Monthly Archives: May 2016

Biodiesel and AvGas

In 2005 I got a job working as a “batcher” making biodiesel in a factory whose vegetable oil feedstock was shipped in via railroad tanker cars. I spent a lot of time measuring out the catalyst Sodium Hydroxide in zip lock bags, sweating and getting burns despite the Tyvek suit, face-mask, respirator and gloves. I also spent lots of time cleaning. This particular operation was financed by people who were trying to run the factory as a tech-start up, instead of what it was supposed to be ideally: A sustainable fuel manufacturer. There was one step in the process that was quite puzzling. They were adding a white powder, Magnusol – an industrial degreaser, to help separate the glycerin from the biodiesel. The problem became apparent some weeks after this practice started. A local biodiesel retailer and expert mechanic, Dr. D., had begun to see a white gunk in many of his clients cylinders. The Magnusol was not falling out of solution effectively and was ending up clogging people’s engines causing thousands of dollars of damage. The management and owners were in denial about their role in ruining engines and did their best to cover their asses and avoid liability. At one point I visited Dr. D. and had a long conversation about what I was seeing. My employers were not about sustainability and producing the most low-carbon fuel possible with the most ecologically sound practices. They were only about making money, about exploiting people’s desire for an ecologically sound alternative to fossil fuel. I told Dr. D. about the Magnusol and how they were trying to run to process faster and faster without a ‘real’ scientist to make accurate predictions regarding what ended up in the fuel. So instead of getting rid of the Magnusol the plant purchased a massive filtering system which removed the Magnusol after processing and I spent a lot of time cleaning the filters, another loathesome duty. It wasn’t much longer before my time in this factory ended. There was just nothing for it, I clearly had ideals and principals that conflicted with the greed and mismanagement of my, perhaps, well meaning but ultimately flawed employers. Sometime after I left, the company changed their name and moved to a new plant out on the coast and there they began importing palm oil from Indonesia. It seems their corruption only deepened in the name of profit over all else.

My interest and enthusiasm for Biodiesel was spawned primarily by the wars for oil that the U.S. has been waging for the past decades. I am still running my 2004 Volkswagen on Biodiesel from Dr. D. It is a challenging industry, but I still whole heartedly support sustainable biodiesel and those amazing people who are able, despite the greed and corruption, to grow, produce, sell and maintain the most ecologically sound domestic fuel.

Here are some links if you are interested in helping overcome the addiction to fossil fuels through sustainable biodiesel.


On the topic of fuel there is one more big problem that I would like to mention. Many people do not realize that most private small aircraft still run on leaded fuel, called “AvGas”. Municipal and small scale airfields that cater to these planes do not have the infrastructure to fuel aircraft with unleaded fuel. The engines are also not designed to work with unleaded fuels so there really hasn’t been much change in these problems. The truth is that there is no safe amount of lead in the human organism. Every atom of lead in the body does damage. We learned this a long time ago and got rid of lead in automobiles but the issue of small planes still using avgas has flown beneath the radar. The people mostly affected by this are young children who live near municipal or private airfields, not a very powerful voting block. Their more rapidly developing nervous systems are more susceptible than in adults. Those affected, living in the areas which experience the highest concentration of aerosolized lead from small planes, tend to be in the lower income bracket and people of color. This is truly a travesty and a hidden shame of the aviation industry.


Kelp – Shark – Typhoon

Surfing on the east side of Santa Cruz meant Pleasure Point or 26th avenue and when those massive Northwest swells rolled in during autumn only the brave or crazy headed up north to places like 3-mile, 4-mile, Davenport or Año Nuevo. One day, in 1992, my buddy WZ and I drove with a friend and our gear out to Davenport during a particularly big swell. There were only a few guys actually out in the water as we pulled up in D’s van. The surf spot at Davenport had a small bay that faced west-southwest and extended from El Jarro point about 600 yards to the southern edge of the bay. Normally there were 2 surf spots – the point break at El Jarro and the more accessible one at the south end of the bay. As we stood on the edge of the road next to the other surfers checking the waves someone produced a joint and a few of us partook.

We suited up and paddled out to the southern peak. The southern peak had a particularly dense grove of bull kelp. These kelp have large bulbous heads, filled with air, which pop up to the surface in the trough of passing waves and are submerged when the crests roll by. As we paddled out they make an ominous THUMP on the bottom of the surf board when in a trough. This was so disturbing because Davenport is located within the Red Triangle, a great white shark breeding ground.

