Dam Blogging Part 2: Just The Facts

So now you’re educated about dams. The real question is… So what?

If you’ve paid any attention to the news in the last two weeks you’ve heard about the Wolf Creek Dam up in south-central Kentucky. It’s on the Cumberland River upstream of Nashville about 120 miles as the river meanders. It’s huge. Biggest reservoir east of the Mississippi River and ninth biggest in the country. It’s so big that if it failed it could seriously flood Nashville. And it’s leaking.

Wolf Creek Dam is a combination of dam types. It’s part concrete with spillways and generators for hydro power, but it’s also over a mile long and 200 feet tall. That’s a lot of concrete, even at prices in the 1940s. So rather than build it all in concrete, an earth embankment was used. Lots and lots of clay was brought in to built the embankment portion. Clay was used because it’s semi-impermeable (water can’t flow through it very well).

It was designed in the late 1930’s, but construction was delayed by World War II, and wasn’t completed until 1952. By the late 1960’s they started seeing problems with water getting under and through the dam. This was caused by a less than ideal foundation. The dam is built on limestone and the whole area is typical karst geology. Limestone can dissolve in water and karst geology is a description of the tendency of limestone to have seams and ‘tunnels’ in it filled with dirt. You see a lot of sinkholes in karst areas and have a lot of water flowing below ground.

What was happening at Wolf Creek is pretty simple. Water was seeping into the limestone and being carried in the ‘tunnels’ and seams under and around the dam. At some points the limestone ‘tunnels’ were near the ground surface, and the flowing water eroded enough of the dirt on top of the limestone to form sinkholes. A sinkhole is a lot like a rat. When you see one there are a lot more you can’t see. And they don’t do anything but grow. Just like a crack in a window makes a window a lot weaker, sinkholes are usually just the beginning of a major problem for a dam.

So the Corps of Engineers jumped into action. They built a concrete wall through the center of the earthen portion of the dam. They drilled it into the rock under the dam to try and cut off the ‘tunnels’ in the limestone. But it was the early 1970’s and money was tight. So they built the wall shallower and shorter than it really should have been. They managed to save the dam for a time, but the problem came back.

And that brings us to today. The Corps of Engineers has been keeping an eye on the dam ever since the work in the 70’s. In the last few years they’ve noticed a lot more water flowing under the dam and the sinkholes and wet spots are starting up again. So now we have to fix it again, and try and be a little more thorough this time.

Next up we have the payoff post which describes what this dam could do to Nashville.


Dam Blogging 1: A Dam Owner's Manual

This is the first in my series of posts about Wolf Creek Dam. I’m going to attempt to explain the basics of dam operations and failure methods.

I like to use a bathtub analogy to explain why a dam works. Your daily shower is a lot like a river. Imagine you’re standing at a specific place on the river. The shower head is standing in for all the water flowing toward you from up river. The tub drain is where the water ends up when it passes you. If your shower is working properly then all the water flowing out of the spigot goes down the drain. That’s how a normal river system works. If you really turn up the faucet, the water may start coming out of the faucet faster than it can get out of the drain, so it starts to puddle up in your tub. If you turn down the faucet again, the water drains out faster than it comes in, and it the puddle goes away. That’s how a river floods.

Now it gets more interesting. Imagine we’re building a dam on the river where you’re standing. We just plugged up the drain in your bathtub. The water is still coming in, but it can’t get out. So you get a puddle like a natural flood. Then the puddle starts to rise. If you don’t unblock the drain the water will just keep rising until it fills up the tub and runs off into the bathroom floor. The tub full of water represents the new reservoir we created behind the dam.

That’s dam operations in a nutshell. Barring a rain dance or a direct line to God, we can’t control the amount of water that flows into our reservoir/tub, but we can control how much drains out through our dam. When the dam is designed you have to carefully build in spillways to control how much flow gets out. If the water gets too high and is threatening to get out of the tub and into the bathroom floor you open up more drains.

Try Wikipedia for a discussion of dam types.

There are two basic failure mechanisms for a dam. They are also applicable to levees, and both were seen in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

The first is overtopping. Just like it sounds, the water gets to high and goes over the top of the dam. Overtopping doesn’t have to mean failure, but it can fail the dam depending on what materials were used in construction. In the case of Wolf Creek Dam, overtopping would mean failure because then you’d have a lot of fast moving water flowing over the front of the dam which is soil and grass. The fast moving water would erode the dam until it just crumbles away in the water.

