Final Notes for 2015

I expect there’ll be radio silence from me for a while after this as I vanish into an eggnog + BBotE + slivovitz & Fallout 4 haze until 2016. It’s time to do a round up to close out the year.

  1. There are still a few slots left for the production window ending on December 23rd, mostly sampler packs. I expect to ship pretty much all the outstanding orders by the 22nd, so that gives a chance for priority mail to get you things by Xmas Eve here in the continental US. If you want to make absolutely certain, it’s expensive but go with express.
  2. For local pick up in the San Francisco Bay Area, if you aren’t picky as to BBotE variety your chances to grab last minute gifts directly from me improve dramatically. You will be taking a trip to Berkeley or Oakland to come get them though as I’m somewhat geographically limited in the last days before Xmas. Same thing applies to Steins of Science on hand, though there’s no hope for me to get more dewar supplies before Wednesday.
  3. Speaking of steins, Stein #666 has been claimed by Steinwielder Diederich in Michigan. May he hoist well with all the fine beers to be found in America’s Mitten.
  4. Another short production window for the week after Xmas will start appearing for items soon. I’m headed to the Consumer Electronics Show 2016 from January 4-10th, so clearly there’ll be no production then, though I may be able to bring somethings with me to Las Vegas if you want direct hand off. Regular service will resume after that.

On review, 2015 has been a hell of a time. Bartended for my friend’s hospitality suite at CES 2015, visited the Nevada Test Site (a personal goal), built Legos with Friends, actually served jury duty without them kicking me out immediately, reestablished myself as a Laser Safety Officer in addition to my normal THE DEADLY RADIATIONS fun, celebrated my 40th birthday in style on an aircraft carrier, and countless bullshittings regarding science, things nuclear, and what all with artists, writers, journalists, and above all time with friends. By far my game of the year has been Shadows of Brimstone and I recommend it to anyone who needs that tabletop RPG or minifig combat fix but just can’t quite bring themselves to start up a campaign. Really scratches that itch nicely.

I realize the Commonwealth Wasteland doesn't look like this - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Field Office

I realize the Commonwealth Wasteland doesn’t look like this – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Field Office

Of course, there’s also Fallout 4. To paraphrase John Muir, the wasteland is calling and I must go.

BBotE And Steins For The Last Minute Crowd

Really, raccoon stealing radioactive stuff. I'm not kidding.

IMPORTANT HOLIDAY RACCOON WARNING – Well, not really. This was to keep them from stealing radioactive stuff.

So, the shame of not having even started holiday shopping is setting in and it’s getting to the point where glasses of egg nog that are mostly bourbon isn’t blunting that feeling is it? Trust me, I feel your pain as I’ve been spending a lot of my time making BBotE and Steins of Science for the past several weeks. A late Thanksgiving this year compressed an already all too short production/shopping window and I’m feeling it. Judging by emails that are along the lines of “OMGWTFNWOHAARPISIS WHY CAN’T I ORDER ANYTHING ON YOUR SITE, WHY DO YOU HATE FREEDOM, IS THIS A CONSPIRACY?!?!?” other folks have picked up on this too.

Yes, all of the production slots for the window ending December 15th are gone. This is the sad truth.

I am going to open a small and short production window that will close December 23rd (some are already up, and more will open as I clear the backlog approaching the 15th). I will do my best to get everything ordered in this window out the door as fast as possible so that there’s a hope that you can give it as a Christmas gift but, well, 12L/day remains my maximum output. In light of all the calamities that can befall the US Postal Sevice, I can’t guarantee that your BBotE will make it to you in time, particularly if you’re outside of the United States. If you’re worried and really need to get your order ASAP in the US, drop me a line to plead your case for shuffling the order queue, and bite the bullet to pay for express shipping. I’ll see what I can do.

Speaking of overseas, specifically London, I do have the good news to give that your long dormant BBotE Ambassador, Justin, should see resupply by the end of the week, customs permitting. Feel free to drop him a line by email, jfedouloff [at] gmail [dot] com, if you’d like a piece of that.

Worse come to worse, I do have the option of gift certificates for you. Giving a coupon code is perhaps a little less exciting than a bottle of black ichor or shiny scientific hardware for drinking, but it’s better than nothing. Consulting with my sister, she recommends using glitter pens to jazz that code up when writing it in a tastefully irreverent card, but she is a inveterate glitterfiend and suggests that for most everything.

As for Steins of Science and the Stein #666 special offer, well, it’s quite close. The current inventory on hand can be found here if you’d like to get a piece of that action.

The Decembering 2015 Is At Hand!

As my Birthdaytide Fortnight draws to a close and Berkeley’s holiday lights go up in the trees, I must acknowledge what is coming and say the words that must be said.

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

My Ceremonial South Pole Hero Shot & Xmas Card 2002

The BBotE production window that closes December 1st is now up. This window is a little longer than normal because Thanksgiving is in there and I expect at least one day of turkey & pie coma.

The last pre-Xmas BBotE production window will close on December 15th. All things being equal, domestic or international, everything shipped by the 15th should end up at their destination by Christmas Eve. I can’t control weather doom snarling the global postal system utterly, but a week is usually quite sufficient even taking weather into account. I will put another pre-order window up after the 15th, but I make absolutely no guarantees about shipments in that window arriving before Xmas. Express mail gets more and more necessary in the last days. I’ll do my best, but that’s all I can do.

As far as steins go, I have a another large shipment of dewars slated to show up right just a bit before Thanksgiving. The “steins on hand” should dramatically increase, so keep an eye out on that page for the fluctuating numbers. Speaking of Steins of Science, Stein #666 hasn’t been claimed yet and there is a pretty sweet deal for who ever that lucky soul is who buys it. The current count is in the 650s, so it won’t be long now.

