GOOD NEWS: Price Increases!

No, really this is good news. Because the prices increases of ~$20 per item are on the Steins of Science. Which means… STEINS OF SCIENCE ARE AVAILABLE AGAIN!!!

Much like the Duke Brothers, so are the steins.

The Steins of Science were never cheap in the first place, what with them being modified brand new laboratory hardware and all, but last year I lost my reasonable but expensive pipeline of dewars and instead only had ridiculously expensive pipelines available to me. This would have increased the average price of a Stein of Science by almost $150 each. While they are more expensive than before, I will happily take only $20 more expensive. Not all of the steins varieties will return, but I can cope with that.

The tricky news is that I won’t be receiving them until Friday of this week. I have put listings on the website if you would like to pounce on one, have me ship it next Monday and hope for the best from the fine folks of the United States Postal Services to get it to you ASAP.

Seriously, I am so happy to have them back.

UPDATE: I went back and checked. This is the first price increase for anything in the store in 8 years. Not bad work if I do say so myself. Now, if only postage prices had remained so constant…

The Big Shill 2018

It’s that time of year again where people think about giving gifts and wonder what the hell they can buy that isn’t just another gift card. I am here to help. While it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if you picked up a bottle of Black Blood of the Earth on the store side of the house, that’s not why we’re here today. Following in the traditions of my friend The Benchilada, I have taken the time to pull together my BIG SHILL 2018, where I have some products you might not have thought of. BRACE YOURSELF FOR SO MANY LINKS!

  • Jen and Phil do some important evaluations in Japan. (photo by Robyn Von Swank, 2018)

    Let’s start with my friend Jen’s singular creation on Etsy. Jen is one of my favorite people because she is, among other things, an artist who is the curator of “The Worst Muse” list, AKA the horrible things Phil thinks of but has no idea how to turn into a real thing. If you have been lucky enough to see the 38th Cybercommandos unit insignia, the “Welcome to Neuschwabenland!” postcard, a variety of now out of print Li’l Bub merchandise, or most recently the Coffee Wave BBotE label, you have seen samples of her art. She finally, with arm twisting, made a store and there’s something you can buy directly from her. Folks, you can now give a butthole heart to anything. It is available in Fresh Pink and Chocolate Starfish.

  • While I never got around to writing my DEFCON 2018 after action report, I do have a product I want to share. It’s not lockpicking sets (though I did see a few interesting ones of those). No, it’s a sticker for things that are not missiles. You need this sticker from Arsenio in your life. I bought a small stack of them and they are just as much fun to apply to things as XKCD’s “ACTUAL SIZE” stickers.
  • Every year, I recommend people go check out what’s going on over at Topatoco. They are the one stop shopping source for the products of dozens upon dozens of creators of comics, podcasts, and music. I mean, c’mon people, you need to go here so you can post your toilet properly if nothing else.
  • I know I have made this recommendation in person many times to many people, but I would appreciate if everyone would go buy a copy of Linda Simon’s “Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-ray” for themselves and at least one relative they have a hope of reclaiming from the Whole Foods bulletin boards. Without getting yourself a subscription to Fortean Times, this is a great introduction to how some pseudoscientific theories propagate through the decades; the hyperbolic claims and the unfounded fear change target over time but somehow the beliefs don’t. 
  • Next, if you weren’t already aware of them, allow me to introduce you to the collective works of Aaron Reynolds: Effin Birds, Swear Trek, and their t-shirt vendor of choice, Cotton Bureau. I own an “EVERYTHING’S FUCKED” shirt and Cotton Bureau’s tri-blend may be the most comfortable thing I own.
  • Atomic Robo. If you’ve been paying attention to me at all for the last decade, you know that Atomic Robo is a delight. I’m happy this year that they’ve made another expansion in the Real Science Adventures to add “The Nicodemus Caper” to take the party back to the Byzantine nights of Constantinople. But did you know they have fine merch as well? I highly recommend getting a paired set of the Tesladyne Field Guide and the ULTRA Field Manual.
  • The comic Romantically Apocalyptic has been a source of joy in my life since I first came across it in 2010. I recommend starting at the beginning, though I’m not sure jumping in at random places make the comic any less surreal. At the moment, there’s a whole bunch of bundles on sale on their store guaranteed to fill your life with more of Zee Captain
  • (WARNING: SPIDER CONTENT) Do you have the ? Well, I have an opportunity for you. Allow me to introduce you to Jenn Rose and her Etsy, Cetonia Designs. Her store was actually my reminder that I needed to make my BIG SHILL 2018 post because she put new things up.
  • Do you have Neanderthals ripping corporate assholes in half in your life? No? Well, Ben Templesmith is here to help. “Original Hate” is definitely worth your time and watching it drop into my inbox page by page as on of his Patreon backers has been a real treat. Now you can have it as a bound edition (don’t worry, more volumes are coming). And, really, poke around at all of Ben’s stuff.
  • Lastly, I want to wave the flag for one of my favorite authors, Charlie Stross. He has a new book out in the Laundry Files series, The Labyrinth Index. I was originally handed the first book in this series, The Atrocity Archives, by a fellow Antartican, British Nick, who said it was perhaps the most Phil Book he’d ever read. He was right. If you haven’t taken any thing by Charlie for a spin, I highly recommend it as his brain is lovely and it will leave yours a few degrees off plum when he’s finished with it. But in a good way!

