International Shipping Is ON Again

Error has been fixed in the sense that my “helping” has been undone.

Remind me the next time that I try to fix something on The Internets that it isn’t as simple as building an x-ray fluorescence unit. The next time I get that urge, I will resist it and go have a cocktail instead. This is the wisdom that comes with age.

I return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

International Shipping Error

Right, the back end migration has not been without casualties. It appears that I’ve lost the ability to ship internationally for the moment until I & my trusty webminion can get home to sort this out.

In the meantime, you nice folks in Germany, Australia, Denmark, and Norway, enjoy this nice video of a singing owl.

Further Q&A – The Ego Feeding Edition

A reminder: over the last weekend there was a swap of back end for the store which means, unfortunately, you cannot access your old pre-February 24th, 2012 orders to chat with me. The database should remember who you are but you’ll have to drop me a line the conventional way. Alas.

I get some personal questions from time to time in the ol’ Ask Herr Direktor bucket and the most popular is… Question: “What the hell is a health physicist and why are you one?” Answer: The completely uninformative TL;DR version is “a safety professional that specializes in ionizing radiation”.

Now, would you like to know what that means? This is a bit of a ramble, so brace yourself.

For a moment, please try to imagine ALL of Science. All of it, even the bits that you feel uncomfortable referring to as Science, perhaps you call it *finger quotes* “Science”, or squishy science, even perhaps pseudoscience. Are you holding all of that in your head? Okay, now take absolutely any topic in that ball of knowledge you’re holding and add ionizing radiation to further explore a hypothesis in the topic. In my experience, there is absolutely no field of human thought or endeavor that someone hasn’t found a way to add some kind of radioactive material tracer to or bombard with x-rays to prove a point.

It is vitally important to have someone around to say, “Okay, you could do that, but would you mind putting some shielding behind your target so you don’t irradiate the Chemistry 1A lab bench on the other side of the wall? At the very least, can you wait until after the students are gone?” One of the sayings about health physics is that it is a topic “an inch wide and a mile deep”. Understanding what radiation does is relatively easy; understanding what EVERYTHING ELSE does in the presence of radiation is another matter.

As a matter of history, x-rays were discovered by Roentgen in November 1895 and radioactive materials by Becquerel in July of 1896. The first recorded radiation injury happened due to an x-ray over exposure in August 1896; medical use of x-rays medical began shorty after the discovery. The term “health physics” entered parlance during the Manhattan Project to describe all those people doing radiation protection and biological research (mainly focused on their fellow workers/researchers handling radioactive materials) to protect us from their work and, sometimes, their work from them. On organizational charts and pay stubs “health physicist” was less informative to foreign intelligence services than “radiation protection professional/researcher”. In my opinion, the field as a whole has suffered from this obfuscation in the public eye ever since.

The effects of ionizing radiation, be it x-rays from a machine or radioactive materials, are pretty straightforward. We have an excellent idea of how much it takes to hurt people, how it hurts, and how to protect against it. In fact, ionizing radiation is wonderful because there are actually meters that can detect radiation directly. Biosafety and industrial hygiene (chemical safety) have been greatly hampered by the fact that tricorders don’t exist yet. But we’re getting there.

So what is it that I *do* exactly? Mostly paperwork. At the moment, I am responsible for the radiation producing machine (read: x-ray) and radiation detection instrument calibration program at UC Berkeley, which means I shuffle a lot of paper making sure everyone is playing nicely. This means making sure that machines are properly registered with the state (much like a registering a car with the DMV but you have 30 days instead of 7), that all the controls actually work AND are followed, that instruments stay in calibration and good repair, and that everything is used in a sane manner. The last thing in the world I want to see is “BABY’S FACE SCORCHED TO BONE BY ROGUE ACCELERATOR” because life doing radiation safety is difficult enough.

Are You Sure Building A Tunnel Through A Fault Is A Good Idea?

Lawson Adit - Are You Sure Building A Tunnel Through A Fault Is A Good Idea? Do really think they put any radioactive material down here?