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. BBotE Is Perishable: When refrigerated, it has a shelf-life of about three months (possibly longer, but I’m only going to quote three).  If you’re going to wrap it up and put it under the tree, this a present to put out on Christmas Eve and the promptly put back in the fridge after unwrapping. Alternatively, embrace the idea of the holiday season and decide that give it to the recipient immediately, for all days are special.
  2. Let People Know BBotE Is Coming: I know part of the joy in presents is the surprise of what you get. However, joy is not the emotion most people feel when a bottle of mysterious black liquid shows up on their doorstep, especially if it’s been sitting there for a week outside because they were out of town. Give them a heads up, that something’s coming they’ll want to stick in the fridge. I will also tuck handling instructions in the box for a gift and a note stating who sent it if you ask me to.
  3. The pre-order slot dates date are “Ship No Later Than”, not “Ships After”. I get your orders out as soon as I can, but even in the furthest flung corner of the US with the slowest mail carrier, this means you should have your order in hand by December 18th for that last set of late order slots. If you want to order something NOW to ship later, in effect reserving a spot in a later order queue, you can do so but please leave a note with your order telling me when you want it to ship by.
  4. Yes, I will probably add a extra more slots as I get a handle on how much I can make at the last minute but shipping gets dicey in those last days before Christmas.
  5. International Shipments Of BBotE Go Out Express Mail: Because I don’t want BBotE to get stuck in postal facilities or customs, express is the only way to ship to minimize their time in bureaucratic hell. Expect it to take 3-5 business days to get to you, so time your orders accordingly to make sure things get to you in time.
  6. APO/FPO: If you wish to send something out to someone with an Armed Forces address, there’s good news and bad news. Good news – it’s no more expensive than priority mail. Bad news – I can’t guarantee any date as to when things will arrive. Outside of active war zones, things move somewhat normally; inside war zones and ships at sea, things get iffy. Also, depending on routing, some nations (I’m looking at you, Turkey) have bounced BBotE on the basis that it is, and I quote, “Morally Questionable Material” because, obviously, any liquid from the West must be alcoholic in nature. Amazingly, shipments to Korea and Okinawa seem to arrive faster than they do to other places on the west coast. 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 convenient for you. 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 shipment 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 those problems in #6.
  9. Steins of Science Have Lead Time Too: The steins are built to order and it sometimes takes a while to get parts in.  Generally, things move much faster and ship within a week but you have now been warned of the possibility of delays.  For some insight into which stein is the best fit for you, I rambled on that a while back. Dewars that are on hand for me to build steins with RIGHT NOW can be found here.
  10. 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.
  11. There’s 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, this does not permit me to sanctify food.  Sorry.
  12. REALLY, I’m not kidding and never have been, the 4300mL Stein of Science is Ridiculously Large: Seriously, BIG.  It will should take an entire pre-game, Super Bowl, and wrap up to go through this much beer.  Or one cricket match. You may think you are a super drankin’ badass, but consider that you may want to drink more often than once a year, so think about a smaller size. Far be it from me to dissuade you from giving me money, but I’m just saying, dude, it’s big.

Travel and Stein 666

As quite a few of you have already noticed the order slots for the production window ending Halloween are now up. Fair warning, there aren’t all that many slots for this window because the coffee engines will be winding down for the next week; I’ll be in Atlanta updating my knowledge of laser safety regulations. Not how most people would choose to enjoy themselves in Atlanta, but I do like collecting fresh tales of scientific/industrial horror and thus the regulatory changes they cause.

Now, on to more exciting things that I suspect people really care about. Since the very beginning of Stein of Science production, I’ve been inscribing a serial number inside the base and almost as long people have been asking if they can get specific numbers. My policy on that is “first come first served” and you just get the next number as I don’t actually inscribe them until I make them. I’m sticking by that policy, but Stein #666 has had me thinking if something special is order. I thought of auctioning it off and donating the excess of the normal cost to charity. I thought of skipping the number entirely as there are just as many people not excited about getting Stein 666 as there are people that want it desperately.

For people that’ve following along for the glorious adventures of Funranium Labs over the years, you may remember that I did a giveaway for Steins #200, #400, and #600 of a complimentary 665ml FMJ Stein of Science #201, #401, and #601 respectively. I’ve decided that I’m going to do that again for Stein #666. If you are the lucky person that orders #666, the Stein of the Beast, you’ll also get #667, the Neighbor of the Beast Who Lives Across the Hall. BUT THAT’S NOT ALL! You will also receive a handsome, rugged, foam lined carrying case to configure as you see fit as your Tactical Drinking Module, a 750ml bottle of Kona blend BBotE with the Tesladyne Gear Logo “REMAIN CALM, TRUST IN SCIENCE”, Ineffable Mustachio’d Goat of Science BBotE sticker and classic Coffee Volcano BBotE sticker, and a 6000SUX sticker, courtesy of Test Subject IT to Porn, to vandalize the gas guzzling car of your choice. BEHOLD!

Stein #667 and Additional Swag

Stein #667 and Additional Swag



Now, you can go check here to see what stein types are currently on hand. For the record, as of October 16th at 11am the stein count is in the 650s, so it might not be all that long until we hit #666.

Regarding Breathalyzers in Antarctica

As I have been asked by a number of people about the latest Office of Inspector General’s report, and in the case of Wired they interviewed me and generated a very cherry picked set of quotes designed for maximum clickbait, allow me to share my collected thoughts about it here. TL;DR version: the NSF response to the audit is good and proper in my opinion, not that my opinion is all that important, though I’d worry about breathalyzers a bit.

