Containing Multitudes: Laser Safety Edition

Most of you found me as the ridiculous coffee & steins guy. Some think of me as the radiation safety man who knows way too much history and is an embodiment of Institutional Memory (this would definitely be the point of view from the researchers and students I wrangle). To others, I am the crazy coin ranter…who knows way too much history.

But last year, a whole new part of the internet found me and, often, decided they didn’t like what I had to say as I revealed I am the laser safety guy who isn’t a big fan of some aspects of maker & founder culture. I wrote a bit of a rant on a product whose existence I found infuriating as it, from start to finish, embodied those bits of culture that drive me crazy. This also caused the parts of the internet I didn’t piss off to send me a steady stream of things to see if they were bad too or, in most cases, in hopes of raising my blood pressure. I took home some lessons from all this I’d like to share with you:

  1. In the last couple years, something happened that caused a wave of cheap 405nm (deep violet) and 450nm (blue) laser diodes to come onto the market. Since shorter wavelength means more energy per photon, this was what the market has been waiting for to make small, cheap laser cutter/engravers. Cubiio was only one of dozens of different versions of similar systems.
  2. The FDA Center for Device and Radiologic Health (CDRH) are aware of these systems, or at least becomes so as soon as someone tells them. There are so many and they so understaffed that they don’t actively hunt them, merely address those that are directly reported to them or are revealed in the course of an accident investigation. There is some despair of ever getting ahead of the wave at this point. The days of a few large and responsible laser manufacturers to wrangle, who reliably file paperwork before selling products, are long gone.
  3. Amazon and eBay are oh so very complicit in the illegal importation and sale of laser systems that aren’t FDA compliant. Their hosting of third party sales without much (if any) vetting of what is being sold through their marketplace is a gushing pipeline of gray/black market items to America. When told to suspend sale of an item by the CDRH, they will very diligently remove that specific listing from that particular seller. If you heard a bit of sarcastic tone in your head there, good. Nothing prevents a different seller from selling the same item or the original seller for listing a substantially similar one, just different enough to evade the CDRH take down. Since listings are automated and fees are generated by listing and sale, there is no incentive for Amazon & eBay to do so self-policing. And then there’s Alibaba…
  4. USPS/Customs Enforcement stop what they are specifically told to stop. They haven’t been given much direction about lasers and, much like CDRH, they don’t have much hope against the wave. I can personally attest to my two Not At All Okay handheld lasers, purchased via 3rd party seller on Amazon, that were shipped direct from China and sailed through Customs. The Mail Cops’ focus is trying to interdict weapons and illegal drugs, so this is one of those eye-rolling “Sure, yeah, we’ll get right on that in our copious free time” situations.
  5. The intentionally reactive, rather than preventive, nature of control in the sale of laser products means we are way deep into whackadoo laser quackery on the market and have been for a while. It’s reminding me a lot of where we were with radioactive materials and x-rays, circa 1920. As an example, laser physiotherapy treatment, my entire ass. You are quite successfully selling a glorified heat lamp from China at a 100000% markup to overfunded sports programs. That piece of crap shouldn’t cost $100, much less $250k.

So, let me tell you how I got to this point in my life, or rather how I got back to it. Once upon a time, my first job out of college was working at one of the large industrial & scientific laser manufacturers in Silicon Valley. I began in production, building pretty much every laser they had on the market at the time. In short order I moved to service and then, thanks to having picked up all the safety roles for my division out of boredom and no one else wanted them, to the Environmental Health & Safety department when a layoff happened. By attrition, I was eventually the only person left in the EH&S department and I was the corporate laser safety officer (LSO) for the entire company. I was burnt out and desperately wanted out of there as management gave zero shits about their employees. After a particularly bad day at work, I discovered that it was possible to get a job working in Antarctica and submitted a resume.

Two years later, Raytheon Polar Services Corporation hired me to be a cryogenics/science technician to serve as a winterover at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. It was, however, a very last minute hire before deployment. From the time a verbal offer was made to the when a same day FedEx letter with paper contract and plane tickets to Denver to attend fire school arrived at my office was 7 hours. Because it was so late in the day, my boss who I loathed was already gone when it arrived. Which meant that before I finished for the day, I had placed a resignation letter in his box, giving two weeks notice and informing him that the first week would be spent on vacation as I learned to be a firefighter in Colorado. I also cleared out my more important items from my office and locked down all relevant things on my computer. It’s fair to say that I burnt that bridge very effectively and scattered the ashes to the wind.

