Evolution Of Safety Equipment – The Berkeley Box

For folks that haven’t been lucky enough to experience the “Phil Points At Things That Aren’t There Anymore” Manhattan Project Tour of Berkeley, there is a secondary bit of education that comes courtesy of having 160 years worth of chemistry buildings still standing to point at. I similarly do this for students when getting them to really consider the work they are doing so the appreciate the gear they have, care for it and USE IT. It goes like this:

You don’t have electricity, you barely have plumbing. Nothing in this lab around us except for the glassware exists.  No pipette. No magnetic stirring hot plate. No mostly inert polyethylene counters and worksurfaces. No PPE to wear other than leather smocks and gauntlets. No fume hood. How do you safely do your work without horrible exposure and early death? The processes you’re doing are likely 19th century or earlier in vintage, so how would you do it?

Honest answer a lot of the time was “Get someone else expendable and common to do the nasty bits/manual labor and, if too precious and gentlemanly, do it yourself, hope for the best and accept the shortened lifespan as a worthy sacrifice on the altar of Natural Philosophy.” There is a reason that as recently as the 1960s the average lifespan of chemical engineers was roughly 45 years from the actuarial tables. I blame crucibles of boiling BeO with no ventilation to speak of but that’s several decades past the point they should have. As I’ve said many many times, our ancestors weren’t dumb; they just had different tools and mores than us. They knew toxic when they saw people drop dead. They may have not known specific metabolic pathways but they understood cause and effect, naming various “industrial diseases” for the tasks, not the poison, not the cancers. Things like fossy jaw, tinknockers’ disease, various metal fevers, and foundry blindness. At the research level, which was generally an aristocrat’s game across most nations in the last 300 years, the answer was to do your work outside or in a very open air environment like a particular drafty walls optional/easily blown off shed or a forge. You may be familiar with such designs from modern practitioners of the art.

(Tom is a friend. “Jank Science” is his style, very proud of being able to do what he does with meager items & gear from the pool supply store and lab trash bin. Fairly safely at that.)

A forge is actually important to the next step of safety control evolution. When you’re working with something nasty and toxic, you want those fumes/vapors/gas drawn away from you. You could have a dedicated person to blow bellows or wave a fan at you, but that’s not great nor is it necessarily enough to overcome the breeze that might blow it right back at you. A forge had a chimney to draw the smoke from blacksmithing and a potentially intense heat source as well. And so, people liked to do their work on the hearth in front of a fireplace with a low fire to generate the draw to pull vapors up the chimney and away from the workspace. This also had the benefit of allowing you to work indoors which is nice during the colder months of the year and in bad weather. The indoor lab’s first safety feature is born!

South Hall, UC Berkeley – By User:Falcorian – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1735605

If you have a pre-1900s building on your campus, look for the building with A LOT OF CHIMNEYS. Like, way more than you think any building should have for mere comfort. That building is likely the 18th or 19th century home of the chemistry department. At UC Berkeley, that is South Hall, the original sciences building (this picture does not do justice to how many goddamn chimneys it has). For ease of evacuation, the chemistry labs were on ground floor. This is normally a good idea, except there were four floors and those chimneys connected to a fireplace on each floor. Depending on wind, nasty things might not go straight up the chimney; instead it might get shoved back out into the offices of physics and geology professors on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors. As soon as possible, the chemistry department was exiled to a new building entirely dedicated to them called Hildebrand Hall. Not the one that’s there now, AKA New Hildebrand, but Old Hildebrand; all that remains of it is the gingerbread house dovecote, which used to be at the top of the building, sitting in the plaza.

Gilman Hall, as seen from the campanile – Gabriel Classon (gabeclasson on Flickr), CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Changes in architecture can the dictate changes in practice and vice versa. Never underestimate how much Style & Cool play in safety applications. A colleague once had a surgeon tell them point blank “I’d rather be blind than wear those (laser safety eyewear). Then I wouldn’t have to see them.” A few decades on from the mid-19th century French styles of South Hall and the giant wooden gingerbread house of Old Hildebrand, amazing innovations in plumbing, structural steel, concrete, and electrification had happened bringing Gilman Hall into the world. The other thing that had happened to UC Berkeley was Julia Morgan and the Spanish Revival style with the California School of Mines, AKA Hearst Memorial Mining Building. From both a chemistry and California point of view, this is great because a terra cotta tile roof is very hard to light on fire and “Do what Julia did” sorta turned into the design motif for several subsequent decades of buildings. But see those notches in the roofline of Gilman and the building the foreground with the windows that open into the rooms? They’re called dormers and one of the things we had learned to do since South Hall was to get rid of the fireplaces & chimneys and to banish the nasty chemistry to these spaces. While you don’t have a chimney to draw fumes away, you have the convenient outdoor workspace to shove shit out onto and close the windows or, if you can’t and need to work fast, you can set up one of these newfangled desk fans to blow things out. Some buildings with dormers elsewhere I’ve seen had more complicated enclosures that I will describe as “greenhouse like” to help you shove the nasty things into and vent them outside, rather than the workspace with humans in it.

This brings us to the postwar 1940s. In the wake of the Manhattan Project work done with dormers as state of the art ventilation and exposure control, the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission tasked the Harvard School of Public Health with finding a way to control ventilation, filter airborne contaminants, and minimize emission and general crapping up of absolutely everything. The result of this were the first HEPA filters. At Berkeley, these HEPA filters merged with the dormer enclosures and added ducting & fans to pull air away from workers, through filters, and exhausted far away on the roof. This first generation of chemical fume hoods were derisively known as Berkeley Boxes, with the implication you weren’t doing manly Real Science if you were using those. The dramatic drop in exposures, hospitalizations, and early career aggressive cancers lead to fume hoods being widely adopted very quickly and the negative connotation going away. The sash and plenum design of fume hoods, in an improved but still recognizable form little changed in 75 years, are still referred to as Berkeley hoods in the industry.

The Oldest Remaining Berkeley Box – by Phil Broughton, 2024

Which is why this entire post was written. Last Friday, I remembered to take a picture of one of the two surviving earliest Berkeley Boxes. If you have some experience of chemical fume hoods, you might be scratching your head at the choice of materials to make this one, plus the many retrofits made over the decades to bring it up to evolving standards. Some things you grandfather in other things, like the hoods you handle radioactive materials in, you don’t. This one is slated for demolition to be replaced by something newer and actually functional. This is one of the bittersweet things I learned long ago in my History of Science & Technology class, that in the progression of technology and processes we quite deliberately do not preserve the previous iterations. The fume hood isn’t the science, it’s one of the tools you need to do science safely; you need it functional and upgrade as needed/when you can and space is at too much a premium to lose to old broken stuff. This particular Berkeley Box has held on as long as it has because it was good enough for teaching purposes and there was no money or need for better. This isn’t a landmark or anything but it’s important to document and remember, like I’m doing here, of where we’ve been and why things are like they are now.

Don’t mourn this Berkeley Box. Appreciate it for the many decades of work it did teaching generations of students, being replaced by a better modern fume hood it paved the way for.

Camino Primitivo After Action Report, Part 2

With Spring all sprungen and allergies going off, I am having a weird sensation of being unstuck in time. It is hard to believe almost a year as passed since we walked the Camino Primitivo, seems like it was just the other week, with a side order of anxiety that I am not training to get ready for the Camino. As if I need to be getting ready to do it again at the end of May. What it does mean is that I need to do some more work on Part 2. If you’d like to read Part 1 first, go for it. In the interest of keeping posts under 3000 words, just barely in this case, yes, there will be a Part 3.


“Phil Causes An International Incident” IASIP Title Slide, I can hear the music playing just looking at it.

My takes on food in a place are always going to be a bit weird due to my dietary restrictions: unless it’s whale, I can’t eat seafood. Well, I can eat seafood but the consequences of what I will do to someone’s bathroom for the next several hours may constitute an international incident. This is how I introduce to you the concept that despite spending all your time walking in the hills and mountains of Asturias and Galicia on the Camino Primitivo, you’re rarely all that far from the Bay of Biscay and the regional cuisine is very proud of it’s seafood. This was very unfortunate for me.

When you’re a peregrino, in addition to having access to the alburgues to sleep in at a cheap rate, many establishments while have a peregrino food special that is discounted. Or it will be the normal price but a much larger portion to help give those calories back to you. At the end of our first day when we stopped at Escamplero, we hobbled to the restaurant & bar to see what was available to eat. The special was a cauldron of Asturian sausage soup that was sausage which Fr. Gabriel and I couldn’t finish a single serving of between us. A week of walking later, when served a similar cauldron, I demolished the entire thing myself and was considering asking for more. Unfortunately, because we were so close to the Atlantic, the delicious and hearty regional soups are sometimes made with shrimp or with fish stock. I didn’t ask one time and hooboy was that a mistake. Didn’t sleep much that night and spent most of it in the toilet, violating the nose of whichever Russian bicyclist had to use it after me.

If you are someone that can eat seafood, the locals are very proud of their pulperias. Fr. Gabriel was foolishly abstaining from seafood because I couldn’t eat it. I told him he was dumbass, don’t inflict my limitations on himself, and have some damn octopus. The last time I saw him that happy putting something in his mouth, it was the first time he had Hangar One vodka at St. George Spirits. But I don’t want you to think I spent all of my time in Spain being poisoned or denied delicious things. Goodness no.

Museo de Jamon in Madrid. More of a temple than a museum. – by Phil Broughton, 2023

Skipping forward to our final days in Madrid, we had a hotel that was next to Taco Bell. We did not eat there. Instead, we went to the Museo de Jamon, which is not a museum but a restaurant. Admittedly, the near pornographic display of so many fine Iberico hams certainly felt museum-worthy. Per our server, tourists regularly show up there expecting a museum and he wanted to make sure we were there to eat. The next day, for our final dinner, there was a place that specialized in paella, because Fr. Gabriel felt to would be crime to go to Spain and not have paella. I looked at the menu in awe because while there were seafood based paellas on the menu, they were a distinct minority. I was excited by this and told our server.

Me: You have paella without seafood!
Server: Yes?
Me: This is amazing!
Server: Proper paella is made with snails and rabbit.
Me: [excited] Is that on the menu?
Server: No, but you can make paella with whatever. The key is to get the rice right.
Me: The United States doesn’t seem to have gotten this message.

So, I get it now. I finally understand why everyone is excited to order paella. I someday hope to get eat paella again but careful watch of menus in the last year since coming home hasn’t given me hope. America, get your shit together.

