Herr Direktor Funranium Goes to Chernobyl & Kiev, Part 2 – Chernobyl, the Town & the Reactors

Chernobyl City Limits – Yes, I am wearing one Fallout shirt or another under my frock coat everywhere I went. (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

When you have the incredibly photogenic and not bulldozed ghost city of Pripyat to take pictures of, it’s easy to forget the other towns and villages that were once there, or still are in the case of the city of Chernobyl. Generally the name “Chernobyl” is associated in everyone’s head with the the reactor that went up in smoke, Chernobyl-4, rather than the seat of the old administrative district. I can understand forgetting it. It wasn’t a sexy place with fascinating architecture like Pripyat, just solid utilitarian construction like the buildings of a county corporation yard. Except, to paraphrase Harry Potter, Chernobyl is the city that lived. While everyone in the exclusion zone got evacuated, Chernobyl has since repopulated with a few hundred resettlers. Also, on a transitory basis, all the Ukrainian State Emergency Service workers (the agency that administers the exclusion zone among other things) stay there a few days to two weeks, rotating to their posting outside the zone for an equivalent amount of “cool off” time before coming back. It even has operating markets and the church that serves the resettlers in town, those that come in from more distant farms, the workers, and tourists. It is the hub for life in the exclusion zone. Above all, if you’re a visitor to the exclusion zone and stay there, unless you have friends that are resettlers you’ll be sleeping at the Desyatka Hotel. That said, it’s comparatively a ghost town when you realize that with all those folks added together it has less than a tenth of it’s previous population.

But what Chernobyl mainly struck me as, other than a diminished but still active regional center, was a memorial. Dozens of small towns and villages vanished from the map after the accident as the bulldozers knocked all the buildings down and then buried them like latter day kurgans. No, not The Kurgan but I know you probably thought it. But “Why?” you ask. “If the Liquidators could decon the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl, why couldn’t they clean all those towns?” And there is answer to that which comes down to one word: wood. If your construction is primarily wood, we can’t decon it and there’s nothing to be done other than dispose of it as waste. Entire buildings and whole villages, crushed and buried under a layer of dirt and then a stake with a little radiation trefoil on it to warn people “DO NOT DIG! HERE BE RADIATION, NOT TREASURE, ME MATEYS!”

(As an aside, the complicated question of how to communicate STAY AWAY to our descendants for the next 10,000 years regarding nuclear waste is part of the genesis of my beloved Long Now Foundation. Humans, being the people we are, which is remarkably consistent across time and space, tend to see dire warnings of danger and curses as instead invitation to come [Terrence & Phillip voice] Look For Treasure!)

I am to understand that the Japanese authorities have figured out a methodology to decon wood for the Sendai Prefecture to allow reoccupation of the towns. I am VERY interested to learn more about how they do this because this would be a game changer for what can and can’t be saved in an accident/contamination incident. Needless to say, the Soviet Liquidators didn’t have this at their disposal. They did have spray glue, bulldozers, and dirt which are all very economical, which is why there are several memorials to the missing communities in Chernobyl. I am particularly fond of this one which I called the Graveyard of Villages. Our minder thought it was an apt name.

The Graveyard of Villages – Each of those signs stretching off into the distance is a town that is gone.

This, incidentally, is all that’s left of a building when a team of Liquidators are done with it and fast forward with 30 years of plant growth.

Radioactive Barrows – DIG YE NOT HERE!

We got truly lucky with our trip out to Reactor 4 because they were closing the zone the next day to begin moving the New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure over the old Sarcophagus at 2 meters per hour. By comparison, the old Kennedy Space Center crawler-transporter for the Space Shuttle rolled from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Lauchpad 39A/B at the comparatively breakneck drag racing speed of 1.5mph (I wish I still had a picture of that speed limit sign on the crawlerway from my last visit to KSC). So, we were the lucky last people who weren’t actually working on the NSC to get to see the two as separate structures. Behold!

The Chernobyl Sarcophagus – on Nov 12th, they began rolling they new containment over it. This is one of the last views of it we’ll ever have.

New Safe Containement – Those flaps on the left are the “mouth” to close over the structure of the Sarcophagus as it rolls over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not going to tell the tale of the loss of life, the danger emergency responders braved knowingly and unknowingly to try to get some kind of control over the situation, the difficulty figuring out how to build the Sarcophagus structure in short order, much less doing it, again. The internet is full of accounts of the Battle of Chernobyl and the mobilization of the resources and technical/scientific acumen of the entire Soviet Union to get ahead of this disaster. The effort involved absolutely deserves to be compared to the Battle of Stalingrad; it was a win at all costs or the nation will perish situation. And, if you ask Gorbachev, he was quite certain that they won AND the nation perished because of it; that the staggering cost of bringing the meltdown and fire to a stable and contained state may have bankrupted the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet command economy doesn’t quite map to a market economy for equivalence in expenditures, suffice it to say that the official estimate of costs was 18 billion rubles. While officially the pre-1988 exchange rate had been .9USD to the ruble, there was no actual exchange rate, as it was illegal for citizens to exchange currency. Technically, the only reason the Soviet bicyclists I met in 7th grade didn’t get in trouble with their KGB minders for giving a coin collecting nerd a 1 kopek coin when they visited my school was that I gave them nothing in exchange. He was quite clear that I shouldn’t, in fact. That said, the amount of time, effort and resources that 18 billion rubles represented in the command economy was staggering. Literally, as the economy couldn’t take that hit, keep trying to keep everything else like they had, and the Soviet Union became unstable in its wake.

At least, that’s Gorbachev’s take on the matter. I’m inclined to believe the last premier on this matter at least.