Another old adage is “The more interesting the job, the more paperwork they make you do.” I’d say a good 90% of my day is devoted to writing reports and reading regulations. But that 10% where I get to help a researcher build their experiment such that they expand human knowledge but don’t dramatically shorten their grad students’ lifespans, or go down into the mine that I didn’t know was there just to make sure radioactive materials weren’t stored there, or play Scooby Doo Adventures trying to figure out what happened in a lab 70 years ago to make that spot of mysterious contamination…THAT is what I love about being a health physicist.

In addition to all that above, I’m a teacher. I teach radiation safety at a local community college and a train people how to work with radioactive material & machines. I try, as much as I can, to try to get people to think about the world around them and appreciate it’s beauty and wonder, the electromagnetic spectrum being one of the most wondrous things to me. That’s the thing every scientist has in common, no matter how highly specialized they are, is that some part of the world is wonderful and they need to know more about it. At some level, the health physicist is the interface between people intensely interested in the world using radiation but not necessarily thinking of consequences and a public absolutely terrified of the very word. I think the phrase I used in my interview was “A health physicist has to be an ambassador for the isotopes.”

So, if you notice me trying to sneak the occasional tidbit of information about working with radiation to you, that’s part of my subversive effort to diminish some knee jerk ignorance in the world. Ionizing radiation is no different than fire: useful, beautiful, dangerous, deserving of respect. A health physicist is here to remind you to be respectful, play nice with the toys and the other children. In a way, we’re the recess yard duties of radiation.

Maintenance Upgrades

This weekend, in response to some long standing grumbles, the store side of the website will be going into maintenance mode as it undergoes a major upgrade. During this time, you may be redirected to read my blithering rather than being able to buy wonderful shiny preciouses. What will this mean to you, The Viewing Public: very little. The front end will be identical but the back side, well, it’s gonna be a pretty sweet tuckus.

The most important change for you folks that frequently forget passwords is that your reset message will finally not be plaintext.

Unfortunately, I won’t be ably to import all the conversations I’ve had with people that went with orders from the old store architecture. This is actually quite a bummer as I’ve had some great chats with you folks and I like to be able to quickly reference them as I assess the level of caffeine consumption you’re likely at as you ramble at me. I’ll be saving them to read on lonely nights with mood lighting and a nice Chianti, but they won’t translate over to the new store.

People with gift certificate codes that are still outstanding will get a fresh missive stating that it has been reissued with the exact same code. Honestly, how have you people resisted redeeming them yet?

The One Where I Play Sherlock Holmes

It’s been quiet here for a bit, so I figured it’s time to tell you about my super power.

Some people know the fire and electrical codes inside and out. I swear to booze that there’s this one guy at LLNL who is the goddamn Cement Listener and can tell where subsidence is going to occur and what’s been poured with bad concrete mix through carpeting. While I may know a thing or two about radiation, nuclear weapons, coffee, and booze, my true gift seems to lie in walking into empty rooms and figuring out what it had been previously used for and where to find all the fuck ups. This makes house hunting with me fun too.

A couple years ago, I walked into a former chemistry lab that was being decontaminated and about to be released with my co-worker.  He’d found some very low level contamination and wanted my opinion as to what it was.  So, I brought my gamma spectroscopy unit along and set it up for a 15 minute count. Scan running and with some time to kill, I started looking around the mostly empty room and, since he’d been doing the decon, asked my co-worker what this lab was formerly used for (the idea being that if I could figure out what it was used for, I could make a more educated guess as to what the low level contamination was). Unfortunately, he had no idea.  His response: “Umm…chemistry?”  Not helpful.

So, I started looking around a bit more closely.

Five minutes later, I announced that this lab used to have a custom built wooden fume hood (AKA a “Berkeley box”) where they did uranyl gluconate chemistry, had an electron microscope, and likely did nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging with the samples as well.  I declared the contamination to be naturally occurring uranium and its daughter products.  Ten minutes after that, the gamma spec unit confirmed my declaration.

Of course, this prompted my co-worker to ask how in the fucking fuckity fuck fuck did I do that.  It goes like this:

There was very worn and faded tape in a strange pattern on the floor next to some major electrical hook ups. This normally indicates the 5 Gauss line for a big magnet where people with pacemakers aren’t allowed to get any closer.  Also, there were several cracked up tiles all in one spot right outside the the tape line.  Floor tiles don’t like having liquid nitrogen spilled on them over and over again, something students who’ve never played with a cryostat receiver before often do as they nervously jiggle a transfer dewar.  To me, that adds up to an NMR unit.