Fr. Gabriel tries to claim stolen valor from the Paladin town sign. – by Phil Broughton, 2023

Back on day two of our walk, Fr. Gabriel likes to joke that he is level 2 Cleric with one level of the Knight prestige class, but he is not a paladin no matter what this town’s sign says. But more importantly, it was time for lunch and we were very ready to drop our packs and take off our shoes, we stopped at the Villa Palatina Superior Hotel. There was a sign on the restaurant patio that said they had won a prize, in the Imternational Cachopo Cpmpetition, for the Best Cachopo In The World. We didn’t know what a cachopo was, nor was our Spanish good enough for them to adequately describe it to us, but we intended to find out. But we did know if it was the Best Cachopo In The World, we would fools to pass it up. With our limited Spanish, we figured out it was something fried  with a potato item as well, which sounded good enough by us. Spain dared to ask the question “What if we could incorporate cheese into weinerschnizel with double the meat?” and the answer is the culinary delight cachopo (or caxopo). We ate cachopo several more times on the Camino but none were as good as theirs. They legit won that award.


Once upon a time, I picked up a bit of bar trivia which I then happily shared that any time you find an X in Spanish that you’d found a borrow word from native languages that came from New World back to Spain. Chocolate (xocatil), Mexico, etc. Yeahhhh, that’s horseshit and walking through Galicia taught me better, or at least it’s not quite the simple. The concepts of the nations of Spain and Mexico aren’t that simple either.

Think of the words “Oaxaca”, “Mexico”, and the name “Xavier”. How do you pronounce the X in those words? If you’re an English speaker who doesn’t know any better, you likely default to the clashing hiss /ks/ sound. But if you do know the local pronunciations, you know that X is actually closer to breathy H sound. For added fun, you may also know that the Spanish form of Xavier is Javier, with the J as H sound most people are accustomed to in Spanish. So what’s with up with X here?

First, we need some history. Mexico wasn’t always Mexico. The Spanish Empire established a variety of viceroyalties in the New World with very creative names like Nueva España, Nueva Leon, Nueva Granada, and most important for this tale, Nueva Galicia. Nueva Galicia was somewhat unique in the Spanish Empire as it was mostly settled by folks from old Galicia who got sent into the rugged interior. I assume the thinking was along the lines of “Send the hillfolk to settle the hills.” Once they arrived and met the native populations, they then proceeded to ask the important questions that any visitor to a new place asks:

  1. What do you call this place?
  2. What is that delicious thing we just ate?
  3. What was that thing that killed Bob?
Road sign showing the way to Augasantas and the church of San Xorxe, – by Phil Broughton, 2023

Because the local languages the settlers from Galicia ran into had some phonemes that the Spanish ear didn’t quite pick up, they used X for those sounds they weren’t quite sure on when they did their transliterations. This is because Galicians ALREADY USED X IN THEIR SPELLINGIn Galicia, X is already in use for the English H sound, /ks/, something vaguely Z like, and sometimes even S like. When the English borrowed Xavier from their most convenient Spaniards, the folks in Galicia, they took the Galician spelling of Javier and the promptly mispronounced it. All those words the Galicians wrote down in the hills of New Galicia rolled back down across the plain to Veracruz, on to boats, and then back to Madrid where these new words got adopted into more general Spanish.

This is the linguistic equivalent of the classic joke of “You can’t have X, we have X at home” except X isn’t just a placeholder here, it’s the actual letter. Spain, you didn’t have to go to hills of Mexico to bring X into your language, you only had to go a few hundred kilometers to the northwest of Madrid. But there’s a reason they didn’t, as expressed to me by the desk clerk at our hotel in Madrid:

“They don’t speak Spanish. It’s [with a face of disgust] Galician.”

So, there you go. Galician had to be purified by the crucible Mexico to be allowed to come back. Also, PROTIP, any Spanish colloquialisms you may have learned in Mexico may not play particularly well in Madrid. And unless you like getting the “Did you just scratch your ass and offer to shake my hand?” face never, ever ask where los baños are in Spain. Try los servicos, but even that’s too crude in the north where they prefer los aseos. My personal translation is “ass place” and I refuse alternate etymologies.


Once people who once they start learning anything about the Conquistador Era of colonization, which the French & English then refined, they often boggle at how the Spanish arrived at the utterly horrific system of turboslavery that they did. To which I give a sad chuckle and say, oh, this doesn’t just happen. The Spaniards weren’t uniquely evil and creative in the New World. No, they’d been practicing at this for centuries already. This system, which is called encomienda, is was how the Reconquista was won.

During the Reconquista, to help secure the ever advancing, newly conquered southern frontiers of the kingdoms of Spain, they need to encourage migration and settlement to secure these new lands. The Crown would make land grants to people willing to settle in these area, often as a reward for military service, sometimes in thanks for being a financier of the Crown. It was still risky so you weren’t going to do that without a serious incentive, but the Crown had one. You weren’t allowed to enslave Christians but you were permitted to do so to any Muslims or Jews you might find there. As an A+ demonstration of perverse incentives, this was a stronger conversion drive than the Inquisition ever was but it also weakened the value of these grants. So, NEW DEAL, the grantee, the encomendor, was allowed also granted the ability to command the labor of a negotiated number of people within their granted lands. TOTALLY different from slavery, just negotiated contract serfdom. Of course, the peasants that were already there continued to be peasants except they were officially registered as associated to your grant in association with the local parishes and the dioceses. Not allowed to leave, still were peasants that owed rents, but not slaves. But the most important part of this system is that the encomienda exists at the discretion of the Crown and the encomendor owed the Crown for the privilege. The other incentive was that the encomendor rights were hereditary, giving rise to the “sword nobility” which would become a bit of a problem for Spain in a few more centuries.

This is the nasty philosophy behind every conquistador expedition to the New World. These weren’t just explorers, these were founders that seriously fucking owed the VC backers in Madrid. Marc Andreessen might not torture you and your family to death if you fail to found a unicorn company, but the Spanish Crown certainly would their captains sent across the sea.

Because 1492 was a helluva year. To folks in the Americas, this marks Columbus reaching Hispaniola and opening the New World to Spain. Back in Spain, 1492 marks the Fall of Granada and thus the end of the Reconquista. There is an argument to be made that had Columbus not returned to Spain that shit might have gotten dire. That Spain might have needed to keep the good times rolling right into North Africa or, more likely in my opinion and in keeping with the Iberian character, promptly fallen into bitter civil war. This is because with the end of the Reconquista a whole bunch of heavily armed and experienced soldiers who had suddenly lost their livelihood of conquest and future hopes of retirement & labor extraction. And, much worse, there were upcoming generations that now couldn’t become encomenderos, which was the ideal system to deal with the Excess Son Problem. Thank goodness there were these new continents to send them to!

To take us back to the earlier discussion of the Mexico before there was a Mexico, the population that left Spain to go to the New World was not an even distribution across the country. Much like if you take a random sampling of 10 Americans odds on favor you’re gonna get a Californian, you can’t avoid madrileños in the Spanish settlers but the Kingdoms of Asturias, Extremaduras, and Galicia are disproportionately represented. So many from Extremadura in fact that, unlike the rest of the Spanish federal states, they have a motto: Home Of The Conquistadors. To disparagingly explain why, for centuries upon centuries these were all regarded as places that were great to be from. Unless you really, really liked being a shepherd and being rained on continuously, perhaps you might want to seek your fortune literally anywhere else, doing anything else rather than in the ass end of Europe. This population was the backbone of the Reconquista, then of the conquistadors and they understood how the encomienda system worked. This is why Fr. Gabriel marveled at all the familiar names as we walked because all those Asturian and Galician families ended up in Nueva Galicia, and thus in New Mexico and the Philippines too.

One innovation that the Spanish Crown made for the system in the New World is that all lands belonged to the Crown and native peoples were declared to be have equivalent status as Castilian subjects, so the similarly were supposed to be exempt from slavery but they weren’t exempt from compelled labor as subjects. Instead, what we think of as conquistadors were more properly encomendors but were usually also military captains commanding troops. So, they’d be entitled to a contracted amount of labor from the native populations in the lands they’d been granted, but the trick was figuring out how to compel it (SEE ALSO: all the murder, infinite wars, and divide & conquer). And, hooboy, they better figure it out fast because the juice was running and they OWED the Crown; if you couldn’t pay in a timely manner, the Crown would be quite happy to name a new encomendor whose first order of business is to return you in chains to Madrid. The other innovation was that encomiendas in the New World weren’t hereditary, it only lasted two generations, in hopes of generating the settlements and freeholds that generated even more tax. One would hope that you and your family had found a way to become fabulously wealthy forever by the time your grandkids lost the contract.

Which brings me to Florida. Walking a lush path in Galicia one day, where it was hot & humid and the weather couldn’t decide if it wanted to rain or not, I bitterly remarked to Fr. Gabriel “Okay, I understand why someone from here might have gotten on a leaky boat, gotten to Florida and decided it wasn’t that all that bad.”

In general, encomiendas worked out pretty well for the Crown and the encomendors, less so for the native populations. So well in fact, Spain was granting them to anyone from anywhere provided you took a Hispanicized version of your name and swore to the Crown (the name the Russian fur trader José Bolchoff comes to mind). But there were some places where it just didn’t seem to work out, like La Florida. Successful encomiendas didn’t get a new encomendor and in a few generations it stopped and it wasn’t eligible for another. While Alta California was the new most remote place on Earth, relative to Madrid, at least it was pleasant and profitable, just…very far away. I have always said that Florida was a state founded on real estate scams but did not quite understand how this went all the way back. Florida was much closer to Spain but its rich resources consisted of [checks notes] tropical diseases, various bitey things and death at the hands of local tribes. The encomiendas in Florida failed every single goddamn time but the Crown seemed to find a never-ending string of suckers, mostly from Asturias, Extremaduras, and Galicia willing to give it a go. Ponce de Leon may have been the first true Floridian in that not only was he a failed encomendor but, after death enticed more to come to his deadly swampland with fanciful tales.

Until the advent of air conditioning, the settlement of Florida was barely more than pirate hideouts and cursory anti-piracy efforts. Some might argue not much has changed.


People who believe they have True Ultimate Power want nice, simple, sound bite executable solutions that obliterate nuance and complications with BOLD & DECISIVE ACTION. Were those actions good and appropriate? Ehhhhhh.

[The twenty-third 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.]

To those of you who looked at these choices and said, more eloquently, “These are shit” you are correct. But these are all options that have been considered precisely because they are easily conveyed as sound bite solutions. To make it worse, I would like you take a moment and consider the slate of choices that the current American president or British PM would like offered to them. Please consider how much thought they’d put into their choice. Yes, it be like that. You all put in WAY more thought. This is not to say that these soundbite “easy” solutions don’t have one whole hell of a lot of complications entailed with executing them. But True Ultimate Power means you are no longer concerned with trifling things that might stand in the way of your will.