Of course 18 billion is merely the cost of the materiel and labor to bring the disaster under control. This doesn’t count the cost of losing THE ENTIRE EXCLUSION ZONE’s economic productivity, much less the value of all the things in it. One reason Chernobyl Reactors 1-3 kept running until the year 2000 was that the region needed them to keep remaining industry and modern living in cities running and absolutely could not afford to replace them. When the deal to was made to shut them all down, Ukraine got a nice replacement oil burning power plant which was sufficient for need by then. The reactors had been expensive to build and abandoning them was a heck of a loss, especially considering the Soviets had been following the proper model of reactor construction/rotation here: one old one you’d be decommissioning soon, one half way through operational life, one that just came online, and one you were still building. This is sort of like fallowing fields, but to allow succession of designs to allow engineering improvements to propagate and to keep any reactor from being run well into decrepitude (SEE ALSO: the United States nuclear power stations).

But Chernobyl was special. This region was booming, a showcase for the future so they weren’t just following the reactor succession model. They were planning to expand capacity by making a complete second reactor complex containing Chernobyl 5-8. They never got beyond building the cooling towers for #5 and #6 before the accident happened.

Chernobyl-5 Cooling Tower Sunset (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Chernobyl-6 Cooling Tower – rising incomplete in the distance over the cooling channel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wandering through the acoustically perfect hyperbola of a cooling tower is an echo chamber like I’ve never experienced before. Every footstep came back to me from every direction. As a piece of health and safety advice, they never quite finished the Chernobyl-5 cooling tower, even though it looks much more complete than Chernobyl-6’s, and the rebar exposed to the elements up above is slowly tearing the concrete apart. When a chunk falls to the ground below inside the cooling tower, of which there is plenty of evidence, try to act surprised.

Now, the reactors weren’t the only very expensive thing named Chernobyl in the exclusion zone. The Army, being the Red Army with all attendant powers, couldn’t resist taking advantage of all this plentiful power for a little pet project that they kept secret and didn’t put on the maps. As an early warning system, they’d been working on an Over-The-Horizon radar system known as Duga-3 for skipping a signal off the ionosphere to look thousands of miles away for missile or bomber launches. The receiver part of the array was located near the power plant, taking up a decent percentage of the power station’s output and was designated Chernobyl-2, obviously to maximize confusion in people writing and reading about the topic. This antenna array was about the size of two football fields, tipped up on their side and pointed due north to listen over the pole to North Dakota.

Chernobyl-2 OTH Antenna Array (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

While this is an impressive antenna, I would like you to take a moment to think about the signal processing for a device like this. The amount of computing power and electronics, and what they looked like with a late 1970s/early 1980s design. This secret installation that had its own population of a few thousand needed to operate it. Now think about the power and cooling needs for that kind of hardware.

HINT: Like a old Volkswagen, they decided to go with air cooling. Fans are easy, right? And Ukraine’s pretty cool the rest of the time.

I’ll wait a moment for you to envision where this all goes wrong. [sips beer]

Okay, now light Reactor 4 light on fire, spewing radioactive fallout into the air. You know, the air which you use to cool your computers and electronics…

[sips beer again, waits for the screaming from the IT folks thinking about their server rooms to die down]

By the end of day on April 26th, 1986, the receiver for one of the Soviet Union’s pet projects to watch Strategic Air Command from the comfort of their homes in Ukraine was completely fried. Costing somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5 billion rubles to build, keeping in mind that the Battle for Chernobyl cost an estimated 18 billion, the system had been commissioned the day before the accident and would never work again.

So, yes, I’m seeing how one localized disaster can shatter a nation with the compounded costs. I assume that’s why it easier to look away from recognized risks and, very wishfully, assume they’ll never happen. Much easier to just ignore problems rather than do the hard work of mitigating them.

The DECEMBERING 2016 Draws to a Close

Most of the order slots for production have zeroed out at this point and many have already flipped over to the next window that ends New Year’s Eve. I will still be cranking BBotE & steins out all next week, but all bets are off as to things showing up in time for those of you looking to stick something under the Xmas tree. You may get lucky with USPS, you might not. Your best plan, however is to drop me a line to see if what I have on hand, what is in the production queue, and what day which things will finish.

And, on top of that, if your need is truly desperate because of waiting until the last minute and are willing to pay the price, you can always choose “Express” rather than “Priority Mail” for your shipping option.

For the folks about to send me more emails complaining “I waited until the 17th to order but now everything is out of stock or now has a ship date of 12/31/2016. WTF,  YOU RUINED CHRISTMAS, YOU ASSHOLE!” (this is a direct copy-paste), please don’t. As each and every BBotE listing has said for the last four years, that date is not “Does Not Ship Until #DATE”, it clearly reads “Will Ship No Later Than #DATE”. If there has been a theme that’s run through my career in safety it’s that just because people are literate doesn’t actually mean they actually read anything. Sadly, this is appears to be a very broad problem in the world.

Of course, for those of you who are looking for Go Juice or a fine drinking vessel to ring in the New Year, this is just a normal production window. Carry on with your happy lives.

¡LUCHA TUBA! – By far the most amazing thing in Cirque du Soleil LUZIA show.

Anyway, to preserve the holiday spirit, I give you a luchador with a tuba.

Herr Direktor Funranium Goes to Chernobyl & Kiev, Part 1 – Pripyat

The very short version, to paraphrase Ghostbusters: if someone asks if you’d like to go to Chernobyl, you say YES!

Fair warning, there are going to be units related to radiation dose discussed in this post. For an idea of what they mean and to put them in perspective, I recommend this excellent infographic by Randall Munroe from XKCD.

