Monthly Archives: May 2010

Annals of American Hellfighters

With the BP oil spill in the Gulf, we’re all learning quite a bit about how to deal with oil well-related disaster. “Top Kill,” “Junk Shot,” “Top Hat,” and half  a dozen other strategies to seal off the underwater well — all of which sound like a series of movies starring Jason Statham — have all become part of the lingua franca, or at least I wish that they had. In any case, reading about the situation at the site of the erstwhile Deepwater Horizon, I came across this paragraph:

Several veterans of the Kuwait operation are orchestrating the technicians in the Gulf of Mexico. To lead the effort, BP has brought in Mark Mazzella, its top well-control expert, who was mentored by Bobby Joe Cudd, a legendary Oklahoma well firefighter.

Now, where have I heard about legendary well firefighters before? Oh, right, this incredible obituary: “Coots Matthews, Cantankerous Hellfighter, Dies at 86.” A sampling:

Matthews, like his colleagues, was an expert in the perilous art of detonating dynamite in oil well infernos to starve the fire of oxygen, thereby killing it. Real hellfighters insist on the word “kill” over wimpier alternatives like “extinguish.”

… Among thousands of calamities, Mr. Matthews survived the simultaneous blowout of 14 wells in the North Sea; 700 oil well fires in Iraq in 1991; and a broken leg, which made him an inch shorter on the left side. He and Boots, or Asger Hansen, helped Mr. Adair put out one of the most famous oil well fires in history. The blaze, in Algeria in 1962, came to be called the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter.

…  His daughter characterized him as a “barroom brawler” and “hell on wheels,” who “too often let his fists do the talking.”

You should basically read the whole thing.  Ok, one more: Before he set out on his own, Coots was fired from Halliburton for crashing seven company cars. Damn.

Anyway, it turns out that Coots knew Bobby Joe Cudd, because they both worked with Red Adair, another legendary hellfighter, in Kuwait, among other projects. Mazella has a pretty good pedigree, in other words, so hopefully he’ll get this well in the Gulf capped toot sweet.

I’ll leave the last word to Coots:

“An engineer’s not going to put his hands on a fire, but he thinks he’s so much smarter than us,” Mr. Matthews said in an interview with The Washington Post in 1991. “And if they ever get a computer to cap a goddang oil well, I guess I’ll be out of business. But I ain’t shakin’ in my boots over it.”

Pic via.

Merge records turns 20. Happy Birthday.

The More Things Change

As part of the day job, I’m working on a long feature story about international capital markets, sovereign debt crises and the people who try to stop them and clean up the mess.  For background, I’m reading The Chastening, a book by Paul Blustein that chroncles the International Monetary Fund’s efforts to stop the Asian financial crisis of the late nineties. And boy, nothing has changed.

It’s spring 1997, and Thai foreign currency reserves are running desperately low as international speculators borrow Thai currency — the baht — cheaply and sell it short. A gentleman named Paiboon Kittisrikangwan — middle right, above, chilling with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz — had the task of ensuring that no one, outside his employer, the Central Bank of Thailand, realized the extent of Thailand’s economic troubles.

So Paiboon and his colleagues used other techniques to mitigate and disguise the effects of their baht-buying and dollar-selling. Much of it involved the “swap” market, where participants can buy or sell one currency for another with a promise to trade the currencies back after a certain number of weeks or months.  It is not neceessary to udnerstand the intricacies of this market to comprehend the essence of what Paiboon did. He obtained dollars in the swap markets, thereby replenishing the central bank’s reserves, and in the same transactions he unloaded baht, thereby replenishing the amount of baht circulating in the Thai economy. Problems solved! But there was a catch — because in each of these swap transactions, the central bank was entering into commitments ot reverse the transaction a few months later.

The beauty was that the Bank of Thailand didn’t have to disclose the commitments, so its published figures indicated that it still had ample dollars in the till. The downside was that the more this practice continued, the fewer dollars the central bank actually had that were readily available to defend the baht … Only a handful of officials knew the dreadful secret — that once the official reserve figure was adjusted to reflect the dollars committed in the swap market, the Bank of Thailand was nearly out of hard currency.

This kind of swaps arrangement is essentially the same thing the Greek government attempted in its own recent effort to disguise its current debt crisis.  The causes of the crises were different, but the derivatives-driven response is nearly the same.  Wonder if we’ll learn anything this time around…


My friend Julie, who took the banner picture and has many great pictures besides at her flickr page, brought me to a concert the other week with Local Natives and Suckers. It’s the first time in a while I’ve seen one, much less two,  bands I’d never heard of whose performances inspired me to track down their music online. Both groups are pretty good — Suckers are above, and here is a Local Natives track.

Dilemmas: Biking

The onset of spring weather has brought with it a return to bicycle commuting, and an interesting dilemma: If I’m riding as far over to the right as I can, right on top of the curb or parked cars, passing traffic seems to cut in next to me as tightly as it can, which is a bit anxious-making. On the other hand, if I ride further out into traffic, owning my lane, then traffic gives me a wide berth, but it seems rather like tempting fate.  Obviously the public policy solution is more bike lanes, but what is the optimal riding position on automobile-prejudiced roadways?

Reading List

Think this is next:

Imperial is like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, if Robert Caro had been raised in an abandoned grain silo by a band of feral raccoons, and if Mike Davis were the communications director of a heavily armed libertarian survivalist cult, and if the two of them had somehow managed to stitch John McPhee’s cortex onto the brain of a Gila monster, which they then sent to the Mexican border to conduct ten years of immersive research, and also if they wrote the entire manuscript on dried banana leaves with a toucan beak dipped in hobo blood, and then the book was line-edited during a 36-hour peyote séance by the ghosts of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis, with 200 pages of endnotes faxed over by Henry David Thoreau’s great-great-great-great grandson from a concrete bunker under a toxic pond behind a maquiladora, and if at the last minute Herman Melville threw up all over the manuscript, rendering it illegible, so it had to be re-created from memory by a community-theater actor doing his best impression of Jack Kerouac. With photographs by Dorothea Lange.

Like most people confronted with William Vollman’s work, I find it hard to assess. I thought Europe Central was brilliant, loved The Rifles but couldn’t get into the Seven Dreams series, have struggled with Rising Up, Rising Down for years and have been alternately repelled and fascinated by The Royal Family. Accounts differ as to why I have yet to attempt You Bright and Risen Angels.