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.”

Phil’s Failed TI Interview

Oooookay, so once upon a time I *REALLY* didn’t want to work at $MAJOR_LASER_CO anymore and was trying not to with a new gig. (SPOILER: I eventually escaped by going to Antarctica.) Toward this escape, I applied to work as a safety engineer at Texas Instruments in Santa Cruz, CA. This was exciting to me on the grounds of moving & working closer to my family again rather than commuting to Silicon Valley everyday.

But, like usual, it makes me upset to be late to meetings so I made plenty of leeway time driving there. Traffic was very kind that day, as you can never predict the Bay Area and especially Highway 17, so I got there WAY early. After sitting bored in the car for a while, I decided to take a lap of the facility. Please note, I was wearing a suit and carrying my clipboard/notebook with me. NOTE: a safety professional should never be without a way to take notes.

Three quarters of the way around the building I came upon employee patio where people were having smokes. Apparently, I hit just in time for a break and walked directly into the breakroom. I grabbed a Coke from the vending machine. A couple swigs later, I followed everyone in at the end of break time.

Again, I was wearing a suit and had a clipboard. *NO ONE* questioned me as I proceeded to walk through the fab. I really should have been forced to wear clean room garb. I shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the coating chambers. I got to ask some questions, checked neat things out, and went to the bathroom. I looked at my blackberry pager, as that was my watch at that point, realized the time and figured I should go to the lobby for my appointment. So, I checked the emergency evacuation map and found my way.

At the appointed interview time, I walked into the lobby to meet my host. I extended a hand to shake in greeting. He stared at my hand. Then at the lobby entry door. Then at the door I had come from leading to the offices & fab. Then at my hand again.

To his credit, he had the grace to conduct the interview. At the end he said, “I’d offer you a tour, but I think you’ve already had it.”

Me: I have some thoughts about your chemical handling, cleanrooms, and access control.
Him: I bet you do.

Readers, this may be a shock but I didn’t get that job. For the record, doing this to Lockheed was much worse.

…and then he went to Antarctica.


The Upcoming Spain Itinerary

The Coffee Engines are now idle. Everything that could be made before I jump on a plane at stupid in the morning on Sunday has been. All that remains is ship the last couple orders tomorrow morning, make up the Transatlantic Reset BBotE sampler vials for Fr. Gabriel and I, and then get to the airport. I will leave ordering on so you can call dibs on production when I get home on the 20th but, obviously, nothing is going to get made or shipped while I’m in Spain.

It’s a little like this.

For those not familiar with the Transatlantic/Transpacific Reset trick, I always bring two sampler vials of BBotE with in my carry on. The vials are clear and less than 3.5oz each, so they are TSA approved even if they do get a hard squint every time. I drink the first vial when the plane touches down on the runway. I finish the second vial as I hit customs, toss the empties in the bin, slap my sunglasses on like Horatio Cane as I walk out of the airport, and stride boldly to a full day without jetlag across the sea.

I was kindly asked if I could provide an itinerary of my upcoming walking of the Camino Primitivo, ideally with maps for the geographically challenged, so that people could follow along with my adventures so that the tweets/skeets I’ll invariably make along the way will make some sort of sense¹. I’ll leave it to you to use Google Earth to figure out where we’ll be. To start with, this is the optimum “everything goes as planned” schedule. There are some bits we’ll have to figure out when we get there at various stages. The only hard and fast date is the plane ticket home.

May 28th: Depart from SFO at stupid in the morning.
May 29th: After planes and trains, arrive in Oviedo.
May 30th: Oviedo to Escamplero. We’re old so starting with a short leg by cutting the normal first day of Oviedo to Grado in half.
May 31th: Escamplero to Grado. We will still be old, so another short day.
June 1st: Grado to Salas. First full long walking day. If we’re gonna be crippled by a day, this is likely it.
June 2nd: Salas to Tineo.
June 3rd: Tineo to Pola de Allende
June 4th: Pola de Allenda to La Mesa
June 5th: La Mesa to Granadas de Salime
June 6th: Granadas de Salime to A Fonsagarda
June 7th: A Fonsagarda to O Cadavo Baleira
June 8th: O Cadavo Baleira to Lugo. This will be the longest walking day, though this should be kind of easy walking.
June 9th: Lugo Day 2, LUGO HARDER. Taking a moment to enjoy the only Roman walled city left and resting after the previous day. Also, very likely laundry.
June 10th: Lugo to Ferreira 26.1km
June 11th: Ferreira to Melide 21.1km
June 12th: Melide to Arca/O Pedruzo 33km (may want to break into two days, Arzua is a halfway point)
June 13th: Arca/O Pedruzo to Santiago 20km
June 14th: Enjoy Santiago, maybe go to Finisterre
June 15th: Train to Madrid
June 16th: Madrid Stuff
June 17th: 2 Madrid, 2 Stuff
June 18th: Madrid 3, MadRAD
June 19th: Madrid 4, Madrid With A Vengeance
June 20th: Fly home from Madrid.

