Mud People

As the BP disaster continues to unfold I’m struck again by the emergence, probably odd to most people, of the universal but bizarrely general term, “mud,”  blithely used to describe the many and various goops of the industrial world as though people have any concept of what the hell that means.  No one bothers to explain the difference between “drilling mud” and the cement, (which to those of us in the business is mud, too), and this omission leads me to believe that our media is dumber and less curious than my nephews were when they were in primary school.

As usual, I was remodeling their house, and one of them asked me why I called everything from tile mortar, which is sludgy and gray, to drywall compound, which is smooth and white, “mud.” Having been in the construction business for more than ten years at the time, I’d never really thought about it, and it had never occurred to me how weird that term would sound to the uninitiated.

Q: Why do you call that stuff mud, when it”s totally different from those other things you call mud, and none of them are really mud?

A: Well, for people who build things, mud is just mud, and you use different types for different jobs.

Q: But why do you call it mud?

At this point, I decided that I ought to think for a second, and not just say, like I usually would, “because I said so.”  It seemed like a Teachable Moment.

A:  Well, since humans first started building things, if they didn’t have lumber they built with mud.  The first bricks were mud, and they still are, but baked.  Concrete is mud, but with sand, rocks, and lime to make it harden naturally.   I think the word is so old that it just stuck.  Humans like to play in the mud.  (They seemed vaguely satisfied with this explanation.)

But today, the implications of the interchangeability of mud maybe need more thorough explication, to the vast majority of us who think mud is just that brown stuff you stepped in that thankfully isn’t shit, and don’t understand that we have more types of mud in the world than Eskimos have snow.  The fact that BP got its muds mixed up, repeatedly, is the crux of the situation we have where the Gulf of Mexico is rapidly becoming the Cuyahoga River of the new century, and while journalists and the general public are as naive about mud as my nephews were as children, no one seems capable of plainly explaining these distinctions.

You see, drilling mud isn’t really mud at all; it’s more of a lubricant, and lacks the structural permanence any respectable mud ought to have, so is really only for use in firm materials, not to plug intractable holes.  Pumping a bunch of it into a rapidly fissuring seabed is like running a lot of potato peelings down the garbage disposal; it works for a bit, but soon the drain is running again, albeit more slowly.  The other mud, the cementitious type which was somehow supposed to harden into a tappable valve for a gigantic geyser in super cold water and thousands of pounds of pressure, wasn’t even tested as to which sort of mud it was, and whether it would do the job.  (The building inspectors test every load of such mud that is poured into a skyscraper, for chemical composition and dried strength…)  Worse, the suspect mud was poured into forms that were out of whack due to inaccurate placement, and no inspector was there to check this prior to pouring, as they would be if you or I wanted to put in, say, steps to our back porch.  So, “big government,” as currently constituted, makes a construction company leap through numerous hurdles to avoid the potentially detrimental effects from a collapsing building or bridge due to the improper or promiscuous defining of the term, “mud,” but lets huge foreign oil companies just shrug and say, “mud is mud,” and be done with it.

I think the BP board, as well as the US government, could use some 6-year olds to ask, “what do you mean, mud?”


  1. nailheadtom says:

    What you know about drilling mud, or any other aspect of the drilling business for that matter, could be written on the head of a pin with a felt tip pen.

  2. cocktailhag says:

    I know about as much about it as Tony Hayward does, and it isn’t even my job.

  3. timothy3 says:

    the vast majority of us who think mud is just that brown stuff you stepped in that thankfully isn’t shit,

    That would be me (the “thankful” part).

    Or, as Congressman/Whore extraordinnaire Joe Barton would put it:

    I apologize. I am sorry–ever so sorry, Sir–that you are defending your silky selves from the slings and arrows of outrageous Obamaism–in a word, a shakedown Sir, a shakedown!–of the most egregious kind.

    From this point forth, I hope, I genuinely hope–as my Confederate forebears would have me–to see the light of day through this muddiness, this disgraceful effeht to hold accountable–accountable!–companies such as yohself that represent the purest expression of Randian capitalism.

    Let no man be ashamed of makin’ a buck.

    Why, even that Librul South Pahk, as Southern as, say, my bloated, red-faced, hypertensive self, would demand no more than a Buck ‘o five!”

    Hey, CH, how’re you doing?

    • cocktailhag says:

      Good, T3, except for the fact that we’ve had ten inches of rain in the last month, and that tends to drive me to the bottle, even more than usual.
      Those righties are stepping in something that decidedly isn’t mud, and the sooner they catch on to that… well, never mind. Let the Dems have another undeserved, and certainly unfulfilled, victory, due only to the arrogant idiocy of the righties. That’s the drill these days, no pun intended.

  4. dirigo says:

    How mud evolves …

    “I suppose the idea of transformation really interests me. The idea that transformation is in any way optional I find completely bemusing. So to look at conservatism – the effort within conservatism to withstand, or to deny, change – I do really find kind of touching. It seems so much barking up the wrong tree. It feels so painful. It’s such a painful thing to put oneself through, the fantasy that change is avoidable – or is something to be avoided. For some reason it’s always been very clear to me that change is pretty much all we’ve got, and the sooner you make friends with it, the better.”

    – Tilda Swinton
    – Scottish woman
    – interview, 6/19/10