However, as corporate laser safety officer for this company I’d had a prominent voice in the safety community despite being in my 20s. The collective laser safety officers of the San Francisco Bay Area pushed the issue that we needed to make some kind of certification for our field, that there was a bit of a difference between being the person wrangling the one welding laser in the shop and being responsible for an entire university worth of lasers. And so the Board of Laser Safety was formed and the very first Certified Laser Safety Officer (CLSO) examination was organized for October 12, 2002. By the time this date rolled around though, I’d left my job at $LASER_COMPANY and was no longer a practicing laser safety officer. But, I’d paid the money, so I figured what the hell, take the test and maybe it would be something good for the resume when I got back.

The CLSO exam is supposed to be a three hour exam; I was the first one done in 73 minutes. I know this because the proctor showed me his stopwatch and wanted to make sure I was actually done and didn’t want to take more time checking it over. I said no, walked out of the testing room at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and drove all the way back down to my parents’ hose in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I then finished packing my giant bodybag sized duffles and went to sleep. The next morning my dad drove me to San Jose airport to catch the first leg of my very long and delay prone flight to the South Pole.

Several months later, now trapped at Pole with no escape flights coming for the next nine months, my dad let me know that they’d received a giant envelope from the Board of Laser Safety. I asked him to open it. Inside was this certificate which he sent me a picture of.

My original Board of Laser Safety CLSO certificate.

Note the certification number: G1006. The first five certification numbers, G1001-G1005, were held by the members of the Board of Laser Safety. Because I’d finished the test first, I was the sixth. The members of the Board never revealed to me who Number One was, but I was Number Six. Yes, I have been making Prisoner jokes about this for 15 years.

You will also note there is a renewal date on that certificate of January 1, 2006. I spent most of 2003 at the South Pole where the need for laser knowledge was minimal other than telling people “Don’t stand under the dancing laser speckles on the ice from the Atmospheric Research Observatory’s lasers. That’s actually bad. Try not to go blind, I’ll see you in the bar.” Most of 2004 I was unemployed or temping for the water district doing groundwater flow modeling. 2005 was LLNL and they had no need for my mad phat laser sk33lz (well, that’s not true, my knowledge informed other projects I was doing in interesting ways). And so, without continuing education credits, my CLSO lapsed.

Four years ago, I got tapped by a whole bunch of people affiliated with Burning Man as “Hey, I know a guy that knows something about lasers” in the wake of this incident. It kinda rankled that I had to keep giving the caveat of “I am not a CLSO” as I ran people through how to conduct an accident investigation and create policies for control of lasers in a place that believes in Safety Third. Oh, the fun I have with people who try to bring that mentality to places I’m actually responsible for.

Two years ago, I was asked if I was willing to serve as the deputy LSO for UC Berkeley in addition to my other duties. I said yes and somewhat sarcastically replied “You mean formally, as opposed to what I’ve been doing in the hallways for the last eight years? You finally read my resume I gather.”

Last year, the tsunami of shitty laser products, as discussed earlier, hit me. I snapped and decided I needed to re-certify so that I could complain with authority. The weird long BBotE production window in May was because I spent a week in Rochester, NY taking that exam and attending the DOE Laser Safety Conference.

Yesterday, I was contacted directly by the Board of Laser Safety to inform me that I’d passed and was re-certified.

In conclusion…

via GIPHY

Philippines Barako BBotE Now Available

Reposting the relevant half of a previous post as it is now reality as I have just received a large quantity of Barako. Additionally, BBotE Ambassador service to Brisbane (Australia) is restored, so feel free to drop Dom a line.

