preferred name among these announcers, who are saying it almost constantly, as though they have Tourette’s or something).

The break is actually increasing their advantage. Of course they won’t stay off with 37 kilometers still ahead, but this could be a launch pad for a major attack by Bardet or Caruso if either or both are on a good day.

Ineos still controls the peloton. In the white young rider’s jersey, behind his Astana-Premier Tech teammate, is Aleksandr Vlasov who sits fourth on GC, 6:11 behind Bernal. He’s faded a few times during this Giro but has been riding better lately, losing just four seconds to Bernal yesterday. Fun fact: Vlasov changed his first name from “Aleksander” to “Alexsandr” to save weight.

With just over five kilometers left in the climb, the break has taken their lead out to 39 seconds. That’s still not much with 34 kilometers to go, but the trend is interesting. Things get more unpredictable at the tail end of a stage race, when riders are so tired. Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) and Michael Storer (Team DSM) are doing most of the work for their leaders, Caruso and Bardet.

Yates looks pretty comfortable as always, but Carthy just behind him looks like he’s suffering pretty badly.

OMG, look at this crazy climb!

Ineos is down to three riders: Bernal is now counting on Jonathan Castroviejo and Dani Martinez, both of whom are extremely solid. (Martinez was especially impressive yesterday and in Stage 17 when Egan had his crisis of confidence.)

Wouldn’t it be amazing if on the final climb this break were still ahead and Yates could attack and bridge up to them solo? Then Bernal would really have to react, no more of this keep-the-gap-down crap.

The break is within the final kilometer of the Splügenpass summit. This descent is gonna be gnarly, with the wet road. The riders take on fuel.

The peloton is over the summit now. Look at this road. Look at these conditions. No pressure, guys!

They were in Switzerland, by the way, and are now back in Italy. Has it ever occurred to you how boring American sporting venues are, with the same size court or field for every single event? Has it ever struck you how little our ball-sport athletes have to worry about? Honestly, it’s amazing so many sports fans can find anything to excite them.

The peloton is basically shattered, as Vlasov has attacked and Ineos is forced to chase hard.

This is working pretty well for Yates … Caruso et al are doing all the work in the break, forcing Ineos to do all the work in the chase, while Yates just sits on. Assuming the break gets caught, Yates will be perfectly positioned for the massive attack he knows he has to mount. Today, of course, is his last chance. Tomorrow’s time trial shouldn’t produce giant gaps between GC leaders … none of these climbers can TT for beans.

Here’s the profile of the final climb. It’s not that long or steep, but the 13% section will provide a great place for a big move.

The peloton has swelled in size … lots of dudes caught back up on the descent. Ineos couldn’t go all that fast because Martinez is kind of a pussy. (On the descents, though … only on the descents!)

Just before the final climb begins, Bernal takes a bottle. Kind of odd timing … I wonder if he’s feeling a bonk coming on? That would be pretty dramatic. More likely they’re some miracle elixir in that bottle. (Okay, I jest…)

Castroviejo completely detonates! You can’t tell from the still photo, but he’s literally barely moving. It’s practically a track stand.

Now Storer has blown and is instantly caught by the peloton.

Up in the break, Bilbao pulls off as well, and Caruso pats him on the shoulder in gratitude for his awesome pace-making.

Caruso puts the hammer down!

Bardet takes up the cause. Their lead is dropping with Martinez drilling it at the front of the peloton.

Almeida is gapped and fights to maintain contact.

Caruso flicks his elbow to get Bardet to come through, but Bardet does not. Maybe he’s completely on the rivet.

Bernal eats a gel. Could he have waited too long to eat? Surely this is just wishful thinking on my part.

It’s rare to see Yates’s face because he’s always sitting in. But when you do, you wonder about his giant white beak. That’s what it looks like because he always has one of those stupid tape things on the bridge of his nose. Like that could possibly improve breathing, as if a clogged nose really matters when your throat is wide open. Snake oil, I tell you. I wonder if Yates is an anti-vaxxer too. I guess I’m not feeling very charitable because I keep waiting for him to attack and he does nothing. He’s running out of time if he really wants to put Bernal under pressure and take major tim

Martinez is just crushing it. Almeida and the others are gapped, only Yates can hang. The gap to the break is down to just 24 seconds. Even if they hang on for the stage win, there won’t be a GC shakeup unless Bernal surprises us.