Like treaties. @nuclearkatie said she is convinced she’ll spend the rest of her life explaining the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, or London Conventions for short, forbid dumping radioactive waste in the ocean to people. We first tripped across this in the CYORA: Radioactive Dead, for why you might have issues doing burial at sea of radioactive dead sailors, but this isn’t gonna be concern for you. [waves True Ultimate Power wand] That treaty is now gone. We can now build the Great Glowing Reef!

Except no, it won’t really glow. That’s just silly. Declaring that you wanted to pile all the spent nuclear fuel in one pile on the bottom of the ocean isn’t entirely unreasonable. I mean, presumably you’re gonna do it in casks before sending it to Davy Jones’ Waste Repository. Now, where you build your pile depends on what you want to happen to it and for how long. One of the principles we try to follow for disposal on land is “geologically boring formations”. The abyssal plain of an ocean is, in fact, pretty damn boring.

Drop them on the muds of deep flat plain and wait for them to get encased in marine concrete and get further buried until they’re just a weird unit in the stratigraphic column, right?

Eh, as any marine biologist will tell you things move real slow down there. You’re running a race of biology vs. geology vs engineering. Can you get all this entombed by life, chemistry and pressure before those same things break down the casks themselves? If you want this to go faster, you need to do it much shallower water. Like the Florida Keys. And by faster, I mean at the speed of frisky coral growth.

But shallow water is also more vulnerable to weather and assholes dragging anchors through your Nuke Reef. You may create an incredibly productive fishing ground right in the place you don’t want people to go. The additional benefit to having them shallower is that if things start going wrong, or if you want to access them again for some reason, they’re much easier to get at than if you dropped them on the abyssal plain or, worse, into a trench subduction zone.

Speaking of subduction zones, this brings us to volcanoes. What goes down, must come up, in the form of magma to be specific. I know this because this stupid simple idea didn’t have good solid proof prior to my isotope geochemistry work. The mechanics & chemistry are…tricky.  Also, subduction is slooooow. It isn’t a human civilization grade level worry of getting obliterated cask & contents’ signature reappearing in the erupted lavas of the volcanic arc, but they will eventually come up. Hydrate melting LOVES to grab heavy metals are carry them up. Pretty much everything in that cask, and the cask itself, are the exact kind of things that will get extracted in the melt and percolate back through the crust, depositing veins of material. For the first time in billions of years, Earth might have veins of plutonium again.

As for throwing your waste casks into the top of a volcano, well, let’s take a look at what tossing regular garbage in looks like.

On a positive note, your waste cask won’t be filled with water to then generate lots of reactive steam for fun burps like that trash bag generates. It is, however, a great demonstration of the fuming, steaming mess that is a volcano. Damn things are just leaking all over the place. While there’s no treaty to prevent you from ordering all the spent fuel to be thrown into volcanos, you’re gonna get it back waaaaay too quickly and messily. Imagine Old Faithful spewing transuranic and actinide enhanced superheated water everywhere. So, doing this has a few issues but they’re hardly worth mentioning to the person with True Ultimate Power who is more an idea person that doesn’t like to get bogged down with details.

In the CYORA: Abort Launch, I discussed some of the considerations about blowing up radioactive things high in the atmosphere, mid-yeet. This would be an awful lot more and nastier radioactive material in terms of environmental persistence than a mere Pu-238 RTG. At the most fundamental level, full waste casks are HEAVY. The rocket you need to just get the cask to orbit is, well, a lot. An Apollo lunar mission is ~2/3 the mass of one of our smaller fuel casks. So, something larger than a Saturn V is in order. If you want to get quite a few casks off the face of our planet at once, now we’re talking about breaking atmospheric testing treaties to do nuclear propulsion Orion-style. Nuking the launch pad repeatedly to get the nuclear waste out of here seems a bad trade.

And that’s just one launch.

Once you’re off of Earth the real fun begins. As quite a few of you exhaustively discussed, the orbital mechanics and/or reaction mass considerations of slowing anything down enough to drop something into the sun are non-trivial. It’s easier to fling it into the great beyond. Unless, of course, you’re willing to wait. True Ultimate Power merely demanded that you fire that spent fuel into the sun. The speed of yeet was never specified, only destination. Just, umm, be careful that it doesn’t smack into anything else while it slowly drifts down the gravity well. Also, don’t miss. You have orders. It may take a billion or three years though so, GOOD NEWS, no one is going to yell at you if you mess up.

It is FAR easier to fling things out of the solar system entirely, for given values of easy. I recommend adding quite a bit of extra delta-V to make sure it’s gone. Fuck Alpha Centauri, they know what they did. Stupid mind worms.

Which brings us to what is by far the most popular option, reprocessing everything forever. First of all, let’s take care of these non-proliferation treaties and policies. Got just the tool for them. Put ’em in a nice big stack before dropping them in.

Remember when I shared the term National Sacrifice Area at the end of the Abort Launch essay? Wherever you decide is going to be the True Ultimate Power Memorial Reprocessing Facility is a place I would consider as much, because that is some nasty, messy chemistry done at large scale. Please read up on Hanford and Rocky Flats for reference. Those two are horrible and they were interested in the extraction of plutonium for nuclear weapons production, not fuel recycling.

PROTIP: Don’t make any more nuclear weapons.

Really, ~95% of your spent fuel is recyclable as a brand new LEU rod. To reiterate, this is terrible bad no good chemistry with bonus gross fission products but some people find it fun. This is all the fun of enrichment and fuel fabrication but you’re also likely going to be running a whole bunch of separate extraction lines for those fission products. The good news is that these area all things we know how to do. The reason we don’t do a lot of reprocessing, other than those treaties we shredded earlier, is that they are incredibly labor and resource intensive. Also, small oops moments add up really quick. Sometimes one oops is too many and then you have to abandon that entire separation line. SEE ALSO: Rocky Flats, Room 141, AKA “The Infinity Room” Oh, and you’ll probably want to build some plutonium burning reactors and detoxification accelerators.

You’ll solve the spent fuel issue but not the issues of radioactive waste. In fact, from one point of view you’re kinda making them worse.

In short @nuclearkatie & @slabbxo‘s future employment are assured.


Phil vs. LLMs

Last year, my friend Ed made a post regarding the nascent proliferation of ChatGPT and competitors into various search engines and other products. With a moment’s contemplation after reading it, I just realized how spectacularly bad this could go if, for example, you went to do a search for an chemical’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) and a Large Language Model (LLM) gave you back some bullshit advice to take in the event of hazmat exposure or fire.

NOTE: I refuse to use the term AI or even generative AI to describe LLMs. They are glorified versions of Dr. Sbaitso at best.

Your vanilla search for a normal MSDS will return several of varying qualities, that you then read and glean information from. Because an MSDS is primary information, it is authoritative. LLM generated instruction is secondary, theoretically deriving from those primary sources, but also prone to fabrication in places where it doesn’t know enough or doesn’t recognize the presentation. The format of an MSDS has a regulatory mandate behind it, though that varies by jurisdiction. The varying quality of MSDSs usually comes in sins of omission, which ChatGPT abhors, not fabrication, which ChatGPT does as a feature. An MSDS may not tell you what respirator to use; ChatGPT will specify a typical filter that is blatantly incorrect through hallucination. So, a LLM return on that same search will give you advice on how to work with that material that may be very, very wrong. 

It’s nice that I have a new thing to add to safety training now, that people should absolutely not use any conversational LLM generated advice unless they are actively seeking a Darwin Award. What happens when you turn this loose on budding makers starting to tinker in their garage, trying to figure things out, and then gets handed some complete LLM garbage in their search? Sure, they could already get human generated garbage on forums & reddit but they may actually be more reliable now by comparison. I shared the mere concept of this with my favorite industrial hygienist. She said “I have enough nightmares already” and closed the Zoom on me.

As it was topical at the time, I fed “how to respond to a vinyl chloride fire” into ChatGPT and it told responders to use a water fog on the water reactive chemical. This would have changed a train derailment/hazmat spill/fire emergency into a detonation/mass casualty/hazmat emergency. A+ performance, ChatGPT, you would have obliterated a town. In fairness, enough water fixes most any firefighting problem but at that point you’ve flooded what remains of a town that has been levelled by explosion and fire.

Human brains melt at the concept of what to do with chemical incompatibles and water reactive substances during a fire. An LLM has no concept of chemical incompatibility, just how to make an answer that is MSDS shaped. Machine learning will train on the typical response, what to do 99% of the time, except sometimes the sound of approaching hoofbeats is not a horse, zebras are more common than you think, and they will kill you. However, an LLM trained to think about zebras is going to return garbage to you most of the time because it has no way to know better because it’s not thinking. The very first thing we teach students to do before they do an experiment is “check the literature” and step one is almost always hit up Google. I grimly await a lab blowing up due to LLM advice thanks to Google’s garbage automatically generated and promoted output.

I’m sure this seems a bit extreme but I want you to think for a minute about something much more mundane, something that happens thousands upon thousands of times a day: a Poison Control call. Except people don’t use the phone much any more, do they? So, they search for the answer of what to do when their kid has swallowed some sort of chemical. If they’re lucky “CALL POISON CONTROL AT THIS NUMBER” will be the first result. If they’re not and they get some prime health care advice from an automatically generated answer, lives are in the hands of an LLM. I can also absolutely foresee a LLM product being sold to emergency dispatch centers to generate fast answers for what to do while waiting for paramedics to arrive.

Anyway, this is what I think about as various companies hitch their wagons to LLMs for no goddamned good reason. Okay, I’m done ranting for now.


Per the Catholic Church, and other denominations that notionally agree with their calendar, it’s Holy Week. Pretty much every day in from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday has a special name. For example, as I write this, today is Fig Tuesday because important fig related things happened today in the life of Jesus. Tomorrow is Spy Wednesday where we remember the sneeki breeki of Judas. But then you get to Thursday and it’s called Maundy Thursday. You then have to deal with the classic question from a five year old “What’s a Maundy?” and you are instantly paralyzed with fear that Maundy is a racial slur. GOOD NEWS! Maundy is not a slur unless someone has been innovating in the field and I haven’t heard about it.

But I’m not here to talk about the Easter story, except in so much as it touches on something near and dear to my heart: Coins

In the calendar, Maundy Thursday is the commemoration of The Last Supper and Jesus’ instructions to his disciples to “do this in memory of me”. It is a commandment, which may give us the etymological root of the word Maundy. If you’re the kind of person who is inclined to believe that there is hidden messaging and symbolism in the bible, well, it ain’t exactly hidden in the story of The Last Supper. This is also the point where time keeps on passing and the cultural conversation back and forth with local cultures starts creating new holiday customs. Traditionally, Maundy Thursday is when alms are given to the poor by royalty, in the form of coins or clothing, as they make their way to church and the mighty wash the feet of beggars to demonstrate humility. Nice, right? Well, you can count on the English to make things difficult and also decide to embrace symbology to get out of actually doing the whole humility thing.

