Author Archives: phil

PLEASE Don’t Open That – A Rant on Generally Licensed Materials

Let’s start this out right by terrifying people. If your home hasn’t had any major renovation since 2001, I can almost guarantee you have radioactive materials in it. I’m not talking natural occurring radioactive materials like the uranium & thorium in your granite countertops, the potassium-40 of your concrete, or the radon in your basement if you live on nice old cracked igneous rock. I’m talking transuranic materials here, ol’ Americium-241 (Am-241), originally a byproduct of the nuclear weapons program that we’ve put to good use. How can I make this guarantee? Because you’d be violating the building & fire codes if you didn’t have at least one smoke detector. You may have heard about this before due to several precocious Boy Scouts cracking them open over the decades to try to get the old Atomic Energy merit badge.

Now, some of our less enlightened citizens at this point normally reply along the lines of “OH MY GOD THE DEADLY RADIATIONS ARE IN MY HOME. MY BABY AND DOG ARE GOING TO GET CANCER. WHY IS THE SHADOW GOVERNMENT CONSPIRACY DISPOSING OF RADIOACTIVE WASTE IN MY HOME!?!?!?!” Aaaaand this is why I don’t go to Berkeley City Council meetings anymore. Once was enough.

But seriously, why would you bring radioactive materials into your home? To answer that question, you first need to know the radiation safety philosophy for ionizing radiation dose minimization called ALARA, which stands for As Low As Reasonably Achievable. Note, this is not “As Low As Possible” or “As Low As Achievable“, both of which have been been used as one point or another. The problem with these words is that Reasonably, Possible, and Acheivable are very subjective concepts. Many legal, regulatory, and scientific careers have been built arguing them since the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was signed. What is a bankrupting expense for very little reduction in dose for a small company may be normal business operations for a national laboratory.

There is a flip side to the coin of ALARA: we take no ionizing radiation dose without commensurate benefit. At a purely mercenary level, this is why the annual radiation dose limit for public exposure is 100mrem, versus the occupational radiation worker dose limit of 5000mrem. In addition to being better trained and cognizant of the hazards, I’m receiving a paycheck in return for my willingness to take additional dose. What benefit is there to bringing Am-241 into your home? It’s what makes your smoke detector actually work (tiny amounts of smoke blocks the alpha particle emissions of the Am-241, which causes the alarm to go off when the alpha detector stops seeing them). We’ve judged that the hazards to life and property from fire are much more immediate than potential problems with small amount of americium sealed up in a plastic box, on your ceiling, not being messed with.

NOTE: newer smoke detectors are laser based rather than americium. No radioactive materials, but you end up changing the batteries much more often.

But did you actually know that there was radioactive material in the smoke detector in your home? Did the contractor that demolished that building over there know? Did all the people the contractor hired know/were they trained/did they listen or understand? How many smoke detectors got to the landfill in the loads of rubble? How many times has this happened over decades? Whoops, we’re back to panic at the city council meeting again.

When you buy a new smoke detector, there are messages all over instructing you to return the old one to the manufacturer, with a self-addressed, pre-paid postage box. They have to accept the old one. It’s part of their general license for use of radioactive materials under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC is quite picky about what they let people put radioactive materials into and then let be sold to the public without controls. That item has been sold and licensed for that very specific use. It is certified as safe under normal operation and certain easily anticipated failure modes in consumer use, e.g a fire.

What is NOT covered by the general license is cracking them open, yanking the source out and starting to build new apparatus with them. The general license, in short, says “This specific use with that specific source is fine. Anything else and all bets are off.” I say this keeping in mind that I built an x-ray fluorescence unit as a physics undergrad using one of the many small Am-241 sources the lab manager had collected for class purposes. If I had a time machine, on my list is to go throttle that lab manager for his many, many transgressions. Screwing with a general licensed item is, technically speaking, a federal offense under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 punishable by up to a $10000 fine or 10 years in prison. The moment you pop the case open, the general license for this source vanishes like Robocop’s Directive 4, which means you now need an actual license to possess this radioactive material and work with it.

