Finding meaning in stable/routine operation

 The course I mentioned last post talked a lot about communicating meaning in terms of concrete objectives, with very clear examples like NASA "we are going to put a man on the moon and bring him back again safely." Now as an engineer I've been more often involved in the design, build, and commissioning side of things, or a distinct process improvement for an existing facility. There's a concrete goal with a definite endpoint.

But what about ongoing operations? There is no endpoint, no time when you can say "congratulations everyone, we have achieved our goal!" or even track steps towards an end goal.

I've seen operational goals set such as producing or treating a certain number of units of whatever the facility does, but I don't find that inspiring... especially when the numbers are or seem arbitrary, and doubly so when the reward for meeting them is a more difficult target next time around.

So maybe considering the value in what the facility does and the value of having that constantly available would be more meaningful. Since I'm completely biased in favour of doing things which protect the environment and public health, I'll start with that category.

Take a sewage treatment plant as an example. Most people don't like thinking about them and like to smell them even less, but they're absolutely crucial to both public and environmental health. People's lives literally depend on them; without, every town above a certain size turns into a festering miasma of waste-transmitted disease. Cholera, for example, was a lot more deadly than people these days realize. This seems like, with accurate communication, some pretty meaningful work, even if it is stinky. I wish the general public would be more aware of just how important sewage treatment actually is, but that's a whole other post.

But how about a facility that produces things in the general category of "non essential stuff" - which really could be anything that exists to make the company owners money, and which they have to advertise to convince people they totally need it, really.




And this is about where I got hung up on this post, because I don't have a solution and I'm an engineer, I want to have at least a suggestion before I talk about something. So it sat for about a year as a draft, I've long since finished that course, and I don't have an answer to how to make work meaningful when I don't already think it is. Such is life, I guess; lots of people have been thinking about this topic and coming up with lots of blather. I think I'll stop before I add blather, and instead add only: I don't know.

Meaningful blather

I'm currently going through an online course in the business leadership vein, of which there are multitudes, but this one specifically is on a subject that produces immense quantities of corporate blather: communicating the meaningfulness of the work, from the corner office to the peons doing the actual labour.

Oh wait, is my bias showing there?

The thing is, I do recognize that a person who finds meaning in their work is going to do a better job and be more engaged than someone who doesn't, all else being equal.

Where the corporate blather comes in is when the company tries to hand wave meaning into tasks or ill defined aspirations. The positively unreadable vision and mission statements of so many companies are great examples of this. "Our vision is to be the best in our field" or something so generic seems to me pretty useless at engaging employees.

What if you're making some non-essential item that the company has spent loads of marketing dollars to convince people that they totally need? Where's the meaning there? Do the people making, shipping, and selling those things find them meaningful? Do the company owners find their chosen product(s) meaningful, or are they trying to wave around a concept of meaning to get more labour out of their employees?

But then, how much of what I classify as "corporate blather" is them being bad at communicating meaning, how much is them handwaving to hide a lack of meaning, and how much is me simply not being the target audience? (I heard once that if you find an advert annoying then you're not the target audience. Seems I'm not the target audience for the vast majority of ads I've seen...)

The course did a good job at describing factors that contribute to a sense of meaninglessness of work. Alas, many of the factors that undermine meaning in work are ones I and my friends have encountered many times. Not seeing results, lack of autonomy... being berated for taking initiative to improve or suggest an improvement to a process really takes the cake though. The course mentions Marx and his concept of "alienation of labour" (note to self, read a bit of Marx) which would be related. Meaninglessness, disconnection, alienation—all describe a situation in which workers do only what they must for the pay they need in order to live.

(I promise the next one won't be so cynical. Had to get the easy snark out of my system first...)

Not dead!

...just reading more about business type stuff than interesting technical type stuff.

 I think I may start posting about the stuff I'm reading there too. The whole thing with explaining something you're learning to help yourself make sense of it applies just as much to fuzzy things like how to human or how to business as they do for more repeatable things like how to chemistry.

 I'm definitely starting from a place of "ugh, business-speak" though. I guess that's the engineer in me.

Update: Greenwashing 7 - Simple Green

Way back when I followed a CBC Marketplace show and assessed their assessment of the products, I mentioned that I should buy and try one of them: Simple Green.

Well, I did, and I forgot to post an update. So, here it is.

I tried it out on a stubborn dirty spot that both "Scrub Free" and "Fantastik" barely touched, even with a lot of scrubbing. I followed the directions on the bottle: for tough dirt, spray it on full strength, let it sit for a minute or two, then wipe/scrub as needed, and rinse.

Things I noticed:

  • I don't really like the smell. I guess sassafras smells strange to me. But then, I don't like the smell of most cleaners; I think "eye-watering pine" smells worse.
  • It hardly took any scrubbing to get about 90% of the grime up. A second dose (after rinsing to see what was left) got the rest of it easily.
  • It is not labelled "irritant", which both Scrub Free and Fantastik are (I use gloves for those two).

I think this stuff is a win. I'm going to keep it.

Carbon survey

Tomorrow, NASA launches the OCO-2 satellite, which will make a detailed map of how much CO2 is in the atmosphere at various points on the globe. They plan to combine that data with data from other existing satellites, atmospheric sampling, and ground sampling, with the goal of finding out where CO2 is being produced and where it's being absorbed—in very high resolution, about 3 km2 per measurement, or, smaller than a big coal-fired power plant.

