CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – Radio Shack

Well folks, you did it. You all have a future as remediation contractors. Go get yourself some licenses, equipment, and hire some workers that you, personally, absolutely never have to suit up do this work.

Oh wait, the money is thin. Welp, looks like you are.

[The second in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

 

This is a general case scenario. While many people jumped to the immediate conclusion that we’re discussing Hunter’s Point and Tetratech, I want to make it clear that this applies to pretty much every country with a navy. Some countries have had extra decades to be messy. There’s some qualities that make a given naval base nastier than others from a radiological point of view:

• Length of operation
• Diversity of operation
• Having a nuclear navy
• Onsite reactor
• Naval research lab 

So, you might think that this means that the UK’s yards at Portsmouth are the worst. Nah, they’re merely the UK’s oldest, continuously operating since [checks notes] the Third Crusade. Faslane, on the other hand, is likely more interesting for rad. Then, hooboy, there’s places like Murmansk. Thus, for radiological contamination issues around your naval base, you’re looking for a period of operation that spans roughly 1900-2000 for prime, extensive, and careless use/discarding of radioactive materials by 16-25 year olds wearing funny uniforms… and military contractors. And I only end that year range at 2000 because, GENERALLY SPEAKING, we’ve collectively stopped doing things like throwing waste barrels overboard while at sea and then sending bosuns out with shotguns to shoot them and make sure they sink. 

But back to the scenario.

You’ve been asked to make an important rad contamination find quickly and cheaply. You’ve been hired as a subcontractor because you know something about where to find stuff and the primary PM doesn’t. Hence the choices presented in this poll. You are damn near guaranteed to find rad contamination in ANY of the four choices I gave you. The question is which will give you employer the win they’re looking for, fast, without bankrupting/killing yourself. The easy choice, if you have a nuclear navy, is go check the mud below where you docked the rust buckets. Like looking for leaking fluids under your car in the garage.

The problem is that doing anything on the water add a minimum x5 cost multiplier. For pretty much everything. There’s an old sailor’s joke of :

Q: What’s the difference between that speaker and the marine one?
A: I paid 10x the price for the marine speaker before pouring a glass of saltwater in it.

Except now apply it to all your testing equipment. Oh, you need a boat. Maybe SCUBA gear too. This is also going to be our first encounter with the most serious problem in remediation. You’re looking for rad to clean up, but you’re also likely to find things you weren’t looking for. Things you’d hope weren’t there. Things that aren’t remotely documented. Like mines. That’s an extreme example but timeless terrors lay beneath the waves awaiting the unsuspecting and incautious. Like dioxin slicks, lost mercury ballast slowly turning into methylmercury, etc. You really shouldn’t go fishing here unless you’re doing biological sampling.  Eventually the primary will need to go decon the harbor, but that is a hugely, massively expensive project. That will come much later, if ever. Here, have my cranky thoughts about how we never finish anything.

Instead, rather than hitting the waves, you go for the nice clean munitions warehouses. Well, probably clean. You should ask some questions about them, starting with:

Q: What did you store in here?
A: Stuff. And things.

Yeah, it’s kinda goes like that. This is about as much detail as you’re going to get on your building history research from the navy. Have you ever noticed how large they are? Really, really big. Also, have you noticed that there’s a lot of them? Unless you hire a small army of a sampling and remediation crew, you’re going to spending a long time try to cover all of them. You missed the time milestone and are bankrupt. 

So, paydirt is the way to go and you head for the landfill instead. If there’s one thing you can count on the collective navies of the world to do, it is throw away things they shouldn’t. Because naval bases tend to be on the water, landfills sometimes are replaced by burn pits. Unfortunately, were back to the problem of when you go looking for something you find EVERYTHING. For every radium painted button from the old WWII USO projectionist’s booth burnt in 1950, you find two leaking drums of Agent Orange. So, you win but you really lose too. 

The place to go as a wise subcontractor for the cheap, fast win is to ask where the Radio Shop was. This may sound odd, but the term “Radio Shop” conceals the unbelievable mission creep that these spaces took on through the 20th century. Yes, at first, they took care of radios. This requires having a long historical perspective. The militaries of the world absolutely jumped on radio as the magic technology to clear up the fog of war as soon as they hit the scene. Radio was cutting edge and rapidly advancing technology. Wrangling the constantly changing tech and the ridiculous demands of ignorant superiors to make it all do the impossible…this may sound familiar to any network engineer. The denizens of the Radio Shop were some of the brightest, most technically savvy people on the entire base. 

As you fast forward through the decades, the Radio Shop is where everyone brings the Weird Shit™. Sometimes it’s to fix things because “Hey, you’re smart, nerd. I’ll get you some beer.” Like, you fixed the plane’s radio, can you fix the compass too? By which I mean, the compass that is ABSOLUTELY LOADED with radium. But sometimes it’s a special Secret Squirrel project from someone from a three letter agency. Sometimes it’s parts of a nuclear weapon headed overseas. Like network engineers, the Radio Shop will have a parts pile, their shelves full of “I might use that to fix something, someday.” And their own burn pit/trash hole because the work smarter, not harder maxim means they figured out that it was a easier to dig a hole behind the shop. The walls of the Radio Shop may be long gone but their radiological footprint will still be there. You will make will get the most bang for the buck here, probably a bonus for quick work, and now you can decide if you want to do anything more at this base. 

 

There is no inspiring specific incident to point to for this scenario I just walked you through other than ALL OF THEM, EVERYWHERE. This is why naval bases rarely get decommissioned, not entirely, usually because the chemical nightmares are so much worse.

I am not picking on navies because they are the worst. No base from any military branch is without sin. Some are cleaner than others but I think that’s probably more due to a lack of opportunity to be worse. Some branches (ahem, USAF) made up for lost time.

~fin~ 

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE: Radioactive Seagull

The people who work in secured facilities will never know the pleasure of randos walking in off the street to drop things off. Maybe it’s an interesting shaped rock they’re CERTAIN is a dinosaur egg. Maybe it’s a grenade from grandpa’s war chest.

Sometimes it’s a dead bird.

[The first in an ongoing of compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

As the saying goes “Even a broken clock is right twice a day”, but that only applies to analog clocks where they’re broken such that the hands never move. There’s so many different kinds of clocks, and creative ways to be broken, that this saying makes randos look way more reliable than they are.

In general, the goal of interacting with randos is to get them out of your office/museum/library/clinic as fast as humanely possible, ideally taking their Very Important Contribution To Science & Humanity with them so that you don’t have to call the county hazmat people again. But, sometimes, there seems to be something to what they’re saying or the item is sufficiently bizarre that while it might not be what they imagine it to be it’s worth checking out. And then there’s the times they will JUST. NOT. GO. AWAY. 

In an ideal world, your Local Color will still be present when you make the surprising discovery that they aren’t completely full of it. That said, some randos will helpfully drop items & carcasses at your doorstep to enjoy when you first get to work. Hooray. In the latter case, they’ll usually leave a note that includes how to get a hold of them or, more likely, what they’d like the display card in the museum to read to give them thanks for this donation.

Many respondents were worried how Local Color *knew* the seagull was radioactive. What? You haven’t met someone in your town that is your local equivalent of Dr. Jacobi that carries their home built “radiation detector” everywhere they go to check everything they buy or eat? Your town is far too normal or you just haven’t met them yet. 

PLEASE NOTE: when they tell you that something is “radioactive”, you absolutely do not take their word for it. You doubly do not use their meter confirm their readings. I recommend not even touching it. Also, some folks have some interesting opinions of what is “radioactive”.  That meter might actually be for RF or a metal detector. Or both. I have seen some amazing kludged together devices I will describe as INFLUENCE METERS. But rando will claim that anything that makes those needles twitch is radiation. Well, yes, but not in the ionizing sense. So, just because Local Color claims it’s radioactive doesn’t mean they know.