  1. Remember there are three different groups of people going to Antarctica under the auspices of the National Science Foundation: grantees (research staff paid by NSF grant, AKA beakers, from various institutions around the world), contractor (station support staff paid by any of a number of management contractors and subcontractors), and military (the Air National Guard provides flight support and the Navy Cargo & Handling Group does ship offload). That said, the NSF has overarching responsibility for all the operations going on there.
  2. Compared to contractor personnel, grantees going to the continent have a “license to kill”. This is not to say they are unsupervised or lack any repercussions for their actions, but the chain of command over them and enforcement for infractions is looser. This is supposed to be intentional over the whole population to leave the latitude to manage a small and remote crew with as much flexibility as possible through the long winter. The NSF Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines that no contractor is allowed to be looser than, but in practice the contractor has much more management staff on site to enforce their corporate policies, which tend to be more strict than the NSF. It’s a matter of perspective.

    In my opinion, the NSF has been doing the right things to keep things open enough that the program is responsive to needs as they arise. Codify things too tightly in the safety of an office back at home and you may be inadequately prepared for problems as they come up.

  3. The station managers are deputized as special Deputy US Marshals to deal with the worst contingencies of human behavior that can happen in a remote place. This isn’t exactly law enforcement and it sure isn’t part of the day to day duties of a station manager; it’s an emergency response role. Response to incidents that require using this aspect of their duties is something I suspect is documented quite well and rare.
  4. The idea of using of breathalyzers for cause by managers to insure fitness for duty isn’t all that out of the ordinary anywhere in the American workplace, particularly under government contract. The weird thing for the Antarctic stations is that your workplace also is your home. What you do in your own time should be up to you, but for South Pole Station the population is small enough that there are no separate emergency responders. If you’re in no shape to respond to an alarm going off, that’s a tricky problem. Can I be upset with you for not being respond outside of your regular work hours?

    During work hours, just like anywhere else in the world, if you’re staggering up to a piece of heavy equipment because you just had a three martini lunch, people are going to notice and have cause. If you’re so badly hungover from the night before that you can’t clearly see which buttons do what on a console, same deal, testing for cause. Your boss would be delinquent in their duties if they didn’t pull you aside and send you to the doc.

  5. Now, whether those breathalyzers are going to work properly on the Antarctic Plateau is another question entirely. You’re hard pressed to get most manufacturers to certify equipment for high altitude, very low humidity, or temperatures below -40 and without that certification any actions you take based on the results will lack foundation. Hell, I couldn’t even get the manufacturer of my “arctic expedition grade sunglasses” to give me assurance that they wouldn’t fall apart at Pole. That said, it can be done, but it’s going to require some testing. The contractor says they’ve found one that will work without calibration so all the better. Where there’s a will there’s a way to make this happen for almost any gear.
  6. The bar culture of Antarctica is not a bad thing and it had the best interests of the crew in mind when established by the US Navy. Thousands of jokes about sailors aside, the Navy has long experience of how to manage crews in tight quarters, morale building, and how to blow off steam. Acknowledging that people were going to drink, the bars were created make sure they were drinking safe booze rather than homebrew hooch (which happens when you go “dry”) and to bring people together to reduce consumption. You might not think of a bar as a place for moderation of drinking, but it gives your fellow crewmates a chance to watch out for you. If you’re drinking alone in your room, and hoo nelly is that a bad sign, there isn’t any potential for the positive aspects of peer pressure to help rein you in or ask if you’re doing alright.

    When I got asked why I wouldn’t cut people off, it’s because I was much happier for them to pass out in front of me in the warmth and safety of the bar than have them “finish the job” alone or, worse, lose consciousness in the cold on their way back to their room. Really, the bar is a safety mechanism.

Yet Another Q&A

Oddly, there’s been another surge of questions lately that have come in often enough that I reckon I should tackle them for the benefit of everyone:

Scott Wegener has perfectly captured me at work

Scott Wegener has perfectly captured me at work

Question 1: “Holy crap, you’re Atomic Robo’s Phil!” – Vernon, Goleta, CA

Okay, that’s not a question but with the current story arc of Atomic Robo, Volume 10: The Ring of Fire, there’s been a hell of a lot of people that seem to have made the connection in their head finally. Yes, that is my ugly mug which Scott Wegener has adapted for the comic page. I also get the pleasure of bullshitting with them about science as the Science/Weirdness Consultant. This mainly consists of sending Brian Clevinger this picture all day long. I could probably set up a macro to do this, but I like the personal touch.

Question 2: “What the fuck is with the $5 shipping & handling charge? It’s bad enough I’m paying shipping without that shit. This coffee better be fucking gold!” – Mario M., Staten Island, NY

I specifically chose Mario’s version of this question because he was clearly the most irate & profane of them; the one that tempted me to just refund his money and add his email to the block list. PROTIP: abusing people while asking a question does not make them more inclined to answer your question.

The shipping and handling is the price you’re paying to get the packaging that will get your item to you in one piece and worth consuming, with a side order of my time playing shipping department. Now, you may ask “Why do I pay this again even on refills when I’m sending it back to you in the original shipper?” That is something that I realized was unfair a while back, which is why the refill discount got cranked up from 10% to 20%.

The next question is somewhat related.

Question 3“Can you sell this through Amazon or some local storefront so I don’t have to pay shipping?” – Amanda K., New York, NY

I understand the desire to pay as little as possible for the thing that isn’t the product itself and there’s a heck of a lot of people that have asked some variation on this question. The short answer is no, though if you’re lucky enough to live in a city in the US with a BBotE Ambassador there you can effectively get it without shipping costs.