WZ made it out first and caught a monster on his tiny 5’6″ thruster. The face of the wave was at least double overhead, or twice the size of the surfer. WZ was in the impact zone paddling out and getting trounced. I caught a wave of similar size and began to paddle back out when a close out set appeared on the horizon. The massive close-out set broke across the entire bay. Triple overhead giants created row after row of 12+ feet of white water. The first wall of white water approached and I duck dived as deeply as I could into the kelp trying to get under the turmoil. The chaotic white water tossed me around like a rag doll and soon I was deep under water tangled up in the kelp forest. I could not discern which way was up to the surface. The more one struggles the more the kelp wraps around the struggler. So I just had to relax, follow my leash to my surfboard and use it to find the surface. Finally I was able to get my head out of the water and take a breath. Then the next close out wave approached. I did this five or six more times before giving up and heading to the beach to wait out the close out set.


The beaches in Aptos, CA stretch on for miles perched on the edge of the Montery Submarine Canyon. On a lonely weekday evening, with the sun low on the horizon, it can feel like the shores of a distant planet. I found myself out in the water one summer evening, a lazy south swell rolling in occasional 6 foot nuggets breaking over well worn sand bars. With the sun in the west, on the opposite side of an outside set, the waves light up and briefly turn a bright yellow-green. There was one other guy out in the water and no one on the beach. As I paddled back out after a mediocre ride, a set came up. Through the translucent wave a silhouette, 16 – 18 feet long, with a vertical tail and dorsal fin was silently swimming south at a rapid clip. Had I imagined it? Was it a mirage? Dolphins have horizontal tail fins and often surf the wave, bounding in and out of the water, whereas sharks tend to swim inside of them. I called to the other guy and motioned for him to paddle in. I told him what I saw, or what I thought I saw. We waited on the beach and looked out to sea for half an hour. Nothing. So we paddled back out and hoped it was only the sea playing tricks on me.


One of the amazing things about living in Taipei was the public transportation. I could take the MRT (subway) to the train station, hop on a train, and an hour and a half later walk off the train not 500 yards from the tropical paradise of Fulong Beach. Once I had caught a perfect day here just before a Typhoon hit. Warm water 6-8 ft. tubes pealed away from the jetty on the edge of the river mouth. Hoping to duplicate this experience I head out to Fulong one day several weeks later and stepped off the train to gray skies, rain and wind. The ocean was tumultuous and there was no coherent break; only hundreds of peaks and turbulent water. I paddled out near the jetty anyway. About half way out I noticed there were uniformed people standing on the jetty waving at me to paddle in. I kept going, determined to catch at least one wave. Outside the break, while waiting for a wave, a bright orange coast guard boat pulled up and a man with a megaphone shouted at me in Chinese. I waved and smiled and nodded “O.K.” and still waited. When a somewhat ridable wave finally showed up I caught it and though it was mostly white water, rode it to the beach. The coast guard guys thought I was crazy. I went home disappointed. It turns out the best time to catch typhoon waves is just before it hits the island, when the swell that developed in the typhoon is ripe and the winds have not yet arrived to ruin the party. I will always marvel and appreciate the fact that in some lucky places a person can take public transportation all the way to the beach.

Tequila and Federales

We had 4 weeks of winter break. My friend T and I had finished War and Peace after a 2 week reading marathon in preparation for the coming seminars. The opening question for the first of a the series was destined to be short, brief and brilliant. Mr. Sachs would ask us, “War AND Peace. Bread AND butter. What kind of ‘and’ is that?” As soon as T and myself were finished reading we “borrowed without asking” my parents’ GMC suburban, grabbed our buddy K and drove from the Bay Area to Imperial Beach on the boarder with Tijuana, Mexico by nightfall exhausted looking for a place to sleep. None of us had ever been across the boarder so we decided to wait until morning to cross it. The suburban was large with three rows of couch-like seats. We drove up on a beach, having no clue as to where we were, and sacked out. Close to midnight the police showed up and asked us what we were doing. I knew that the GMC, affectionately known as Big Red, would not be reported stolen at least until morning because I had my youngest brother cover for me, telling our parents I was staying at a friend’s house and then telling them the truth in the morning. The officer was actually quite friendly once he found out we were students on winter break. He told us we couldn’t sleep in the car on the beach and gave detailed directions to a nearby campground where we could stay that night. He also asked us to deliver a message of love and longing to Ranger Judy who worked at that campground. We told him we would if we saw her and we were back on the road, still partially drunk and high. When we made it to the campground we just pulled into a parking space and sacked out again. At dawn we tried to skip out on paying the overnight-fee but were caught just before exiting the campground by none other than ranger Judy who was extremely nonplussed at the love message from the officer. She made us pay the fee which we had conveniently stored in the registration envelope and stuck under the windshield wiper. We told her we didn’t know where to put it. She knew we were lying, took the money and sent us on our way.