The shocking thing in this scenario is that YOUR meter agrees that there is ionizing radiation present, in a quantity clearly above background. How high above is what helps direct your course of action. If your meter is screaming because of this carcass and going off scale, there’s a damn good chance you have a contamination incident on your hand and it’s time to survey yourself, your desk, and the Local Color for contamination spread and call the EPA while you’re at it. 

But one of the tough things here that you can’t answer at first blush is “How did this seagull die?” A screaming meter suggests acute radiation sickness (ARS) but that may not be true. ARS does take some work to achieve. But if there is no sign of contamination, then what? This would suggest that there is a sealed source inside the seagull. This isn’t a good place for a sealed source but, as several of you have noted, seagulls are somewhat indiscriminate about what they’ll shove down their beaks. DO NOT DISSECT IT ON YOUR DESK. Bag it, go to lab. 

As others have also wisely noted, seagulls fly. The place where Local Color found the dead bird probably isn’t the place where it got contaminated/ate a source. Also, umm, this would involve Quality Time™ w/ Local Color. I recommend bringing a sheriff’s deputy if you do that. 

But if your readings aren’t terribly high, say ~3x times your normal background readings, ARS isn’t the cause of death here unless it was something with a fairly short half-life it rolled around in. So who knows where it even picked up contamination and how long ago before death. But this is still a call because you have an unusual animal death. It might be a first indicator of something weird/bad that’s happened and it just happened to be the least reputable source that brought it to everyone’s attention. Call Fish & Game and they’ll refer you to EPA. 


In the inspiring event for this scenario, an NRC inspector had reason to believe that there had been a release from the site and was looking to do some surreptitious environmental sampling. Except access was difficulty to manage while being sneaky. Then he saw some fishermen. Reasoning that the fish might be good bioaccumulation indicators, he tried to negotiate to buy their catch. There was a bit of a language barrier, that involved the Power of Mime, and his meter. Unfortunately, meter clicking combined with weird man scared them and they ran away. Frustrated, and now fixated on bioaccumulation samples, he looked around for anything else that might work.

Then he saw a seagull.

Fish & Game got called because security guards watching the video were pretty sure they saw a pervert molesting a large bird. A discussion about which agency has primacy for what ensued as the inspector did his best to assert his right to the potentially radioactive seagull wrapped in his coat and stuck in the back seat of the car. Then the seagull got loose, solving the jurisdictional issues.

The moral is that you should promote interagency cooperation in advance, or you will end up cleaning ever-so-slightly radioactive bird shit out of your vehicle as your sample. And you’ll be known as The Seagull Molester for the rest of your career.

~fin~

Fukushima – I Finally Wrote It

I don’t know how many times I’ve started, stopped, and deleted trying to write something up on my trip to the Fukushima Hard-To-Return-To Area, AKA the Futaba District of the Fukushima Prefecture. Unfortunately, thanks to COVID-19, I have plenty of time to write this up now. I want to give thanks at the outset to my friend Robyn, the Hollywood photographer who I went with to Chernobyl, who came on this trip too and can view her gorgeous work here, some of which I’ve used in this post. I also want to give high fives to Jen Miller for inspiring me to see if I could make this visit even happen when we went to see sumo and to Brian Wanamaker who’s translation skills allowed the serendipitous, sake-filled meeting with Kae to be an inspiration. And, lastly, thanks to everyone who purchased a “Coffee Wave” BBotE bottle for making sure we had the cash on hand to have ADVENTURES!

From the top, I’m not gonna discuss the ongoing work at Fukushima Daiichi. Plenty of ink and electrons already spent on TEPCO and JAEA doing what they can there. We can hope for a TV show that summarizes the events at the power plant as the Tōhoku quake and tsunami struck as well as HBO’s Chernobyl did. My quibbles with that show are minor at best. My favorite thing about it was people coming to me saying “Phil, I think they got something wrong on Chernobyl” and my grin of evil delight when I got to tell them that Craig Mazin lovingly captured period authentic Soviet bullshit and presented it faithfully. But I digress, because what is more interesting to me is the efforts to decontaminate, rehabilitate, and re-inhabit the abandoned area around the power plant. The example of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the “settlers”, who are mostly pensioners left in the lurch by the Soviet collapse, gives one path.

That’s not what Japan did/is doing. But let me say this right now, because belaboring this is what caused me to abort so many previous versions of this post:

These towns aren’t coming back. Not because they’re doing a bad job at cleanup. On the contrary, they’re doing an amazing job and are WAY more thorough than the Soviet Liquidators ever were. That is my professional opinion. Unlike Pripyat, a young nuclear boomtown for high fliers, the rural communities around Fukushima Daiichi were already fading away. The quake and tsunami just accelerated the pace.

There. I said it. Now maybe I can explain why without tripping over myself.

This tale starts eight years ago, on March 11, when my career took a dramatic shift when some tectonic plates moved too. If you search for “UC Berkeley radiation specialist” this is very close to my and a former coworker’s job title. We both lost months of work responding to a fire hose of phone calls, emails, and even faxes as the entire Pacific Rim turned to us as because The Algorithm™ clearly indicated we were the experts on what to do in when a reactor accident happened. More often than not, we had to refer everyone to the public affairs office who promptly turned around and asked us what they should say. This is the price of being professional staff and not tenured faculty; we don’t have the freedom of expression that comes with tenure, we’re just employees. I would like to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean the tenured faculty knew anything about what they were commenting on, but they do have the freedom to spout off to their heart’s content to any microphone and camera that came near. I actually went back to read the post I made two days after the quake and was quite surprised to see how well I covered things.

For everyone that has now seen the Chernobyl miniseries on HBO and has that vision in their head for Fukushima Daiichi, you missed the big differences: there was no graphite fire and, holy crap, that was a hell of a quake and tsunami. For everyone now coming to grips with the idea of a double hit of pandemic and then economic collapse with COVID-19, try the triple disaster of one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, a huge tsunami, and then slap a nuclear reactor accident on top of that. On a positive note, at least this triple disaster was relatively local in scope. The contamination around the Futaba District is due to the fuel rods leaking some fission products and a bunch of contaminated/activated sea water from the tsunami plus the cooling water of last resort pumping into the spent fuel pools without filtration (much less deionization) first. There were thousands of tons of graphite that lit on fire and exploded at Chernobyl, lofting a totally different set of radioactive materials across the world. Don’t get me wrong, we could detect Fukushima drifting on the breeze across the Pacific within 48hrs but the isotopic mix and quantity was very different than Chernobyl’s. And, as always, the drum I beat constantly for public education: there is a world of difference between “detectable” and “dangerous”.


We were met at the train station by Shuzo in a prefectural government van. He made sure that the ID we’d brought with us matched what I’d supplied to him a few months earlier because and, I quote, “It would be very embarrassing if it did not as I wrote the security procedures.” A little later as we drove past a cultural festival and Shuzo gave an embarrassed chuckle as he said he should probably drive a little bit faster in case some of his people working the fairgrounds saw the van. I asked him how many people worked for him in his office. He replied with some uncertainty “”Four…five hundred? Plus contractors, of course.” I slowly turned my head as realized I wasn’t talking to someone in a roughly similar position to me back in the states, but rather an agency head that reported directly to the governor… and he had volunteered himself as a driver and guide because this project is so important to him. Some recalibration of the honor that was being done for us happened in my head then and there.