The longer version is that Amazon’s supplier relations business model isn’t all that friendly to small producers and their shipping model is based on an economy of scale you have to be Amazon sized to compete with. I, thankfully, am not competing with them but they’ve trained a generation accustomed to a marketplace that provides them with their heart’s desire with one click, overnight, and no shipping costs. You’d think that all this shipping would be saving the USPS’ keister except that economy of scale bit has driven down the margins on postage to the point that it barely covers the wear and tear on the post office’s trucks. Amazon drives a hard bargain in several senses.

And, yes, BBotE has to ship at least at priority mail speeds for domestic orders. Any slower than that, and my faith in it getting to you in a timely manner is weak.

Question 4: “The postal service sucks in around here. Why can’t you ship FedEx?” – John P., State College, PA

You won’t find FedEx as shipping option because, hoo nelly, for all the people that don’t like the price of USPS priority mail you get to pay at least double for the pleasure of FedEx. You also won’t see UPS as a shipping option on the website ever as I have beef with them as a mere recipient of packages, much less trying to ship things with them.

One of those statistics I hear bandied about and I’m inclined to view with a certain level of skepticism is that 3% of packages and letters that go through USPS are lost, damaged or undeliverable. Based on my own five years of heavy shipping experience, their failure rate before implementing their tracking on priority mail was somewhere closer to .4% of my shipments. For the last year and change, my postal problems have mainly been related to people not filling out their address completely/correctly.

Now, that’s strictly domestic mail. Oz Post and I are getting along well as of late. But Parcelforce in Great Britain and Chronoforce in France, oh man, I assume UPS will find a way to merge with those firms to vanish into singularity of abhorrent customer service and incompetence. Really, I have no idea how any package successfully gets anywhere in England and consider it a minor miracle when it happens.

Question 5: “Can you teach me how to make BBotE at home for myself? I promise that this isn’t for sale or profit.” – Matt K., Menlo Park, CA

No, but I welcome you to read the original BBotE posts, glean what information you can and start experimenting. That’s been the most fun part about all of this for me and I wouldn’t want to deprive you of it. If you want my process without the years of effort that went into it for all the various different coffees, well, you’re effectively asking to buy me out of the business and that ain’t gonna come cheap. As the great sage Homer Simpson once said, “Money is exchanged for goods and services.”

Question 6: “Have you considered using your BBotE process on something else, like tea?” – Mike N., Cottonwood, AZ

I get asked this question a lot and had previously answered it here. The TL;DR version is: the pharmacopoeia of “tea” is complex and there sure are a lot different teas in the world.

That said, I did do an experiment a couple weeks back with cascara, AKA the dried coffee cherry or “Bolivian Army Coffee”, from the amusingly named Klatch Coffee just to see what I could see. I was, in short, quite impressed with the result.

The coffee cherry fruit actually has more caffeine in it than the coffee beans do, though the resulting cascara tea that you make typically only results in a drink with about quarter to half the caffeine of a comparably sized cup of coffee. I can’t really call what resulted from putting cascara through my normal processing a Black Blood of the Earth (for one thing it isn’t as dark as the tar entity for ST:TNG) but I like the result. It’s incredibly sweet to me, as if I’d added honey to it or somehow managed to make drinkable raisins with a hint of mint & cherry. Reminded me a lot of Moroccan high tea, minus an entire jar of sugar cubes. It’s quite peppy and I seem to have gotten the caffeine out of the fruit quite nicely.

I’m doing longevity tests on it now. If it works out, I may make it available now and then in the store. Still need to figure out what I’m going to call it though.

A Labor Day Recipe

Test Subject Ivan has kindly submitted his BBotE rib recipe for you all in the aftermath of one of America’s prime BBQing holidays. Enjoy!

Six shots, each shot is roughly one and a half ounces. That’s over a cup of BBotE. And Deathwish? Hoh, boy, that’s just over half a cup of the deadliest joe ever concentrated. Another two or three shots, and it’s a guaranteed heart attack. Of course, this is for two racks of ribs. One Herr Funranium gave an estimate of three shots per rack (around 8 pounds of meat and bone).
Thankfully, however, they infused the ribs with a slightly dark red color after about twelve hours marinating with a dash of salt, pepper, and smoked paprika. A little dijon mustard to make sure they coat and that’s that.
Here are the ingredients for the marinade of two racks of cut porky ribs:
9 fluid oz of BBotE ‘Deathwish’
3 fluid oz of dijon mustard
1 tbsp of salt, pepper, and smoked paprika (if you don’t have smoked, regular does just as well.)
Mix and coat the ribs, cover in a container to let the deliciously deadly coffee to soak in overnight. (I found that the longer the coffee infuses into the meat, the more pronounced it’s flavor)
Now, here comes the part where you cook the meat. Being an asian with folks who prefer asian flair in the cookery closet of spices, I had a limited selection to choose from. Still; it’s not a bad selection. After all, I had some special stuff to go with it all.
3-4 fat garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
5 cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced (I find that the thinner the ginger is sliced, the more fragrant the result)
2 tsp dried chilli flakes (to taste)
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
9 whole star anise
8 tbsp runny honey
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
300 ml Drambuie (Regular scotch, brandy, cognac, or even a cheap red will do)
400 ml pork broth (made with previous batch of test ribs and trimmings)
Large frying pan or cooking tray.
So first is drying the meat and then browning it in a hot pan or cooking tray with a little olive or rapeseed oil. You want to dry it beforehand because once it comes into contact with hot oil…well, that stuff can hurt. Anyway, you want to brown the meat in either a pan or a cooking tray, caramelizing the meat on all sides. You know when it’s browning when it makes contact with the pan and it sizzles loudly. Let them brown and sprinkle in the garlic, ginger, chili flakes, peppercorns, star anise, and honey.
Once all sides are browned, pour in the scotch to deglaze the pan and pick up all the delicious flavor stuck on the bottom. Bring it to a simmer and slowly drizzle the balsamic vinegar into the mix of ribs and scotch. Reduce and then add in the pork broth. The broth should just barely reach the sides of the ribs.
Note: If you’re using the frying pan, transfer the browned meat to a roasting tray and deglaze with the alcohol, then add to the tray once it is reduced to half and the alcohol is burned off. Add the pork broth into the roasting tray.
Stick the whole lot into the oven at 365 degrees Fahrenheit and let it roast for half an hour. Once half an hour is finished, turn the ribs and roast for another half hour. Pull out and let rest as the caramelized sauce thickens on it’s own once it cools.
Tip: While cooling it can create a very sweet delicious glaze, I find it best to reduce it and then let it cool to let the taste of spice and coffee to come through even more strongly.
Note: By the time I’ve sent this, roughly four in the morning, I will note I have only eaten six ribs roughly eight hours ago and am still wide awake. Devour with caution!