After suitable post-flight sleep in my own bed and snuggle the kitties, the Coffee Engines will fire back up and BBotE will start shipping again. I mean, I’m gonna need that coffee.

1: Tweets/skeets making sense not guaranteed.

My Last Day At Pole

IMPORTANT SKIN OWNERSHIP PROTIP: Flesh that has been frostbitten is thereafter more vulnerable to being frostbitten again. It seems that it is also more vulnerable to sunburn than ever before.  SPF 45 did not help the patch on my left calf, which I know for certain was well slathered.

How did my calf get frostbitten you might ask? Luckily, ish, I remember that one event in October quite well because traumatic pain helps memory jump direct write-to-long term, skipping over the toasted winterover short term memory. As I later learned, this is also how LSD works and making flashbacks forever as it puts the brain in a trauma state because, MAN, did that frostbite hurt like a sumbitch afterwards…

The replacement cryo tech, arrived on First Flight. I don’t quite remember the turnover I did for him, though according to my Green Brain I spent two days doing it. I can only assume he learned valuable and important things that saw him through his year. As a birthday present and probably because I was awfully toasty, my boss decided to get me out on an early flight. Memory starts kicking in again sometime around around 6pm, October 29th, 2003, when I escorted New Cryo to Club 90 South to induct him into the bar when it still had winterovers as had been done for me.

Me: Alright, I leave tomorrow morning…weather permitting.  Do you have any more questions?

New Cryo: Nope, I think I’m good.

Me: Are you sure?  Because after I leave here, I am gone.  There will be no easy getting a hold of me and I will not be thinking of you.

NC: Yup, I got it all.

Me: Positive?

NC: Yup.

Me: Well, I asked three times.  Let’s go to the bar so I can serve you your first scotch on Ice. (even getting toasty didn’t dull my puns)

We went to the bar and I asked him what his poison was and he said it was, indeed, scotch. This was good since Polemart was more or less empty of mixers at this point and scotch is one of the few things delicious straight. He asked for two fingers which, as his faithful bartender, I obeyed by sticking them upright in the cup and pouring until I felt booze splash my palm. He gave me a look that let me know I was his kind of madman. I happily joined him and the other winterovers, who were hiding in the bar from the strange new faces, gave him a hearty welcome. He in turn joined us winterovers in shooing away some uninvited FNGIs (fucking new guys on Ice), for he knew his invitation was special and would not have it debased.

After two more glasses and viewing “Midnight Run” for the who knows how manyeth time, New Cryo was very drunk. Not only was that a goodly amount of whiskey, but he had only been at Pole for two days which is not enough time to acclimate to the altitude. High altitude lowers alcohol tolerances and worsens hangovers (so I’m told). He was from Arkansas, so not much better than sea level. As he listed slightly in his chair, I asked him a question.

Me: Well, what do you want do now?

NC: (slurring): I wanna break something.

Me: (jumping off the stool): Excellent! Go get your coat, let’s go!

NC: Wha?

ME: (as leaving through the back door of the bar) Go get your coat. I’ll see you out front.

Like I had for most of the winter, I was wearing a Hawaiian print shirt, shorts and Tevas, and I needed to change to go play outside…especially on a snowmobile at -65F. I learned that lesson during eight months earlier when I rode out to the liquid nitrogen plant for the party while carrying a 10L dewar to get a refill for more cryogenic cocktails. LN2 on bare legs much less the cold is, well, cold.