Shuzo has a dream to get his hometown back. As a “hometown boy done good” he isn’t just any prefectural official, he had to order his own family out of their homes and off their farms. He evacuated the JAEA office during the emergency. What he wants more than anything is for the communities to come back after the quake/tsunami/nuclear accident triple disaster. And, yes, you should always look at this is in that order of severity; the reactors were the least of the three but it has the consequences everyone is afraid of. The people most afraid of the quake and tsunami are, well, dead. As part of the TEPCO/JAEA remediation plan, as the Japanese government made a commitment that Futaba would not be abandoned like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and had learned some lessons from that; all of the local towns and farms were offered a settlement to turn everything over for decontamination and/or demolition. Shuzo’s job is to make that happen. He is quite literally in charge of everything that is outside of the power plant decontamination project. The first place he wanted to take us was to his father’s farm.

I helpfully already did some work of sharing an introduction to my hosts in 2018 when I first started writing this up. From that post:

First off, let me introduce you to Shuzo Sakai, Karin Taira and their project, Real Fukushima. Unlike the Chernobyl tours of varying quality done by various independent operators, this is a Fukushima Prefecture government project to show the work done for decontamination and rehabitation of the towns in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. Karin runs the prefecturally sponsored B&B in Odaka called Lantern House which I highly recommend if you have the time to stay overnight (sadly, I did not). Shuzo is a prefectural government official who grew up in a town that is now in the exclusion zone and he’s become head of the redevelopment agency. When you are the boss, you’re allowed to give yourself any extra tasks you want; the one he has chosen for his extracurricular activities is showing people the work done to rebuild and reoccupy. Only foreigners at the moment because, and I quote, “I feel foreigners have less radiophobia than the Japanese.” While I didn’t laugh out loud at this, I did tell him that if this was actually the case that my day job would be much easier. As a local boy done good, Shuzo’s desire is to see the people in the towns he’s always known and loved come home. He would also like people all over the world to see their hometowns in his. That you might remember to give your loved ones a call now and then, maybe go home and visit. They miss you, you know. :)

Shuzo is the person that wrote the procedures for entry into the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. Shuzo is the person who is ultimately responsible for the decon, demolition and reconstruction of all the towns in the Exclusion Zone. This is personal to him. 

forest line

The Treeline At Shuzo’s Dad’s Place – once you hit that forest litter, the background count rate triples

Among the people that had to be evacuated were Shuzo’s parents. Shuzo isn’t the eldest son, so his brother’s family ended up taking them in. And then when the evacuation area was expanded, all of them got evacuated again together. This was a bit too much stress on his mother and she passed away. For the next several years, his father lived with his brother’s family even after dad’s home and farm were decontaminated because they didn’t necessarily trust dad to live on his own. At 82, he’d literally never done laundry or really cooked a meal in his life so they needed to teach him some basic survival skills before they could let him go back home to live alone. His father’s farm is a good demonstration piece to show the success of decon allowing reoccupation, but also it’s limitation. The house, driveway, sheds, and yard had no detectable radiation above background, but you didn’t have to walk far into the trees at the edge of the property for the count rate to rise a bit. This is a reflection of the phased approach to decontamination: homes/cities, then farms, then undeveloped land. Dad wasn’t home, but I am proud to say his dad left signs that he’s like every other farmer I’ve ever met: the there was a can of Asahi beer stuck in the forks of his tractor by the shed.

Intersection Leading to Fukushima Daiichi – We did not go here.

As we approached the turn off for the power plant, Shuzo asked if any of us had seen the Fukushima/Robot Hotel episode of Dark Tourist. He was rather pleased to hear that none of us had and let us know that know that, if/when we did watch that episode, it was filmed without permission. All they did was drive up and down the Route 6 for hours and hours, the highway that runs through the exclusion zone, which is open to public travel but no stopping is permitted. You will note in that episode they stop a couple of times and then are promptly chased back to their vehicle by decon workers and police. To be very clear, this is not like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. No independent operators are doing tours around here and the local government has enough control to make that stick. They don’t want the disaster tourism; they want you to see the work they’re doing to recover, not wallow in the ruins and destruction.

Tomioka – abandoned gas station, clock still works, photo by Robyn von Swank, 2018

Tomioka – Anything left unattended in Japan will be engulfed in green, photo by Robyn von Swank, 2018

To hammer that point home in Tomioka, when we stopped to stretch our legs and let Robyn get some excellent pictures, Shuzo was struggling to find a word in English as we walked around the old downtown where he wanted us to be careful. That while all this was slated for demolition, these were the former homes and business of friends and neighbors. That he was their custodian until the town could be rebuilt and they all could come back. I let him know that the word he was looking for was “respect”, that he wanted us to be respectful of the loss that happened here. That he wanted us to be respectful in a way the Dark Tourist folks weren’t.

View to Fukushima Daiichi from the Sunlight Okuma parking lot, photo by Robyn Von Swank, 2018

Entrance to the Sunlight Okuma senior center, photo by Robyn Von Swank, 2018

Shuzo wanted to share an evacuation success with us for the Sunlight Okuma senior center, which also had an overlook view to the power plant from the edge of their parking lot. When the evacuation went through, they were able to get all of their residents into transport and out of there. The lobby of the place was filled with wheelchairs, abandoned there after the residents were whisked away to safety, for given values of uncertain roads and bridges on the evacuation route at the time. But they got them all out, though some of them needed to be taken to the hospital as they were somewhat fragile.

The Abandoned Hospital

Ah, yes, the hospital that used to here. That was our last stop on the trip with the deepest “Oh” of the hard choices in crisis. This is where an bad situation gets fucking ugly as damaged logistics really reveal themselves. In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, roads are cracked or washed out, train tracks are warped, and bridges over ravines and rivers are gone or structurally suspect. Getting from A to B in this comparatively rural part of Japan is fun at the best of times and the only thing you have going for you is that you aren’t in the mountains. Well, other than that whole tsunami washing up the river mouths and across a nice flat flood plain. This means your transportation network in very limited/damaged and you only have what resources are immediately available to you in this local network or by helicopter, for at least the next 24 hours but probably closer to 96. Now, with all that said, if you think evacuating an old folks home is hard, try ICU patients. How many ambulances are still available in this network? How many of them are currently headed toward the hospital with new patients? How long will the generators at the hospital keep running and is it long enough to get them more fuel? Oops, the reactor is leaking, every one has to go NOW.

The idea of Just In Time inventory management is absolutely toxic to the idea of emergency response. The pursuit of “efficiency” in a for-profit concern is an effort to reduce “waste” in the system to maximize profits. Doing the same in a non-profit setting cannot maximize profits, and the elimination of “waste” often confuses surpluses for contingency and public welfare as corruption & incompetence. The assumption that you only need one specialized response team for a given problem works on paper fine and “saves money”. But if you can’t get what you need to the disaster area that by definition is in the middle of a crisis this is a liability. You have deprived the local crisis area of the support that should tide them over until you can muster external resources. As Lenin said, every society is three meals from chaos. We have seen this in Katrina, Maria, Haiti…and Fukushima is an object lesson.

At least most of the old folks were ambulatory or could be moved by wheelchair. In the hospital, you had people who had to be moved by stretcher. An ambulance can only move one stretcher bound patient at a time, so they put what school buses they could lay hands on into service for evacuation, lining the aisle of the bus with patients, but that’s still only 3-4 in the aisle per bus plus whoever you can put in the seats. Then there were those on life support who couldn’t be moved at all. Please take a moment to imagine you are a doctor who has been ordered to evacuate, because a nuclear accident is in progress and there are other disaster victims elsewhere too, but it is also quite clear if you leave these patients that they will die. That when the power fails and there’s no way to keep the generators going, even if you stay here with them, they will die. And the generators will die because the best hope, reconnecting the national power grid, is a non-starter because the best and least devastated option is the grid on west side of Honshu. Unfortunately, due to post-WWII reconstruction issues, the eastern and western sides of the island are running on different frequencies, 50 & 60Hz, and you can’t just plug one side into the other. And so, knowing what would happen, the medical staff evacuated, leaving 128 people behind in the hospital. They were assured that getting back to this hospital to evacuate those patients would be a high priority for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces who been activated to respond.