If one were to take a very cynical view of the practices by royalty, you might interpret the giving of alms very publicly before entering church as signaling of both their wealth and control. It is hard to interpret the footwashing, the pedilavium, as anything but the high stooping to serve the low, if of course those feet hadn’t already hadn’t been pre-washed for the royal and sachets of pleasant flowers & herbs (AKA nosegays) provided so you didn’t have to smell the poor. The only thing left of the footwashing these days is the wearing of nosegays. The gifts of alms got complicated too. If nice clothing was given to the poor by the royal, footmen were there to promptly take that away the moment the royal looked away because, MY GOD, you can’t have the poor wearing nice things! We have sumptuary laws in place for reason and we must all signal properly, so give that back, here’s a penny, a kick in the head, and be glad for it, beggar. Which brings us to coins.

When distributing coins of alms to the poor, the royalty didn’t just press a penny into each poor persons hand and be on their way. Goodness no! That would involve touching the poor and they don’t deserve the King’s Touch because clearly the poor lack divine favor. No, coins were given in a a special purse to help give that little step of remove and also make it very clear this was a gift from the King. Sometimes the purses were made of very nice fabric because royalty deserved nice things and that’s all they should touch, except, oops there’s that sumptuary law stuff again where the poor aren’t actually allowed to possess things like velvet. So, again, footmen are handy to take that back from the poor and give them something else…maybe. Of course, the other things the sumptuary laws covered were the coins themselves. Have you ever considered that you might be too poor to be allowed to even touch silver, much less gold? Royalty, however, aren’t supposed to touch anything more base than silver, so we have a mismatch problem if the royalty can only give a gift that the poor aren’t allowed to touch. Luckily, those footmen are still handy to help facilitate an exchange to a more suitable currency.

1838 Maundy 2 Pence obverse – from the Phil Broughton Collection, 2024
1838 Maundy 2 Pence reverse – from the Phil Broughton Collection, 2024

In a prior Money Rant, we discussed how the metropole may deny certain denominations or kinds of coinage to their colonies, but this is on a much more personal basis. Prior to the Great Recoinage of 1817, the money handed out in Maundy purses was normal circulating coinage. After that point, pennies stopped having a silver variant in circulation and so the mint struck a distinct set of coins for royalty to give out as Maundy money. Except now, since Maundy money wasn’t circulating currency, the footmen were there to take that purse right back from the poor and hand them an equivalent acceptable sum of money. But the fascination with the royal family as kinda gross celebrity watching really takes off in the Victorian Era and people didn’t want to give the Maundy money back. Victoria was all for fostering this devotion to the Cult of the Crown, so she ordered many extra coins struck so they could be given as gifts. I apologize that my example young Victoria Maundy tuppence is hard to read, but tarnish is a sumbitch sometimes and beggars (HA!) can’t be choosers.

These days, the coins are still struck and the royals still hand them out, but they’re sort of like a WHO LOVES THE FIRM THE MOST?!?! bonus gift in addition to the cash to whoever wins the Most Deserving Pensioner Award from the local parish

EXTRA LIFE 2023 – Encore! Encore!!!

First of all, thank you to everyone that contributed to make Extra Life 2023 the highest amount TEAM SENSIBLE SHOES has raised for children hospitals in the seven years we’ve been doing this. Also, your donations make our Shadows of Brimstone gameplay more chaotic and fun than it is normally as you claim incentives so thank you for that too. Viewers Like You insure that we have no idea what our gameplay is going when we start the marathon every year and this was no exception.

One of our regular bid incentives is a rather expensive one called “Once More, WITH FEELING!” where you make us play the scenario we just did again, except all the enemies are brutal this time. Apparently you all were big fans of the introductory mission because we did it FOUR times, which is a titch challenging when things go brutal with low level characters, especially when one of them (mine) has a curse that guarantees that we get the maximum number of enemies or gives them an elite ability. I cannot remember a game with more injuries and madness rolls due to getting KO’d than this one.


The Hellmouth
Shadows of Brimstone THE HELLMOUTH item listing (image courtesy of Flying Frog Productions)

You see, at DiceFest 2023 we asked the creators of the game what scenario the recommended we play that would be most entertaining for Viewers Like You to watch. Both of them independently said “The Hellmouth”. The Hellmouth is a dedicated scenario with a nifty 3D printed piece of terrain that constantly spews doom at us which we need to seal. Once we finished our four intro missions, we moved on to this and boy howdy did it give us an asskicking. Hopefully an entertaining one, but an asskicking all the same.

And then someone, for the children, decided that The Hellmouth was so much fun that we needed to do it Once More, WITH FEELING! Unfortunately, time was short, the 24hr marathon was up, and we needed to go to work the following day, so we had to call it. But we felt bad about this as someone had paid money to watch us suffer and wasn’t going to get to enjoy it. There’s also two more random character level ups on the stack as well. We need to give people value for money, so here we go…

TEAM SENSIBLE SHOES’ Extra Life Encore Play – January 13th, starting 11am PST until ???

Now, while Extra Life 2023 officially ended and the page closed at midnight on New Year’s Day, that doesn’t mean your shenanigans are over, demoted to a mere viewer, goodness no. Our faithful team captain has set up a Tiltify page to let you both watch the game feed from Twitch and to claim incentives from the abbreviated list (no more Once More, WITH FEELING! this time). The drink incentives are active now, the rest will open up at 11am on Saturday, this time with proceeds going to the Southern Center for Human Rights.

So, please, join us for a good cause as we wrap things up. While we owe the brutal trip into The Hellmouth, we’ll probably play more than that for you to enjoy with us. After all, we like this game.

Camino Primitivo After Action Report, Part 1

The compostela stamp
My Compostela stamp of completion from the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago.

Back in May, I posted this preliminary itinerary where, to quote that noted fool Phil of the Past, this was the optimum “everything goes as planned” schedule. It did not go as planned. We finished, we did the Camino Primitivo, we got our Compostela, but the itinerary went out the window on Day 2. This is because Fr. Gabriel and I were (are) old, out of shape, and have had mostly desk jobs for 20 years…but we did it. There’s a lot that happened and I’ll never be able to cover it all here if I want to hit “publish” ever. Definitely not as some grand thesis. So, brace for Memory Chunks that revolve around a thought or two.

But if I want to point at one central thing of the experience is that, mostly, it gave me a feeling of peace and solitude that took me right back to standing outside at the Geographic South Pole, during the long night, staring up at the green river of the Aurora Australis. It was exhausting and there was often no room for thought beyond “I am here and I am going to fucking get there.” I have really missed that feeling and it was nice, for a few days, to have it back again. And because there is no off switch in my safety brain, there’s the side thought of “Is Fr. Gabriel still alive? Gotta make sure he makes it too.” This is a much kinder thought than “Am I gonna have to yell at more French and American tourists for being assholes and keep them from walking through a mass in progress?” which came up a lot while we were in Israel and Jordan.

The question I kept getting asked during the planning stages and all the way through while walking the Camino was “Why? And why with a priest?” The answer to the first question is rather unsatisfying to people: I have simply always wanted to take a long walk. The temptation to just open the front door and go [gestures wildly] thataway until you don’t want to anymore. I’d say that temptation started sometime in high school, but the whole Responsible Adult thing seriously gets in the way of such things if you aren’t independently wealthy and subject to the minimal vacation time of an American. Then COVID happened. I couldn’t really take a vacation for two years so hours piled up to the point that, yes, I could take a month off and go for a walk. As to the second part, that’s because, well, I happen to have a friend who is a priest. I am his personal atheist, which is actually nice for him as he doesn’t have to minister to me, he can just be. In fact, for a change, there’s someone being responsible for him. And, as a friend who is knowledgeable of such things, I am very happy to help Fr. Gabriel get all the Catholic honors, awards, prestige classes, and achievements that I can. That is, after all, why I went with him on the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher pilgrimage.

I got my long walk. He got Catholic bling and to see the land of a good chunk of his ancestors. Everyone wins!

Important vocabulary words:

Camino(s) de Santiago – one of the many trails with a terminus in Santiago de Compostela
Peregrino – a pilgrim walking one of the Caminos
Compostela – the certification of completion of a Camino from the office in Santiago. This is done by collecting stamps in your credential from the places you stay, various churches, and often cafes/bars. As a hiker, you must get one stamp per day until the last 100km, after which you need to get two per day.
Alburgues – dedicated pilgrim bunkhouses, sometimes with food, sometimes run by the local municipality. Hostels are a level nicer and privately run.

Travelling broadens the mind, teaches you about yourself and by going other places provides more context to your own home. Going to the north of Spain and Madrid taught me many lessons that made my knowledge of Rome, California, conquistadors, and above all Florida make more sense. Walking for that many weeks in a place gives you some time to think and put some puzzle pieces together.



We ran into a guy in his late 50s who was on Day 81 of walking of this session, in the process of his third walk of the Primitivo that year and he’d kinda lost count of how many total Caminos he’d done at this point. His trick was to get his 90 day tourist visa, walk for 87 days, make sure he was in a city with an airport by day 88 for a stay in a hotel, fly somewhere else on day 89, fart around for a bit and repair/replace gear, then come back to Spain (sometimes on foot) and start walking again. He was well into his second year of doing this. In addition to being someone that reminded me of the existence of The Family for the first time in years (as half of his family had been members of The Family), he started late in the day every day, passed us every day, smoked horrid rollups while walking and was waiting in the next town having his second beer and a smoke by the time we finally arrived. After having run into him a couple of times, we had an exchange that went a bit like this:

Him: So, is this your first Camino?
Me: Yep. We know we’re old and out of shape.
Him: With those packs?
Me: I know they’re way too big, but mine is the pack I’ve had for 20 years. And Fr. Gabriel is carrying his Portable Mass Kit in his pack.
Him: And you chose the Camino Primitivo?
Me: We wanted the original trail Alphonso II did. More importantly, we wanted the pretty one with less people.
Him: Well, I’m not sure any of the other Caminos are gonna have much to offer you after this. You chose the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camino.

