New Things, Departures, & Fun

Alright, I’ve good news, better news, great news, and a small bummer for you all.

The bummer: my roaster of choice for my Panama declares end of season. Accordingly, it has been removed as a selection on the radio buttons when you’re placing an order. It will be missed, as it always is, and hopefully will return to us in six months or so, El Niño and blights permitting.

The good: I am pleased to announce that the BBotE Embassy of Dublin, Ireland is now active again! Jonathan, who you can contact by email bahrae [at] yahoo [dot] com, is stocked with 1L bottles for €70. His case should arrive tomorrow if you want to lay claim to some of his sweet caffeinated bounty.

The better: I got to play with Lego and hang out with fun people! Norm and Will at tested.com have a segment that I am quite fond of called “Lego With Friends”. As I am a friendly person, with impeccable Lego credentials of insobriety thanks to the Liquor ‘n’ Lego tradition, they invited me on. The first episode of the series of five is free for the world to see, though the subsequent ones are premium content. For those of you that’ve been reading the blog all along, some stories may sound familiar. These are the same two guys that have previously run the Octobercast fundraiser that I joined them on at  stupid in the morning two years ago, but luckily there was BBotE.

PERFECTLY NORMAL COFFEE

PERFECTLY NORMAL COFFEE – Approved for filthy mammal consumption.

The great: THERE IS A DR. DINOSAUR LABEL FOR BBOTE!!! Folks have been asking if this could happen since… well… conservatively speaking, since the Tesladyne & Atomic Robo labels first appeared. In thanks for the support over years and to celebrate Atomic Robo Volume 10 kicking off online, half a page a day, every day, Scott & Brian gave me their blessing to make up a Dr. Dinosaur label. And here it is, DR. DINOSAUR’S PERFECTLY NORMAL COFFEE!

I would also like to extend tremendous thanks for this label existing to Test Subject Miller who did tremendous amounts of art & graphic design work so that this label could see the light of day. Scott may’ve created Dr. Dino, but cramming his goofy therapod butt onto a label wasn’t easy, she wow’d Scott & I with her tinkering, and now it’s finally here. If you wish to see her other arts, some of which are quite naughty so can’t say you haven’t been warned, you can go hit her deviantArt page here.

Advice to a Young Scientist/Engineer

HINT HINT HINT

When you are insane with genius, time management skills are the first thing to go. (Dr. Dinosaur courtesy of Scott Wegener & Brian Clevinger)

I am starting to build a backlog of incomplete posts, for which I apologize. For the TL;DR version: I went to the Nevada Test Site and it was awesome, the BBotE order slots for the window ending May 30th are now up, and a new label for the bottles is coming that I’m very excited about.

But today, I wish to grant the wish of a someone that made an order and asked “I’m a 23 year old engineer aspiring to make a difference in the world. Can you enlighten me with your wisdom through the telling of a story?” So, here you go, man. I do indeed have some advice to share.

_______________

You are a wizard. No, really. You have Wisdom of Things and can tell the future of how they will work, or won’t as the case may be. Somewhere, somewhen, in Middle Ages the line between philosophy (natural philosophy being the old term for what we’d call the sciences) & magic got a bit blurred and it’s been hard to disentangle them ever since. Clarke’s Third Law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic is just a reflection of that old confusion.

And that’s the trick as a scientist or engineer; it isn’t magic to you.

In the long, long ago, in the beforetime, I was a physics undergrad functioning as a TA for the Academic Excellence program at UC Santa Cruz, which had the dedicated mission of trying to help minority students in the sciences stay in them, with a grad student functioning as our supervisor. The grad student ditched out of the program very early on, leaving my fellow TA and I with a hard choice: do we fold up the physics program as we have no one in charge, or do we team teach it as best we can as undergrads? Neither of us had ever had a teaching gig of any kind before this one and no one taught us anything about pedagogy. We were second quarter sophomores for fuck’s sake; we’d just started taking upper division classes, having finished the dedicated physics major version of the lower division courses we were now teaching other students, who were usually older than us.

And they let us do it. They never made an effort to hire a new grad student for the next two and a half years. Our supervisors trusted that, hey, they’re physics majors, of course they can do it. We did and we did it well. Every single one of our students passed with B or better and the only one that had bailed on the program had to do it for health reasons, not because he wanted to.