When they got there, most of the patients were comatose and 14 died shortly thereafter. When telling the story of responding to the aftermath of the quake, this is the part that makes Shuzo most upset. That they weren’t prepared enough such that this choice had to even been made. Having lived through the Loma Prieta quake in Santa Cruz County and having the earth sciences background to know how much worse this was, I have a hard time imagining how you can be prepared enough. But this choice haunts him, the first responders, and the former staff of that hospital still. It is a source of shame, even in one of the worst natural disasters to strike Japan. I sincerely wish we could borrow some of that shame for America dealing with COVID-19 here in 2020.


The Lawson Market in Namie – last chance for an egg salad sandwich and Civilized Pooping for quite a while.

Let’s step this back a few because I want to discuss some of the problems Shuzo is up against now. Before heading to his dad’s place, we stopped at the Lawson Market in Namie for the final bathroom stop for the rest of the day until we got back to the train station. If you aren’t familiar with the central

importance of Lawson Market in Japan, they are the convenience store. 7-11 exists too, in a quantity you would never imagine in America, but they pale in comparison to Lawson and their most perfect egg salad sandwich. Unlike the Lawsons and 7-11s in Tokyo, which are 24/7/365 affairs, this one has limited hours since the population it serves is limited, mainly the workers at Fukushima Daiichi and the decon workers in the Hard-To-Return-To Area. After just two days in Tokyo, the idea of a Lawson that wasn’t eternally open, not to mention not having one in practically every block, just didn’t compute for me. The fact that it’s the only Lawson within an hour drive in any direction is another part of the difficulty in Shuzo’s mission to reclaim, rebuild and reoccupy. 

The problem is that while people may return to these towns once they are rebuilt, they lack the critical mass to actually justify maintaining services. Repeat this Lawson’s problem of hours and limited population with health services. There was a large hospital here, as tragically mentioned previously, but there’s barely enough people to justify a clinic out in the towns now. Which means for the fairly elderly population that has returned, the trip to visit their doctor is at least a hour and change drive away away. And they better have a car and be able to drive because there’s no train service here yet (NB: as of 2020, train service has been restored to Namie). It’s planned, but it starts a chicken and the egg problem of “Will people come back if the services aren’t here?” vs. “Is it worth building services if there’s no one here to use them?”

The demographic shift to a more elderly population was already killing the small agricultural towns. Without the necessary population, there are modes of farming that just don’t work anymore. For traditional rice farming, farms/families would supply their extra children or workers to do maintenance on the irrigation ponds that would then flood the paddies at the right time of year. If you don’t maintain them, very soon it silts up, gets overgrown, and then you have no water for rice farming. And without continual maintenance of the irrigation to remain viable, many had shifted to more profitable crops, like ornamental flowers. But without enough local people to work the farms even in their new incarnation, most of the workers that had been there before the quake were Vietnamese. Imported produce was cheaper anyway so the local farms weren’t doing that well in the first place. And if you can’t fight the radiophobia, you won’t even get those workers. However, here is a tarnished silver lining.

Former Irrigation Pond, Now a Waste Barrow – Futaba District, Japan

In America, we don’t do a lot of waste incineration anymore in the wake of very dirty burning of uncontrolled wastestreams and the subsequent downwind cancer clusters. Japan doesn’t really have the room to have all the landfills that we do, which means that rather than segregating trash into “garbage, compost, recycle” you get “recycle, combustible, non-combustible”. This principle applies to radioactive waste as well; you can’t make the radioactive component go away, but you can change the physical/chemical form you have to deal with. For low level wastes that will decay away relatively quickly, say less than 300 years for 10 half lives to pass, the preference is to reduce and concentrate so that it takes up as little space as possible while we wait for it all to die away. Part of the remediation project here is collecting contaminated topsoil and plants for incineration, AKA bulk reduction. The ashes are then consolidated into reinforced supersacks for transport and burial. Every one of those bags is tagged and recoverable, just like the Nevada Test Site. Radiologically and chemically, we know what’s in it, when it will cool down, and when it isn’t “waste” anymore. The burial option isn’t ideal as it takes that land out of use for decades to come and Japan doesn’t have a lot of spare land kicking around. But as I mentioned earlier, those old irrigation ponds all over the place that weren’t being used. There are ready made barrows, good to go for waste storage.

To roll this story even further back, the night before we went Fukushima, we had a wonderful dinner and an hell of a lot of sake at a joint near Meguro station (looking at the photo on the front page, we were seated at that first table on the right). We met a pair of ladies from the small town of Yamanashi, small being relative at ~40k residents, who had recently moved to Tokyo to get jobs which were lacking back at home. They were interested in why we were visiting Japan and we told her about our trip the next day. Between all the sake, Kae made the observation that “Most in people in Japan don’t feel a connection to or think about Fukushima much. Not many people call that part of Japan their hometown anymore.” That has tax consequences. I don’t want to go into it here, but I do recommend reading this essay on the Japan’s Hometown Tax.

Kae had a point, so I decided to look up the census info. Not many people were calling the towns of the Fukushima coast their hometown either (Namie, Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba, Hirono, Katsurao, Kawauchi, Naraha). Over a 20 year window, the population of the prefecture as a whole has dropped ~200k. The obliteration of the Futaba District only accounts for ~70k of that. And Fukushima City’s whopping 2k of growth doesn’t really explain that loss in terms of internal migration in the prefecture. Tokyo, however, has grown considerably. The economic machine of Tokyo demands fresh bodies and dang if it doesn’t suck them in from the rest of the country, much like it did Kae. In the United States, if you were a kid who grew up in a tourist town, and you had the realization “Seriously, waxing skis and serving assholes on vacation is all I can do around here for a living?” then it makes a lot of sense.

 


But I don’t want to leave you in despair for Shuzo and Japan.

And after 4000 words, you could probably use a pick me up. Bravo for making it this far!

I was, and remain, disappointed in myself for thinking the Tōhoku Line wouldn’t be rebuilt because America hasn’t finished the Gulf Coast Amtrak line since Hurricane Katrina. From my pre-trip post, except it’s been 15 years now:

I will say that in planning this I ran face first into some Very American Assumptions. As a train nerd, I am excited about the prospect of riding the shinkansen, even if it isn’t this one, but then I immediately said to myself “Oh wait, it might be hard getting out there with the amount of damage the quake and tsunami did. The shinkansen might not be up and running to Sendai yet.” After all, it’s been over a decade since Hurricanes Katrina & Ike and we haven’t gotten the Gulf Coast Amtrak routes repaired yet, which are comparatively primitive trains, and this was a much worse disaster. So, when I looked it up and saw that it was repaired and running, I was impressed. Then I got curious as to how long it took Japan to restore shinkansen service to the hardest hit area.

ANSWER: 43 days

It has been 13 goddamn years since Katrina and we can’t get Amtrak running, much less a bullet train. Amtrak’s trains are slower than what used to run on our rails 60 years ago. Not gonna lie, I was shook. As someone who complains regularly about terrible infrastructure and disaster response, I didn’t realize how acclimated to it I had become. I am disappointed in myself and, by extension, America because of this.