1911 Philippines 1 Peso Reverse with Lady Filipinas & a gently smoking Mt. Pinatubo

There is a new BBotE selection now available in the store. This is a continued part of my interest in the historical coffees of colonialism and the part of my coin collection I like to call “These Are Also American Coins”. Years ago, sitting in a cafe in Hilo, I saw the marketing line “America’s Only Domestic Coffees” describing the fine produce of the Big Island. I knew this was wrong because I was familiar with the highland crops in Puerto Rico that had been there for centuries, but then mainlanders do seem to have a problem forgetting that PR is part of America. From a coffee point of view, the problem is that most of the historical coffee plantations in the wider American sphere of influence got torn up and replanted, because United Fruit was clearly a transtemporal corporate conspiracy dedicated to replacing things I love (coffee, pineapples) with things I hate (bananas). One moment, I need to go seed a new thread on abovetopsecret.com…

The Philippines have a longer coffee history than any current or former American possession thanks to being the Pearl of the Pacific. Wave after wave of traders and invaders showed up in the archipelago via the Straits of Malacca, heading for Manila, and all of them agreed that coffee was extremely important. Depending on the century, country of origin, and last port of call where they got cargo determined what strain of arabica coffee got taken to what island and then crossed with the native robustas that were already there. Because of this, the Philippines have an astounding amount of diversity in their coffee. Unfortunately, this also means every disease gets transported to the islands too and a blight in the 19th century almost wiped all of them out. The barako strain, rather than being arabica or robusta, is one of the coffee liberica species which was resistant to the disease, allowing the coffee industry there to continue.

The tricky part is getting it. For reasons I’m not quite clear on, the roasters of the American mainland are far more interested in importing Indonesian coffees rather than the Filipino ones. The doesn’t concern the Philippines much as they have plenty of their own roasteries and are every bit as prideful about “my island’s coffee is the best coffee”, much like the different growing regions of Puerto Rico. Lucky for me, as an extremely white man, I have access to the powerful logistics of the Filipino Cousin Network (FCN). If you have not already experienced the power of the FCN, it goes something like this:

  1. You express an interest in a $THING which is available in the Philippines, usually because your Filipino friend has kindly shared it with you.
  2. Your Filipino friend says “If you want more of $THING, I can get it for you from the islands.”
  3. You ask if they are going to the Philippines soon.
  4. They say no, but their sibling is already there.
  5. Their sibling’s spouse’s cousin has easy access to $THING.
  6. Sibling isn’t coming home soon, but sibling’ spouse’s cousin’s dad is a pilot and can just bring it over on his next leg to the States.
  7. Cousin’s Pilot Dad loves your friend’s grandma’s adobo, so if you can buy the fixings for grandma to make adobo, $THING is yours in the next 48-96 hours.

Your experience of the FCN may vary wildly in levels of complexity but it will be substantially similar in form with this example. A side-effect of the FCN is that there is absolutely no way to keep grandma, any grandma, from knowing absolutely anything she wants to know within the FCN. The grandmas are almost a hive mind, so that joke from Cookie Clicker is frighteningly accurate.

The name of the varietal, barako, is a bit of linguistic appropriation from Spanish. Verraco, Spanish for “wild boar”, became barako with the rough meaning of “stud”, in the animal breeding and machismo senses of the word. It is regarded as bolder than the arabicas and more palatable than robusta, an opinion I’ll agree with. The smell is sharp and the taste is flinty and rich, very much reflecting the fresh, ashy volcanic soils of the island. Not quite slopes of Mt. Pinatubo tephra in flavor, nor Philippine Sea Plate basalt, but a nice mix of the two (forgive me, as the frustrated volcanologist have pulverized and smelled/tasted a lot of different volcanic rocks, particularly from this region). Taking it to my favorite taste testers at St. George Spirits, it apparently mixes with everything they make, and they wiped out the test bottle in very short order. Per Test Subject Shiraz, it smells like eating Reese’s peanut butter cups.

Twitter Invisibility – A Customer Service Tale

I will start with the dispassionate assessment: for a period of no less than 8 days, my @funranium twitter account was functioning in a very limited visibility status and then it returned to full functionality. I have no idea why it happened or why it stopped.

To roll it back to the larger picture, this has been another one of my adventures in customer service failure. I gave my feelings on how customer service is supposed to work, and how it is usually structured badly, in a previous post seven years ago. Now you may say “Phil, we aren’t Twitter’s customers. We’re the product.” and you’d have a good point. The argument that all of social media’s actual customers are ad purchasers, not the users of the services, ignores that we are the audience they are attempting to sell to. If your service causes enough pain that we aren’t there to sell to, your ad purchasers will wander off to more lucrative outlets. In summation, it’s tricky.