It was early and crossing the border was easy, we breezed through. At the first toll stop/check point we threw the money in the funnel-bucket. As we exited the toll booth the first thing we saw was a burnt car with a dead charred body in the driver’s seat halfway through the windshield lying on the hood and a bunch of federales with machine guns standing around. K, who never seemed to be afraid of anything, let out a cry that was somewhere between a coyote and a 3 month old baby screaming for its mother. T was driving and just kept on going. We blew through Rosarito and headed east at Ensenada zipping all the way to San Felipe, stopping only for a quick beach excursion, the charred corpse still fresh in our minds. As dusk settled into night we arrived in San Felipe with no clue as to where we would stay or what we would do so we went to only bar we could find. After 1 beer I headed back to Big Red to get some shut-eye. An hour or two later I was awoken by K clamoring into the suburban, slamming the doors and yelling, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”.

“What’s the matter? I asked.”

“I punched T in the face.”

“What the fuck for?” I asked groggily, not caring very much. They were fighting over a woman, a married woman at that. Probably one of the few females in the entirety of San Felipe. This brought to mind the first time I introduced these two guys to each other. I had failed out of private school my freshman year of high school and “was not invited to return” for my sophomore year. My folks gave me the choice of military school or an evangelical boarding school in Watsonville that had a surf club. I know what comes out when you put meat in a meat grinder so I figured I’d take my chances with God and bible-thumping lunatics. After staying mostly out of trouble, or at least not getting caught, my folks allowed me to attend public high school for my last two years. After a few months of public school, for whatever reason, I realized that I was incredibly ignorant not just about academic achievement but about how the world worked and a host of other things. This profound sense of ignorance spurred me to find someone, someone intelligent both academically and in a worldly sort of way. I asked around my surfer and stoner friends. Who is the smartest guy you know? The answer from multiple sources was T. This guy was taking college level science classes and, for reasons that will be about to be elucidated, was the de facto epicenter of a group of kids known as “The Posse”. I immediately introduced myself and we became good friends. T had, hands down, the best living arrangement a high school student could possibly have. He lived with his father, an brilliant hard working scientist that spent half of every month in another state working on nuclear energy. So T had his apartment to himself for 2 weeks nearly every month. And for those two weeks it was video games, alcohol, ganja and mayhem of epic proportions. This secret world was known by many but only open to a select few. T was smart enough not to go blurting out his secret independence thoughtlessly. There were parties and most of the posse was conspicuously absent for the clean-up before his dad returned. I had become friends with K through a different route, friend of a friend sort of thing, and he was a mechanical genius who built at least 2 vehicles and was always creating and showing off his technical prowess: winches for 4 wheeling, guns, a three person slingshot, potato cannon, a bong that had a nitrous oxide carb – he was always working on something. I asked K one day if he knew T and he said he’d heard of him but didn’t know him. So, it happening to be one of those 2 week stints of freedom, I took K to T’s place for a fateful meeting. They hit it off right away with the video games, the beer and the weed all in good supply. The I remembered I had to get to work at the bakery. So I left. The next day at school neither T or K where in attendance. It turns out they had been busted trying to lift a nitrous tank from a dentist’s office.

Eventually T returned from the bar, drunk, pissed off and alone. We all crashed and in the morning forgot all about the conflict. Looking at a map I noticed there was a road heading back to highway 1 on the pacific side of Baja, nearer to surfing. Neither T nor K had any interest in surfing but I persuaded them that this would be a good loop. We had driven into San Felipe from the North and now we headed south with a very poor idea of how to get back to Highway1. We were almost out of money and had a full tank of petrol. Our old map led us on a 163 mile off road adventure. Big Red was 4 wheel drive and we pretty much ruined the transmission driving through sandy arroyos and terrible terrain. At one point we thought we had come upon an inland sea not on the maps but it turned out to be an enormous patch of plastic bags rolling through the desert – tumble garbage. Just as night had fallen we arrived back on Highway 1 and went north. The highway was paved but there is no shoulder only a steep v-shaped ditch to keep cattle from wandering on to the road. Sometime before midnight, T was driving. K and I were asleep. We were going about 60 when, all of a sudden, there was a cow in the middle of the road! How we did not perish right then and there from driving into one of the ditches or mangling ourselves on a cow is a testament to the excellent driving skills, honed by hours of video game playing, of T. He managed to save us from death or injury by maneuvering around the cow screeching tires and temporarily tilting on 2 wheels.

