Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Prisons of our own devising

I spent a frustrating day in southeast Portland today.

The cold, wind and the intermittent rain wasn't really discouraging. But we were supposed to be drilling a one hundred foot rotary boring to obtain geotechnical data for the new emergency communications site, and the driller ran into trouble before he even arrived.

First, he started late, and starting late got snared in the usual awful traffic on I-205, the east loop route through East Portland. When he arrived he discovered that he was lacking the "sub" - a small metal cylinder - that connects the kelly bar to the top of the drillstring, in this case standard AWJ drill rod.

That meant another 45 minutes we had to wait to drill.

The guy's boss finally arrived with the sub and we got to drilling...and there the poor bastard got another nasty slap, because the East Portland substrate is an ugly pottage of sand, silt and gravels all the way up to boulder size, a real nightmare for drilling, and drillers.

The only real silver bullet I've ever seen for East Portland is something called a "sonic" drill rig, that uses a high-speed vibratory casing advancer. It can jackhammer through the big boulders while the casing stabilizes the hole and prevents the caving or collapsing that almost no small mud rotary drill can prevent.

And our driller today was no exception. Almost immediately below the asphalt he got caving, and lots of it.

Here's where my observation for today came in; when we are unable, or unwilling, to consider options or ideas outside our experience we make ourselves stupider than we are. We imprison ourselves in our incapability. And my driller today was that sort of man.

He couldn't, or didn't, stop and try to figure out a better way to deal with the caving gravels, even when we encountered a truly rotten loose quarter-inch to half-inch gravel (what your commercial rock store calls "pea gravel"). Instead he tried to weight up the mud - adding bentonite to the water to thicken the drilling fluid and hold the gravels out of the annular space - and cooked up such a thick glop that he plugged off his own suction hose and lost another 40 minutes or so trying to clear it.

This poor gomer fought the caving sand and boulder gravel for about 20 feet before he snapped the threads off the kelly and had to admit defeat. My own boss was first frustrated, then impatient, then dismissive. He, in effect, tossed the driller's company off the job; I'm back there tomorrow but with another driller who seems to understand the conditions better.

The saddening thought is that my driller today was not a stupid man, or a bad one, or an incompetent one. But he started badly and then became caught up in his work troubles, and could not or did not try and think his way out of his distress. Bill James wrote once about a man he worked with who was like that; when confronted by an obstacle he'd go from force to more force to maximum force without ever stopping to think if brute force was the best solution to the problem. He wasn't being tricked or led or driven; he was crafting his own failure, using only his impatience and his inability to create ideas to construct the bars.

What a sad, very human business. Haven't you made one of these little lockups before? I have. I think we all have. How many times a lifetime do we set to work, busily hammering away, intent on our task, every stroke confining us more tightly and directing us more narrowly into the mental bastille that when we have completed it and ourselves within it, will hold nothing but defeat and dismay?

(Needless to say, the accompanying photos are NOT from a rainy Wednesday in East Portland - that's last Friday and the job I got to do over in Redmond on the sunny east side of the Cascades. Parts of Highway 26 are very lovely, and I just had to show them to you. I'm not so lovely, but it's my blog, so I get to show you me, too.)


Pluto said...

An excellent observation, Chief.

Any clue as to who gets financially punished for yesterday's mess? I've found that the sting of lost revenue is frequently the best reminder.

And if that doesn't work, well then the company may not deserve to be in business in these tough times.

FDChief said...

Pluto: The fallout is kinda complicated.

The driller loses a day's pay. He will get paid for the work he did, since he did do some, however incompetently.

We will probably end up eating most of it, for choosing badly and using a driller who could not do what we needed him to do.

The kind of sad and ironic part is that the driller today talked to me about what we'd seen the preceding day and chose to drill down to about 20 feet with hollow-stem auger. The first driller had that auger, too, but chose to try to mud rotary down through the upper 20 feet.

A simple yes-no choice - a binary option; do this or do that. The first guy did this, and kicked off a train of disaster that led to him breaking his rig and getting kicked off the job. The second did that, and had our hundred feet drilled before 4 pm...

Makes you a little scared, to realize that a single, simple choice can produce such utterly disparate results. There but for the grace of God...

Lisa said...

"We imprison ourselves in our incapability" -- how true. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

The photos are all lovely.