But that trust is what I want to focus in on. Think of all the people in your life that have decided that math is frightening, that there is simply too much in the world to know. You have been equipped with the tools to tear apart the toaster of reality and take some good guesses how things actually work. When you can do that, I find people react in one of two ways: unwavering trust or fear. That trust put two undergrads in charge of 60 students that the system expected to fail. And they might have, if I hadn’t intentionally broken my students’ trust.

While giving a review lecture for mechanics about rotation and changing inertial reference frames, I made a sign error. Normally, this isn’t a big problem but when you’re bouncing between reference frames, things start getting weird fast. I decided to just roll with it and keep going, as no one had called me on it, just to see how far I could go with patently bizarre and wrong math on the board.

At the 40 minute mark, I capped my dry erase marker, put it down, and turned to the class. “I made a mistake over a half hour ago and none of you caught me. If you did, you didn’t say a word and let me keep going.” There were stunned and angry looks. Most of my students were pre-med, which means they were used to a steady stream of rote memorization from a year of biology and chemistry. With sad understanding in my voice I told them “Memorizing won’t work here. There are too many formulas and you can’t possibly hope to memorize the infinite permutations of them for every possibly scenario. The Laws of Motion and energy conservation are conceptual tools that help you build the tool you actually need for any given problem. Let’s start again, but now I’ve taught you an even more important lesson: I make mistakes too. Being a physics major doesn’t make me infallible. NEVER accept what what the person at the board is doing as absolute truth, you have to keep thinking. This ain’t a church and I’m not the pope. Pay. Attention.”

They never let me get away with it again. Thinking harder about the world and getting  more familiar with using the tools they’d been handed, rather than just memorizing their shapes for organization on the pegboard in the tool shop, started making them much better in their other classes too. To the point that after three quarters, when I put up three blackboards worth of scenarios asking “For each of the following, using what you have learned since the fall, please explain why Phil didn’t die.” that they were able to answer them all.  They were a little concerned that each of those scenarios was a real story, but that’s another matter. I actually got one convert who decided that physics was the major she should really be doing. It’s been almost 20 years and that’s still a moment in my life I look back on with tremendous pride.

You aren’t going to be able to do much about the people that are afraid of you for what you know and seem to be capable of (see also: the fate of almost every wizard in folklore), but you can try to get the people who blindly trust to join us. No one’s ever going to master everything, but the point is to get people interested enough to try; case in point, I’m shitty at drafting and never will make a good engineer, but that doesn’t stop me from staring lustfully at the CNC machine.

I would like point you at the old World of Darkness game Mage the Ascension, specifically to the Technocracy’s updated Convention sourcebooks. This isn’t just because Brian Clevinger managed to sneak my name into the 2013 revision of my favorite of them, the Void Engineers. They were traditionally portrayed as the adversaries in that game, with the “heroes” trying to keep the ancient mysteries alive and reassert them as dominant paradigm in the world. I had a hard time with this as the Technocracy were clearly the heroes trying to advance and awaken humanity as a whole, not just pursuing a personal and hubris driven set of obsolete beliefs. The lone wizard in the tower, looking for the secrets of yore in ancient tomes is doing it wrong. The wizard teaching an army of apprentices to wield magic in their own right for the common weal, that is noble.

Probably not a Nobel, but if you’re doing it for prizes, you’re in the wrong field. I’m not telling you to get out there and become a science teacher at your local school, but take every opportunity you can to explain what you’re doing and why to anyone who will listen.

An April Fools Cautionary Tale

TL;DR moral of the story: do not prank emergency responders. We will play it straight and you won’t like it.

Once upon a time, several years ago, a grad student decided to call the spill response line and call in a spill in a non-radiological control area. Because my name is first in alphabetical order on the receptionist’s list, the call got routed to me rather than the co-worker of mine he was hoping to prank. When I showed up to the lab, heavy spill kit and normal work bag in tow, and was directed to the break room where the there was a spilled mug of coffee, student declared, laughing, “APRIL FOOLS!”

I didn’t laugh. I remained stonefaced. I asked, “Is that the radioactive spill?”

Fainter laughing from student, “It was just my coffee, man.”

With continued stoneface, but a trace of concern in my voice, “So you drank it then?”

Student, now with concern in his voice, “Look, it’s just coffee.”

I opened the spill response kit and started to take things out. “Do you know it wasn’t contaminated?”

Student, stammering, “C’mon man.”

I handed him a bioassay kit. “When you’re finished here, I’ll need you to give a urine sample to verify there’s been no uptake.”