Last year, a photographer friend was directed my way for helpful radiation safety things to know when visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Intending on just a few protips, I instead gave her many thousands of words of advice, but she didn’t end up going. This year, in mid-September, she dropped me a line again about going but, to paraphrase, “Rather than find and read all that stuff you sent me, and forget most of it, how about you come with me?” I told her that if she had things arranged already and was willing to just add my name to the permits, I’d be happy to go assuming flights weren’t too expensive. My flight from SFO to Kiev, with a few connections, round trip, ran $708. I have had flights that stayed in the US that were more expensive than that. Apparently, the demand to go to Kiev in early November is kinda low for some reason. Perhaps it’s the whole approaching winter thing or simmering conflict in near Donetsk scaring people away. Either way, I was happy and swooped on that deal for my Long Weekend in Chernobyl.

I’m gonna start with a thought that struck me on the long drive back to Kiev from the exclusion zone. About half way back, tired and wanting dinner, I thought “Fuck, we’ve been in the middle of nowhere forever.” Then I stopped and reconsidered, “Where we are right now is the middle of nowhere between Pripyat and Kiev. Pripyat used to be somewhere, the last stop before Belarus, rather than more nowhere.” Of all the villages, towns and cities evacuated when the 30km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was established, the most prominent one to empty and stay empty was Pripyat. Pripyat was a GLORIOUS NEW CITY OF SOVIET FUTURE!!! and you can see it in the propaganda-as-architecture everywhere you look.

Standing in front of the Pripyat city limits sign. That one button is hard to get in the cold, don't hassle me. (Photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Standing in front of the Pripyat city limits sign. That one button is hard to do in the cold, don’t hassle me. (photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Pripyat was a planned town, built out of whole cloth in 1970. When you look around there is no organic feel to the growth of the city, other than the trees and weeds that have conquered it in the 30 years since. Perhaps this look of unitary construction to an entire city is more common in the rebuilt environment of postwar-Europe or a Chinese “Instant Metropolis, Just Add Water”, but the only place I can really remember encountering this feeling in America is Disneyland. Disneyland creeps me out badly for reasons that are hard to explain, but this felt right. Maybe it’s a matter of purpose to the construction and Disney’s purpose rubs me deeply the wrong way. Pripyat, on the other hand, was intended to be a showcase of what the peaceful use of atomic energy could do. In fact, on top of one of the buildings, across the entire length, there used to be a giant lit up sign that said something like “Let Atom Be A Worker, Not A Soldier” which sure sounds like something from the Children of Atom in Fallout. And because the authorities felt pretty confident in the safety of the RBMK reactor design, it’s the first of the Soviet atomic cities that wasn’t closed, and didn’t require papers to come and go (Russia still has some closed cities and technically America still has one).

In short, Pripyat was a place for up and comers. The reactor staff of thousands was well educated, perhaps not the cream of the Academy but some of the best scientific and technical minds around. The military associated around here were people working on new and interesting projects, one of which I’ll get to in a future post, and were just generally not the Red Army’s grunts. But what the city was above all else was young. I’m informed that the average age of the population of Pripyat when the accident happened was ~25, which means if you’ve wandered around the usual watering holes of recent college grads and postdocs you probably have a feel for what Pripyat was like. And if you want those young up and comers to be happy, stay, and want to do their best for you, you’re gonna have to give them incentives, luxuries, such that the Soviet Union could provide.

Pripyat River view from the cafe

Pripyat River view from the cafe

The American vision of life in the latter days of the Soviet Union is dark, grim, and filled with lines to buy nothing from empty stores. Perhaps that was life in Moscow, but that’s not the impression I got of the the last days of Pripyat just looking around. In a setting that wouldn’t look out of place on the promenade and marina of any prosperous city, there was a cafe on the Pripyat River where you had the choice of sitting on the patio and watching the boats go by or you could go sit in the beautiful, though mostly destroyed now, stained glass window seating area.

Pripyat Cafe Stained Glass Window

What remains of the Pripyat cafe’s stained glass window

Or perhaps you’d like to go to the cinema? Or the music school/symphony? Don’t worry, Pripyat has you covered there with it’s own independent ones from the central Palace of Culture. And, oh my god, the Palace of Culture was a sight to behold. The more I walked through that place and realized how much had been in that building, how much was going on, the more and more angry I got that America doesn’t have anything that even comes close to what the Pripyat’s Palace of Culture was once like. The closest equivalent is like a grange or community hall, but that’s kinda like comparing the crappy rides in front of a supermarket to Six Flags. The Palace of Culture had multiple large theaters, libraries, a possible wine bar and cafe, shooting ranges, a gymnasium, lecture halls, an electronics workshop, dance studios, etc. And Pripyat wasn’t even a particularly large city.

But, well, we know how this story ends. Glorious City of the Soviet Future is abandoned 48hrs after the fire at Chernobyl-4 begins. Children are allowed to bring one toy with them, most of which are confiscated due to contamination, and are told they’ll be allowed to come back in a couple weeks. Instead, the poor residents of Pripyat got an entirely new town, 50km due east of the power plant. You see, they were mostly power plant workers and we still needed the power from the other three operating reactors, which didn’t actually shut down until 2001, and a place to house all the people working on the emergency response. Today, without a particular reason to exist 15 years after shutting down Chernobyl-1 through 3, Pripyat’s replacement is heading towards becoming a ghost town too.