Old Friends Are Back

Just a quick heads up that while I’m sad Panama left the line up for the season last month, but two old favorites are back again and you can review their flavor profiles here.

After a year off , Guatemala Nueva Vinas from the lovely folks at Caffe Vita is back again. I have pounced on it thusly for you and will be doing my best to keep a steady pipeline of it going as long as I can. As of this post, it’s now available as radio button for all the normal pre-order slots on the store.

More importantly, considering the number of people that wanted heads up as soon as I got some more in again, Jamaica Blue Mountain is finally back. Between weather, blight, the narrow bands of coffee cultivation shifting and ever increasing demand, this crop is getting harder to get a hold of. It is, unfortunately, getting more and more expensive. As I said at the end of last year:

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.

And, oh yes, those prices on the beans did go up. However, for the moment, I’m holding the Jamaica Blue Mountain BBotE prices steady where they were last year because I want it to at least stay merely ridiculous but attainable. I don’t know how long supply is going to last so enjoy it while it’s here.

In other news, I’ve been on jury duty for the last several weeks. It has been enlightening as I never thought I’d be allowed to remain on the panel, though not necessarily in the sense you might think. With respect to the potential jurors that were dismissed, I ask you to please consider what a life of innumeracy is like. I have met, talked, and helped people with illiteracy. I know how they made their way through life and they made no bones about it that it was hard, but you doable. I have no idea how someone functions with no real concept of numbers. This is the most alien mind I have ever met and it’s been gnawing on my mind how this person’s life worked.

Welcome to the Wasteland

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a piece of Nevada that America decided was expendable. It had eaten countless settlements, boomed and busted so many times with the precious metal of choice, and the taken the lives of settlers with it. We then sacrificed it on the altar of national security and science, to forever be removed from the world, burning it with nuclear fire. The Nellis Bombing Range, AKA Nevada Proving Grounds, then renamed the Nevada Test Site (NTS), and now known as the Nevada National Security Site. Because for most of my life, certainly during the period when I worked in the complex, it was known as the NTS that is what I will refer to it as in this post.

NOTE: I once held endorsement to go to the Nevada Test Site in an official capacity but never actually made it out there. This was the first time I ever made it there and it was as a member of the public, not as the privileged and clearance holding.

ICECAP Test Assembly Tower (photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office)

ICECAP Test Assembly Tower (photo courtesy of DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office)

I was lucky enough to get to take a public tour out there back in March. If you have the slightest interest in the desert and Big Science, or you’re just an atomic tourist, you owe yourself putting your name in the hat to take one of these tours. Slots normally open up in June, so keep on eye on the the DOE/NV Site Office Website for further announcements about tours. Yes, you will need to do some paperwork and possibly use a fax manchine. If you aren’t an American citizen, you may need to do even more.

Your tour begins at the Atomic Testing Museum at UNLV, which I’ve previously discussed, at 7:30 in the morning. Why so early? Because the next thing you do after collecting your badge is to climb on a bus as it drives an hour north of Vegas to the south entrance of the NTS. As a matter of entertainment, you’ll pass by Creech Air Force Base and have an opportunity to watch an air field that seems devoid of humans but with drones buzzing by regularly. The nearby town is boarded up, but the skies are humming.

I should add that I didn’t go alone on this trip. I was accompanied by my mother and sister, my Lovely Assistant, and Test Subjects Mortician & IT to Porn. This was a trip I had tried to organize before my father passed, but it took a couple extra years to get it all together. Some of the observations I’m sharing are collected from the larger group.

Once you actually arrive at the NTS, your first stop is badge check at the main gate. Just because you got issued a badge already doesn’t mean someone that shouldn’t be there hasn’t snuck aboard in the last 50 miles of lonely highway, so they check. This is the location that most of the old “No Nukes” protestors probably remember best as this is where the civil disobedience arrests used to take place. Our minder related his memory of when things had started to get a bit rowdy and there were too many people at one time to easily deal with, so they built a holding pen out there. Funny enough, the sherrifs discovered if you put too many likeminded people of a certain age together, of opposite sexes, bored, and possibly (very likely) stoned out of their minds… well, you need to build two holding pens. As described, it sounded like practice for future Burning Man camps.