There’s a resettlement town for folks that returned after the quake built near the Hard-To-Return-To Area on the other side of Route 6. Apparently, the kids are the ones who demanded to go back because they missed their friends but they also wanted to consolidate. Their elderly, much like at Chernobyl, want to go back to their old homes. There’s a single school that in 2018 had a total of eight students, K-12, BUT THEY ARE THERE! And if you’ve got kids, your community has a future.

On the marketing side of things, they’re doing their damnedest to make sure that the radiophobia that lead to the hibakusha does not happen again for its residents or produce. Additionally, this area is a breadbasket of Japan full of amazing fruits, vegetables, livestock…it’s a region Japan can’t abandon for long. A “Fukushima Made” campaign to let people know they’re supporting the farmers and fishing boats to get them back on their feet is starting to get some traction. Not gonna call it a success where people pay a premium for Fukushima apples yet, but give it time.

Which is to say, if anyone is gonna pull off the biggest decon project since Chernobyl, my money is on Japan. I’m just not sure who is going to move back.

Pseudoscience Themes – 5G

I got asked “Why do people think 5G is causing coronavirus?” because I am a clearinghouse of pseudoscience bullshit and conspiracy theories. This is, after all, how I earned my role as Weirdness Consultant for the Atomic Robo gang. To be a well-rounded person with a deeper understanding of humanity, you need to not just know how the universe works and why but also know how people believe the universe works, but totally does not, and why. For shorthand, I’ve named some of those themes I’ve identified:

  • Purity – There is an axiomatic Ideal, it can be attained, and you should strive for it
  • Contamination – There is Otherness that taints and corrupts
  • Primal/Vital Energy – There is a deep reservoir of power that can be sensed, used, and manipulated the underlies everything (yes, this does sound a lot like The Force)
  • Wisdom of the Ancients – those who came before us knew more/better/had secrets we don’t (SEE ALSO: every episode of Ancient Aliens)
  • The Elect – Some people are Chosen and inherently Better (HINT: it’s Atlanteans, they’re the best)

Purity and Contamination seem two sides of the same coin. They often go hand-in-hand but they come from a different sources. The difference in impulse that leads to orthorexia vs. mysophobia. One of the disappointing things about “Wisdom of the Ancients” themes is that’s more or less the core of all the mystery cults and a lot of the gnostic teaching. This is danger of hearing stories about the exploits and skills of your great-grandfather that you never met. Multiply this by centuries and millennia. In short, people have always been suckers and believed these. Even the Ancients. The Elect, wellllll, if you want to find the root cause of most every genocide ever, there you go.

The best examples for the Primal/Vital Energy theme are animal magnetism, vril, orgone and auras. The Vital Energies thread has been going strong since Anton Mesmer, continually morphing with the development of technology, and is the literal origin of wearing tin foil hats. The argument has been there that electricity and each and every iteration of wireless communication since radio became a thing is somehow distorting or destroying our connection to Teh Life Force. I have read a lot this bullshit and those flyers on the Whole Foods bulletin board start feeling like form letters where they just swap out what technology is currently 100% absolutely killing you and definitely lowering your sperm count. The funny thing is that it’s usually ionizing radiation that triggers the Contamination themes, but I blame circumstances.

So, to save you a trip down conspiracy theory rabbit holes and all the whiskey required to cushion your soul when on an Internet Helldive, I bring you this terrible firmly held untruth to answer the original question. It isn’t that they believe 5G is causing coronavirus, it’s that they believe 5G IS the coronavirus. Or rather, all the terrible effects we are seeing from COVID-19 are actually what happens when 5G disrupts the human body’s connection to the Primal/Vital Energy. Previous iterations of wifi are never good for you by this strand of thinking, but 5G is where it tripped over to lethal in their reckoning.

Basically, this is my encouragement for everyone to go read Linda Simon’s “Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-ray“. Also, please enjoy this classic comic from the sadly defunct wellingtongrey.net.

WIFI EATS BABIES – by wellingtongrey. I used to have this laminated and on my door at work until I was told to take it down.

The Requisite COVID-19 & Coffee Post

Friday the 13th seems a fine day to finish this post up as any. First of all, the BBotE order slots are now up on the website for the production window ending March 28th. Order away at your pleasure.

The second, more complicated part is continuity planning. As things currently stand, I am fairly well stocked with supplies to make BBotE and steins with for a while. Based on typical burn rates, probably a month or two, but that’s where complex Just-In-Time (JIT) management supply chains start coming into play. Personally, I loathe JIT inventory management because I usually translate “efficiency” in my head as “fragile”. The more slack you take out of your systems, they less resilient they are. While I don’t play silly JIT inventory management games, some of my suppliers do, and so do their logistics companies for shipping everything around, i.e. if there isn’t a full container ship headed to $DESTINATION, that ship isn’t going to sail at all. This means that over time, the number of supply shipments to my suppliers, and in general, drops and if they hadn’t built in an inventory cushion for resilience, things will start to disappear from the market.

I’ve spoken about this before and the effects of blight, climate change, and agronomy on coffee with respect to the price of the American cup of coffee. The beans are usually the smallest part of the price you’re paying at the counter, it’s mostly the rent for the cafe itself and the logistics of getting the beans to you. So, when a certain coffee varietal becomes rare it doesn’t usually get more expensive in the American market, it usually just disappears entirely. What this means is that even if COVID-19 vanished with a Q-like snap of the fingers today, a bit over two months of shipping disruption are still going to ripple through the global trade system for the rest of the year. This is the very long way of saying the number of selections of BBotE available in the store may shrink with time or become only intermittently available. Also, bottle & shipper styles may change as those supply chains are impacted too.

Third is the logistics from me to you. I depend on the USPS and their international partners for shipping BBotE and Steins of Science everywhere and that only works for as long as the postal service does. Even in the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the mail always went through and the USPS prides itself on that. It did, however, get juuuuuust a titch slower because postal carriers and sorters were either ill/dying or caring for loved ones that were. If the postal service starts having to slow down service, I will not be surprised but they’ll also be likely to make an announcement about that. The good news there is that I’ve built a bit of a time cushion into BBotE shipments. Priority Mail slowing down from 1 to 3 days to 5 is reasonable and fine. 10+ would be bad and a very serious indicator of systemic breakdown.

The last and somewhat grim point is the Funranium Labs is just me. In all the contingency planning, it is inescapable that I constitute a critical, single point of failure situation. If I get sick, production and shipping grind to a halt. I will suspend the store if I need to do that or if, heaven forbid, I’m not capable of doing that I’ll have My Lovely Assistant take care of suspension for me.

So, go forth (or don’t if you’re quarantined), take care of each other, and live well.

Phil vs. The Otago Rail Trail, Part 2

We last left our intrepid heroes at the trailhead of the Otago Rail Trail in Middlemarch. Apologies for the delay getting to part two because one of the hard things in reconstructing this tale is that the websites I used in 2003 have dramatically improved and it’s hard to recreate my old errors. Pretty sure I figured out all the places we stopped correctly.

Anyway, I need to take a moment to describe the backpacks we were going to take on this trip. I had a 70L North Face pack that was a hand me down from Mark, who had taken this pack on hikes/climbs to pretty much every 14k peak in Colorado. It was in remarkably good shape despite the mileage. I’d never done much backpacking so this was a rather nice starting place for me. Mark was well experienced with it, could help with adjustments, and it was large enough to hold all the gear I was bringing with me for my three post-Antarctica weeks in New Zealand.

Mark and Tony had both purchased new packs. Mark’s was a 80L that he’s ordered months earlier and it was waiting for us at the Antarctic Deployment Center. He expertly packed that thing and it was half empty as he’d purchased an upgrade for future long climbs, not simple hikes like this. Tony had gotten the largest pack that Kathmandu sells which I swear was like 110L. It was a goddamn wearable steamer trunk, though it looked proportionally correct on him as the 70L did on me.