That’s all folks, though I made add to this list as time goes on! Go forth and consume!

Extra Life and The Decembering 2018 Update

First off, as my final shill before the big event and then I’ll hush about it, tomorrow I will be using the last part of my Birthdaytide Fortnight to participate in the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals EXTRA LIFE 24 hour gaming marathon. Starting at 8am tomorrow and ending at 8am on Armistice Day, I will be staying up with Team Sensible Shoes to play the tabletop game Shadows of Brimstone for 24hrs. I welcome you to join us tomorrow by watching on the twitch livestream that we’ve set up so you can enjoy our slow degeneration into madness. Yes, I know everyone else did their marathon last Saturday but we needed to wait for a team member to return from a Fish Conference in Japan first (I am not making this shit up). So please, donate and come watch! There will be increasingly incoherent tweeting in all likelihood too.

As the BBotE pre-order slots for the window ending November 24th are now up that means we’re sneaking up on Thanksgiving and it’s time to roll out the PROTIPS for holiday shopping. To the people that are very proactive and organized in their holiday shopping, such as the gentlemen that I let place a reserve order in August, I’ll just answer question now: yes, you can place an order now in an earlier production window 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 as soon as possible.

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

My Ceremonial South Pole Hero Shot & Xmas Card 2002. I love that shirt.

The last pre-Xmas BBotE production window will close on December 16th. All things being equal, domestic or international, everything shipped by the 16th should end up at their destination by Christmas Eve. I can’t control weather, volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, or unilateral surprise withdrawal from international postal unions that may or may not happen in the next month since no one has given me control of the Illuminati to implement my Most Perfect Imperium, but a week is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination. I will put another pre-order window up after the 16th, and things shipped on Saturday December 22nd have a chance to get there by the 24th, but I make absolutely no guarantees about shipments in that window arriving in time. Express mail gets more and more necessary in the last days. I’ll do my best, but that’s all I can do.

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. Steins of Science Are Made by Request Now: As mentioned in the previous Twilight of the Steins post, I lost my relatively cheap supply line for dewars. Everything has remained zeroed because I don’t want to maintain stock for steins when they are going to be at least $100 higher than their previous already high price. If you really, really want one drop me a line and I’ll give you a quote and then get to work on making it happen if you still want one.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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, effectively 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.
  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 shipments 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 #5.
  9. 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.
  10. BBotE Has 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 around who’d probably be willing to bless BBotE for you, that’s still not helpful. Sorry.

For those of you who read this far, I congratulate you.

The Penalty Bucket

OPENING DISCLAIMER: I live somewhere that no trick or treaters ever go. My last trick or treating was done over 25 years ago and what kids have been doing for the last 20 of those years looks alien to me. Like Martians who have heard of Halloween but have no direct knowledge of it.