And that is not something you can buy for a dollar.

A Reactor Accident Cocktail

Once upon a time, there was a nuclear reactor in England that was air cooled like a 60′s Volkswagen Beetle, called Windscale. It worked about as well as the average 60′s Beetle too.  One day, oops, the fuel and graphite moderator caught on fire. Who’d’ve thunk it, that dry graphite being pure carbon would burn readily…amazing! After this happened, this region of England was told not to drink milk for a good long while, about a month, but the terror stuck depressing dairy for years.

In order to get vital calcium and vitamins to children in the Cumbria area, a fortified version of the beverage called Ribena was created for use in the schools. If you are not British, you can be forgiven for having never heard of this demon nectar because your government didn’t have to find a way to prevent scurvy for an entire nation during WWII. I find it less palatable than Manischewitz as, to me, black currants ≠ food. About seven years ago, they finally demolished the Windscale reactors, which had long since renamed Sellafield to help with the public relations problems.

But, I came up with a drink and consumed it so that YOU DON’T HAVE TO, just like the my friend Ben “Benchilada” Stone eats the collective culinary errors of Asia. Much like Jesus died for your sins, I created two variants of a cocktail I call “The Windscale” and drank them for you. I don’t recommend consuming either of them.

Windscale Reactor One: 
    Equal parts Ribena and gin (for a double dose of British fluids)
    Stir, chill, and serve.

VERDICT: Revolting

Windscale Reactor Two:
    Two parts Ribena
    One part green chartreuse (for that concerning “plutonium in solution” look)
    Shake in a tumbler with ice and serve.

VERDICT: Stomping on a week old corpse probably makes liquids this color…possibly this flavor.

I was not willing to waste precious absinthe to create a Windscale Reactor Three after the results of the previous two. The remaining Ribena was safely disposed of down the drain. If magic worked, I would inscribe a Ward vs. Ribena on the door to prevent it from entering my house again.

And Back Again – A Phil’s Journey.

Approximately 3300 miles, many people visited, things seen, and cocktails drank later, we’re back and the coffee engines are running again. Fresh order slots are up for the production window closing 7/12, the Ambassador of NYC is active again and an old friend, Guatemala Nueva Vinas, is available again as one of your flavor options.

CROSS-COUNTRY TRIP 2014 VITAL STATISTICS

Death Toll:

  • Untold thousands of insects. Seriously, in Louisiana near sunset it sounded like rain so many were splattering on the windshield.
  • One small incautious bird in Arizona.
  • Two Hertz rental vehicles for the exact same maintenance/mechanical failure.

Relating to one of my favorite posts to dredge up over and over again, good job Hertz, you’re now on my customer service education list. I was treated extremely well by the counter staff at both Jackson, MI and Albuquerque, NM airports where I did my best to swap failing cars. Every phone call with Hertz HQ was misery with a side order of policies that hamstrung the counter staff’s ability to help.

Arrests: Nearly one. Los Alamos National Laboratory really needs to redesign their entry portal.

Whataburgers Consumed: None. I was able to demonstrate that this was the establishment that Beavis & Butthead worked in, disguised for legal reasons as Burger World, thus showing this was Mike Judge’s first foray into documentary film. The Lovely Assistant was unwilling to set foot inside. Making the connection to Beavis & Butthead probably didn’t help.

National Parks/Monuments Visited: Carlsbad Caverns, Petrified Forest (passed through), Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains (technically we were in the boundaries). Honorable mention goes to Barringer Crater even though the US government doesn’t own it.

Best Rest Stops:

  • Pyote, TX – This rest stop succeeded in a goal no other rest stop has ever achieved: it made me want to stop, deviate from my planned trip, and explore the local history the rest stop highlighted. I actually want to go back to West Texas, visit, and learn more about Rattlesnake Bomber Base.
  • Mississippi I-20 Eastern Welcome Center – It was wonderful to not be in the sultry Gulf air of Magnolia State and be inside instead. As the Lovely Assistant said in a whining voice, “I can taste Mississippi.” Mississippi reminds me a lot of Hilo, HI minus the tropical flower smells.
  • Pooping +1?