So I put on expedition socks, boots, gloves, a fleece top, my gaiter, my Scott Base touk and went out to greet New Cryo, but I did not change out of the shorts. He was in full ECW gear and verrrrrrrrry slowly negotiating the three steps from the old galley to the snow surface, holding on to the railing for dear life. I took his hand and escorted him through the tunnels out on to the plateau. He kept asking what we were going to break. I told him that he’d see. We got to the Do Not Freeze (DNF) shack and I opened the doors. Within was Sex Machine, the most reliable of the snowmobiles I’d used all year. He had a look of horror.

NC: We’re going to break a snowmobile!?!?

Me: No no, we have to get there first.  Need a snowmobile for that.

NC: Where are we going?

Me: You’ll see.  Get on and hold tight.

I drove the snowmobile at out of the shack and through town to the skiway, where I ripped it into full throttle, flying down the middle of the skiway. Despite his inebriated state, he pulled off a decent joke.

NC: Umm…this is the way back to McMurdo. I just got here, man.

Me: Very funny, just hold on. It’s going to get exciting in a second.

At the end of the skiway there is another 600 miles or so of snow and ice before you hit the Transantarctics.  In short, not a flat groomed surface. Sastrugi, which are sort of like overturned snow dunes, sort of, and they cover most of the middle plateau. When you hit them at full speed on a snowmobile, you catch a bit of air, and then you hit the next one, and the next…so much fun. I am very proud of him for not falling off. After a mile or so, I brought the snowmobile to a power slide stop next to some bamboo poles sticking out of the snow with black flags on them.  New Cryo rolled off the seat muttering, “Ow, my ass, ow, ow, my ass” on repeat. He wandered over to me as I kicked snow off of a sheet of plywood.

NC: What the hell is that?

[I flipped the sheet over exposing a tunnel leading down into the snow]

NC: [peering down into the hole)] Okay, what the hell is this?

Me: [as I shoved him] This is what we are breaking.  The rules. 

The tunnels lead down into the cockpit and the cargo section of a wrecked LC-130 that did a pinwheel down the skiway decades ago and has been slowly buried in the snow ever since. You aren’t supposed to come here until after last flight but now New Cryo was first the FNGI of this crew who knew where the wrecked plane was.  Someone else would have to show him where Old Pole was. It is also a proud Pole tradition to write your name inside of this plane, which New Cryo gleefully participated in.  We then climbed out, closed it back up and rode back to the station. The wreck is about three miles out and I was feeling a bit cold. I thought a stop at the Cryo Barn to warm up would be a good idea.

We got there, turned on the music, and had a seat in the warm. My back was really cold on the left side (wind had been blowing up my fleece, Frostbite #1). The patches on my cheeks and forehead where the insulation on my goggles weren’t so good tingly as they were after ever snowmobile ride (Frostbite #2). I then looked down at my left calf. It had red and white stripes, like someone had slapped it…HARD. I poked it and the skin was hard, the wind ripples had frozen in it (Frostbite #3).

Me: “Hmm.  That is really going to hurt when it thaws out.”

NC: “Holy crap!  Why did you wear shorts?!?!”

Me: “Going to hurt a whole lot.  I mean, wow.”

I put the snowmobile away and escorted New Cryo back to his room for a well deserved scotch coma. I then went back to my room and resumed packing. As I did so, my calf began throbbing.  I figured that my best bet was to sleep through this bit before it really started hurting and so I did. When I woke up for the flight the next day, the calf was swollen like the worst sunburn ever, almost circling all the way around. The pressure from the swelling was like blood pressure cuff, every step was squeezing pain. Climbing into and out of McMurdo plane was torture. Somehow, I thought a hot shower would be a good idea when I got to there. No, no it wasn’t. The pain was repeated on Halloween walking aboard the flight back to Christchurch.

Once I left Antarctica though, the frostbite and all the small cuts and cracked lips healed rapidly. All the frostbitten patches peeled like the worst sunburn ever but I got off very lucky. The patch on the left calf now has less hair and feels a bit smoother than other places, but that’s about it.  Sun sensitivity was a new discovery. 

Most of this was originally written circa 2006. I have no idea if the old LC-130 is even accessible anymore or if the snow and ice have finally claimed it like so much other gear and Old Pole. The general sensitivity to all kinds of things for those frostbite patches has never really improved in the subsequent 17 years.

Sex Machine was decommissioned and sent home as waste in the 2006-7 season. RIP, you were a mighty steed.