Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My Dumb Day Jobs, Part II of II

There's no point in going to college in America unless have a clear plan and you're going to study something practical, especially if you're spending your own money (or, as in my case, getting by on a combination of loans and working and scholarships). So naturally I majored in...

...(ta-da!) music. And then switched to biology. And then switched to chemistry. And then switched to physics. At this point, they graduated me before I had time for further switches, so I went to work at the Oregon State Department of Energy, where I was in charge of building computer models of the interface between the power grid and alternative energy sources.

I did rather well at this job. So well, in fact, that I was offered a degree fellowship at the East-West Center, a think-tank in Honolulu; you did your research at the EWC simultaneously with doing your graduate work at the neighboring University of Hawaii. (The University of Hawaii: Truth; Knowledge; A Great Tan.) That's how I ended up with my MA and PhD--though the tan never really seemed to take, and I remain an unreformed Whiteboy. (That's Doctor Whiteboy to you, though, pal.)

I’d gone to the East-West Center planning to work on alternative energy in the Third World, but it turned out Third World countries were too busy trying to sort out their problems with oil to give a damn. Alternative energy they already had—most of the population used wood or cow dung as their main energy sources, and as for solar water heating and space heating, well, who needs heating in Sri Lanka? (I did publish some work on solar refrigeration and solar icemakers, though. But simply raising the topic--yes, it can be done, and no, I'm not joking--always made people giggle.)

So I was hijacked off into “downstream” oil (that is, everything that happens to oil after it comes out of the ground). It turned out that, with physics plus chemistry plus computer programming skills plus a background in environmental issues, I was good at it. Who knew? I tackle many different kinds of problems, and still keep my hand in on the alternatives and conservation side of things, but here’s a typical project:

The Kingdom of Ruritania says they are tired of all the sulfur pollution from, say, diesel fuel, and decide that every oil refinery in Ruritania needs to install diesel desulfurizers in their refineries. The multinationals then set up a loud outcry, and present charts and graphs proving that this will cost Ruritanian consumers billions of dollars that ought to be spent on luxuries like food instead. (The program will also cost the company billions of dollars that ought to be spent on necessities like executive bonuses, but that's another issue.)

At which point, I and my pals arrive for the first of many trips to Ruritania. We typically find that a) the position of the companies isn’t quite correct, and b) the government hasn’t proposed a very logical approach, and c) there is a better way of achieving the desired results.

When we submit our conclusions, one of four things happens:

1) Our recommendations are accepted, or
2) Our recommendations are ignored because the government has bigger problems, or
3) A military coup renders the whole thing irrelevant, or
4) The government adopts some utterly different and unexpected strategy because the French have offered them amazing loan terms to buy French technology (usually espresso makers or weapons) which, while unrelated to the problem at hand, is offered at an irresistable price.

The James-Bond-style glamor of building computer simulations of obscure energy technologies is, I admit, all too obvious, but there were other benefits as well. To name only a few: dysentary, non-infectious hepatitis (too long in Third World petrochemical plants, no doubt), shingles, intestinal parsites, and, after a trip to Hanoi in the mid-90s, a case of encephalitis that left me for a few months with slurred speech and an inability drive a car or walk unassisted or even read. (I'd be a great writer were it not for the brain damage.)

So, despite the great fun of all that, I came up with a brilliant career move: I became a writer. Pretty crafty, huh?

I've cut back to consulting on a part-time basis. Part-time consulting is a pretty nice gig for a writer, since the work tends to be divided into projects, without anything to do in between. Of course my present income isn't sufficient to, as the divorce courts say, support me in the style to which I've become accustomed. So I unashamedly sponge off Pamela.

Over the years, one or the other of us has always had a good job. (Just never both of us at the same time.) But luckily, I'm soon to be a published novelist--the surest road to financial security this side of panning for gold in the Yukon.

Actually, panning for gold is what Jack London did (and went broke at) before he became a writer. The man must have had a great career-guidance counselor.


Anonymous said...

There's only one element of your strange life that seems to bear resemblance to my strange life, so I'll comment on that. I had shingles too. Hurts, doesn't it? Mine was brought on by a case of sexual harrassment in the workplace though, not by making solar water coolers.


David Isaak said...

Oh, Aliya. Yikes. Shingles isn't something I'd wish on my worst enemy.

I take that back. Shingles is exactly what I'd wish on my worst enemy.

Several years before I came down with shingles, I was traveling on business with a young female colleague (I was young too, back then), and she had some kind of allergic reaction to some fish she ate in Papua New Guinea. She swelled up (later she referred to it as New Guinea Fat Face Disease).

A few days after the swelling went down, her side began to ache, and then became unbearably painful (or so she said). The emergency ward fo the hospital diagnosed her with shingles. Boy, was she lousy company for the rest of the trip. In retrospect, I'm amazed she didn't just fly home--but at the time I thought shingles was 'just a skin condition.'

But she didn't get it because I sexually harrassed her. Honest.

David Thayer said...

I worked as an insurance investigator in NYC. The job required a young guy dumb enough to ask questions of the incredibly guilty in hazardous conditions. I learned to accuse construction foremen of theft after we took the manlift back to earth.

David Isaak said...

Good thing you learned that earlier rather than later.

Is that job why you eventually moved to the West Coast? Are guys named Viiny still looking for you in NYC?

Sam Taylor said...

Hey; since you model alternative energy, I suppose you've heard of the guy that's found a way to burn salt water with a radio beam? He's in Eerie, I think.

There's video on youtube (can't post the link, because I can't get to youtube from work).

Here's hoping this is viable (and that it doesn't get bought by an oil company and squashed.)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam...

Unfortunately, the burning salt water thing is not quite true. You can't burn water. Burning something is combining it with oxygen, and H2O already has as much oxygen as it can carry. Water is already "burned" (whcih is why it's good for putting out fires.

What this guy is doing is still pretty interesting, though. He's splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen. But that uses energy (the radio beam) and doesn't produce any. You can also do this with an electric current.

This does have applications as an energy storage technology, though--by capturing the hydrogen and either burning it or running it through a fuel cell. Both of those turn it back into water--which you can then split apart again, and burn the hydrogen again.

The cool thing is that any source of electricity--even a very intermittent one--can be used to generate hydrogen from water. Some day in the future, this will probably be how our entire energy economy works, with energy captured from alternative sources and stored as hydrogen until needed. (Of course, you never get as much energy back out as you put in.)

The big question is, how far away is the future? Back when I first started working on energy, I assumed we'd all be driving hydrogen cars by now! (Shows that you shouldn't count on me to predict the future.)

Sam Taylor said...

That's very good info, David :) Don't worry, most of the scifi writers of ages past assumed we'd be using flying cars by now. And now it looks like we'll probably never have them, due to security problems.

Don't worry about prediciting the future. Just like any other type of speculation, it's all luck. :) Research can improve your luck, sure, but it'll never make a sure thing.

David Isaak said...

Yeah, where are those flying cars? Or those teleportation booths? Or, most important of all, those skin-tight clothes with the pointy shoulders?