This all first rose to my awareness on Monday, March 5th when my Lovely Assistant complained that my threading seemed to be broken as she went to go look at my stupid Alternative Chowder tweets. I dismissed it as [shrug] “sometimes things on Twitter don’t work so good”.

(ASIDE: I cannot consume any animals that come from the water, fresh or salt, other than whales, so clam chowder has always been dead to me. As a small child, I noticed that whenever my dad ordered clam chowder he got oyster crackers, whereas I got normal saltines for my soups. I became convinced that you could *only* get oyster crackers if you ordered chowder, which made stealing them from my dad all the better. I then developed the theory that oyster crackers were what made my dad’s clam chowder, which sure looked like a soup, a “chowder”. BY SIX YEAR OLD PHIL LOGIC, not yet understanding the transitive property, I came to the conclusion that adding oyster crackers to any other soup automatically makes it a chowder. Now, as a grown ass adult, no one can prevent me from adding oyster crackers to whatever I want to exploreAlternative Chowders“)

On Wednesday, two other friends noticed they weren’t getting notifications from me when I made comments. Again, I dismissed it as Twitter being Twitter.

Well, that’s not good. I seem not to exist.

On Friday the 9th, the journalist Nathan Edwards dropped me a line to let me know that I appeared to be shadowbanned. He had used a tool which did a quick search scrape of Twitter to see if a user who wasn’t logged in would be able to find anything from my account. It came up with zilch. Something was limiting my contact and this presented two possible conclusions:

  1. My name had been handed to a Report Brigade for trolls to hammer such that the automated systems at Twitter would defensively limit my reach as someone that was suspect. OR…
  2. Something at Twitter was broken which had somehow impacted my account.

To be clear, Twitter has emphatically stated that it does not do shadowbanning. I am inclined to believe that, but I am also aware that they don’t *quite* have the firmest grasp on the monster they’ve created.  While they might not have built shadowbanning as a feature, I am certainly willing to believe that effects indistinguishable from it have manifested as a bug.

Searching through my collective friends, I found one other person that seemed to be suffering the same problem, Meredith Yayanos. To be honest, I could fully believe she had pissed off enough people to justify Case #1, which is something she would wear with pride. As I help support her work with the the Blood of the Harpy, I was willing to believe I had inherited some guilt by association and been targeted in kind. But almost as soon as I let Mer know that she was subject to the same thing as me, she was returned to full visibility.

Okay, well, that’s weird…

Twitter Support Says “We Had A Problem But It’s Cool We Fixed It”

As a middle aged white man who works in safety with a firm confidence in Systems™, this meant it was time for me to go delve into the customer service of process of Twitter to get the help which I felt I richly deserved and expected to work.

(You may feel free to start snickering into your drink at this point.)

A conversation between Jamais Cascio and I, except I am invisible with “Tweet unavailable”, as captured by @slartibartfart

My experience of the Twitter customer support process may be described as a running into a brick wall as fast as you feel like. It’s always a wall but the question is how much it hurts. The first thing I did was hit the Twitter support functions. I looked at their feed first and found the message to the far right. It appeared that they had a problem but, that as of the 8th, they’d fixed it and everything was fine. [checks calendar] By Friday everything should have been fixed according to them, but I still seemed to be stuck in a corner where no one got notifications from me and all threads I commented in had broken links, as shown in the conversation with Jamais Cascio.

Phil waves jumps up and down trying to get the elephant to see the invisible mouse.

As it was not fixed, I sent a reply to the @TwitterSupport account to let them know that things were not fixed. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the problem, almost by definition, they wouldn’t see anything I posted to them. Since that wouldn’t work, I checked the Twitter Help functions. They recommended that I use the @TwitterSupport direct messages. Okay, sure thing. Will do.

I try to use @TwitterSupport Direct Messages, LOL

Ah, that was a good laugh. At some point in the recent past, @TwitterSupport decided to turn off their direct messages and set an autoreply but they didn’t decide to change their recommendation to pursue this route on the Twitter Help page. Speaking of Twitter Help, I would describe this page as roughly as functional as looping automated answer phone tree. If your question doesn’t quite conform to any of the pre-formulated answers to frequently asked question paths, well, you aren’t going to find any help here, nor an easy way to ask an open question, nor even really a way to make contact other than the @TwitterSupport twitter account. As of the writing of this post, there has been no response from any channel of communication.