    Pooping +1?

    Every Goddamn Rest Stop In New Mexico – When you visit rest stops in the State of New Mexico they have these handy buttons to press and vote whether you approve of this rest area. I am pretty sure New Mexico might have the grounds to sue the shit out of Reddit, Facebook, and Google for stealing their ranking system.

Best Named Store: A marijuana dispensary and head shop in Roswell, NM called “Area 420″. I can only assume they have amazing reverse engineered ALIEN BONG TECHNOLOGY. While I am not even remotely their target audience, I kinda regret not stopping and going in.

Most Irritating Thing: No-see-ums in South Carolina. It seems I react to those far worse than I do mosquito bites. I swear I’m going to have scars from them. In fact, the only thing comparable were the sand fly bites while hiking in New Zealand. Little bastards.

How I Destroyed History: While hiding in George Mason Memorial Park to escape school groups that had been at the Jefferson Memorial and in the wake of listening to all the fine southern accents, my brain decided that Thomas Jefferson sounded like Matthew McConaughey’s character in “Dazed & Confused”. I then rewrote the Declaration of Independence to begin “ALRIGHTALRIGHTALRIGHT! I keep getting older, but these rights are always inalienable.” I can no longer read the founding documents of my country without hearing his voice in my head.

VACATION TIME

Alright, that’s it folks. All the orders for the production window ending 5/17 have now shipped, including a restock case for the BBotE Ambassador of Chicago. I opened the next production window for people that want to make absolutely sure they’re at the head of the line for when I get back from the grand road trip, but as you may notice, that window closes on June 28th and production doesn’t even resume until the 12th. That goes for Steins of Science as well as BBotE, can’t very well take the drill press with me. Rest assured, I won’t be silent while I’m out there, though you’ll like have to be paying attention to my poop jokes and puns on Twitter.

That said, if you drop me a line and your needs just happen to line up with what I’m making for myself, it’s possible I can get a bottle or stein out the door before I hit the road on Thursday. You can always ask and the worst that can happen is that I’ll say “Nope. Time is too tight.”

And with that…

Speaking of Jamaica Blue Mountain

Because I couldn’t resist making a little extra for my own consumption and let other people have a taste, I have made a few 375ml bottles of Jamaica Blue Mountain (JBM) available on the site. Yes, I know, they are painfully expensive bottles but so are the beans. Here’s a JBM testimonial from Test Subject Hansen on an entirely new (to me) use of BBotE:

On weekends I frequent a cigar lounge in Maryland.  (I live in extreme north Virginia; Maryland’s just a hop away.)  Maryland recently enacted a law banning alcohol from cigar lounges, so I was struggling to find a good replacement for my usual Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or.  I discovered that Jamaican Blue BBotE can create a really complex flavor profile if you pair it with the right smoke — you need something that’s full-bodied enough to have a strong flavor profile, but not something so strong that it’ll overwhelm your taste buds and make it difficult to enjoy the Black Blood of the Earth.  Good cigars: Four Kicks, Guillermo Toro, Tatuaje, Macanudo Real Reserve.

As an added bonus, the remaining BBotE Sampler Pack II orders for this pre-order window ending on April 26th will get vials of JBM in there.

In other news, New York City has it’s old BBotE Ambassador back. Wish expressed a desire to resume her role, and the attendant caffeine privileges that comes with, and I happily welcomed her back. She’s putting together requests for a case now, so if you’re out there and want to pick something up from her, now is the time to drop her a line. As always, the BBotE Ambassadors and their contact info can be found here.

Last, but not least, I must again harp on the fact that the next pre-order window (ending May 17th) is going to be a long one with as much production in it as I possibly can do. After that, I head out on a month long road trip, and there will be no BBotE production at all until mid-June.  Don’t worry, this message warning you to order early in the pre-order window will repeat. And, as a reminder, the dates on the pre-order windows mean “Ships No Later Than”, not “Ships On” or “Ships After”. You will likely get your BBotE much earlier than that date.