The second type of dam failure is due to infiltration and seepage. Overtopping is a situation where water goes over the dam, seepage is when water finds a way through the dam. Some slight seepage is normal in an earthen dam, but if there is a lot it can become a major problem. Seepage starts very small as the water finds a path to trickle through the dam. Once the water is through it can begin to erode the material of the dam and the pathway gets larger and larger. Eventually it can get large enough that the structural integrity of the dam is compromised and large chunks start to wash away or the embankment itself starts to slump and fall over like a sand castle when the tide comes in.

Seepage is the problem at Wolf Creek, and I'll tell you about it tomorrow.

Dam Blogging

I saw on the news this morning that the Corps of Engineers was forced to start an emergency drawdown of the reservoir at Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky. Wolf Creek Dam is on the Cumberland River up in the headwaters of the Cumberland River basin in southeast Kentucky. The dam itself is over a mile long and the reservoir, Cumberland Lake, is 101 miles long. That makes it the largest reservoir east of the Mississippi River and ninth largest in the country. (Everything is bigger out west.)

But of course the dry facts and figures aren’t all that interesting. The thing that makes this important…… the dam is leaking and could quite possibly fail. Fail is a dry engineering term used to mean something might break. It can mean anything from that screw that holds your glasses together to a mile long dam or 100 story skyscraper.

Obviously, in this case we’re more interested in dams than glasses. I’m going to take a shot at explaining why you should be worried about Wolf Creek Dam as time permits over the next couple of days. I’m going to try and do it without sounding getting all boring and pompous sounding like I tend to do when I talk about technical issues.

The title of today’s post is also a tribute to the staff of the Nashville Scene whom probably have uttered some form of it from time to time.


Bugsy Seigel and Johnny Depp.

How is Tim Burton's version of Las Vegas?

They're both worth taking the time to experience them just for the huge visual spectacle. Especially if you have a high definition tv in the former, and a lot of money in the latter.

Don't try and compare them on any other level though. It's just not a good idea.


Holy Crazy Ex's Batman

Like I said yesterday, one of the joys of being home sick is being able to catch up on all my movie viewing. So last night the fine people of NetFlix provided me with 'My Super Ex-Girlfriend'. And now I'm here to tell you about it.

The basic plot is pretty well described in the title. Steve (Luke Wilson) is a regular schlub who meets Jenny (Uma Thurman) on the subway and asks her out. As we watch that, we also see super heroine G-Girl saving people from various disasters around town. It turns out Jenny and G-Girl are one in the same.

As movie concepts go, I really like this one. That's why I wanted to see it in spite of the reviews. It's a dream for every jilted woman, and a nightmare for every guy who likes to play the field. (Disclaimer: I'm making no larger comment about genders here, I'm just using the male POV because that was in the movie, and my experience.) You meet a girl, she's cute, she's funny, she's interesting... so you go out on a few dates with her. But then she starts getting weird. She turns possessive and jealous. Those two things will get any girl dumped in a New York minute.

But there's the twist. What if your jealous and possessive ex-girlfriend has superpowers and isn't afraid to use them? This is where the comedy comes in. There's some pretty ingenious methods of revenge available if you have superpowers. I won't give them away, but they involve heat vision and flying sharks.

Beyond the comedy there are some semi-cerebral points if you look. There's an obvious role reversal in the relationship. Jenny is the strong protector and Matt feels a little emasculated when she takes care of him in a physical way. It's really pretty similar to dating a girl who makes more than you. There's also probably some feminist commentary in the fact that one of the reasons Jenny falls for Matt is because he ' save her' from a purse snatcher.

The biggest thing I liked about this movie is the different perspective. I'm a big fan of super hero movies, and I've read a comic book or two in my day. Most superhero movies portray them as more than human. You don't really consider their dating life and what happens if they get a broken heart, so it was nice to have a look at it.

Rainn Wilson (aka Dwight Schrute) plays the sidekick. He plays this one pretty similar to Dwight, but Dwight has an innocent vulnerability. This character is just nasty and misogynistic.