He’s not wrong. The Primitivo is exactly what I wanted in terms of gorgeous natural beauty, small towns, great food, and few people. While the Camino Primitivo is a mere 320km compared to the much longer Del Norte or Frances, this comes with some much more serious topography and trickier trails wandering through the hills of Asturias and Galicia with much fewer amenities. This is part of the reason so few people walk it. When we arrived in Santiago, ~14000 people completing the Camino Frances had checked in that day on the tally board; that’s the same number that had completed the Primitivo the entire previous year. There was a pretty consistent cohort of 6-12 people walking any given segment of the trail, which we would see when they passed as we slowly plodded along. For the most part Fr. Gabriel and I were alone in the countryside for most of our time walking, but that wasn’t all the advice he had for us.

Him: It all changes when you hit Melide and the trail joins up with the Camino Frances.
Me: How so?
Him: A lot of people walk the last 100km into Santiago to celebrate graduations, hen parties, divorces, a long weekend, you know…whatever. Just because.
Me: How many we talking here?
Him: There are regularly groups of 30-100 walking like a rolling party with blasting bluetooth speakers, or with musical instruments and everyone singing.
Me: That…that’s a lot different than the peace and quiet of the last week and change. Surprised there isn’t someone pushing a grill or something for food.
Him: [contemplates] I haven’t seen that yet but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it happened. There are totally people with ice chest packs full of beer and wine. It’s just like that when the Frances people show up.

Again, he wasn’t wrong. It was a lot like the return to Christchurch from Pole where I’d been used to seeing the same 58 people for the last nine months and now, suddenly, I was seeing more new faces than that every minute. Suddenly, there were cafes, trailside stands, and alburgues/hostels/campsites and above all people everywhere. As we also discovered, there was a musical festival happening in Santiago for a little extra hooting among the people on the trail. While I can’t speak for Fr. Gabriel, I certainly was missing my peace and solitude.


Big Cider Cask
The Celebratory Cider Cask in Oviedo with the Festival Start Countdown Clock

We started the Camino Primitivo in Oviedo after a flight from San Francisco to Madrid, a cab to Atocha station, and the high(ish) speed rail trip. A proper planes, trains and automobiles beginning before weeks of walking. Well, we did get a good night of sleep in Oviedo first before heading out on trail in the morning. Well, eventually, we did. First we had to go to the cathedral to see about getting a quick mass in for Fr. Gabriel and to see if we could get a replacement stamp passport for him somewhere in town (ANSWER: you can get them for 2€ right at the cathedral). It just wouldn’t be a trip without forgetting something important at home and for Fr. Gabriel it was his credential to collect all the stamps to show you were moving on down the trail, two per day. Because we had STRENGTH OF CHARACTER, we decided not to abandon this whole Camino thing and stay in Oviedo for the cider festival that was going to begin in a mere four days. Still not certain if we made the right choice or not because I would like to have the Asturias vs. West Country cider off. The Wurzels will be the soundtrack, obviously.

At the outset I made it very clear to Fr. Gabriel that, as a safety professional, Failure Was An Option. I did not have the highest of faith in our physical abilities relative to the challenge ahead of us. Fr. Gabriel, lapsed Marine that he is, was not going to accept that POV off the bat but would take it under advisement. I remain shocked to report that I made it through the entire hike without so much as a blister or sunburn. Fr. Gabriel was not so lucky. His misspent youth playing soccer, doing ROTC, and above all his Habsburg genetics betrayed him and past injuries came back with a vengeance. He spent most of his Camino focused on ignoring the pain and continuing to move. The body maintenance efforts at the start and end of each day got more involved as time went on.

But what did happen as the days went on is that we got stronger and more fit. The first day hiking from the city center of Oviedo to the nearby town of Escamplero 12km away, because we wanted a short first day to “warm up”, was absolute misery. We were getting winded and needed a break walking downhill. Admittedly, it was a steep downhill path that took some concentration to not trip and fall over but still it was downhill and kind compared to some of the descents that awaited us on later days. It was also a chance to become familiar with the trail markings in Asturias, and in the city of Oviedo in particular, being subtle. Keeping a keen eye for yellow arrows of varying sizes on utility poles, hydrants, trees, the backs of traffic signs, trash cans, etc. to supplement the pilgrim shells was its own game. By the time we got to Lugo on day twelve, where we took a day of rest in the old Roman walled city, we were powering up grades that would have required many rest breaks on the first few days. Oh how we laughed and our weakness from day one when thinking about going up and over the peak of Pola de Allande, down the slope of broken rocks that had the temerity to call itself a  “trail” to Berducedo, then up, down and up again for the dam of Granadas de Salime. We referred to those as “staircase days” where we did things like descend 1.3km over 5km. By the time we got to Santiago and dropped packs at 0.0km, the rather steep streets in parts of the old city were effortless, didn’t break a sweat, didn’t even breathe particularly hard.

We had accidentally achieved a fitness and also realized there was no way in hell to maintain this once we got home short of continuing to walk like we currently were. Doing laps from downtown Berkeley to the top of campus while carrying my survey bag doesn’t quite cut it, especially since I do eventually have to sit down and write up paperwork about things. The desk job reasserted itself. Within two months, it was all gone. I’m pretty sure that Fr. Gabriel didn’t abandon his duties to the St. Catherine’s Newman Center and become a wandering religious hermit in the Wasatch to maintain his fitness. Sigh. Stupid adult and organizational responsibilities.

Compared to the other Caminos, the Primitivo has comparatively little road walking. This is good because, damn, that gets boring and it hurts compared to nice soft trails. As I told the old hand, if I wanted to walk along the sides of roads, I could do that at home. Although, on reflection, roads were better than rocky scree slopes that unfit fit for goats much less hikers…which brings to mind the others we shared the trail with. The descent from Pola de Allande is the only place on the Camino Primitvo where bicyclists and people on horseback were diverted away to the road due to treachery. I learned to loathe the bicyclists on the often all too narrow and not meant to be shared with bikes trail. I’m choosing to blame them for all the ticks Fr. Gabriel got ducking off the trail into the weeds to get out of the way. I’m mainly annoyed by how many of there were in the middle of the Camino, waking up the entire room as they got their shit together. While we never saw a given group of bicyclists again, there were always more and, oddly, they were mostly Russian. Only saw one peregrino on horseback (horseygrino) and that was on day one. We spent a quite a few brain cells while drinking end of day muscle relaxant trying to figure out where a peregrino on horseback would even board their horses.

Unfortunately, the other thing the Camino Primitivo is a little short on is water, particularly in the latter half. At the beginning in Asturias, fuentes (translation: water fountains or taps) were plentiful with people seemingly happy to build extra water for peregrinos. In Galicia it got sparse and people had taken many fuentes out of service, so we learned to refill our water at every single opportunity. This was doubly important for Fr. Gabriel as the habit is a titch warm on the trail and very early on he bit through the nipple of his camelback, causing a slow leak. We did our best to seal it but he was still had a water demand a good 1L higher than me on any given day. The question of “Is this potable water or not?” is one guides are terrible at answering.

One of those questions that came up from the younger people on the Camino talking at the end of the day at alburgues and bars was “Why does the Camino’s trails go where they do?” Luckily, old people with brains full of trivia and understanding of the human condition were here to explain things, namely that it is very unlikely that ANY part of the trail we were walking was the original path of Alphonso II. Because a king goes where they like and they’re going to choose the easiest path, that easiest path is also likely one that has a gentle grade and isn’t broken ground, AKA the kind of place you put a road. Other than bridges built in places and ways that absolutely couldn’t have happened until the the 20th century, the original and even successor versions of Camino routes are now paved highways much like tradition says the M1 in England follows the old Roman via. I actually give some thanks for not being made to walk much on the side of highways with heavy traffic. Instead, we got diverted on to frontage roads, or off on to fire trails, or into pastures and then through small outlying neighborhoods before making our way into towns. There were definitely parts of the path where we were on the old horse or cart path made at some point in the last 1000 years and then abandoned with some remnant cobbles and also small bridges to cross creeks that were Roman in age.

Of course, the side effect of moving the path away from the easily graded roads is that you start to look at the horizon and realize exactly where you’re headed. Every damn time we saw wind turbines, it was a sure sign of “Fuck, I’m gonna have to climb up and over that ridge, aren’t I?” I also gained a whole new appreciation for Roman defensive city siting and civil engineering because fuck Roman “city on a hill” construction. They always built one or two nicely graded paths into down for the easy of trade and troop movements and giant Fuck Off hillsides or cliffs with walls in every other direction. It is a very rare soldier that sees defensive siting and construction like that and says “Hell yeah! I love scaling cliffs while carrying all my gear! LET’S FUCKING GO!!!” They are called pioneers, they have a particular set of skills and, above all, are rare. For those towns that have been in existence since the Iberian Conquest by Rome, the nicely graded paths are the ones that became main artery roads and highways; we never got the nice graded path into town, it was always up the steep approach from the side like at O Fonsagrada and Lugo for us. It’s a real treat to end a long day’s hike with a final brutal ascent into town. Grumble.

Now while I said hiking and scenery left a pleasantly vacant mind at the start, that isn’t entirely true. I had Thumpasaurus’ “Struttin'” in my head for a lot of the time. Sometimes after taking breaks, I made sure to give myself a good ass slap to get myself back in the game to get struttin’ on down the trail. Also, for the earlier stages when we were passing a lot of horses in their fields, “My Lovely Horse” and “Look At My Horse” got stuck in my head a lot. If you are unfamiliar with the superhit “Struttin'”, say no more:

We made it
Phil & Fr. Gabriel standing in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, June 15, 2023

And that’s it for Part 1. Considering this is almost Chernobyl posts in length, it’s good to make a break here.

Stay tuned for Camino After Action Report Part 2!!!


It’s A Training Problem

When you hand me an incident report and you list “training issues” as a root cause, you just told me that I need to pay MUCH CLOSER ATTENTION to management and the person that wrote this report.

Why? Let’s take a moment to look at the Safety Professional’s Blessed Cosmology. Training sits in Administrative Controls. If there is an issue of training, I’m gonna ask what specifically the issue is and why elimination, substitution, or engineering controls were skipped.

The Full Five Level Hierarchy of Controls. (Omitted is @explosionandfire’s DENIAL: Hazards can’t hurt you if they’re not real)

If you tell me training is a root cause, you’re going to need to prove to me you’ve done the analysis that you’ve explored the other options and, shucks, darn, training is the only way to go here…and usually that’s bullshit.

In the background of any control, is that classic metaphor of The Tripod of Quality: you can have it good, fast or cheap…choose two. Except there’s another tripod that dictates where you go on the hierarchy of controls: risk, severity, and cost. Because safety is typically considered an ancillary cost, unless the likelihood of something going wrong is high or the severity is spectacularly bad, management tends to not be interested in paying very much to implement a control. And thus, Hellooooo Training!

When the control you settled on is training, because you weren’t willing/able to do more in the first place, that’s the root cause you’re gonna find because it’s the only thing you had.