Our next stop after going through the gate was the small town that is Mercury, NV because we’d been on the road for over an hour already, and there wasn’t going to be another good bathroom stop for quite a while; remember, this place is big, as in comparable to some states in New England. The more I think about it, town is much too generous a term for Mercury. It’s a quasi-military encampment that been there for decades, but it has a post office and zip code, therefore the place has to have a name and the original postmaster dredged up one of the old ghost town names for the area. Honestly, ghost town is a really good description for what Mercury was like. Other than the cashier in the NTS Cafeteria & Steakhouse, I saw one other person in Mercury who wasn’t on our tour.

Regarding the Steakhouse & Cafeteria, the Steakhouse wasn’t open when I was there, but I did peek through the window on the heavy wooden door. It reminded me of the fake rustic doors of old 1970s Italian restaurants you find in mini-malls, the ones with the tiny watery glass window with bars over them. On the inside, well, it wasn’t impressive. It reminded me of some of the less cared for VFW hall bars, except it lacked the character that comes with the old soldiers adding memorabilia and decor. Trestle tables, plastic table cloths, and a menu featuring Sam Adams as it’s microbrew. While it doesn’t look great, I’m to understand the steak is quite good, especially after a 12 hour long training exercise.

In the cafeteria proper, we who had woken up far too early for the tour had a chance to get desperately needed coffee. This was a mistake. A venerable government machine urinated into a cup for us. Test Subject Mortician took a sip, made a face, and said, “Tastes like its filled with scalding sadness.” I similarly winced and agreed with him, while my mom looked on and laughed at us for, truly, nothing had changed. The term she’d learned at Harris Technologies for this, circa 1970, for the magical machines that dispense coffee, tea, and chicken noodle soup, which all came out tasting identically horrible, was “Let’s get some kerosene”.

We then piled back into the bus with our snacks, to head out into the desert. Our minder for the tour was a former program director through 1980-90s for the non-nuclear experiments at NTS, so we got some interesting insights and tales of experiments that we might not associate with the place. For example, answering questions like “If you were to successfully shoot down a SCUD missile with a Patriot, which is POWERFULLY unlikely, and it’s loaded with chemical weapons, would the results of the interception be any worse than not doing anything?” or “If I wanted to try to weld a pipe onto the side of leaking chlorine rail car that’s leaking DID I MENTION THAT IT’S LEAKING to try to safely offload the contents, is there a way to do that without starting a chlorine fueled metal fire?”

Our next stop was the three mile line for the the Plumbob test series where, in addition to doing bomb performance studies, we were also doing survivability tests for different architectures and materials of typical infrastructure. We piled out of the bus and then looked up at the desert rusted heavy steel structure of the box girder train trestle, bent from blast forces, bolts sheared or yanked out of the concrete. The circle of concrete pediments continued at three miles from ground zero. We then kept driving and saw pummeled concrete domes, blasted houses, quansit huts. At the three mile mark most things survived; at the one mile mark, even the strongest, thickest, reinforced dome bunker looked like it had been smote from above.

The last stop I want to tell you about, because I want to leave some surprises for your own trip, is ICECAP (see photo above). In 1992, President Bush the First signed a temporary nuclear test moratorium. It’s still temporary, but the original 9 month moratorium has now become the more or less permanent 23 years and counting. Like anything that’s an ongoing process you bring to an end, not only is there something that has to be the last one but there also was going to be a next one. ICECAP is the nuclear test that never happened.

Depending on who you ask, ICECAP was either days, weeks, or months away from being ready for testing. It was intend to be what’s known as a String of Pearls test where more than one device was tested/disposed of at once, one stacked on top of another. But in particular it was intended to be a test of a British nuclear device where they were interested in perfomance in freezing temperatures, so there was an integrated freezer unit. They had the hole drilled, all the cabling and the diagnostic equipment prepped, and devices in preparedness to be loaded down the hole.

Why would we be testing a British nuclear device in Nevada? Once upon a time, the UK used to test in northern Australia until it got pointed out that the wind patterns weren’t great, hey, how about we test your stuff underground in Nevada instead? We’ve got a lot of Nevada, it’ll be great.

And then the moratorium took effect. Allow me to assemble a sarcastic, abbreviated year of diplomacy for you:

Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE): We really wanted our test.

US: We just put a moratorium in place. Sorry.

AWE: That’s your moratorium. We didn’t sign any of moratorium. We want our test.

US: Well, test away. Just not in Nevada.

AWE: We spent many, many millions of pounds for this test!

US: Cool.

AWE: NOT COOL! We want our test! We want our money back!

US: [whistles to itself walking around the desert]

AWE: C’monnnnnnnnnn

US: Nope.

And this is how a Smithsonian grade museum exhibit of late 1990s nuclear testing capabilities came to be in the middle of Nevada Site. Thanks, British government!

You will also get to see the Sedan Crater (which is the very large physical remains of the Plowshare Program), visit the nuclear waste facility where the remains of the Manhattan Project are slowly buried one football field worth at a time, and drive through Bilby Crater so you can say you’ve been to Ground Zero of a nuclear test. I cannot stress what a wonderful history and atomic archaeology nerd once in a lifetime experience this is. My only regret is no pictures, I have to hold it in my head as a dear memory.

Carbon Dating Primer

That Feeling Of Relief Which Comes With Really Good Rant

That Feeling Of Relief Which Comes With Really Good Rant

This was originally written on June 16th, 2012 after my family’s Father’s Day viewing of  “Prometheus”. It was then published in the final issue of Coilhouse. The editor of Coilhouse, Meredith Yayanos, immesuarably improved my words by adding excellent illustrations, such as the one to the right.