When we were unloading the packs from the car, I reached for Tony’s and that fucker didn’t move. Despite a winter of weightlifting and being in the best shape I’ve ever been in, I couldn’t budge his pack. Tony hefted it with a grunt and put it on. I made a joke of being happy he was carrying that one rather than me. Mark, a former Army Ranger, pointed out the old adage that the pack gets lighter with every mile as you slowly eat the food you’re carrying. Tony, a former Navy meteorologist, said that this sounded like some Army bullshit but that he hoped so.

Otago Rail Trail Map with kilometer distance between landmarks. Follow along to track our misery. (courtesy of otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz)

And so we began walking from the former Middlemarch train station toward our first navigation point, Ngapuna. As I previously, mentioned a little girl with a camcorder captured our departure. As we later discovered, this was the mayor’s daughter. The mayor wanted to make sure there was documented evidence just in case we died. That’s New Zealander courtesy and hospitality right there.

An hour or two later, we took our first snack break off the side of the trail at Ngapuna, leaning against a fence, we cracked open our packs. I brought out my Swiss army knife, some cheese and a salami I’d picked up in Dunedin that morning. Mark had an energy bar of some sort. Tony took out a full bottle of red wine, three camping wine glasses (this being very decadent at the time), silverware, crackers, cheeses, terrine, and his first mini baguette. Mark and I boggled at him and I asked if that bottle was going to last him the whole hike. He looked at me like I was a dumbass, “Pfft, no. I figured a case worth on the trail would last us until we got to wine country and can restock.” Now I knew why I couldn’t shift his bag. We finished up and got moving down the trail again.

This is where things get tricky as the maps my memory recalls from 2003 had a different name for a town at the next stop than what is on the current map, Rock and Pillar, but I do not remember what that name was. The planning we had done said here was a small town we could stop on the trail after a leisurely 14km before some of the longer days ahead of us. A beer or three, some dinner, maybe camping outside, maybe there’d be rooms at the pub.

There were no rooms at the inn. There was, in fact, no inn. There was nothing but a small shed and the plains of Strath Taieri, overshadowed by the tall granite hills that we were just starting to notice had a persistent, maddening wind down blowing from. It was here that we realized that the maps we had might reflect historical towns that weren’t there anymore. We took out the maps to figure out what the next place with definitively stated lodging was and, this was key, that all the maps agreed existed. This appeared to be the town of Hyde, another 14km away, a surprise doubling of the distance of our first day. The point of the short first day was to ease us into it, especially me who wasn’t really accustomed to long distance backpacking. With heavy hearts and packs, we resumed the hike but without quite the same spring in our step.

We trudged away from the Town That Wasn’t, following the trails through another 14km of farms. Not long into this next leg, we encountered some sheep and we were clearly the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to them. I know this because they ran ahead of us, shitting in abject terror, most of the way. I had no idea sheep contained that much poop but that smell has never left me after following, collecting more and more sheep, and frightening an entire flock for quite some time, as the unending wind blew the smell into our faces. I managed to forget it for a few years until I had my first glass of bad scrumpy in Exeter, which was like drinking the smell of that hike. Somewhere around kilometer 18, I started noticing a twinge in my right hip which got progressively more and more painful as my iliotibial band slowly seized up. I started dropping further and further behind Mark and Tony, but we were already well past the point of no return. This is when it officially became the Otago Rail Trail Death March in my head, as I had to make it to Hyde or die trying.

Unfortunately, what was waiting for us in Hyde was the GLORIOUS FUTURE, except that in the present the Hyde Inn was closed for renovations to greet all the bicyclists doing the Orago Rail Trail next season. The despair really hit when we crossed the highway and learning no town was there either. There was a picnic table on the side of the road as this was effectively a trailhead. So, we put down our packs, sat down at the table to look at the map and see what the next step was and saw that the next town was another 20km+ down the trail. This was the critical error for me as ceasing movement caused everything that had been protesting for the last 10km to lock up and fail. The attempt and immediate failure to get back up, gracelessly falling onto my pack rather than kneeling down in the process, meant I had to call hiking for today. There was no hope to get to the next town for me and I was quite happy to camp and/or die on the shoulder of the highway if needed because I wasn’t able go any further.

Mark and Tony decided that the only answer was to try to hitchhike. I pointed out that no one in their right fucking mind was going to pick us up. The highway running from Dunedin to Queenstown is comparable to Highway 50 running from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe, if it also spent half it’s time going through the wine country of Napa & Sonoma. There were a hell of a lot of two-seater BMWs and Porsches moving at high speed to get to the slopes and wineries. They sure as hell weren’t stopping for three sweaty backpackers that still had South Pole Madness in their eyes. While Mark and Tony tried to hitchhike and argued about the best ways to do it, I saw a building nearby and I limped down to what I discovered was a sheep transfer station in hopes of…anything. Really, I have no idea. There was a building with other humans in it and I was broken. I hoped for mercy of some sort, even if it was just a swift death to end the increasingly excruciating pain. Instead, what I got was an ice cream sandwich from their freezer as they asked what we were doing. The humorous exchange of “We’re hiking the Otago Rail Trail”, “Bike?” from the Fisher & Paykel store repeated itself here as I tried to explain our failure. The very kind station manager said “Bruh, you fucked up” (oh, I knew) and told me to go get the other guys because they’d give us a ride back down to Middlemarch in a sheep truck, as long as we didn’t mind the mess from the last load. We most certainly did not.

As we rode in the back of the truck bouncing back down the highway to Middlemarch where the driver lived, he radioed ahead to the town and had them open up one of the empty houses for us to crash in and light the water heater. When he dropped us off, the driver told us to walk over to the Middlemarch Pub if we were up for it after we had a chance to clean up and rest. Let me tell you, I have never had a more luxuriant, pain easing hot bath in my life. With great difficulty, despite the long hot bath, I hobbled over to the pub with Mark and Tony. As we entered, it was a full house and we were welcomed with a shout of “STUPID FUCKING AMERICANS!!!” because yes we were. Even the little girl that filmed us departing was there. At this point, I have to admit that memories of the evening get a bit foggy because I was exhausted and was introduced to the second beer I’d ever liked at that point in my life called Otago Strong. No idea who makes it, never saw it again, but it was flowing freely from that tap once I got put behind the bar by the publican after Tony mentioned I’d been the bartender at Pole.

We left the following day after breakfast on the entirely reasonable basis that if we didn’t leave, there’s a good chance we never would. Mark had already gotten an offer to do some electrical work on a farm and we’d been introduced to the Middlemarch Surfing Club. (NOTE: Middlemarch is nowhere near the waves, and it’s really just an excuse for farmers to go drink beer and smoke weed in a shed.) In an alternate timeline, I’m probably a plumber and still running the pub in Middlemarch. Tony is probably an exotic dancer in Queenstown as you can’t keep him down on the farm.

As I learned later, I had strained the iliotibial band on my right side by overexertion. This gave me a slight limp for the rest of my time in New Zealand and it still acts up to this day if I overdo it or go too long without enough sleep. It’s my little reminder that thorough research and paying attention to cues is important. You’ll end up crippling your dumbass if you don’t.

Holidays: The Decembering (2019 Edition), The Sequel

The BBotE pre-order slots for the short production window ending December 21st are now up, which means it is now LAST MINUTE SHOPPING TIME. 

It was only -38F that day. It's a dry cold.

My Ceremonial South Pole Hero Shot & Xmas Card 2002. I still have and love that shirt.