I once discussed the Soviet vs. American Safety Models, where the American model assumes that people are the problem. That they’re your mostly likely cause of problems, so you engineer them out as much as possible. Unfortunately, that’s also expensive. To me, “training issues” is a lazy finding for a root cause. Intentionally or not, you’re deflecting design & budget problems to different parts of the organization and to individuals who are usually also the victims. Keep digging.

Since I got asked, no, this was not inspired by the CDC guidance emphasizing personal responsibility, but I can see how that abdication of organizational responsibility might resonate here.

This was inspired by a Chemistry PhD with an MBA trying to tell me how to conduct audits and how to communicate them. Colleague that’s interacted with them before said “You’re having a meeting with them? Oh no. OH NO!!!” I was not challenged and refreshed by their point of view. Folks, it did not go well. I’m not sure if I’ve made a professional enemy or not but. to be polite, we had some very different professional experiences and breadth of knowledge informing our approaches.

Commodore Blacknuts

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned the Hash House Harriers and Hash Names which are are almost universally generated by terrible embarrassing events. It is time to discuss how I got mine as it is damn hard to embarrass me as I have a cultivated lack of shame that lets me have ADVENTURE!

In case you didn’t know this, Antarctica is cold.  You are given good expedition grade clothing to wear in a bazillion different layers to keep warm.  However, it all doesn’t count for shit when the wind starts blowing or you’ve been sitting still in an unheated vehicle for a half hour.  The cold seeps in through the extremities first.  Toes and fingers go numb and no amount of beating them on things will get feeling back in them until you go inside to warmth.  I had my feet go numb up to the ankle when we were putting the skiway flags back up.

However, there is a product at sporting goods stores that sells for a buck a piece that we used to grab and fill our gloves and boots with by the handfuls called HotHands (Incidentally, this became the Hash House Harriers name of one of the telecom techs…but that’s another story).  They are “air activated” according to the packaging and this is true.  They do have some limitations however:

  1. You are not to put them directly to skin because they “get too hot”.  This never happened.  Something else did, but I’ll get back to that.  Also, intervening layers of clothing keeps that warm away from you, so slap those bad dogs as close to you as possible.
  2. The chemical reaction requires air.  When you stuff them into nicely sealed boots and gloves with no air gaps so they keep in the heat, the reaction stops leaving you with gloves and boots full of uncomfortable rocky packets.
  3. The chemical reaction depends on ambient temperature.  When it drops past a certain point, the reaction just stops.  I believe that -90F is where I observed that they stopped working.  This is a temperature where you’d really like them to keep going.  Perhaps they did keep going but it was so damn cold I didn’t notice.

Anyway, other extremities get cold too. When we took the skiway flags down in February at -54F, I had frosty nuts from 6 hours of playing outside and that was totally uncool. Fast forward to September, when it was -92F and windy. I decided to stuff a handful of these things down my pants in the interest of maximum comfort for putting the flags back up.

When we stopped for snacks at the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory (MAPO) and to use the 55 gallon pee barrel (a remote urinal, only the main station is plumbed, and don’t miss the funnel or you get to clean up with a chisel), I zipped down looking forward to ultimate relief. I was rather shocked to see the black stained crotch before me.  Considering this is what dead flesh from severe frostbite looks like, and that I was looking at my crotch, my panic was understandable.

Luckily, it was just carbon and/or pyrite dust, a byproduct of the reaction. Everything was and remains fine.

My scream of panic, however, was noted by others who rushed to see what was wrong. This situation was dumb enough that there was no point in lying. And this is how I earned my Hash name Commodore Blacknuts.



One of the ways I mark the change of the seasons is when I get my first order designating it as a holiday gift. It’s my sign that I need to revise this post for a new year and gird my loins for the MAXIMUM PRODUCTION that’s soon to come. This year it happened before Halloween, so game on!

To the people that are very proactive and organized in their holiday shopping, I’ll answer your question now: yes, you can place an order now in an earlier production window for a holiday shipment. Please 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 still love that shirt.

The last pre-Xmas BBotE production window will close on December 20th. All things being equal, everything shipped domestically by the 20th should end up at their destinations by Christmas Eve. I can’t control catastrophic floods, volcanic eruptions, special military operations, etc. 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 humanly possible before the 23rd. Domestic shipping by Thursday December 21st has a chance to get there by the 23rd, 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.

Worse come to worse, gift certificates are always an option. 

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: I am maintaining some inventory, but not much. 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. However, with COVID considerations resupply is tricky. I likely will not be getting another shipment between now and the end of the year but I can try.
  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 is 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 to give it to the recipient immediately, for all days are special. For shipments going directly to people as gifts, I stick a consumption guide in the box, with a note of who ordered it for them, and stamp the box “REFRIGERATE ON RECEIPT”.
  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. As I said in #2, I also tuck instructions in the box for a gift going directly to the recipient and a note stating who sent it.
  4. The pre-order slot dates date are “Ship No Later Than”, not “Ships After”: But I get your orders out as soon as I can after they come in. If you want to order something NOW to ship later, effectively reserving a spot later in the production queue, you can do that 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 and this has gotten worse in the COVID  times (see #5). 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 problem in #6.
  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 Salt Lake City who’d probably be willing to bless your BBotE for you, but that’s still not helpful for most people. Sorry. 

For those of you who read this far, I congratulate you and game on. Let the holidays begin.

Ultraviolet Rant – Scorched Ape Eye Club

Having now had a chance to take a look at the likely culprit, assuming a repetition of the previous incident, all I can say is You Completely Irresponsible Fucks. I am having flashbacks to yelling at Naomi Wu for irresponsible deployment of germicidal UV designs in 2020.

I am gonna try to very briefly summarize some things which I regularly see journalists and others trip over. For a shorthand, ultraviolet light has been broken into three bands, UV-A (315-400nm), UV-B (280nm-315), and UV-C (100-280nm) Any wavelengths shorter than 100nm is ionizing radiation, so X-rays. The fun for that is looking at that bulb’s emission spectrum. It is primarily a UV-C emitter, but that’s not all it does. There is also UV-B & A emitter, but those are much lower by percentage. By percentage of biological consequence, it doesn’t take much UV-B & A to give sunburns.

We don’t usually talk about UV-C much because it’s easily blocked by our atmosphere and the ozone layer in particular. The ozone layer also helps with UV-B. To remember from physics classes, the shorter your wavelength, the more energy per photon but also the easier it is to run into things. Without that protective layer, life gets tough on Planet Earth as we normally refer to UV-C as “germicidal UV”. Oddly enough, it also gets referred to as “skin-safe UV” because your dead layer of skin is enough to stop it from getting to the sensitive germinative skin cells.

But not your eyes.

Viruses and bacteria don’t have a protective layer of dead skin cells either. Cell walls and protein sheaths aren’t enough to protect them from a UV-C. Might be good enough to cope with UV-B, but we don’t like to use UV-B for raves as that marries “only slightly less phototoxic than UV-C” to “can penetrate all the way down”. By percentage of biological consequence, it doesn’t take much UV-B & A to give sunburns, which is why even that small amount in the emission spectrum may be enough to give attendees sunburns. Melanoma City (not to be confused with Melbourne, FL or Australia).

This particular lamp is meant to be mounted in a sterilization unit. The kind of thing where you wheel it into a specially designed surgical suite full of equipment SPECIFICALLY CHOSEN such that bleach and UV-C don’t cause them to quickly degrade, shoo the humans out of the room, lock the door, and run it for an hour.

As noted earlier and attested to by the victims of two incidents at the same damn club, UV-C will scorch your cornea with photokeratitis, which is just a fancy way to say sunburn of the eye.

If you’ve had Snow Blindness, you’ve done it with UV-B.

If you’ve had Welder’s Flash, you’ve done it with UV-C.

Because your cornea is highly specialized, transparent, rapidly regenerating and it is more sensitive to sunburn than all the rest of your skin. But it also rejuvenates much faster. The eye crusties when you wake up are sloughed off corneal cells. Corneal burns are extremely uncomfortable. And you are going have very diminished vision because you burnt the transparent thing you look through, ya idgit. We give you protective eyewear for a reason. Except, at a club, this is an out of context problem. IT SHOULDN’T BE THERE!

If someone tries to claim this was there for germicidal purposes to protect against $INSERT_PATHOGEN_HERE, go ahead and laugh at them for thinking that would work in any random space, much less one with people in it. We have to do serious planning for germicidal things to make sure it works. Putting this lamp in the club certainly would have made things fluoresce and look awesome, no question there. But it was also slowly roasting everyone’s corneas, much like being unprotected on the surface of Mars or the Moon.

On a positive note, unlike what people kept saying as they pointed tweets and articles at me, it wasn’t a laser. A pulsed UV laser hit will get you Instant Cataracts as polymerizes the material of your lens like the white of an egg. Other people pointed out UV-C LEDs are a thing now. Yes, they are. But they aren’t cheap (yet), have iffy reliability, and not very high power. That will all change with time, so get ready for that I guess. But there is a place I absolutely would have wanted this lamp in the club: the HVAC system

Trying to sterilize surfaces with UV-C pretty much anywhere outside of a surgical suite is dumb. If we want to reduce airborne transmission, we need to do air sterilization. To effectively do that we need lamps powerful enough to work on air flowing through ducts at speed. We do not want to share space with a UV-C air sterilizer because we like to see with our eyeballs. The UV-C equivalent of the little fly killing lamps aren’t quite gonna cut it, you’re gonna need big fuckers. So, just do it in the HVAC system.

Maybe we’ll stop having Legionella outbreaks too.


CYORA: Spicy Rock Shipping

Because people were missing the CYORAs and something popped into my head, you got the first one in quite a while.

Moving radioactive rocks around is important because it lets us revisit one of my favorite topics: Regulations vs. Reality vs. What Actually Happens

[The twenty-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.]

Because the keyword in this CYORA is “reasonable”. Reasonable is a word that entire legal and regulatory careers are built on. You may recall from earlier explainers, the discussion of the underpinning philosophy of all our radiation protection rules regs, ALARA. If you’ve forgotten, ALARA is an acronym for the dose control philosophy that stands for “As Low As Reasonably Achievable”. Just because we have dose limits that doesn’t mean that you can go ahead and just burn people right up to that limit.

You take no dose without commensurate benefit and that dose is to be minimized to a reasonable extent. But what is reasonable?

Often this is a matter of means. If you don’t have the cash to buy fancy shielding and remote controls, buy a stopwatch and work fast. Of course, the other part of reasonable is being responsible enough adult to stop and realize “Look, we don’t have the money to do this properly so we probably shouldn’t do this at all.” It remarkable how rarely that thought process seems to cross people’s minds.