Student, “What?”

I gestured to the kitchen and desk areas of the lab “Once you’ve made a documented survey and decon’d this entire area, because I see several other mugs of suspicious fluid and evidence that the spill has been tracked through here, THEN I will need do do a urine bioassay to verify that you have not ingested any radioactive materials.”

Student, getting angry now, “THIS IS BULLSHIT! I’m not doing this.”

I did not smile. “If you don’t, then I have to. This is a spill response. And if I have to respond to a spurious spill, you will then get to explain that charge to your PI when it makes it’s way though the accounting in about a month. We always give the lab a chance to clean first during spills before we get involved. Your choice.”

About this time, while it was now dawning on student #1 that once you trigger the safety response script it has to play out, another student walked into the office area to come get something from her desk. I firmly told her “Stop right where you are. You have just entered a contamination area.”

She just rolled her eyes and said “Yeah, right.”

I blocked her way, handed her a pair of tyvek booties, and hit her with full force of Command Voice I can summon. “Stop. Remove your shoes, place them in this bag and put these booties on. This is not a request. When he verifies they’re clean, you can have them back. Meanwhile, you!” I gestured to Student #1, “Get the rad tape up. You don’t want anyone else entering the contamination area.”

Eventually all nine grad students of this lab were participating in an item by item survey of the kitchen and office area, and a complete on-your-knees survey of the floor of the entire lab space. Luckily, I had brought extra meters in the spill kit so it was easy for everyone to take part. Four hours of verifying zeroes later, I congratulated them at the end for running an exceptionally good decon drill and that I trusted that they would be well equipped for any future response.

That lab’s students skittered away from me from then on when ever they saw me in the halls.

Atomic Robo Shameless Promotion

This is a tale of contracts ending and product evolution.

Two months or so ago, some of my favorite people decided to take a chance with their creation, Atomic Robo. They are bringing the entirety of their work for the last 9 volumes online as a free webcomic and launched a Patreon to support the comic going forward, in addition to the Atomic Robo supply depot. Brian Clevinger got his start in webcomics with 8-Bit Theater, so this is somewhat a return to ye olde tymes in a swanky format to him but for Scott Wegener this is a a bold, new, different, and thus somewhat scary frontier. To be be honest, not many careers seem to be as cruel yet rewarding as comics artist, so my read on the scary level is “Can’t be much worse than normal, but I do like food now and then.” I could be wrong, but I think Scott is fighting Bob Cratchit for the last lump of coal in the scuttle right now in the midst of New England spring which hasn’t quite gotten the memo about winter being over.

Because I have the pleasure of being their Weirdness Consultant (I got a promotion from mere science nerd recently), I knew this was coming and I wanted to do my best to help them make the most of it.  Because people are more than a little excited about the prospect of FREE ROBOT SCIENCE PUNCHING COMIC, the traffic that came bearing down on them was similar to the catastrophic Leo Laporte/TWiT Army load testing of my own website (despite my best efforts to Warren Ellis-proof it). You guys brought them crashing down but thanks to Hiveworks they’re up and better than ever. I’d been haranguing them for what seems like years, because it totally was years, to get themselves some sort of merch up and running as they kept making wonderful images and words that needed to be available as consumer products.

I cannot adequately express how not excited they were. They make art and words, and try really hard not to think about sales of things that are not comics because that is distracting. I point blank told both of them that if the poster in the background of NASA Director Bolden’s office “SPACE: IT’S OUT THERE!” did not become a purchasable item, that they clearly hated money. This is very similar to how I tell researchers I have no interest in accounting when discussing their work with radioactive materials; if something is going wrong, I want you to talk to me, not worry how much things may cost down the road. Luckily, they got themselves George Rohac who actually likes the business and logistics side of the house and fired up the store like it had never existed before. Just for the record, for those of us that like fine paper products, it’s their intention that trade paperbacks will continue to be available.

Atomic Robo has always run on the slightly weird schedule of roughly nine months of comics per year and then three of downtime for business retooling (see also: Scott’s excellent new Wacom tablet), story development, and remembering that loved ones exist. Unlike Brian & Scott’s normal incredibly busy breather, this one has been marked by the actual transition to the online comics. Issue by issue, the old volumes of Atomic Robo, including the Free Comic Book Day specials, have been appearing on the website at the rate of three per week, Monday/Wednesday/Friday. Eventually, they’ll catch up to Volume 10 and the new releases will begin in early May.