All things being equal, domestic or international, everything shipped by the 14th should end up at their destination by Christmas Eve/first day of Hannukah. I can’t control weather, volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, or global thermonuclear war but a week and change is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination, even for international shipments.

Between now and the 21st, I will crank out as much BBotE and as many Steins of Science as I can. Domestic shipping by Saturday December 21st has a decent chance to get there by the 24th, but I make absolutely no guarantees about shipments in that window arriving in time. Express mail gets more and more necessary in the last days. I’ll do my best, but that’s all I can do.

In a pinch, there’s always gift certificates. (I wish I could tweak the available themes, but I haven’t figured that out yet.)

After the 21st, a fresh production window will go up to make sure people have the requisite caffeine on hand to greet the new decade. 

To reiterate shopping advice from the previous years, here’s a few things you should probably think about if you decide to place an order for a holiday gift from Funranium Labs:

  1. Steins of Science Availability is Limited: As mentioned in the previous Twilight of the Steins post a few years ago, I lost my relatively cheap supply line for dewars. I am maintaining some inventory, but not many. If you really, really want one and the one you want is not available, contact me sooner rather than later so I can do my best to get one for you ASAP.
  2. BBotE Is Perishable: When refrigerated, it has a shelf-life of about three months (possibly longer, but I’m only going to quote three).  If you’re going to wrap it up and put it under the tree, this a present to put out on Christmas Eve and the promptly put back in the fridge after unwrapping. Alternatively, embrace the idea of the holiday season and decide that give it to the recipient immediately, for all days are special.
  3. Let People Know BBotE Is Coming: I know part of the joy in presents is the surprise of what you get. However, joy is not the emotion most people feel when a bottle of mysterious black liquid shows up on their doorstep, especially if it’s been sitting there for a week outside because they were out of town. Give them a heads up, that something’s coming they’ll want to stick in the fridge. I will also tuck handling instructions in the box for a gift and a note stating who sent it.
  4. The pre-order slot dates date are “Ship No Later Than”, not “Ships After”: I get your orders out as soon as I can, but even in the furthest flung corner of the US with the slowest mail carrier, this means you should have your order in hand by December 18th for that last set of late order slots. If you want to order something NOW to ship later, effectively reserving a spot in a later order queue, you can do so but please leave a note with your order telling me when you want it to ship by.
  5. International Shipments Go Out Express Mail: Because I don’t want BBotE to get stuck in postal facilities or customs, express is the only way to ship to minimize their time in bureaucratic hell. Expect it to take 3-5 business days to get to you, so time your orders accordingly to make sure things get to you in time.
  6. APO/FPO: If you wish to send something out to someone with an Armed Forces address, there’s good news and bad news. Good news – it’s no more expensive than priority mail. Bad news – I can’t guarantee any date as to when things will arrive. Outside of active war zones, things move somewhat normally; inside war zones and on ships at sea, things get iffy. Also, depending on routing, some nations (I’m looking at you, Turkey) have bounced BBotE back to me on the basis that it is, and I quote, “Morally Questionable Material”. Amazingly, my shipments to Korea and Okinawa seem to arrive faster than they do to other places on the west coast of the US mainland. Go figure. In short, I’ll do my best but you’ve been warned.
  7. Local Pick Up: Resupply shipments will go out to all the BBotE Ambassadors as fast as I can crank them out, so be sure to drop them a line if grabbing a bottle that way is more convenient for you. A message to them will help them decide what to fill their cases with. I’m sure they’d like clean and empty refrigerators as their Christmas present.
  8. Turkey, Italy & Brazil: It breaks my heart to say this, I can’t ship to these countries. Italy, I absolutely do not trust your postal system. The level of theft shipping things anywhere south of Rome is, frankly, appalling. If you ask me to ship to Naples, I make absolutely zero guarantee of it arriving. Brazil, your customs causes shipments to languish for so long that the BBotE goes off before it arrives, even if shipped express; steins seem to be fine though. Turkey, well, I discussed that problems in #5.
  9. BBotE Production Is First Come, First Served: My maximum daily production output is 12L per day. Thus, people who request 12pk cases will lock up production for an entire day.
  10. BBotE Has No Kosher Or Halal Certification: While Robert Anton Wilson did confer the papacy upon me, and all the other people in the Porter College Dining Hall at UCSC in 1996, this does not permit me to sanctify food. I do have a helpful Dominican priest in Portland who’d probably be willing to bless BBotE for you, but that’s still not helpful for most people. Sorry.

Phil vs. The Otago Rail Trail, Part 1

Because I promised I would write this up when I found time, and was rather annoyed to find out that I hadn’t already done so, here you go. It’s a tale as old as time: three men set out on an adventure they are not prepared for and suffer in a hilarious manner. Really, since this was during our time in New Zealand after a year at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, I kinda feel like we were paying homage to the early Antarctic explorers and their misadventures.

TL;DR Version: You should absolutely bike the Otago Rail Trail. It’s gorgeous and is the best way to enjoy the Hills of Rohan and the Walls of Moria. DO NOT DO WHAT WE DID.

My Fellow Victim of the Otago Rail Trail, Tony, the Sexiest Man at Pole 2002-2003.

This story begins in the bar at New Zealand’s Scott Base, which is on the other side of the hill from McMurdo. I had gotten marooned in McMurdo for a bit waiting for my ship to come in with a large dewar of liquid helium, and I wasn’t particularly welcomed to help the science tech assigned to McMurdo, I kind of drifted to helping the New Zealand Antarctic Program a bit. The atmospheric scientist who was there, Becs, had two important suggestions for me when I got back to New Zealand:

  1. That I should make the acquaintance of KAOS (Killing As Organized Sport) when I got back to Christchurch. That they were my people and I should go unto them. The current state of their page confirms that still.
  2. The Otago Rail Trail had just opened up, it was awesome, and a great way to see New Zealand from the sea to Queenstown, AKA the Lake Tahoe of New Zealand. For the record the website for the Otago Rail Trail is much more detailed now than it was 16 years ago, when it was pretty much “This is a map with few details and some towns. Here ya go.”

Over the subsequent months during the Long Night, sitting at the bar of Club 90 South, one of the frequent topics of conversation was what vacation plans you were making for when you finally got off the Ice. Many people were planning round the world trips that would land them right back in Christchurch in time to start their next winter at Pole. Tony, Mark and I didn’t have globe trotting plans, but there were going to be some good times in New Zealand. We looked at the map (remember: less detailed than the current one), saw that there were towns at fairly regular intervals, making this a very nice backpacking/pub crawl from Middlemarch on the coast to Queenstown.

…at least, that’s what it looked like on the map with Yahoo Maps cross-referencing (Google Maps was still two years in the future). Because it was a NZ Department of Conservation brochure, much like a US National Park Service map, it had highlights. It certainly didn’t have all the towns that Yahoo Maps popped up on the way along the trail.

And so after our return to Christchurch and a week of thawing out, we picked up a rental car, drove down the Pacific coast to Dunedin and then took the turn up to Middlemarch, the coastal terminus of the Otago Rail Trail. Middlemarch wasn’t and still isn’t a big town. It had ~200 people in 2003. At the time, the town consisted of the old train station, which was the start of the rail trail, the Middlemarch Pub, and the Fisher & Paykel store that specialized in farm equipment (it also doubled as the post office, video store…everything, really). We parked in the side lot and walked in to ask the nice lady running the joint if she minded if we left our car in her lot for a week or so while we hiked the Otago Rail Trail. The exchange went like this:

F&P Lady: Where’s your bikes, lads?
Tony: We don’t have any. Like I said, we’re hiking the rail trail.
F&P Lady: Bike?
Tony: Hike.
F&P Lady: [still confused] Bike?
Me: [over-enunciating] HIKE.
F&P Lady: Ohhhhh, you’re hiking. Alright, then. Park as long as you like.