All together, I'd say it's worth watching just so long as you don't have high expectations. It gets points for an original concept, but loses them because all of the characters are a little too whiney and sympathetic. And the super-heroine costumes are great.

Authoritah Followup

As Exador pointed out, the expirement on Primetime that I posted about last week was based on some work done by Dr. Stanley Milgram in 1961. Milgram was apparently inspired by the trial of former nazi Adolf Eichmann who was on trial that year for his war crimes. Eichmann claimed he was only following orders (see also, Abu Graib). So Milgram started looking into authority.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, Milgram is a pretty fascinating person. He's credited with the "six degrees of seperation" concept. He created a 'small world' expirement in 1967 by sending packages to random people and asking them to forward the package to a specific person. If they didn't know that person, then they were asked to send it to someone they do know who is 'more likely than you to know the target person'.

It sounds pretty silly to me. Of course you could never get away with that these days. Anyone who got the package would assume it's drugs or a bomb and get rid of it. I suppose it could work in 1967, but it seems like a long shot. I'd really be interested to see the original paper he published on it, but according to my internet research it didn't get very far. But he is credited with creating the concept that was later mainstreamed by the popularity and prolific career of Kevin Bacon. I can only see it working in small groups or with people who are well known.

But anyway... the topic I meant to talk about is Milgram's expirements on obedience to authority. It's pretty much like the one Primetime ran. Except a little more extreme. Milgram's authority figures were more overbearing, and the 'subject' was put in a lot more pain. His results were pretty much like Primetime's, but with some interesting side effects.

It was pretty controversial due to the extreme stress that Milgram put his test subjects under. The psychiatric community was worried about the guilt and stress his subjects were under as they decided to provide an electric shock to what they thought was another person. I think that was really kind of the whole point. To see how much guilt and stress it took to over ride an authority figure.

You can question his ethics I guess, but it's some pretty useful expiremental data. The subjects caused themselves some extreme stress, but they still consented to cause pain to another person despite the fact that it could cause them serious health issues. All because they were told to do so by a guy in a white coat.


The Joys of a Good Stomach Bug

#1.) Get out of the meeting with the wedding planner.
#2.) Nearly instant loss of weight.
#3.) Plenty of time to catch up on the full DVR and watch back episodes of Rome on demand.
#4.) A fever. Where else can you experience the chills while you sweat. And let's not discount the enlightment you can get only from a good feverish dream.

Sometimes I think the worst party is when I'm well enough that my brain works, but my body is a day or two behind.


Respect My Authoritah!

ABC's newshow, Primtime, had an interesting story a couple of weeks ago. They were exploring the tendency of people to follow orders. The story even came with a handy dandy expirement.

They found 60 people who thought they were volunteering for a memory expirement. They were supposed to help someone else learn word pairs. So they sat these people up in different rooms and had the volunteer recite words into the microphone so the other person could give the matching word. The catch? When the second person didn't get the word right, he got zapped. Being an expirement and all, the second person was actually an actor, and wasn't really getting zapped.

The point of the expirement was to see if people would keep zapping the poor guy, even when he started shouting in pain and protesting. They set it up so every volunteer zapper heard a speech from the zapee about his heart condition. The zaps kept getting worse, and after a few wrong answers, the zapee started shouting in pain. After a few more, he started complaining about his heart problem.

The results were fascinating. Or at least the part they showed on TV were fascinating. The zappers would keep checking with the guy in charge of the expirement. And he kept saying "You have to zap him." So they did. Even after the poor guy getting zapped started complaining about his heart. They all looked worried, but they kept doing it.

Nearly every one of them later said they were just doing as they were told. I sincerely think this is the root of most grander evils committed by humanity. It only takes one person to come up with the idea and every one else can go along with it. Puts truth in that old overly dramatic chestnut, "Evil triumphs when good men do nothing."

The same principle works on a much smaller scale. If you act like you know what you are doing and are where you're supposed to be, you can get away with a lot of things. Even acting like you have authority gives you authority.

The study also presented an interesting gender gap. Only 65% of the men kept zapping the guy with the bum heart. But 73% of women kept going. The Primetime story felt the need to explain this by presenting the idea that women were more intimidated by the authority figure into continuing against their wishes. Personally, I don't think thats a big enough difference to be significant considering that they only tested 18 men and 22 women, but it's very interesting that they felt like they should explain it.