Phil & the not quite AEC building of Pripyat (photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Phil & the not quite NRC building of Pripyat (photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

During the Battle of Chernobyl, as Gorbachev termed it to get the Soviet people motivated like it was the Battle of Leningrad, Pripyat was the staging ground for the work to put out the fire and build the eventual Sarcophagus that would contain the destroyed reactor. The old city hall, for lack of a better term, got turned into an ersatz atomic emergency incident command center. Unfortunately, at the time of the accident, the Soviet Union didn’t quite have a civilian agency like America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or even the old Atomic Energy Commission, so they were kind of making it up as they went along with Valery Legasov tagged by Gorbachev to lead the way. In light of that, their success in a failure is not an option situation is to be commended. At an admittedly high human price among the Liquidators, but still a successful emergency response.

Beyond the fight to get control of the reactor, there was a totally separate effort to control the spreading contamination from fallout. As I helped explain with Maki Naro in his “Fallout Guy” comic series earlier this year, fallout rains out in a predictable manner based on wind speed and direction, temperature (the fire unfortunately lofted things high), and particle size. Pripyat was downwind from the accident and took the brunt of it, though the Red Forest (so named because of the color all the pine trees turned when they died) between the reactor and the city got the worst. They made a commitment that they’d clean up all the contamination in Pripyat and save what they could. The first step in contamination control was to stop it blowing around and washing off as much as possible by trying to fix it into place. Think of the fire tanker planes. Now think of them dousing the city and countryside with something like glue instead. All the contamination was all still there, but at least they weren’t going to be surprised by it moving every day and made it easier to map so you could go back and scrape, power wash, or whatever to clean it off later. And honestly, as someone who used to do a lot of decon for a living, they did a great job. The general dose rates around town are only a couple times background. Inside buildings, as long as you stay away from the broken windows where stuff has since blown or dripped in, dose rates are pretty much background. After all, fallout lands on the building, not in the building. Any contamination you find inside is something that has either been tracked, say by looters or early tourists who didn’t do a great job with contamination control (such as the Pripyat hospital), or more likely water infiltration.

Speaking of the hospital, chucklefucks playing in the basement of the without actually knowing how to do contamination control have tracked shit back upstairs and left their contaminated coveralls scattered around the place. The very first safety thing I got to do for Robyn, which was grab her by the back of her jacket and say “Don’t step on that”, then use my meter to demonstrate why, as she was about to  stand on someone’s discarded Tyvek to get a picture. I then pointed out all the other crap that had been left around by urban explorers who didn’t get the memo about leaving things like you found them.

This isn’t to say that I found no elevated dose rates in Pripyat. Goodness me, no. Because I can’t turn off that part of my brain for very long, as we were wandering through the city I started looking around and trying to figure out:

  1. Where would low level contamination that was “clean enough” and left behind have concentrated over 30 years?
  2. Where would the Liquidators have missed something and left a hot spot behind?

Thanks to the nice folks at Thermo Scientific, I’d brought my personal RadEye B-20 to go surveying with. For the first question, at the riverfront cafe, I reasoned that this was a low lying area and that rain run off would have generally run toward the waterfront. So slowly started at where the downspouts once were (identified them by the rusty brackets from where they’d been stolen from) and traced my way along the path down to the quay. Sure enough, at the seam in the concrete where the slope down from the cafe hit the flat of the quay, the dose rates jumped up from 30μSv/hr just walking around the area to 10mSv/hr from everything that had gotten caught in that crack.

"Manhole Covers Aren't Suppose To Do That"

Pripyat Amusement Park – “Manhole Covers Aren’t Suppose To Do That”

Perhaps the most iconic part of the Pripyat that everyone knows from pictures is the rusted Ferris wheel from amusement park. Like a lot of things in the Exclusion Zone, the amusement park has the sad quality of having just been built but never used when the accident happened. It was intended to open for the May Day celebration in a mere six days when Chernobyl-4 went up. While my compatriot was off trying to get excellent shots of the bumper cars, I started wandering around toward the trees on the edges of the amusement park looking for elevated dose rates. My reasoning of basic human laziness was that you clean the easy open ground of asphalt in the park, but probably get a little slack near the edges. Before I even got there, my meter alarmed, making the nearby ravens rather upset. I was standing next to a manhole cover and had a dose rate of .12mSv/hr roughly foot above it.

So, I stepped away from that and walked toward another bit of woods nearer to the Ferris wheel. Meter alarm went off again as I approached a pile of litter I soon figured out was an open manhole. I stuck my hand and meter down there and hit 1.5Sv/hr, which officially exceeded the amount of fun I was willing to have with recreational dose rather than occupational. PROTIP: don’t play in the sewers of Pripyat. I then walked from the open manhole back to the covered one, meter clicking away quite happily all the way, and realized I was tracing the storm drain line with my meter. You see, the Liquidators cleaned a lot of surfaces and the results of their efforts are frankly remarkable, but they also committed the failure of every rad decon and demolition project I’ve ever worked on: not going below grade (i.e. contamination in pipes underground, like sewer lines). That’s expensive and hard work, so they left it. Considering that there was still a reactor that needed buttoning up a few miles away, I can understand choosing your battles.

The Pripyat Amusement Park Ferris Wheel - Never Used, Fixed Radioactive Contamination, CHEAP, MAKE OFFER

The Pripyat Amusement Park Ferris Wheel – Never Used, Only Mild Fixed Radioactive Contamination, CHEAP, MAKE OFFER!

The main thing I took away from Pripyat is that I want to go back. The urban explorer desire screams at me that I barely scratched the surface of all the buildings there. At the very least, I want to get into the “Politburo hotel”. I want to know what the interiors of hotel built with visiting senior Communist party officials in mind looks like. And I want a damn clear shot of the Cyrillic sign for “LET ATOM BE A WORKER, NOT A SOLDIER”, I never found a good line of sight for it. I also want to know who is living in that ghost city because right after leaving the amusement park I met the most friendly cat who was well fed and happy. Feral cats don’t come near you, so that was clearly someone’s pet.