The satellite will be in a polar orbit which allows it to fly over every single spot on earth every 16 days, which means it will generate a complete map of CO2 concentrations every 16 days—less the areas that were covered in cloud when it flew over on that cycle. This repeated mapping also means that seasonal variations can be tracked, to separate a long-term trend from a seasonal fluctuation.

OCO-2 measures CO2 by measuring how much light is absorbed by the CO2 as sunlight travels down to the surface, reflects off the planet, and bounces back up to the satellite. So, cloud cover interferes with the measurement, and repeated mapping is one of the ways they're compensating for that.

Solar-powered jet fuel (and diesel, and...)

Sounds kind of backwards, I suppose, but there is in fact research happening on creating jet fuel, and other liquid fuels, using solar energy. One of the big advantages of liquid fuels like gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel is the large amount of energy contained in a small mass—much more energy per gram than batteries. Just recently, in fact, one such research group announced that they had produced a jar of jet fuel, starting from sunlight and CO2.

Taking out the quotes and the hyperbole about revolutionizing anything, what they've done is still pretty neat: turned CO2, the low energy end state of carbon-based fuel combustion, back into usable fuel.

Because CO2 is the low energy end state, to get it back into a high energy form such as kerosene (jet fuel) or diesel, a whole lot of energy has to be put into it. In this case, the energy is solar.

Well, the energy is intended to be solar.

Edible education

One subject I've had in my list to write about (once I spent the time to find some good sources) was why some leaves are edible while others aren't—completely aside from the question of toxicity, there are lots of plants that we simply can't digest. I hadn't yet got around to digging into the subject when I ran across the answer recently, along with loads of other interesting information about food chemistry.

A few weeks ago I discovered a free, online course offered by McGill University via edX, on the subject of food and nutrition. Despite being offered by the chemistry department there, it doesn't require more than high school chemistry and the ability to use a 4-function calculator as prerequisites, and I'm not even sure if it needs high school chemistry. You should probably know the difference between an atom and a molecule, and at least recognize the Periodic Table of the Elements.

I was too late to sign up for the credit version, where the assignment deadlines are enforced, but there is a non-credit, audit version (which I'm doing) where you still have access to all the video lectures, discussions, and mini-quizzes.

So back to edible vs. non-edible leaves.

In the lesson on carbohydrates, (week 4, lesson 1) they showed the chemical structure of starch vs. cellulose (video 8). Both are long strings of glucose connected by oxygen atoms, but the way they're strung together is different—and that's it. That's the difference between plants we can digest and plants we can't. (Plants we can digest still have cellulose in them and we pass that through our system no problem—but we don't get any nutrition out of it.)

(Screenshot from Food for Thought, week 4/lesson 1/video 8. Requires free course registration to view.)

They look very similar at first glance, but if you look closely, they have an important difference: every second glucose segment is upside down in the cellulose chain.

We have the enzymes necessary to digest starch. We don't, but cows and other ruminants do, have the enzymes necessary to digest cellulose.

Enzymes are complicated things which have a very specific shape, and can fit around molecules of a very specific shape. So, an enzyme that fits the shape of starch in order to cut it down to its component glucose molecules will simply not fit the different shape of cellulose, even though the components are all the same.

So that was short and sweet. Also, check out the course, it's fascinating. (Keep in mind you can adjust the playback speed of the videos. I found my attention wandering because the instructors speak kind of slowly; running them at 1.5x speed makes it easier for me to keep from wandering. You can also back up and repeat sections if you don't catch it the first time through, or pause to look at the diagrams, because it's a video.)

Unnatural or Natural

Something I've been thinking about for a while, even since before I did the greenwashing article series, is: what makes a thing "natural" or "unnatural"?

Many people would say that "natural" things are things which come from nature with minimal processing. It sounds like a reasonable definition at first glance, but when I try to get specific, I start running into trouble with the definitions of the words used to define "natural". They seem to be a bit fuzzy themselves, which makes the term "natural" hard to pin down.

So my first question is, what is meant, exactly, by "from nature"?

Oily algae

Algae, as well as other biologically sourced feed stocks, has been the subject of a lot of research in oil production, for what should be obvious reasons. There are several things about using some bio-sources that concern me, however. Using food cropland to grow corn or soy intended for conversion to fuel, for one, resulting in less food production (and contributing to higher food prices).

The bio-sources that don't bother me in this way are things like manure or other waste to bio-fuel. Even wood waste and scrap paper can be turned into either oil or syngas (which can be turned into oil, among other things).

But, an interesting comment in a recent press release about oil from algae caught my eye: "byproduct stream of material containing phosphorus that can be recycled to grow more algae."

Chlorinated hair

When I signed up for triathlon training, I had to buy a pair of swim goggles so I didn't crash into things like the lane markers, the other people swimming around me, and the wall at the end of the pool. (Ouch.) While buying that little necessity, the sales staff talked me into buying some special chlorine-removing shampoo. Naturally I was curious about whether it was actually significantly different from my normal shampoo or if it was just marketing, which is the majority of the difference between most normal shampoos, so I bought the little sample size bottle to test it out.

Using it in place of my normal shampoo after the swim didn't seem to make a difference that I could notice, but then I did make sure to pre-soak myself in the pool showers before jumping in. Hair absorbs a remarkable amount of water, so getting it to absorb low-chlorine tap water before it hits the high-chlorine pool water will provide some partial protection right there.

I remember my grandfather's white hair turning green when I was a kid and we'd go to the public pool (which I found out as an adult is due to copper from the pipes, not the chlorination). I also remember how the pool smell would cling even after that post-swim rinse.