And Your Point Is Now Lost

I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that when you’re debating an issue how you say something is just as important as what you’re saying. That’s not really something a lot of people subscribe to if the things I see on the internet are true. Snark is everywhere.

As a debate tactic, snark is useless. Snark ruins your chances of convincing just about anyone of just about anything. If someone disagrees with you, are they really going to change their mind when you cleverly (or not so cleverly) dismiss their position with a quip or throw away comment? Nope. Someone with a different opinion is either going to get mad or just switch off completely. That kind of behavior is just making yourself feel smarter and grandstanding so the people who agree with you can agree how terribly smart you are.

Snark does have its uses. Sometimes you just have to do it to make yourself feel better. It’s great for relieving frustrations and retaliating when someone else fights dirty. But whenever someone gets overly snarky I just assume they’ve given up on any meaningful discussion and just want to feel better by ripping down other people.

This post is inspired by the commenters in Aunt B’s circumcision post. Auntie herself makes liberal use of snark, but hers just flavors real intellectual thinking. And she usually makes an honest response to earnest questions. Maybe it’s a personal failing on my part, but listening to Chris Wage argue a position almost always makes me want to take the opposite. His ability to make me want to disagree with him, even when I don't really care about the issue is truly amazing. And just for the record, I quit reading after my last comment. Sometimes it’s just best that way.

Maybe it’s the engineer in me, but I really think the world would be easier to live in if people would really take time to think about what other people are saying and logically debate things. But the emotional responses and tendency to ridicule are too deeply ingrained in humanity to ever abandon them.

And of course, in typical W fashion, I’ve practically changed my mind in less than a paragraph. If Spock is an example of a society ruled by logic, then the contentious nature of humanity is probably worthwhile just to keep from getting bored.


The Golden Week

My favorite work week is probably pretty obvious. Vacation week of course. But my second most favorite work week is that golden time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

About 20% of the people in the office actually show up. With everyone sleeping in and shopping for Christmas markdowns I don’t have to deal with all the distractions that have become my lot in life since I became a supervisor. The only drawback? I was promoted last January, and apparently I’m high enough up the corporate ladder to be the most senior person from my section to actually show up. So I have to deal with the people that want to talk to the boss but can’t.

The Golden Week apparently holds true for all office workers downtown. The morning commute is awesome, there is no waiting at the restaurants downtown, and I can park closer to the building. You just have to be flexible at lunch time since about half of the restaurants close down due to lack of customers.

There’s really only one big drawback about working during The Golden Week. The Music City Bowl insures a bunch of tourist yahoos wandering around downtown. Not quite as bad as Fanfare, but this year was very traumatic due to all those Kentucky jerseys getting in my way.

I already miss the golden week. I've never much liked January and February. I loved Kat Coble's comments on it last January so much I have to end this post with her quote.

"It's society's sixty day sleep in the wet spot after the sensual abandon of the holidays."

I Need A Beach

I got lucky. With all the wedding planning going on I managed to get put in charge of the honeymoon. I’m not sure I like all this pressure, but it beats having to help plan the wedding.
We’re thinking Caribbean, or maybe the Florida Keys at the moment because we’ll both need some relaxation after all the wedding/moving stress, and we’re going in March so a beach vacation sounds really appealing after a Nashville winter. I’m really interested in The Bahamas, though I’m not sure why.

I've been seriously considering Hawaii as well. I don't think it's going to happen since we only have the week of The Future Mrs. W's spring break. It just seems like too much travel time to really be able to enjoy the islands. And my suggestion of Vegas for a few days after the wedding and Hawaii this summer didn't go over that well.

We’re seriously considering an all-inclusive along the lines of Sandals. I like the all-inclusive concept so I don’t have to keep track of spending and worry about going over budget. And a couples only place might be the best way to have a beach vacation and avoid the hordes of college spring breakers.

So, anyone have advice for me? Non-Caribbean and non-beach suggestions are welcome.


After much consideration, The Librarian has decided to start her own blog. Now that she has been a blogger for two weeks she has decided to take me to task for my own blog getting ‘stale’. I forgive her for her impertinance. She is right, after all.

I’ve had lots of things to write about rattling around in my brain, but haven’t gotten around to actually sitting down and writing them. So I’m going to attempt to meet her challenge and increase my post frequency a little.