And since you made it this far, I’ll end this with a the traditional picture of the Ferris wheel and remind you that there’s only 9 days left to order in the current BBotE & Stein production window. After that, if you’re hoping to get something in time for Xmas, there’s no guarantees I can get things out to you in time.

NEXT TIME: Let’s talk reactors, sarcophagi, New Safe Confinement, and what the hell is that thing over there?

 

THE BIG SHILL: Things You Can Buy Which I Don’t Sell

Many years ago on livejournal, my friend Ben Stone and his now fiancee Nadja, AKA The Benchilada & fairyarmadillo, AKA Stone Robot Enterprises, inaugurated a holiday tradition of collecting all the friends who made things to share their wares with the everyone else which he called THE BIG SHILL. The Steins of Science were part of one of these long ago, in the beforetime. I would like to maintain this tradition.

There is a difficulty however. In this darker era of the internet, I can’t just ask people to add their favorite things to my list in the comments below since I turned comments off four years ago. If you have something you think I should know about and share with the world, drop me an email.

Without further ado, a far from exhaustive list:

Jenn Rose – Jenn is a special effects artist who every last one of us who has seen a movie in the last decade has enjoyed the work of. When she isn’t making wonders for the screen, she is making mostly bug-based wonders to wear at Cetonia Designs. Also, her instagram account, @bugluvphotography, is well worth checking out.

Meredith Yayanos – my friend Mer has done so much wonderful spooky music over the years and is one of my favorite people. She helps keep me thinking and my life strange. I direct you here to her previous project but poke around a bit and you may find new things coming from her soon.

Laurie Penny – is a journalist and writer I’ve been enjoying the work of since Warren Ellis first introduced her and her red pen of justice to me oh so many years ago. She has a new book out “Unspeakable Things” which you can get here, and enjoy her other work and articles.

Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener – Atomic Robo is a pleasure I have been sharing with you folks for years. I’m pleased to say that they’ve gotten their act together, admitted that they actually like money, and put together a decent shop for their merch. Please support Action Science.

Maki Naro – A cartoonist formerly contributing to Popular Science, who I worked with a little bit to help make one of his series happen, Maki is now doing his own thing with his own patreon and store, featuring such items as Octopus Jesus.

Matt Lubchansky – a DADicated collector of DADS and creator of the comic Listen To Me. He also regularly causes hilarity on The Nib. You may find some of his fine wares on offer here.

In fact, in light of that last link, why don’t you just go through the entirety of the Topatoco store. They’ve provided me a box of holiday delights to give to people every year.

DrinkTanks – I previously discussed this in a post a while back, but I heartily endorse their Juggernaut 128oz growler over buying the 4.3L Stein of Science. Get the Juggernaut and a smaller stein. Everyone, but especially you, will be happy.

Ben Templesmith – On of my favorite comic artists, I’ve been enjoying his work since “Fell” though I suspect you’ve been enjoying his stuff in any of a dozen different venues. His current project Blackholers has been a hoot, I’m looking forward to Blood Songs, and he also has his own store up as well.

Warren Ellis – Speaking of Warren, as I can blame my acquaintance with half the people on this list on him in one way or another, I would like to really encourage you read his prose fiction rather than just his comic work. I have an unholy lust for his book Gun Machine to be turned into a crime of the week serial on AMC, but that just ain’t gonna happen because we aren’t allowed to have nice things. In the last year, he made two very enjoyable novellas, Elektrograd and NORMAL, that I would love to see more of and I think you may enjoy them too.

Shadows of Brimstone – this game has brought me so much fun in the last several years. I often refer to it as Cowboys & Cthulhus. Buying absolutely everything they’ve made related to this game is Warhammer-level, credit card melting purchase, but if you get the two base sets, which are available for an EXCELLENT deal right now, you’re good to go for a very long while.

Chernobyl Teaser Pictures

I am freshly returned from Ukraine suffering the worst case of jetlag I have ever had. Needless to say, I am a moderately functional human only by the grace of Black Blood of the Earth. Speaking of which, you’ve still got one more week of production left in this window before American Thanksgiving.  After that, we move into HOLIDAY MADNESS.

That said, my brain isn’t working enough to expound upon all I saw in the last weekend. I’m still thinking about it all and the primary things I keep thinking are “That wasn’t nearly enough time there” and “I wish I spoke Ukrainian”.

In the meantime, here’s a few teaser pictures for a future post.

The Chernobyl Sarcophagus - on Nov 12th, they began rolling they new containment over it. This is one of the last views of it we'll ever have.

The Chernobyl Sarcophagus – on Nov 12th, they began rolling they new containment over it. This is one of the last views of it we’ll ever have.

 

Comrade Lenin & Commodore Funranium - Statue in the town of Chernobyl.

Comrade Lenin & Commodore Funranium – Statue in the town of Chernobyl.

 

Pripyat Music School - perhaps it's the Palace of Musics. Soviet Union sure did have a lot of places called "palaces".

Pripyat Music School – perhaps it’s the Palace of Musics. Soviet Union sure did have a lot of places referred to as “palaces”.

 

Rodina Mat Monument- I'm not sure this photo does justice to how large this statue is.  Below her feet is the four story Great Patriotic War Museum of Ukraine. Big.

Rodina Mat Monument- I’m not sure this photo does justice to how large this statue is. Below her feet is the four story Great Patriotic War Museum of Ukraine. Big.