Hollywood, we need to talk about your dating habits. In particular, how important it is to have a reference to verify ages before you get in trouble. No, I’m not talking about the hypersexualization of 12 year old girls trying to pass for 18. Nor am I talking about the 60-somethings trying to pass for 18 as well. That is a totally separate head shaking situation.

I would like to blame the movie Prometheus for this rant, but they’re hardly the only guilty party; it’s just the one that finally made me snap. Hollywood, you don’t understand how carbon dating works, that there are other dating methods that sometimes work better, and that the true (unattainable) goal is to find the perfect point of reference to scale them all against. But underlying all of that is a body of scientific work and assumptions that you’ve conveniently ignored in the interest of “character driven plot”. But I have news for you: your characters and your plot make less sense when you take these shortcuts. And when you do this people become confused as to what science and technology actually are, to the point that we have to deprogram juries and judges of the CSI Effect in capital punishment trials because Reality. Just. Doesn’t. Work. Like. That.

You have science advisers. You ignore them at your peril. To quote Atomic Robo‘s Brian Clevinger, “What’s particularly frustrating is that it takes so little effort to find the intersection between plausible science and your fiction such that the audience will go along with everything.”

I’m here to help though. I’m giving you this quick primer on dating methodology, and the humorous ways they fail, for free. Of course, you get what you paid for.

We start by discussing cosmic bombardment. No, not “Nuke ‘em from orbit” Ripley-style, although I like the way your mind works, but rather the continuous rain of high energy particles blasting from The Great Beyond.  By far the biggest source is our own sun, but that just because it’s so close. But we also have all our neighboring suns of the Milky Way, many of which are much larger and energetic than ours, and the monstrous galactic core belching stripped nuclei at relativistic speeds at us. Oh, then there’s the entire rest of the universe, supernovae, black holes and all, sending nuclei (mostly hydrogen & helium) at us at 99.999% of the speed of light, exploding in particle physics collisions with our atmosphere. The atomic fragments of this are still energetic to have a half dozen more of these collisions. This is what is known as the “cosmic ray air shower”. NOTE: at no point in the process do you create the Fantastic Four.

Next, let’s tackle radioactivity and isotopes. For any given element, its chemical properties are dictated by the number of protons, and thus electrons, that it has. Chemically speaking, you can have any number of neutrons you want in the nucleus and it will still be the same element; those different mass nuclei with varying numbers of neutrons are known as “isotopes” of that element. However, nuclei with too few or too many neutrons are unstable and they will shed energy, in the form of light or ejected particles, to try to achieve a stable nuclear arrangement. This is radiation. An isotope that emits energy in this manner is “radioactive”.

For the bonus round, the particles generated by the cosmic rays can interact with the stable nuclei of the atmosphere to create new radioactive isotopes. Carbon-14 (or as I will shorthand it from now on, C-14) is one of the many naturally occurring isotopes, in this case generated in the atmosphere due to the cosmic ray bombardment of nitrogen-14 with neutrons. Cosmic ray bombardment of Earth does vary with latitude and the Earth’s magnetic field but due to atmospheric and water mixing, the ratio of radioactive C-14 to plain old stable C-12 is considered to be constant through in the environment.  When an organism dies, no new C-14 is taken into its tissues and it starts to radioactively decay away.  We can date thus things based on the changing ratio, relative to the half-life of C-14 (5712 years).

“How does this all relate to dating?” you may ask. Through some rather painstaking observation, we’ve been able to establish that any given radioactive isotope decays away to stable ones at a constant rate (the time until only half of the starting amount is left is known as the half-life). If you know how much of the radioactive isotope you started with and observe what’s left, you can then calculate how much time has passed. Simple, right? All I need to do is go measure how much C-14 is left compared to normal non-radioactive C-12 and, bam, I know old the thing is. Let’s examine the underlying assumptions of let C-14 dating techniques. Please remember that anytime the words “every”, “always”, and “only” appear in assumptions, one should be wary:

  1. A living thing has the same concentration of C-14 in it as everything else in the world, right up until the moment it dies.
  2. C-14 concentrations are the same everywhere on Earth and always have been the same.
  3. C-14 is being created in the atmosphere at a constant rate by a cosmic ray bombardment that has always been the same.
  4. Cosmic ray bombardment is the only source of C-14 production.
  5. We have a KNOWN C-14 reference point in time to calculate against calibrated to our calendar.

To seemingly completely change gears on you, My Lovely Assistant found this article regarding the oddity of the Dry Valleys near McMurdo in Antarctica.  I would like to bring your attention about two thirds of the way down to the picture of the Most Important Seal Carcass EVAR.  “Why is this most important seal carcass”, I hear you ask, “Do you have the brain worms again?”  No, I don’t but let me explain myself.  It is important because:

  1. It is a good example of the danger of doing science and not questioning your assumptions.
  2. It is used as a basis of support for Young Earth Creationism (YEC) that is less shaky than the idiocy of carbon dating dinosaur bones and I want you to be able to call bullshit on it.

Carbon dating is not perfect.  First, you need to calibrate the carbon “clock”.  We’ve done this by comparing the carbon ratios in organic matter that we are pretty sure of the age of, such as tree rings.  In particular, we tie specific events we know the date of, like volcanic eruptions in the historical record, and a particularly ashy tree ring. Sadly, we have no trees older than ~6000 years.  Second, your ratio is only as good as your ability to detect AND count the beta radiation from the decay of C-14.  The amount of C-14 in the environment is minuscule, hard to detect, and it doesn’t get any easier as there is progressively less of it.  After about ten half-lives (~60000 years for C-14), we in the radiation detection game declare a radioactive isotope to be effectively gone.  Really good mass spectrometry equipment can see beyond that, but the error bars on the measurements get progressively larger as you have less and less material to work with.  For this reason, we add spikes of C-14 to bring really old samples out of the background noise.