One of the lab benches along the wall had a hole in the ceiling above it and several large drilled holes in the front counter. Clean spots told me something had been sitting in one place on the counter below the hole in the ceiling. The holes in the counter are where the knobs for gas, compressed air, and house vacuum used to be installed. The clean spots were from where the sides and sash of the makeshift fume hood used to rest.

There is a room within the room full of grad student sardine can workstation dividers with no windows, a sliding door, and a whole lot of terminated pipes for pluming on the walls.  This in and of itself is not a big hint, but the small pass through door in the wall combined with the sliding door (which replaced a previous door based on paint jobs) told me that room used to be a dark room. Dark rooms mean films are being developed and the only film developing I’m familiar with that involve something radioactive at a very low level are those of electron microscopes. Depending on the application, they like to use uranium, lead, and osmium acetate for contrast media in sample preparation. This means they used to have at least one electron microscope. An x-ray diffraction unit is also a possibility, but you generally wouldn’t find working in tandem with an NMR unit.

My co-worker nodded and boggled at this for a bit and then frowned. “Wait a minute…you said electron microscopes use uranyl acetate as a contrast agent. Why do you think that it’s uranyl gluconate instead?”

I smiled, nodded sagely, and pointed at a piece paper thoroughly taped to some unistrut in the middle of the room.  “Elementary, dear Watson. On that piece of paper are all the IP addresses for this lab to map to their former servers and printers. Note that the network written there is ‘glucose’ and the not-at-all-secure network password next to it is ‘Glucose1’.  I suspect glucose and glucose compounds were rather important to this lab.  Besides, the stains in the bottom of the cabinet where you’re seeing contamination look a lot like long dried Kool Aid on wood. Thus, uranyl gluconate.

It’s not about knowing what all the equipment does. Most of it is understanding people, particularly what happens when there’s not enough time, money, and/or interest to do things right the first time.

Caffeinating PAX East & Other Sundry Information

Soon, PAX East will descend upon Boston like the plague of locusts that it is, consuming all the Cheetos, Pocky, and Mountain Dew within that fair Commonwealth. I won’t be there, but Black Blood of the Earth will be. Test Subject & Steinwielder ECT has kindly volunteered himself as The Mule to PAX East as he is driving there and has room to fit cases in his trunk. Note how I used the plural term there. The point is that you, the caffeinated public, have a chance to have ultracoffee and not have to screw around with BBotE in your checked luggage AND avoid shipping charges.

How much ECT brings with him is up to you. If you want me to send along something in the case for him to bring up for you, you need to drop me a line and tell me what you want and give me your contact info. I will then pass this along to ECT so he can get ahold of you at PAX, git yer money, and give you your caffeinated delights. 750ml bottles will run $45 and 1000ml will be $60 for direct hand off. I’ll probably arm him with sampler vials too. If you really, really want a Jug of Madness schlepped for you…we’ll talk.

Moving on to other hard learned lessons, remember when I long ago declared that the flavor of BBotE is stable for about three months if kept refrigerated? Some folks have reported that it has stayed stable longer but I’m sticking with my three months to stay on the conservative side. However, if you were born in a barn and insist on drinking directly from the bottle and backwashing your filthy monkey germs into it, I’ll be surprised if it lasts longer than a couple of weeks after your first swig even if you keep it cold. Your mother would be ashamed of you.

Monkey Assesses The Threat

IMMINENT MONKEY - Monkey Assesses The Threat, Could Bite At ANY MOMENT (taken at the San Francisco Zoo, 2008)

If you have no idea what kind of a cesspit the human mouth is, just wait until you get bit by a young child for the first time. I am also recalling the month or so one police officer went on medical leave after being bitten by a homeless man and the long hard fight to find some …any… antibiotic that would actually work for his infection. This is why it is vitally important to bite a chunk out of people who attack you; they will probably run away because they will, rightfully, see you as too crazy to be worth the effort, plus you’ll be able to tell the police to check the hospitals for the person with the recognizable bite marks who is dying of a fever, with amputation imminent for gangrene.

That’s your free self-defense and sanitation tip for today!