The earliest suggestion on how to fix this, or at least get the attention of people who can fix things, came from friends who went to search what shadowbanning was and found this article. To summarize it’s idea, if you talk to the Twitter Ads team, rather than the Support team, as their purpose is to generate revenue they have an interest in getting your problem fixed so that you can pay them. For the price of $20, I was willing to play this experiment to see how the algorithm coped with two conflicting desires: limiting visibility vs. getting paid for visibility. I regret to inform you that the algorithm is capable of holding these two contrary thoughts. Also, Twitter Ads Support is very clear they they are stovepiped and do not  fix, nor will they even discuss, any issues not related to advertising even if this would impact the effectiveness of their work.

Because the Army of the Caffeinated contains several current and former employees of The Good Blue Website, they noticed that I had vanished from their feeds and were a little miffed about this. When they asked me some questions as to what was going on and then looked into this there was a fairly universal “Oh. That’s not good.” In the last year, Twitter has had a lot of turnover without the best/any knowledge transfer. I am fully willing to believe that recent tweaks to the algorithm broke shit they didn’t expect and they’ve been working hard to band-aid things ever since.

And then, just as mysteriously, on March 13th I returned to full visibility. There was no explanation as to why I had returned, much less why it happened in the first place. It just happened, like a capricious god had granted me the gift of being a real boy again. That doesn’t sit particularly well with me. As a safety person, I demand documentation from my researchers for their potential failure modes so that we expect them and know what to do when they occur. When things like this happen, I want to know what went wrong, how they fixed it, and how they intend to prevent it from happening again, not just that they are “conducting an internal review to ensure that this doesn’t happen again”.

Since this seems to be continuing with other users, it isn’t fixed yet and the process, whatever it is, is ongoing. We don’t know what it is and all avenues for direct communication are decidedly blocked off. That is shitty customer service.

Funranium Service Announcements – Steins, Coffees, and Tombs

First off, to confirm what many have already noticed and emailed me about with some panic, except for one 1000ml rugged style, there are no FMJ style steins left in the store. The last one went to the very welcoming hands of Steinweilder Morton in Wellington, New Zealand two weeks ago. Until I can get more at a reasonable price, that’s going to have to be that unless you’re willing to pay about $100 extra. If price is no object for you, feel free to drop me a line, but know that I am trying to find a way to get reasonably priced dewars again.

Next, BBotE Ambassadorial service to Indianapolis is restored! Jeremy has returned from his hiatus and looks forward to playing host to bottles for his local folks. Like all the Ambassadors, you can find his contact information here.

Third, the Ipsento Panama Natural selection will be going away in the near future as they’ve gone through all the beans from the last crop and the next isn’t due to show up for several months yet. I laid in a decent supply, but that is dwindling as well. I’ll make the formal announcement of when it’s gone, but if it makes it through the end of the month I’ll be surprised.

Test Subject Calkins successfully laid a wreath and fit into his uniform.

Herr Direktor Funranium, wearing the most regalia I am ever likely to.

Fourth, to explain the weirdly short production windows in the last couple weeks, there has been some exciting travel lately. Much like I put my name in the hat a couple years ago to take a tour of the Nevada Test Site and got picked, Test Subject Calkins did the same for a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While it is an awesome honor to get to do it, there’s a certain level of “Shit, I wasn’t expecting to actually get to do it” last minute planning that happens when you get the nod. My Lovely Assistant and I were invited to be witnesses for the event. As this seemed a suitably once in a lifetime opportunity, we went.

In the photo to the right, you can see that I am wearing my favorite bolo tie, a little doot of brass on my label that is my University of California service pin, and my Antarctic Service Medal. This is the first time I have ever actually worn it because I’ve never had occasion to do so until this trip. It is the only military medal a civilian can receive and I figured I might as well. There was one little boy who saw me in the bathroom, who had clearly been told in no uncertain terms “IF YOU SEE SOMEONE IN UNIFORM OR WITH MEDALS, YOU THANK THEM FOR THEIR SERVICE”, who thanked me for my service. I told him I had earned it by getting very cold for America and science. He ran away, which is the correct reaction.