Phil’s Trip To Nowhere: A Mileage Run Tale

This is a story of desire for recognition in a cold world governed by arcane calculations and the eldritch math of the airlines. One man’s fight to have a more comfortable seat. I am, of course, speaking of the classic folly of doing a mileage run. TL;DR version: I’m not doing that again, or at least not like I did it this time.

At the end of September, when I figured out that I was going to be taking a surprise trip to Chernobyl, I realized “Hey, that’s a lot of miles round trip for San Francisco to Kiev. I wonder if that’s enough to get me any kind of medalliony, statusy type things…” I did the math and then gently placed my head on the desk because, dammit, I was within ~2000mi of Gold.

I have friends and colleagues that travel a lot. A LOT. I appreciate their advice and wisdom on how to build the most efficient travel kit and how to make the most of the trip itself. They’re eternally hunting the finest $/mi deals and are active on FlyerTalk. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told “On the plane and in the airport, this is some of the most productive/creative time I ever get.” Above all, they have taught me that some medallion status, any status, as a frequent flyer is the difference between misery and, in our TSA blighted world, less misery.

So, I thought I’d give it a go. I would do a mileage run, AKA a trip taken purely for the purposes of accumulating flight miles toward medallion status. The thing you want is a calculator which will find the optimized $/mi round trip route from a designated location for a certain distance. Since you don’t particularly care where you go, that’s all you need. Funny enough, the airlines don’t really like these tools and do their best to thwart them. They tend to appear and then vanish again within the span of days.

With the help of Google Flights, I was able to build an itinerary from San Francisco to Minneapolis-St.Paul to Chicago to Detroit and back home to SF again in the span of 18hrs. Does this seem very dumb, at the very least incredibly silly, to you? Well, you’re not alone. My Lovely Assistant made it quite clear that she intended to enjoy the entirety of the bed and all the kitties while I was on my Idiot Holiday. It went wrong pretty much right away.

On a positive note, to diffuse that tension right away, every single leg of the flight arrived on time or a little early and I got home safe and sound.

My first error was my departure time, 12:15am from SFO after a full work day and no naps beforehand. That bit about “most productive & creative time” really, really doesn’t work when you promptly shoot your sleep schedule in the foot. Error number two was that I was flying, for the midpoint of my trip, to Chicago and this was going to be Game 3 of the World Series. When I bought my tickets a couple weeks earlier, this wasn’t in my calculations. To be fair, I don’t think about baseball much at all other than traffic avoidance for A’s and Giants games. I couldn’t help but notice a lot of Chicago sportswear at the gate…

After a fitful doze in my seat from SFO to MSP, we arrived and I got the good news that my gate for the Chicago flight was right next to my arrival gate. As this was an actual flight to Chicago, for the day of World Series Game 3, the sports fan gear intensified. I was particularly impressed with the man wearing Bulls shoes, Bears sweatpants, several layers of Cubs shirts and jackets, and a hat that had been sectioned like a pie into Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, and White Sox zones. Because it was 5am, the shouts of CUBBEEZ were muted, but still happened.

I think I fell asleep taxiing for takeoff for the 50min trip from MSP to ORD. It wasn’t even remotely enough sleep. I arrived into O’Hare (which autocorrect kept wanting to change to O’Hate) in a blur of blue jackets and hats. Ate some deep dish pizza for breakfast, I know that. Tried to find the Field Museum annex in the airport, but was confused enough that it didn’t work out. I managed to get back to my gate for my flight to Detroit in a timely manner and, again, passed out on the plane.

RENEW!

The Art Tunnel Between the Detroit Int” Concourses – you’ll have to take my word that it was playing some Vangelis-esque music.

DTW is an interesting airport, which I felt well enough rested to wander around and enjoy. It is, above all, new. I can understand the critique that it feels sterile because of it’s open and austere steel & glass design, which puts it in the same boat as the Virgin/Southwest terminal at Las Vegas McCarran. What was weird to me was that I had a very hard time finding the bones of the old airport terminal this one clearly replaced. One of my hobbies is wandering around buildings and rooms to find the vestiges of construction and uses gone by (this is a good demonstration of how it works in this post). I eventually figured out that mezzanine level of Concourse C is part of the footprint of the old terminal, but all the structure is gone. This gives everything a very Delta City feel. It is impossible for nerds of a certain age to go to Detroit and not make Robocop jokes.

The crime DTW is most guilty of is putting Tim Horton’s on their map and then only having a Timmies coffee dispenser station and pre-packaged pastry rack inside the MSNBC store. That is a LIE you have printed on an airport directory which I assume has been disappointing travelers for as long as it’s been up. I’m surprised Canada hasn’t declared war because of this.

On the flight home to SFO, because I’d stuck my brain in the no sleep blender, I was useless for any task more complicated that watching movies and TV shows. I wish to report that, in this state, Star Trek: Beyond was a very enjoyable. Would’ve made a great two-parter TV episode.

In conclusion, this wasn’t the worst idea but I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it right. Getting to see several different airports in quick succession in a day isn’t something I normally get to do, so it’s gave some weird perspectives. IF I ever do this again, I’m starting this party with a 10am flight, not a midnight one.

And because I can, let’s hear from the nice folks at OCP.

The Decembering 2016 Edition

Normally, I wait until late November to post this but since three people asked last weekend of all things I reckon I should put it up now. You people are making the rest of us look bad by having your shit together for the holidays in October. We, the rest of humanity, aspire to your levels of planning and organization. To the people that are very proactive and organized in their holiday shopping, I’ll just answer question now: yes, you can place an order now in earlier production windows for a holiday shipment. Just leave a note saying “Delay shipment until $DATE” with your order so I know you want it later rather than nownowNOW (which is what most people want).