It was an odd exchange. It got odder when we got our packs out of the car and walked over to the trailhead/defunct train platform. A small girl was there with a camcorder. She wanted to film us as we took headed out and waved goodbye. It felt oddly final and creeped us out a bit.

The Middlemarch Death March had just begun. STAY TUNED FOR PART 2!

Holidays: The Decembering (2019 Edition)

First of all, I want to thank everyone that contributed, watched, and bullshitted with us for the Team Sensible Shoes Extra Life campaign, playing Shadows of Brimstone for a bit over 26 hours spread over two days. It was fun, still challenging to our increasingly old bodies, and we hit our fundraising goal. Again, thank you!

Moving on to business, as the BBotE pre-order slots for the window ending November 27th are now up that means we’re sneaking up on Thanksgiving and it’s time to give my PROTIPS for holiday shopping! To the people that are very proactive and organized in their holiday shopping, such as the gentleman that I let place a reserve order in August for shipment on December 18th, I’ll answer your question now: yes, you can place an order now in an earlier production window for a holiday shipment. Just leave a note saying “Delay shipment until $DESIRED_DATE” with your order so I know you want it later rather than ASAP.

It was only -38F that day. It's a dry cold.

My Ceremonial South Pole Hero Shot & Xmas Card 2002. I love that shirt.

The last pre-Xmas BBotE production window will close on December 14th. All things being equal, domestic or international, everything shipped by the 14th should end up at their destination by Christmas Eve. I can’t control weather, volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, or unilateral surprise withdrawal from international postal unions that may or may not happen (again), but a week and change is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination, even international. I will put another pre-order window up and crank as much out as I can after the 14th, and domestic shipping on Saturday December 21st have a chance to get there by the 24th, but I make absolutely no guarantees about shipments in that window arriving in time. Express mail gets more and more necessary in the last days. I’ll do my best, but that’s all I can do.

To reiterate shopping advice from the previous years, here’s a few things you should probably think about if you decide to place an order for a holiday gift from Funranium Labs:

  1. Steins of Science Availability is Limited: As mentioned in the previous Twilight of the Steins post a few years ago, I lost my relatively cheap supply line for dewars. I am maintaining some inventory, but not many. If you really, really want one and the one you want is not available, contact me sooner rather than later so I can do my best to get one for you ASAP.
  2. BBotE Is Perishable: When refrigerated, it has a shelf-life of about three months (possibly longer, but I’m only going to quote three).  If you’re going to wrap it up and put it under the tree, this a present to put out on Christmas Eve and the promptly put back in the fridge after unwrapping. Alternatively, embrace the idea of the holiday season and decide that give it to the recipient immediately, for all days are special.
  3. Let People Know BBotE Is Coming: I know part of the joy in presents is the surprise of what you get. However, joy is not the emotion most people feel when a bottle of mysterious black liquid shows up on their doorstep, especially if it’s been sitting there for a week outside because they were out of town. Give them a heads up, that something’s coming they’ll want to stick in the fridge. I will also tuck handling instructions in the box for a gift and a note stating who sent it.
  4. The pre-order slot dates date are “Ship No Later Than”, not “Ships After”: I get your orders out as soon as I can, but even in the furthest flung corner of the US with the slowest mail carrier, this means you should have your order in hand by December 18th for that last set of late order slots. If you want to order something NOW to ship later, effectively reserving a spot in a later order queue, you can do so but please leave a note with your order telling me when you want it to ship by.
  5. International Shipments Go Out Express Mail: Because I don’t want BBotE to get stuck in postal facilities or customs, express is the only way to ship to minimize their time in bureaucratic hell. Expect it to take 3-5 business days to get to you, so time your orders accordingly to make sure things get to you in time.
  6. APO/FPO: If you wish to send something out to someone with an Armed Forces address, there’s good news and bad news. Good news – it’s no more expensive than priority mail. Bad news – I can’t guarantee any date as to when things will arrive. Outside of active war zones, things move somewhat normally; inside war zones and on ships at sea, things get iffy. Also, depending on routing, some nations (I’m looking at you, Turkey) have bounced BBotE back to me on the basis that it is, and I quote, “Morally Questionable Material”. Amazingly, my shipments to Korea and Okinawa seem to arrive faster than they do to other places on the west coast of the US mainland. Go figure. In short, I’ll do my best but you’ve been warned.
  7. Local Pick Up: Resupply shipments will go out to all the BBotE Ambassadors as fast as I can crank them out, so be sure to drop them a line if grabbing a bottle that way is more convenient for you. A message to them will help them decide what to fill their cases with. I’m sure they’d like clean and empty refrigerators as their Christmas present.
  8. Turkey, Italy & Brazil: It breaks my heart to say this, I can’t ship to these countries. Italy, I absolutely do not trust your postal system. The level of theft shipping things anywhere south of Rome is, frankly, appalling. If you ask me to ship to Naples, I make absolutely zero guarantee of it arriving. Brazil, your customs causes shipments to languish for so long that the BBotE goes off before it arrives, even if shipped express; steins seem to be fine though. Turkey, well, I discussed that problems in #5.
  9. BBotE Production Is First Come, First Served: My maximum daily production output is 12L per day. Thus, people who request 12pk cases will lock up production for an entire day.
  10. BBotE Has No Kosher Or Halal Certification: While Robert Anton Wilson did confer the papacy upon me, and all the other people in the Porter College Dining Hall at UCSC in 1996, this does not permit me to sanctify food. I do have a helpful Dominican priest in Portland who’d probably be willing to bless BBotE for you, but that’s still not helpful. Sorry.

For those of you who read this far, I congratulate you.

Back From Jerusalem & Extra Life 2019

Allow me to fill your life with GOOD NEWS!!!

via GIPHY

First of all, I’m back from vacation which means the coffee engines have fired up again and some of you should already have received your shipments. My trip summary:

  • If it’s always a good idea to take a Hollywood photographer on vacation with you for the best photos, it is similarly good to go with an archbishop to assure excellent service and access to locations in the Holy Land.
  • Similarly, having hot and cold running archaeologists available to give two to three thousand year old cultural context is excellent.
  • As I was promised, I am now broken forever for hummus, falafel, and lamb. The secret to a good falafel sandwich is ALL THE PICKLED THINGS. All of them. Cram them in that pita.
  • Do not order “Turkish coffee” if you aren’t in Turkey.  Your helpful Palestinian hosts will remind you that it is Arabic coffee, it has cardamom, and is inherently better.
  • IDF teenagers on patrol in the Old City have terrible muzzle discipline.
  • I didn’t have nearly enough time in Jordan. However, I may not have the intestinal fortitude to survive more time in Jordan than I got.

There’s was so much more than that and I’ll be processing that trip for a long time. But now that I’m back, it is time for the next important event: EXTRA LIFE 2019!

“But Phil,” you say “Extra Life was last weekend. It’s over.” Au contraire, because I didn’t get home until last weekend, we bumped our time out to this weekend to play 24 hours of Shadows of Brimstone. Also, some assholes decided it would be fun to do a DDOS attack on a fundraiser site on the day proper, doing some damage to the effort. So, here’s our chance to kick a little in after the fact and offset that. If you feel like it, please go donate to either my personal pageor to our group, Team Sensible Shoes. We are old and weak vs. 24 hours of gaming, but we will do our best with all the caffeine and fine drink we can. And, yes, there will be a Twitch stream. We’ll do our best to remember there is a chat function.

Also, I look forward to getting to yell “PORK DELIVERY!” when the fresh chicharrones from the Pig Wizard shows up.

See you then!