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Monday, May 10, 2010

Where there are trains, there will be train wrecks

I first heard that piece of wisdom about ten years ago. I was the DVD Asset Manager for our DVD Compression, Encoding, and Authoring facility. I was responsible for finding out every item of video, audio, and everything else that would be going onto a client's DVD, extracting those assets from the client, then figuring out the best way to digitally compress those assets to fit the available space, maximizing quality and minimizing wasted space. Once I had the "bit budget" worked out, I would turn it and the assets over to our video compression and audio encoding groups, and they would transform the video and audio into a form that our Authoring group could assemble onto what would become the DVD Master. All very complex and sophisticated and time-consuming. All being done on complex and sophisticated and expensive and sensitive computer systems.

And the power in our building had just gone out for the third time in two weeks.

I was furious. We were in a separate building from our main facility. It was actually the ancient, original home of our company, a place with some significance in the history of the place. But I believe it also had the ancient, original wiring in the building, despite our massive power requirements. Thunderstorms could easily knock the power out, as could the wind, and possibly a little old lady turning on the air conditioning in the house next door. But each time it happened, we lost all of the work that was in progress on that project, and would have to start the process over again. It would throw the schedule off by hours, sometimes a day or more, and might cause other projects for other customers to be bumped.

Our Facilities Maintenance people came down and did whatever it is they did in situations like that. For all I know they jammed pennies into fuses, tied broken wires together with bits of twine, and laid out rat poison to try to avoid a repeat of the problem. I stopped the head of Facilities Maintenance and asked him why this was happening and what could be done to avoid it in the future. And he just grinned at me in his condescending way and said "Where there are trains, there'll be train wrecks."

I pointed out to him that there was a train that ran less that twenty feet from the front of the building, and that this was hardly a comforting or reassuring thought.

Where there are coal mines, there will be coal mining accidents - and there are twenty-nine dead in West Virginia. Where there are gigantic oil drilling platforms there will be oil drilling accidents - and millions of gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. Where there is hydrologic fracturing of deep, "impermeable" deposits of natural gas trapped within the Marcellus Shale, using a mixture of water taken from local streams and rivers and proprietary chemicals whose identities are kept secret from state and local governments and the individuals on whose land the "hydrologic fracturing" is taking place, there will inevitably be a migration of these secret chemicals and now-contaminated water back into the groundwater, potentially turning Northeastern Pennsylvania into one big Superfund site. Yes, yes, and yes.

Part of most energy strategies for the future involves a dramatic increase in the number of nuclear power plants in the United States.

Where there are trains, there will be train wrecks.

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