Which means when considering what is the most reasonable way to get that spicy rock home to put in your collection, this becomes a question of exactly how much money to have to spend to legally get it home to you.

NOTE: it’s a little trickier if 1000mi is an international trip

First, I need to tell you that all of the options in the poll are valid and legal ways to get your spicy rock home if, and this is a very important if, it is Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM). There, in fact, is no paperwork needed for your New Spicy Rock Friend…if you’re shipping/traveling domestically. he reason for this is that it’s hard to actually get dose rates off of minerals appreciable enough that you’d need to do DOT marking and shipping papers. Also, the specific exemption for NORM.

Oh, you can detect them, my goodness yes. As previously discussed, detectors have gotten better and cheaper every year which makes it easier to deploy them absolutely everywhere. Like in postal processing facilities, airports, ag inspection stations… Which means despite the fact that your rock is A Rock™ and thus requires no documentation, anything that sets off monitoring equipment is going to get the attention of people that, perhaps, don’t have the best training about what to do when the monitoring equipment is set off.

NOTE: When we’re talking truckload or railcar quantities of ore, the NORM shipping rules change and DOT & EPA care again. Accidentally dumping enough NORM in a place where it wasn’t before is considered to be, technically speaking, bad.

But for your plain ol’ new spicy rock, I want to take a moment to applaud the incredibly dedicated 4.6% of you that are jumping on a plane to get that rock back home as quickly as possible. You are a good rock friend, but you’re probably about to have some new life experiences. First, put it in your carry on luggage. You want to be able to have this conversation with the supervisor at the TSA checkpoint. Be sure to arrive with plenty of time before the flight. If you put it in checked luggage, it may very well vanish into The Dark Airport Below. Assuming you successfully educate and/or find a brighter, better trained, and diligent TSA employee with respect to your new rock, all is well. All you need to worry about is the current fun that is flying the Age of COVID.

Is it reasonable? Eh. Expensive and fraught with TSA. If you have the money and time, I’m all for the adventure for arguing with/educating TSA agents but I’m funny that way.

If you don’t have the money but do have the time, almost half of you are willing to do the Iron Ass Challenge to drive a total of 2000mi to get your new rock.To people outside of North America, this sounds absolutely cuckoo bananas because 2000mi would be several laps around most countries. In the United States, all you did was drive from one tip of Texas to the other and back. In Alaska, you didn’t even manage that in America’s Hugest, Most Mastodonic State.

I want to compliment 44.9% for choosing the path of least resistance and most truck stop pee breaks. It is absolutely fine to transport your new Spicy Rock Friend in your trunk. You are, in fact, very unlikely to get stopped. The roadway monitors are good but not looking for you. This is the point where I need to clarify that your rock is a plain old NO BONUS RADIATION FUN naturally occurring radioactive mineral.

If your rock was tossed in a reactor for a bit (please don’t), a large hunk of radioactive glass from a test site (also don’t), it ain’t NORM.


(Obligatory Norm gif. The Forms of Kanly have been obeyed.)

If you’re having a bit to much fascinating gamma emission from your vehicle that doesn’t conform to the uranium/thorium equilibrium with progeny spectra, you may get to see a gunhaver with flashy lights. But back to wholesome NORM rocks.

If you don’t have the time or money to go retrieve your new spicy rock in person, you’re going to have to resort to mailing it. If you have any experience with shipping radioactive materials, you’re probably familiar with the fact the FedEx holds an endorsement to ship rad. FedEx regularly ships all kinds of radioactive materials all over America and the world…and they make you pay dearly to do it. But this has the benefit that the rock will actually get to you. Again, as NORM, no special paperwork or labelling is required but they may ask for UN2910. The advantage to FedEx is an insurance claim if they lose or destroy it by accident, something that they do much more often than USPS despite a lower parcel volume. You lose your new Spicy Rock Friend but at least you may get compensation.

Which brings us to flat rate USPS Priority Mail. It is a well established health physics joke that you can move an entire source cave, one lead brick at a time, in large flat rate boxes. As long as it’s less than 70lbs and not blatantly hazardous, it ships. But your shipper had best pack it extremely well. In my experience, the sad thing about a lot of radioactive minerals is that they’re delicate. Doesn’t matter how many times you write “FRAGILE” on the box, it better be packed to survive cruel treatment. The flat rate box will likely be 1/4 the price of a similar FedEx shipment and probably get to you faster. If for some reason your rock manages to set off a detector in a sorting facility, the USPS Postal Inspectors will give it a peek. This will delay things a bit.

INTERLUDE: Gadget is miffed I’m not using two hands to pet him. One for cat and one for explainers is NOT OKAY.Image

Postal Inspectors will not cause your new rock friend to vanish because they know better than the box flingers in the sorting facility, but it may get delayed. Possibly for weeks. Worst case scenario, they hand it to Customs to ask for analysis. The delay is now months. This is more or less the way that United Nuclear continues to exist with their uranium sales. They can ship pretty much any NORM they want with as many exciting activity statements and rad trefoils as they like…inside the box.

Outside, it’s just any other parcel.


For the inspiration for this CYORA, I just ask you to stop and think about when you see something that makes you seriously question “How in the hell is this legal to sell or ship?” The answer very likely is that it isn’t, or at least that the seller doesn’t have the endorsement to do it legally and is just hoping that the Waves of Bullshit coursing through our postal systems because of Amazon is enough background noise that it sails through.

Of course, it might not. Now the Postal Inspectors have something squirrelly and they’ve got two names on it. They’ll be talking to, possibly fining or arresting, you both if they can.

From a previous CYORA in its inspiring events section, you can read about tritium whoopsies.



It’s that time of year again where among the ways I celebrate my birthday season is by staying up late and playing a lot of games. That’s right, it’s time for Extra Life again!

On Veteran’s Day weekend, November 18th, 19th and 26th I will be joining the rest of Team SENSIBLE SHOES for a 24 marathon of our favorite board game, Shadows of Brimstone, for Extra Life 2023! Another year has passed so we’re older, our bodies are frailer, and we’ve maybe learned valuable lessons from the last five years (yes, this will be our sixth year), and there’s been an unfortunate concussion so we’ll be splitting this over three days. There will still be a whole lot of BBotE, fine drink and impromptu dance parties to keep us going because that’s a whole lot of sitting on ass while gaming. Lessons have been learned from last year and there will no longer be a “Buy Phil A Shot” option as I accidentally inhaled some 100 proof whiskey and it was Bad Times™, but there will be opportunities to buy all of us precious bevingtons. For people that pledge over $50 on my Extra Life page, I will send you 10% off coupon code for the Funranium Labs store that’ll be good until New Year’s Eve (and no, coupon codes don’t stack). Please join us for being very, very silly and help some sick kids because that’s one of the things I want to do with my extended birthday fortnight. Once again, there will be a Twitch stream and there will be a chat function which I’ll add a link for as soon as we know it. If you feel like it, please go donate to either my personal page or to our group page, TEAM SENSIBLE SHOES. There are some other rewards you could claim as well, like selecting what characters people are playing, what our character names are, and what the towns and mines are called. 

During the game days, we have devised a list of things you can bid on to make our game play a bit more chaotic. Last year, you all made that some of the most interesting and difficult gameplay we’ve had in a while and that was awesome. We’ve learned to flinch when the Kazoo of Destiny goes off on Twitch when someone claims one of these. Yes, they will stack. Here’s what we got for this go round:


Because, as Norville Barnes says, it’s all:


I do regret to inform everyone that beloved the Monterey Co. porkmonger The Pig Wizard is no longer in business. There will be no opportunity to yell “PORK DELIVERY!” unless we find an alternative vendor for delicious fresh chicharrones to dip in guac.

How I Learned What “Deliquescence” Is

Well folks, someone asked.

As you may be aware, as a safety professional, I sometimes get asked to help clean out dead people’s office, labs, homes and storage units. This is because the deceased might have has a reputation or survivors/estate people Find Things They Did Not Expect/Want To. In this particular case, the call came from the fire department where their hazmat team didn’t really want to be bothered with a non-emergency call because there’s contractors for such things. Friend who did a lot underground storage tank remediation offered me free booze and pizza to walk & look.

Yes, I should have been offered money but this was A Valuable Learning Experience In Silicon Valley. I was young. Anyway, we were given keys by the sheriff to enter and walked on in. Readers, shit was ECCLECTIC. And it was a fire trap of waaaaaay too many books and dust.

Please take a moment to read an old Choose Your Own Radiation Adventure written from the perspective of an older and, nominally, wiser Phil who has seen some shit since this story took place.

Putting my suspicious bastard hat on for “Where are the treasures that are a problem vs. valuable?” I began searching in a way that struck my friend as odd. Bless his heart, his suspicious bastardry is only limited to not trusting anything below ground surface. This is how he survived landmines as a teen. To abbreviate the search a bit, I found:

  • Several mummified rodents
  • Various hidden and mostly empty booze bottles
  • Multiple stashes of weed, cocaine, and various mystery pills
  • More loaded guns than I like to think about
  • …and the box labeled “Reno”

Again, I was young and should have known better that to just reach into ANY box, much less one labeled “Reno”. I should have put on gloves. I SHOULD HAVE ALREADY HAD GLOVES ON. I should have had a flashlight or perhaps an endoscope to peek into the box. What I did do was reach in. There was a sticky squish. :(

I’d found the Weekend Escapade Kit. The leather had dried out and crumbled. The metal of the chains and rings were good stainless steel and still looked nice. The giant black strap-on was of the vintage of synthetic rubber that doesn’t dry out and turn to dust. Instead, it wanted to turn back into oil. Basically, it was Big Black Cock shaped tar and it was stuck to me. The hilarious to outside observer GETITOFFGETITOFFGETITOFF scream and dance happened, flinging it off my hand with force, flying across the room, smacking into the wall and sticking.

This was a moment frozen in time. I, horrified, at my petroleum made dildo decomposition product covered hand. My friend, with gloves on, peels the dildo off the wall leaving a black dong shaped splat mark INCLUDING BALLS. What have we done?

Friend: It’s fine, some acetone and that’ll come right off.
Friend: It deliquesced.
Friend: Sometimes stuff made from petroleum turns back.
Friend: Liquid…stuff.

And that’s how I learned what deliquescence means. Yes, acetone took it right off. Yes, it squicks me out every time it happens to me. Not because I regularly grab venerable dildos, but because I have lots of very old radiation meters with handles that are incredibly gross to touch now.



There’s a hard philosophical conflict in emergency preparedness that goes like this: do you want to build capabilities to respond to an incident or do you want to prevent it from happening in the first place?

You need both, but they tend to compete for the same pot of money.