There was also and excellent dinner at Mari Vanna to celebrate all this. Test Subject Calkins sang Katyusha in his excellent Russian which, per our waiter, is officially when a party is drunk. Apparently you celebrate this by giving the person who just sang Katyusha a complimentary shot. And rather than just see it on the menu like I did in Kiev, I totally ordered the Lard In The Acute Paprika this time.

Lastly, and most exciting, there is potentially a new BBotE selection coming your way soon if it passes one more test batch: Philippines Barako. This is a continued part of my interest in the historical coffees of colonialism. Years ago, sitting in a cafe in Hilo, I saw the marketing line “America’s Only Domestic Coffees” describing the fine produce of the Big Island. I knew this was wrong because I was familiar with the highland crops in Puerto Rico that had been there for centuries, but then we do seem to have a problem with forgetting that PR is part of America. From a coffee point of view, the problem is that most of the historical coffee plantations in the wider American sphere of influence got torn up and replanted, because United Fruit was clearly a transtemporal corporate conspiracy dedicated to replacing things I love (coffee, pineapples) with things I hate (bananas). One moment, I need to go seed a new thread on abovetopsecret.com…

The Philippines have a longer coffee history than any other current or former American possession thanks to being the Pearl of the Pacific. Wave after wave of traders and invaders showed up in the archipelago via the Straits of Malacca, heading for Manila, and all of them agreed that coffee was extremely important. Depending on the century, country of origin, and last port of call where they got cargo, is what determined what strain of arabica coffee got taken to what island and then crossed with the native robusta that was already there. Because of this, the Philippines have an astounding amount of diversity in their coffee. Unfortunately, this also means every disease gets transported to the islands too and a blight in the 19th century almost wiped all of them out. The barako strain, rather than being arabica or robusta, is one of the coffee liberica species which was resistant to the disease, allowing the coffee industry there to continue.

The tricky part if getting it. For reasons I’m not quite clear on, the roasters of the American mainland are far more interested in importing Indonesian coffees rather than the Filipino ones. The doesn’t concern the Philippines much as they have plenty of their own roasteries and are every bit as prideful about “my island’s coffee is the best coffee”, much like the different regions of Puerto Rico. Lucky for me, as an extremely white man, I have access to the powerful logistics of the Filipino Cousin Network (FCN). If you have not already experienced the power of the FCN, it goes something like this:

  1. You express an interest in a $THING which is available in the Philippines, usually because your Filipino friend has kindly shared it with you.
  2. Your Filipino friend says “If you want more of $THING, I can get it for you from the islands.”
  3. You ask if they are going to the Philippines soon.
  4. They say no, but their sibling is already there.
  5. Their sibling’s spouse’s cousin has easy access to $THING.
  6. Sibling isn’t coming home soon, but sibling’ spouse’s cousin’s dad is a pilot and can just bring it over on his next leg to the States.
  7. Cousin’s Pilot Dad loves your friend’s grandma’s adobo, so if you can buy the fixings for grandma to make adobo, $THING is yours in the next 48-96 hours.

A side-effect of the FCN is that there is absolutely no way to keep grandma, any grandma, from knowing absolutely anything she wants to know within the FCN. The grandmas are almost a hive mind, so that joke from Cookie Clicker is frighteningly accurate.

The name of the varietal, barako, is a bit of linguistic appropriation from Spanish. Verraco, Spanish for “wild boar”, became barako with the rough meaning of “stud”, in the animal breeding and machismo senses of the word. It is regarded as bolder than the arabicas and more palatable than robusta, an opinion I’ll agree with. The smell is sharp and the taste is flinty and rich, very much reflecting the fresh, ashy volcanic soils of the island. Not quite slopes of Mt. Pinatubo tephra in flavor, nor Philippine Sea Plate basalt, but a nice mix of the two (forgive me, as the frustrated volcanologist have pulverized and smelled/tasted a lot of different volcanic rocks, particularly from this region). Taking it to my favorite taste testers at St. George Spirits, it apparently mixes with everything they make, and they wiped out the test bottle in very short order.

So, it’ll probably start showing up as the Mystery Vials in Sampler Pack II in the near future before becoming a drop down selection for all the other ordering options.