We decided to camp for the night so picked, at random, a sandy side road in the direction of the beach. We had pasta, a bottle of tequila, and half a case of Tecate. As we drove through the dunes the stars were out in full glory with no light pollution to obscure them. Once at the mighty pacific we ate and I started drinking the tequila as if it were water. Half an hour later I was blathering on about what great friends we were and how we were going to have so many adventures and blah blah blah. T and K were both not amused. At the point were I was saying, “I love you guys! You guys are the best!”, they decided I was too drunk and that we should get back on the road an continue North. We had less than ten dollars between us; barely enough for fuel to get across the boarder. I protested, not being interested in getting back in Big Red but they tossed me in the back seat and took off. I passed out before we were back over the first dune.

When I came to the car was stopped. K had been driving but was not in the driver’s seat and a man was leaning into the window on the passenger side saying “¿Cuánto? ¿Cuánto?” He was pointing at the cd player that played through the tape deck. T said “No. No. Not for sale.” I realized I was going to vomit and pushed myself up from lying down in the back seat and jumped out the side door. What I briefly saw was K and two other men in green army fatigues with M-16 machine guns on their shoulders standing around an oil drum with large rocks in it that they had poured gasoline on for a fire to keep warm on the clear winter night. Just as I floundered out of the suburban a different federale swung open the back doors of Big red to reveal what was left of the Tecate and plastic handle of tequila. I doubled over and began to vomit at the feet of yet another police in green with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. There was a house nearby and a young child had just exited. In the crisp desert night the only sounds were of me puking and the screen door slamming shut behind the child. I looked up, everyone was looking at me.

It was at that critical moment K pointed at me and said, “Tequila!” and started laughing.

Soon everyone was having a laugh at my expense, even the kid who had slammed the squeaky screen door. The federales took our alcohol and sent us on our way. Stupid gringo kids – we could have been thrown in prison or kidnapped and ransomed to our parents across the border but in this instance, because of K’s quick thinking, because of the universality of humor that crosses cultural barriers, and because of dumb-fucking-luck we were able to limp back into California running on fumes. We eventually made it back to the Bay Area where I faced dire consequences for stealing Big Red and ruining its 4 wheel drive transmission.

Knife Throat

Was she 17 yet? I didn’t know. I’ve always had a thing for older women. I was a pre-pubescent 14, a freshman at a Catholic High School that was all about american football. Every Friday night home game was a SCENE, where it all went down. There was a particular girl. I followed her around like a lost puppy, guided by forces of which I was unaware. She was kind, tolerant, but not easily amused. She had dangerous friends. One fateful Friday as the game was wrapping up I walked with her and her 4 male friends through the dark campus to a nearly empty parking lot at the front of the school. The four upperclassmen with her had long tired of my presence and innocent overtures. A car pulled up, it was their ride, we all got in. Someone questioned why and where I was going. The four got out and pulled me with them. Three of them picked me up off the ground and held me fast while the other produced a knife, a switchblade, and held it to my throat. “Leave her alone.” He said.

“What are you doing? Stop! Put me down.” I wriggled. I hadn’t paid the knife any attention. Love conquered all. Eventually, they gave up trying to get anything other than protestations of love out of me. They put me down and got back in the car. I was not invited. I walked back to the game alone, dejected and lucky to not be cut. I had no further contact with the girl or her friends.

Near Miss, Thankfully

In the Spring of 1987 I was running, late to class, down a concrete open air walkway when I slipped and fell head first onto the cold hard floor. I had been chewing on one of those Bic pens and the plug on the bottom of the pen had been missing for some time. The pen was chewed into an open conical mangled shape. As my face hit the concrete the pen sliced into the back of my jaw and the tissue in line with my teeth at the back of my mouth. I got up shocked and in pain with only a little blood and in a panic ran into the administration offices where some sympathetic adults called my parents to pick me up and take me to the doctor to get it cleaned out and possibly some stiches.

Eventually I was sitting on the examination table while the doctor inspected the hole the end of the pen had made. He kind of whistled wowee in surprise. “You are very lucky today. If the pen had been just a few milimeters over it would have hit your carotid artery and you would have lost a lot of blood.” That was an understatement. I would have been spurting arterial blood out of my mouth at a school taught by Hungarian Benedictine Monks a few of which still practiced corporal punishment. In other words I was quite close to being the antichrist or a good candidate for a heavy metal rock video.