For these reasons, carbon dating is best used within the last 6000 years or so and gets progressively less accurate the further back you go.  Beyond 60000 years, your dating is more or less useless.  If anyone tells you they carbon dated something and got a date older than 60000 years, you are allowed to call bullshit on them or you should closely examine their method and decide if you need to award them the Nobel Prize.

This should go without saying, but carbon dating is useless on something that wasn’t organic material to begin with.  If you want to be really, really picky you could point out that limestone and calcite, both being calcium carbonate, were originally teeny tiny organisms’ shells so they’re organic material, right?  I would give you the finger for being a smartass, albeit a correct one.  However, it tends to take more than 50000 years to create a limestone deposit.  Sure, I can go hit the tops of coral reefs for samples but I don’t have to drill very deep on the reef to find coral too old to accurately date.

Back to Antarctica…

Down in the Dry Valleys, there was a researcher had been passing by this seal corpse every day and decided “Dammit, I want to know how old this thing is” and took a sample for dating.  The corpse read as being about 10000 years old.  This was somewhat mindblowing as the specific seal carcass was a modern seal. The problem cropped up when they dated a bit of seal from a recently collected sample to help calibrate the carbon dating “clock” for the local area.  The fresh sample, from a living seal that unhappily flopped away, dated as being 2000 years old.  Uh oh…

Sharing these results, this turned into an immediate proof for refutation of carbon dating, and thus all science that might suggest an Earth older than Bishop Usher’s estimate, by the YEC believers.  A simultaneous contradictory thought accepting carbon dating commonly held by YEC that carbon dating of dinosaur bones shows them to fall in the last 10000 years.  They generally fail to discuss the likely contamination from sample collection (say, perhaps, plaster…) and that DINOSAUR BONES ARE FUCKING ROCKS, NOT ORGANIC SAMPLES. Sorry, I get excitable about these things.

Scientists, on the other hand, were very puzzled by the discrepancy.  They repeated the experiment several more times.  Except for elephant seals and orca, every time they sampled a local organism, they kept getting an anomalously old carbon date.  The exceptions were what broke the mystery; every other organism they sampled did not leave the Southern Ocean on its migration.  From this, we learned to question the underlying assumption of carbon dating, that the C-14/C-12 ratio was constant in the environment.  It’s not.

Imagine, if you will a place that is very cold, and isolated from the global carbon cycle due to the austral circumpolar flow of air and surface water.  Relative the carbon cycle, it is an island.  There is deep flow of the cold water along the ocean floor to Antarctica, but it takes centuries to get there.  The low intensity of the high angle cosmic ray bombardment on Antarctica means there is less locally produced C-14 inside of the isolated area.  Antarctica is a naturally C-14 poor environment.  Relative to the carbon dating calibration curves of the rest of the world, everything looks ancient.

From this we also learned that our numbers get skewed in the vicinity of volcanoes; they’re big CO2 carbon output from very old carbon locked in the Earth’s mantle that ends up saturating the local environment. So, while it’s great to use that nice ash layer in a tree ring to help set your chronology clock, you might not want to carbon date that specific ring when choosing your samples. Also, we figured out that we have completely screwed up carbon dating for the future (without creating major correction factors) by dumping huge amounts of most venerable carbon into the global cycle by burning fossil fuels.

Humanity also kind of, sort of, if you want to be really picky, manufactured a bunch of C-14 through nuclear testing that we’ve blasted into the atmosphere that negates the assumption that cosmic ray bombardment is the only source of C-14. For this reason, when we do carbon dating “The Present” is defined as January 1, 1950. It’s the consensus date the scientific community could agree upon where, after that, we’d muddied the waters with nuclear blasts too much to do dating. Because I’m funny that way, I created a word to describe this: nuclearche, the onset of nuclear activities that are widely observable in the geologic record. Truly, we live in the Anthropocene Epoch and the pulse of interesting isotopes and their decay products will be the signpost that the geologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists of the future uplift raccoons society will use to study our times.

(I might be wrong about the raccoons. It could be crows. It pays to be nice to your future corvid overlords now.)

To bring this all back to complaining about the science of Prometheus, all of this goes out the window when you leave Earth. All those assumptions don’t hold true 100% on Earth, much less another planet. We established the primordial radionuclide dating system thanks to meteorites, which we assume (assumption 1) are made from the same uniform mixture of starstuff (assumption 2) that condensed into the solar system. These systems might work for Mars, but you have no idea what an alien solar system’s chemical and isotopic make up is. We have no signposts for alien worlds. Sure, we could take the time to establish what the C-14 generation rate on a given planet is, but we have no frame of reference when we first get there.


When the good doctors date the corpse of the Engineer’s head and body they discovered with the Magical Dating Stick of Science, they immediately come up with 2000 years. The only way that possibly makes works is if he was born and bred on Earth, made of atoms from Earth, went to LV-223 in a vessel with no cosmic ray bombardment, and then died promptly on arrival without breathing or eating much of anything on that moon.

And this all is what went rattling through my brain and distracted me from the rest of the otherwise very pretty movie. Not nearly as bad as when I stood up in the middle of The World Is Not Enough and yelled at the screen, “THEY NEVER LOOK LIKE THAT!” at scantily clad Denise Richards when she introduced herself as an IAEA nuclear physicist.

But that’s a rant for another time.