[The twenty-first 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.]

There’s a nasty tangled ball of motivations, recriminations, blame, avoidance and desk pounding of NEVER AGAIN that happens with every incident. If we could fix that, this cycle might break but I’m going to assume for the time being that we will all continue to be human.

To be clear, I’m in general case discussion of emergency response philosophies/broken logic here. There is a school of thought that regards focusing on response, with gear, training, and personnel ready to go as admitting defeat. You’re letting the bad things happen!!!

[insert pic of frowning firefighter here] “Yes. I love fires and I love running directly into burning buildings. Please build with the most combustible materials and store all your accelerants & hazmats indoors. Definitely never insulate your wires.”

The existence of emergency responders is an admission that Shit Goes Wrong. It is not defeatism, it’s a contingency. It’s being ready to render aid to your fellow humans. Money we put aside to care for each other. But to a certain brain genius mind, this looks like waste. You are spending money on salaries, training, real estate, specialized gear, and above all maintenance of all that which only seems valuable right when you need to use it. After which you need to spend more money to get it all back to tip top shape, ready to go again.

But until you need it, that capacity is just sitting there costing you money. And you may, in fact, have more than you need. This makes the MBA brain geniuses sad, so there is an argument to be made that the best thing to do then is get out and use it *for other jurisdictions*.  If the first thing that came to your mind is over-militarized police departments in more affluent areas itching for a reason to use the surplus MRAPs they’ve been handed in a mutual aid call to a poorer, browner community…I’d say you’ve been paying attention.

But there is another mindset that says this is also waste, that this is an admission of defeat, that you are LETTING the incident happen before heading in to play Great Big Heroes. That, truly, what you should do with that money is vigilantly prevent this from ever happening in the first place.

There’s a problem with this. You are going to fail, nothing is foolproof. The problem with declaring NEVER AGAIN after an incident is that the outrage cycle goes into hyperdrive when something similar enough but not quite the same happens. Even more annoying is, if your prevention efforts are working, that they are justification to efficiency minded brain geniuses that the incident you’re trying to prevent never happens anymore. It’s a thing of the past. All this is a waste for a non-event.

The Department of Homeland Security, a patchwork monster that never should have been, was stitched together out of dozens of disparate agencies by people who nominally had efficiency in mind but achieved nothing of the sort. And it was created with NEVER AGAIN as their ethos. I wish I could say I have sympathy for DHS, that I respect their impossible task and the burden that they’re never allowed to fail ever (NARRATOR: they failed often and repeatedly), but I don’t. Because to achieve TOTAL SECURITY this requires infinite resources and breadth. Mission creep doesn’t even begin to cover it. Because the paranoia required to try to achieve 100% prevention means you need complete control of everything, complete surveillance of everything. Ain’t nobody got time and money for that. And so they fail.

These are maximalist positions, but not far off from what DHS thinks it’s supposed to be. The constituent parts of DHS are somewhat more realistic about what they can achieve because they remember what their original, pre-DHS remit was. DHS will be a punching bag forever.

To pull back from those idiot positions, you need both prevention and response but they hard part is balancing your resources so that they reinforce/improve each other and that you have what you need when you need it. NOTE: this is not the same as Just-In-Time, almost the opposite

As an example, the aforementioned fire & building codes that the firefighter would like you to follow not only decrease the likelihood of a fire happening but make fires less severe when they do happen. Conversely, firefighters are also inspectors when not on calls. Which brings us to the four choices in this poll. There’s a mix of preventative and responsive in there and, with the exception of one, you’d ideally like them all but with a little more thought put into their deployment. Alas, 25 characters to make poll choices is tough.

I’ve been talking in generalities for emergency response because there are commonalities in fires, floods, quakes, tornados, etc. But radiological events, especially with the “terrorist” enhancement, adds a few more wrinkles. Namely, a lot of different flavors of cops.

TRICKY BIT: “radiological event” contains everything from a lost source to nuclear weapon.

Emergency decontamination caches, gear scattered around so that in the event of a radiological incident you can break this out to start recovery work by cleaning up the mess. Sounds great! But here’s that asshole to ask planning questions for you:

  • What needs to be in the supply cache?
  • How many caches do you need?
  • Do things expire & need to be replaced?
  • Who has access to them?
  • How are they secured? 
Atomic Robo Gets Decon’d – Atomic Robo Free Comic Book Day, pg 16, 2008

There is one last problem with decon supply caches: what do you need to know to actually use them? Decon isn’t just a bottle of NUKE-B-GON and a scrubby brush. Well, that’s one part of the process. If you don’t train people what to do and just open the doors to the public, great, you don’t have a decon supply cache anymore because the randos walking in here just contaminated the fucking decontamination supplies. Also, you may go to your cache and find it pillaged in your time of need. Dang kids!

This is one of those manifold complexity problems where management gets harder with the more things you have and more locations you’ve got. You want a mix of both local and remote caches to make sure that something is available nearby with the admission some will be lost. Being honest with yourself while planning is one of the kindest things you can do for You of the Future. Really, you should do this all the time but wishful thinking in emergency planning will cause unnecessary problem/casualties down the road.

But this is a purely post-event recovery mode. People will accuse you of welcoming the terrorist attack just so you can rotate stock. No, you must get ahead of the event! Let’s issue radioprophylaxis to everyone so the population is prepared. That’s the ticket! You’ve empowered the populace! BOLD ACTION! Doing things!

Oh wait, this is medication? That sounds like doctor stuff. Pretty sure I’ve discussed this before, so I’ll summarize.

Thou shalt not take any radioprophylaxis without explicit medical instruction. You may damage organs by taking it willy nilly. Taking it after exposure doesn’t really help, you’re too late. None of these *remove* radiation from the body like RadAway in Fallout. Other than chelation therapy (very unpleasant, may kill), that’s not a thing. RadAway, the bullshit trade name for sodium iodide pills being sold very unethically by prepper sites, is real.

We do issue sodium iodide radioprophylaxis to people in the immediate vicinity of nuclear power plants on the grounds that we want you to have them on hand and we’ll issue an emergency alert to take them before the radioiodine cloud heads your way. But who’s to say radioiodines are the thing you need to worry about in the full spectrum of radiation related terrorist attacks? There are so many different radionuclides to play with and NaI pills are useless against most of them. Great job, you did expensive safety theater. You also likely caused an uptick in thyroid disease from idiots and children taking them just because.

Let’s step back from poisoning the population to merely monitoring them. As long as we’re charging them tolls, let’s put some rad detectors on the roads into town too! Highway rad monitoring isn’t new. Large detectors hanging over entries to bridges & tunnels and near places where we would like to not lose very exciting things have been kicking around for quite a few decades. Upping your game to every entry road is something else though.

Oh hell, here’s that asshole with spec questions again:

  • What kind of radiation(s) do you want to detect?
  • Active or passive detectors?
  • What sensitivity levels?
  • What are acceptable false negative/positive rates?
  • How long do you need for a scan?
  • Should we change the speed limits to insure enough detection time? 

But stepping back a bit, when you install detectors what you’re really doing is collecting data which means it has to go to someone to analyze. Who? Local police? County or state emergency operations center? FBI? DHS? A new Palantir ChatGPT product? In general, you’re going to use these to try to detect gamma emitters. Most beta and all alpha aren’t getting beyond the vehicle to your detectors and detecting neutron emitters is hard so you’re already missing stuff. Also, not all gamma emitters are easy to see. You’ll want to set alarm points on your detection system, once you decide what and how you want to detect, to get someone to go out there and DO SOMETHING.

Oh dear, did you integrate your detectors with cameras to know what vehicle tripped the alarm? Because if you didn’t, super cool, now you know that there’s something you probably don’t want somewhere in your city and GAME ON to find it. Of course, there’s also a decent chance you just observed someone that had a nuclear medicine treatment on a drive. And I did say “all entry roads”. Take a moment to consider how many entry roads into Manhattan there are. Now think about how many there are into St. Louis. Now think about trying to keep all of those calibrated and maintained, nevermind the folks who steal and shoot at them for fun.

Emergency decon supply caches probably feel cheap by comparison now.

Taking the party back to Manhattan, note how there are quite few ways in that don’t involve roads. Would you like to cover train stations, airports, and ferry terminals too? Hell, if they’re small enough, why don’t you go ahead and slap a detector on every cop car and every fire truck? If you can, why not make them carry one along with their bodycams? Speaking of bodycams, I recommend making it impossible for them to turn the detectors off.

Considering that your first responders who will, like, respond to things when an alarm goes off, it’s not unreasonable to rain monitoring on them like candy. It’ll be godawful expensive but, as stated in the poll, an extremely large amount of money got dropped on you. Now all the previous problems the asshole asked about earlier are now focused on each responder/vehicle:

  • What does the thing you equipped them with detect?
  • How sensitive is it?
  • Is it actually calibrated/maintained?
  • Did you actually train your first responders what to do when it goes off? 

This is where people get VERY JUSTIFIABLY concerned about handing cops another piece of gear to hang off their belt or car. This is also where I have to make you aware, if you weren’t already, that this has been common for over 20 years. It is only more recently that we added similar and, in my opinion, better gear to fire trucks & ambulances. Cops can’t really shoot the radiation but they are useful for telling them to hold a cordon, but the firefighter hazmat teams & paramedics will be taking care of victims.

Some interesting things become possible when you deploy that many mobile monitoring units, if they’re networked. On a ground level, you can have a unit set to Minimal Training Required and that training consists of “When the alarm goes off, go the other way.” That’s more personnel management, but doesn’t mean that’s the only thing the monitor is capable of. With vehicle power and radio, real easy for your emergency operations center to maintain a real time radiological map of your city and you can change the resolution by sending more cars in.

As a person who has been known to do instrument repair and calibration, I get this fluttering sensation of panic at even the thought of being the person responsible for the radiation detection emergency responder instrumentation network for a small community, much less New York City. My gripe with such a deployment isn’t about whether it can detect what I need it to, but what else does it also detect. Because of the deployment of such systems, nuclear medicine departments have to give patients cards to show to cops when their meter goes off so they don’t get shot by panicky, armed radiophobes with badges.

It’s good when the detector finds the level gauge in a scrap metal truck heading to the recycler, preventing another Yonke Fenix event from happening. It’s less good when you cheaped out on the detectors and it just found you an Amazon truck full of kitty litter. Perhaps the tremendous expense, because all of these have happened, would all lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of how much we use radioactive materials and ionizing radiation every day in so many different ways in our cities.

…yeah, I don’t think so either. 

If you would like to know more about such response planning, may I recommend the works of @DanKaszeta? It’s nice to know people who can legitimately say “I wrote the book on that.”