You may recognize this as my user icon from many services. Picture title: "PHIL YELLS AT THE METAL DINGUS"

You may recognize this as my user icon from many different services. Picture title: “PHIL YELLS AT THE METAL DINGUS”

I bring all this up because they just hit Volume 6, Issue 1 “The Ghost of Station X”. Issue 2, which starts next Monday, is where my alter ego, Dr. Phil Broughton, Action Scientist, first appears on the pages of Atomic Robo. This is my reward for having helped over the, umm, more than decade that all this has been rattling in Brian & Scott’s heads. I take it back; the real reward has been getting to help bullshit with them endlessly and help make Atomic Robo as wonderful as it is.

They also made these two wonderful Tesladyne and Atomic Robo labels for my BBotE bottles and let me use them when I really needed to help my mom after my father passed. In turn, I now toss back profits from those back in the pot for their Patreon in thanks.

If you’ve never read Atomic Robo before, now is a great time to start for the low, low cost of free right here at Volume 1, Issue 1. If you’ve been reading all along and were confused about the transition online, now you have the straight dope on how to proceed.

In short, REMAIN CALM. TRUST IN SCIENCE.

End of Year Update

As we wind down into the final days of 2014, I have done some assessment of the state of production to let you know the lay of the land for 2015. Resupply cases are headed to Wish in New York City and Natara in Los Angeles, though I’m pretty sure Natara’s is completely slated for a tasting party for New Year’s.

After the production window ending January 3rd closes, I will be winding the coffee engines down for a week because I jump on a plane shortly there after to head to CES 2015 (reprising the 2011 CES journey). For that reason, the next window will go until January 24th since I’ll be out of town. I will be spending most of my time in Vegas for CES at Caesar’s if for some reason you wanted me to bring a stein with me for you. I also happily accept cocktails if you can find me.

Anyway, status reports in no particular order:

1) Changes to the Flavor Line Up – For the foreseeable future, Jamaica Blue Mountain is off the table. As I mentioned a while back that last time it disappeared, the crops coming out of Jamaica for the past several years have been painfully small, while demand has only gone up. This means that my roasters of choice are hard pressed to get any when it comes up on auction. If, and this looks increasingly unlikely, they are able to get any beans, the prices are likely to jump up by at least 25%. Considering how painfully expensive the Jamaica Blue Mountain BBotE is, that probably takes it out of even “Extravagant Gift” price range for folks. If you really, really want some, ask and I’ll see what I can do.

Otherwise, the availability of the rest of the varieties appears to be stable. There’s a chance that Ipsento Panama will run out and that Congo will come back.

2) BBotE Ambassadorships – At this time, I have no intention to expand the number of BBotE Ambassadors out there. The addition of of Melbourne (Australia), Toronto (Canada), Albuquerque, NM and Prescott, AZ at the end of last year was a bit of a push and I’d like to make sure they get established and I can handle their demand before adding anyone else. Sadly, after this case Wish is hanging up her hat in New York City. I’m afraid secure buildings have made easy hand off to folks tricky.

3) Price Changes in Australia – My retail prices of BBotE have stayed stable for the past several years despite generally rising prices in coffee and supplies. I like my price points and want to keep them there as long as I can. However, in one place, they’re going to have to change: BBotE Ambassador hand off in Australia. As a kindness, I’ve been letting people just pay in AUD as it was more or less 1:1 for the exchange rate. Was is the operative term. I’m afraid those prices are now something closer to AUD90. Sorry, everyone down there. Melbourne & Perth rates are now a titch higher starting January 1st.

So far, this isn’t coming to Toronto or London yet, but I’m watching those rates.

4) THE DEADLY RADIATIONS!!! – As I have often said, the price of writing about interesting things is that it takes time away from doing interesting things. I have high hopes of actually getting a few more tales up here in the coming year. The TL;DR version of 2014 has been “Goddammit, you still aren’t dying from Fukushima, stop calling me.” Also, if you are need of something to donate to for tax reasons and like tales of radiation, may I recommend the Atomic Heritage Foundation to you?

5) Travel – Other than the trip to Las Vegas in the first week of January I mentioned above, nothing specific is on the docket. There’s been mutterings about a mission behind the Orange Curtain and possibly Boston, but nothing concrete. Nothing that shuts down production for a month like the Great Cross-Country Journey of 2014.