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

My Ceremonial South Pole Hero Shot & Xmas Card 2002

The last pre-Xmas BBotE production window will close on December 17th. All things being equal, domestic or international, everything shipped by the 17th should end up at their destination by Christmas Eve. I can’t control weather doom that may or may not happen since no one has given me control of the Illuminati Weather Satellite Network, but a week is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination. I will put another pre-order window up after the 17th, 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.

At some point in the next couple of weeks I intend to do my own version of my friend Benjamin sTone’s holiday tradition, “The Big Shill”, wherein I will point at things I think you should buy which I don’t make. The Drinktanks Juggernaut, which I previously endorsed here, is the first thing that comes to mind.

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 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 more convenient for you. A message to them will help them decide what to fill their cases with. I’m sure they’d like clean and empty refrigerators as their Christmas present.
  8. Turkey, Italy & Brazil: It breaks my heart to say this, I can’t ship to these countries. Italy, I absolutely do not trust your postal system. The level of theft shipping things anywhere south of Rome is, frankly, appalling. If you ask me to ship to Naples, I make absolutely zero guarantee of it arriving. Brazil, your customs causes 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 in 1996, this does not permit me to sanctify food. While I do have a helpful Dominican priest who’d probably be willing to bless BBotE, that’s still not helpful. 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.

For those of you who read this far, I congratulate you. In the very near future, it is also my intention to share a brief travelogue of “The Day Phil Went Nowhere: A Mileage Run Tale” before I fly to Chernobyl next Wednesday but we’ll see how things go. In the meantime, I have a birthday to celebrate for the next several days.

BBotE Ambassador & Line Up Changes, October 2016 Edition

As it turns to fall, even The Bandit in his Floridian Finest must put on pants. (art by Scott Wegener)

As summer turns to fall, even The Bandit in his Floridian Formalware  must put on pants. (art by Scott Wegener)

As the seasons change, so too do the people, places and things in our lives. Funranium Labs is no exception to this.

Starting today, with the new production window which will run through October 29th, the Ipsento Panama light roast is now on the temporarily retired list. I haven’t been given an estimate of when it should return yet but based on prior experience January 2017 is a good guess. It’s ridiculous tart blueberry flavor will be missed. But this is the where the bad news ends!

There is good news on the BBotE Ambassador front as I’m pleased to announce that service is being restored to Santa Barbara, CA. One of the former Ambassador’s more dutiful customers, Vernon, has stepped up to restore the flow to vicinity of Goleta and let the people rejoice. You can get a hold of him at bbote [at] brewhouse [dot] pub. But before I announce the second one, let’s have a story.

In the previous post, I gave you an insight into how my brain works to translate languages. Now let’s discuss how my brain sabotages me because it loves stories and will override learning with knowledge I KNOW is wrong because there’s a great story associated with it. Once upon a time, This American Life did a story about life in college towns, in particular the named Number One Party School and the woes of living near frat row. One of the people interviewed who lived near Penn State complained about the difficulty keeping their hedges alive because of all the people puking into them after football games.

With that excellent bit of imagery, the name of the city Penn State is in was permanently obliterated in my mind and was replaced with “Vomit Hedge”. I know this is not the correct name but trying to get my mind to acknowledge and remember the right one is nigh impossible. I know it isn’t College Station (that’s Texas A&M) and I know it isn’t College Park (that’s University of Maryland) but it’s something like those two, with the actual name shrouded by “Vomit Hedge”. You can say the correct name to me and ask me to immediately repeat it back to you and it’s gone. On my best days, I can manage to incorrectly say College Station instead of Vomit Hedge. To correctly type the words “the BBotE Ambassador of State College, PA” I need search for the location of Penn State and then copy-paste the correct name because even transcription is no guarantee I’ll get it right.

And so, I am pleased to announce that Craig is now your BBotE Ambassador of Vomit Hedge State College, PA. You can reach him by email statecollegebbote [at] gmail [dot] com.

Vernon & Craig are hardly the only BBotE Ambassadors out there. Many people tell me that they drop their local Ambassador a line and are sad to hear they have nothing on hand for local pick up. My recommendation, if you can be patient, is to tell them you’d like to put your name on their list. Most of them would prefer to make sure most of a case is spoken for before they pull the trigger on asking for one. Except for a radioactive cat that really wants attention but you aren’t allowed to pet her for another two days (true story), there is nothing more heartbreaking than an unclaimed bottle of BBotE. So please, as we approach the holidays, drop them a line and let them know. This way I can get cases out to the corners of the world in a timely manner.

Phil vs. the Russian Language

Here is your advance warning of my next, entirely too brief, trip: from November 9-14th, I will be going to visit Kiev, Pripyat and Chernobyl. This is a somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a very long time so I’m treating this as a slightly belated birthday present to myself as I collect one of the crown jewels of atomic tourism. Oh yes, there will be pictures.

However this is decidedly out of my comfort zone and let me tell you why. Most of my survival skills are related to my ability to speak to people and read postings. I am seriously more comfortable with the idea of wandering around a nuclear accident site than trying to get from the airport to my hostel in Kiev with my complete lack of Ukranian language. Like most Americans, I’m only fluent in one language, English. Because I’m me and I love linguistics and history I have fragmentary knowledge a dozen or so others, mostly at the word root levels, because this is the kind of thing that makes me a Cliff Clavin-grade trivia monster. English, being the Jello fruit medley of languages, gives you the benefit of some familiarity with Greek, Latin, German, and French even if you don’t really know where a given word came from.