Bardet is either really dying or he’s just hanging Caruso out to dry so he can take the stage win—if they stay away.

I like Caruso. He looks like a real working man. He takes three bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint. And now he drops Bardet!

Back in the GC group, Yates is now starting to lose the wheel as Martinez continues to crush it! Look at Yates’s funny nose! It’s like he’s got a big band-aid on it!

Yates is definitely getting dropped!

Caruso is taking the gap back up with 1200 meters to go! And Bernal still hasn’t had to face the wind for a single second today!

Bardet is getting reeled in. Not his day. Not his Giro.

And now Martinez finally swings off and Bernal starts to ride.

Caruso approaches the line, gives a little shake of the head, disbelieving that he, a career domestique, is about to win his first pro race here, in this pivotal Giro stage. And now he’s got the stage win!

Bernal crosses the line, alone again, same poker face he always has. I’ll bet he’s a lot of fun at Ineos offsites and pro cycling mixers.

Here’s the stage result. Bernal ended up taking 26 seconds back from Yates, plus a few bonus seconds, while only conceding 24 seconds to Caruso.

And here’s the new GC. Not much change and Bernal heads into the final day tomorrow, the time trial, with about two minutes … probably enough. (Though that’s what Primoz Roglic surely thought before the final Tour de France TT last year…)

They’re interviewing the manager of Bahrain-Victorious. “It wasn’t really a plan, Caruso had an opportunity and took it,” he says. The interviewer responds, “Was it your plan for your COVID mask to fall off your nose again and again during this interview?”

Now they interview the Ineos manager again.

INTERVIEWER: What do you make of this sudden rash of COVID masks slipping off people’s noses?

TOSATTO: We’re all tired. Tired of masks, tired of journalists, tired of everything.

INTERVIEWER: What about wiping your ass? Do you ever get tired of that?

TOSATTO: Yeah, totally! On a morning like this, with a crucial stage ahead, I’m nervous as hell and running to the toilet again and again, and it’s just wipe, wipe, wipe! It never ends!

INTERVIEWER: Have you considered a bidet?

TOSATTO: Actually, I have, ever since everyone started hoarding toilet paper a year ago. I really am thinking about it. This may be the year.

It’s taking a while to set up the podium, I guess, because the coverage is just replaying key moments of the race again and again and then putting the results back on the screen. Okay, now they interview Bernal.

INTERVIEWER: Ayo, that stage looked brutal, bro.

BERNAL: For reals, with that break still at 40 seconds before the last climb, I got my director in my ear straight whylin’ like they was gonna jack my Giro!

INTERVIEWER: The action was getting’ straight-up hyphy for a bit there. But your boy Martinez was killin’ it and basically salted their move with a quickness.

BERNAL: Martinez is such a baller. With him on the front, suckas like Yates and Almeida were always gonna get pwned.

INTERVIEWER: Word, Martinez is straight gully. The break though, those dudes were rollin’ deep. That didn’t make you just a little butt-hurt?

BERNAL: No way man, they’s a buncha bustas, frontin’ off the front like they was trill. That shit was dunzo almost before it started. Fools, playin’ like the Ineos crew isn’t totally off the chain as usual.

INTERVIEWER: Man, you wasn’t even dolo until under 1K to go. Did you think after sittin’ in all day Yates might pull a bitch move at the end?

BERNAL: Naw man, that dude be triflin’.

INTERVIEWER: Way to lack down the smack.

BERNAL: Thanks but I’m gettin’ hella cold, I gotta shake the spot, go chillax in the van.


BERNAL: Lates!

I’ll confess I took some liberties there vs. recording everything verbatim. Bernal kind of made me do it by being so reliably boring.

Oddly, the coverage seems to be wrapping up with no footage of the podium presentations. And they wrap up with this random woman, just like last time. Does the director have stock in a cosmetics company or something?


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