Refinery Inspection, Putting Your Eyes On It, and Your Eternal Soul

Let’s tell a completely fictional story that bears no resemblance to actual refinery events.

Once upon a time, there was a refinery desalter. It was a fairly good-size pressure vessel, perhaps 15’ in diameter and 100’ long, in which water and salt settled out from crude oil before it went through its first distillation. This isn’t a spot in the refinery you would normally expect to see a lot of corrosion; it isn’t particularly hot (so immune to various mechanisms that require a lot of temperature/activation energy), everything is liquid (no possibility of preferentially condensing nasty stuff out of a vapor), the contents are relatively benign, and so forth. And on top of its required minimum thickness—something more than an inch of steel—the vessel was built with a healthy corrosion allowance, or so its documentation claimed.

One day, after this vessel had been in service for some years, a contract inspector was tasked with using an ultrasonic thickness probe to measure its thickness. He turned in a written report stating the thickness of the vessel was X. Unfortunately, on comparison with the vessel documentation, X was not just less than the expected thickness based on any plausible fabrication error or subsequent corrosion rate. It was also less than the required safe thickness for the vessel.

Fortunately, me the company engineer and especially Dustin Loden the company inspector had not been born the preceding day. So they told the inspector his result didn’t make sense and sent him back out to look again. Lo and behold, the vessel (reportedly) got thicker! But still not thick enough to be quite reasonable. The inspector was sent back out again, with his supervisor, to check. On the third try, the thickness turned out to be consistent with the vessel having minimal corrosion, as expected. Subsequent internal and ultrasonic inspections also found minimal corrosion.

One thing that isn’t part of the story is what the contract inspector did to get the numbers he reported. Perhaps the first time he wrote in what he thought was a plausible thickness while sitting in his truck; it’s comfier there! Then the second time he actually tried to measure it but failed to adjust for the temperature of the vessel, and the third time his supervisor did it for him. Perhaps he accidentally measuring the thickness of the wrong vessel. Perhaps he fat-fingered the wrong number when entering his original report. Perhaps the first time he did his level best but had an equipment bug, the second time he recalibrated his equipment, and the third time he better interpreted his machine’s readout.

It is surprisingly hard to establish the exact truth, even on relatively simple questions. The story above is just one example; reporting maintenance progress is fraught with related issues. The foreman tells his company superintendent that the welding is 90% done, an hour or so before shift change. Then the superintendent tells the refinery coordinator it ought to be done at shift change. Then the coordinator tells the project manager at the shift change meeting that “it’s done about now,” and the manager tells the world “it’s done.” Meanwhile a problem arose half an hour before shift change and now there’s still a shift of work to go. Then the night shift spends all night trying to get to where the day shift said they already were, and in the morning, it’s clear that the schedule has slipped and we’re six figures behind where we thought we were.

Then there are other inspection problems. One great thing about radiography (think X-rays, although in practice gamma rays are used) is that other people can look at the film an inspector generates and see for themselves whether a weld looks good, although expert interpretation is still required. Some of the fancy ultrasonic methods (shear wave, phased array, etc.) suffer by comparison because the operator can’t always readily show others the basis for his assertions. Some of the ultrasonic outputs can be hard to interpret, and the interpretation may rely on how the image changes as the inspector moves the probe, which is hard to document. So any time a shear wave tech sees a high-consequence problem (you need to spend $100K repairing this), the first response is likely to get a second opinion, ideally from “the guy we trust.” (There may only be one.)

Even when an inspector looks at a vessel, says “it’s bad,” and brings back a picture that looks bad, the case is not closed. Lighting and other aspects of the photography make a huge difference to the final image, and “bad” is relative.

In all these cases, it takes work to get your arms around the truth. (As good economists know, information is costly.) The dynamic is like the fog of war. Whether you’re working against men, their creations, or nature, a novel problem with time pressure is going to involve a struggle for truth and understanding. Novelty means you can’t run a pre-planned response and don’t have complete information, and the time pressure demands immediate action despite this. In such situations, lots of information is conveyed man to man, and its quality is uneven.

It’s the sort of thing that can make a man skeptical. And in fact it does generate a premium for firsthand knowledge. People qualify reports about field conditions or field progress by stating whether or not they have “put their eyes on it.” Good engineers and company inspectors are constantly going out to see progress or problems for themselves. “Trust, but verify” is the order of the day.

So now, shifting gears, consider: where else are these dynamics at work?

Well, this is also how your life works. Life is a novel problem (YOLO) with high stakes (your soul, if any) and time pressure (death has likely come a few minutes closer since you started reading this, although lifestyle changes from taking my later claims seriously will hopefully offset that).

You will probably be all right whether you decide on cookie dough ice cream or mint chocolate chip; life’s stakes are not always high. But they often are. Marriage is high-stakes; having a happy 60th wedding anniversary (congrats to my grandparents) is quite a bit different from divorce as a lifestyle (shed a tear for Nicolas Cage). Likewise for your basic attitudes toward life; despair and spiritual confidence lead very different places. If you have even the tiniest suspicion that God might exist, or even expect something out of you, that’s another good high stakes question to figure out.

In all of these cases it doesn’t take a genius to identify the goal: fix the refinery and profit, have a happy existence. But you need a lot more information to get there from here. The default pathway is to stay where you’re sitting, complacently accept some kind of lowest-common-denominator view, and see how things turn out. Your couch has all the spiritual answers you need to somehow muddle through to old age. This leaves spiritual ‘“profit” on the table, but some people seem to be fine with that.

If you want to really influence things for the better, though, you will have to do some work and find out for yourself how things really are. Then you’re left deciding who and what to trust. It may be a lot of work to go “put your eyes on” the truth, figuring it out for yourself, to your own satisfaction. But a good faith effort to dig into an issue goes a long way. Not only can you discover the truth; you can learn who already had it—who you can trust in the future.

So enough with hypotheticals, and on to conclusions where I have personally made the effort and I’m satisfied that I have the truth—I have “put my [spiritual] eyes on it,” as it were. There is a God and he expects things from us. He has said “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7) and this is true; truth is there for the getting and will be revealed by the Holy Spirit to those who faithfully, sincerely look for it. Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, and the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon are his word. I’ve studied all of these many times, and I have felt peaceful assurance from the Holy Ghost that they are true. Based on that, I know that Christ loves us, understands us, and provides guidance for us, not least through his authorized church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And thus I have pretty clear guard-rails for my high-stakes life decisions, and I can get further knowledge through prayer and study as I need it.

I have spent two years preaching this (as a missionary) and 10% of my lifetime income (tithing) on supporting its spread. Consider, further, that I voluntarily sit in meetings (for free!) in support of teaching this. But unfortunately, spiritual knowledge is not like X-ray film—no one else can look directly at my mind and see whether the Holy Ghost has confirmed the truth of the Book of Mormon, for instance. That is my report, but if you really want to know for sure, you would need to “put your eyes on it” by reading and praying about it yourself. Please do. This would be a good place to start. Or better yet, talk to me; I enjoy answering questions (yes, work folks, I’m not just that way about refinery stuff). I can also put you in touch with your friendly social-distanced local missionaries, who I think are now on every video chat system known to man.

All of which is to say: never trust anything anyone in a refinery says, except for me, this one time, about religion.

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