Where it gets ugly for me is no longer having the Roman alphabet to work with anymore. I have a physics degree which means I learned the Greek alphabet one ugly equation at a time and how to transliterate from the Greek letters to Roman. When you realize you actually know a lot of Greek word roots and can combine it with the Greek alphabet, you suddenly realize you can kind of read some Greek words. Oh don’t get me wrong, I don’t for a minute try to pretend I actually understand Greek but I can sorta figure things out. This brings us to Cyrillic.

St. Cyril slapped something similar to the Greek alphabet, with some important additions, on top of a Slavic language. The phonemes between Greek and Russian didn’t quite match so some extra letters were necessary to cover the missing sounds and give pronounciation aids. The important thing to remember is that despite using a kind of, ish, Greek alphabet that Russian is decidedly Not Greek.

With all that established, let’s go through “Phil’s Extremely Back Assward Way To Read Russian Words in Cyrillic!”

STEP 1: Change all the Cyrillic letters to the Greek alphabet.

STEP 2: Change all the Greek letters to the Roman alphabet.

STEP 3: Now that the word is in Roman letters, see if you recognize any word roots, usually German.

STEP 4: Translate to English if possible as best as you can.

Now that we enjoyed that little excursion into how Phil’s brain works, I want to note how this method to translate Russian is ENTIRELY NOT HELPFUL IN KIEV. Ukrainian is not Russian. It’s in the same linguistic neighborhood but I hope you now understand my hesitation.

Let’s work an example problem! Starting word: шпильхалле

Step 1: Hmm, that looks weird, don’t quite recognize Greek equivalents to all those letters. The first one kinda looks like a sigma that fell over, so let’s go with ΣΠΝΛΧΑΛΛΕ

Step 2: I hope those missing letters don’t matter too much. SPILCHALLE

Step 3: Okay, “halle” I recognize, though the “h” I have identified came from a chi, which is a ch sound. “Spil”? That kinda looks like a word I remember from my game collection, speil.

Step 4: Game place? Did I find a game store, a stadium, or what? Only one way to find out…

(The actual answer is “casino”. This word is from the 1990s German/Russian hybrid times. These are the kinds of misunderstanding that lead to ADVENTURE!)

[EDIT: I’ve been told I got lucky with my transliteration, because I screwed up in a way that still worked. See? ADVENTURE!]

With that, I’m going to go back to the current cross-country train adventure while preparing for this next adventure.

Concerning Asskicker Coffee

I have JUST the coffee mug for such occasions.

I have JUST the coffee mug for such occasions. (mug courtesy of Topatoco, Sopwith Camel courtesy of LEGO)

Ooooookay, the milestone where I have a deep sigh and decide to comment on someone else’s product is 50 messages. When I’ve gotten that many emails, texts, IMs, DMs, tweets, phone calls, etc., I have to breakdown and actually make words in reply.

TL;DR version: No, they aren’t ripping me off. No one making cold brew coffee is ripping me off, they’re just doing their own thing. When someone does something I think is as good as BBotE and finds a way to do it cheaper, I’ll let you know because I’ll be buying it too.

In case you’ve missed out on the content hungry media flurry, there’s a cafe in Adelaide, South Australia called Vicious Coffee that has a product on its menu called Asskicker Coffee. People from Australia have been telling me about this for a while, but the social media thirstlords blew it up at the end of August. You can read the original news story from the Australian Sunday Mail Advertiser under the link, but I want you to pay close attention to this statement:

The Asskicker is a complex concoction made of quad espresso (four shots), four 48-hour brewed cold drip ice cubes, 120ml of 10-day brewed cold drip and is finished with four more 48-hour brewed cold drip ice cubes.

My most important take away from all the various articles I’ve been sent about this is “many journalists aren’t good at math”. Please read that previous quote again and think about how much coffee that is.

Think about it some more.

Okay, let’s do some conversions. The traditional espresso shot is 30ml, so four of those is 120ml. It’s hard for me to guess at ice cube volume since ice cube trays are so variable, but let’s say for the sake of simplicity that they’re 30ml apiece also, that’s another 240ml. Add the 120ml for the 10-day brewed cold drip and you’re looking at a total 480ml (~16 fluid ounces of cold brew coffee and espresso). Now, for those of you that have purchased BBotE, you’ve seen my recommendation to keep BBotE consumption under 100ml per day. I’m not going to make any assumptions on flavor or caffeine content here, but if comparable to BBotE as claimed in the many, many articles I’ve been sent you’re exceeding my recommended dose by almost a factor of five. I disobey my own recommendations now and then, but I tend to put a six hour gap between cups and even then it’s usually 75ml in the morning and 75ml in the afternoon. You are asking for trouble consuming 480ml worth of concentrated coffee all in one go, much as I don’t recommend having a mug full of uncut BBotE.

In fact, from the same article, I want to reiterate that their product isn’t meant to be consumed all in one go. This is meant to be consumed over a time span of hours so that it lasts you for entire shifts. The original inspiration for this was an ER nurse that had a surprise double shift.

The Asskicker is available in three sizes: small is $10 (recommend one to two hour consumption for six to nine hours “up time”; medium is $13 (recommend two to three hours consumption for nine-12 hours “up time”; and large is $16 (recommend three to four hours consumption for 12 to 18 hours “up time”).

My take: This is a coffee shop owner that has done right by his customers and quit trying to tear them down for doing it. Someone had a shitty day in front of them and Steve Bennington made them something special to help make it better. That was so much fun it became part of the regular menu. Hell, I bet all of you have been into a bar or a restaurant that has something on their menu that got there they exact same way, and it’ll be there until the closing day of the establishment.

When I make my next trip to Australia, whenever that may be, I hope Vicious Coffee is still serving it so I can try some. When I tourist, I tourist HARD. 😉