Test Subject Whale Biologist is ready to give up on Halloween

I was sitting here, minding my own business on Halloween and being Extremely Online as always, and this message of despair comes to me from Test Subject Not A Whale Biologist. I have been at his house for Halloween before for trick or treating and can vouch that this is absolutely true. I would like to think that my face of disappointment that I gave to every parent of a child who decided to wear their little league uniform for Halloween was plainly evident. Except this wasn’t even a uniform, just things from the Giants Dugout gift shop.

This has been irritating me since I was a kid. I remember the other kids that wore their little league or pop warner uniforms for Halloween and it struck me as lazy, possibly cheating. Because I’ve done it before, I know people regard the PPE I wear for work as a particularly scary costume. To me, it’s just “that stuff I wear” and that makes it feel uncreative as a costume. I understand being too wiped out to exert any effort on a costume, but there is some quid pro quo for the Halloween trick or treat relationship: you entertain me with your costume, I give you candy.

UC BERKELEY EH&S POST-HALLOWEEN LEFTOVERS BOWL – one mini tootsie pop, one fruit tootsie roll, four hard candies, and a monkey eraser

Accordingly, I have proposed the concept of the Penalty Bucket. This will require you to maintain two different bowls of “candy” to give out to trick or treaters. The Normal Bowl is full of candy you are proud to hand out to costumes that bring you joy and will be happy to eat if you don’t get cleaned out during the night. The Penalty Bucket, however, is filled with Brachs hard candies (AKA that stuff in Grandma’s candy dish), fruit flavored Tootsie Rolls, five pennies wrapped together with tape, Bazooka gum, and with my mom’s suggestion & disgust as they have been a part of her life as long as she can remember*, Smarties. If you want a good example of what the contents of the Penalty Bowl might look like, here’s the leftover candy that remained my work breakroom after the vultures descended.

The drawback is that the leftovers in the Penalty Bucket aren’t necessarily things you want to eat either. On a positive note, these candies are cheap and you won’t be heartbroken about throwing them away. On the other hand, as pointed out by another keen observer, these candies don’t really go bad and you can supplement the supply for next year with any candy your own kids bring home but don’t want.

As long as you’re committed to the possibility that your house is going to get egged anyway, you may feel free to pass judgment through the medium of candy. Of course, daylight trick or treating means those shenanigans are unlikely. Sigh, such are the changing times.

 


*: mom is marginally older than Smarties and also from New Jersey. Pity her.

Fukushima Exclusion Zone Preview & Announcements

Much like my trip to Kiev-Pripyat-Chernobyl in 2016, I took a lot of pictures (Robyn took more and much better pictures), and I learned a lot which I now need to sort out in my head and do a whooooole lot of follow up. I think I may have just signed myself up for an autodidact’s master course in city planning & demographics to process what I saw and learned in four hours. After going to Ukraine, I needed about three months to find the story and the correct inspiration to tell the three essays worth of the tale in a stream of rage, so I put up some of the better pics right away. This might take a bit longer so I didn’t want to leave you hanging.

Too Long, Didn’t Wait Months for Phil to Get His Shit Together VersionFukushima was not, and is not, Chernobyl. Don’t light your reactors on fire, folks!!! When this all began seven years ago, the thing I never stopped repeating to people is that the disaster that ended lives and turned the world upside down was the earthquake and tsunami; a nuclear accident is just the icing on a really shitty cake that makes it a disaster trifecta.

First off, let me introduce you to Shuzo Sakai, Karin Taira and their project, Real Fukushima. Unlike the various Chernobyl tours of varying quality done by various independent operators, this is a Fukushima Prefecture government project to show the work done for decontamination and rehabitation of the towns in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. Karin is runs the prefecturally sponsored B&B in Odaka called Lantern House which I highly recommend if you have the time to stay overnight (sadly, I did not). Shuzo is a prefectural government official who grew up in a town that is now in the exclusion zone and he’s become head of the redevelopment agency. When you are the boss, you’re allowed to give yourself any extra tasks you want; the one he has chosen for his extracurricular activities is showing people the work done to rebuild and reoccupy. Only foreigners at the moment because, and I quote, “I feel foreigners have less radiophobia than the Japanese.” While I didn’t laugh out loud at this, I did tell him that if this was actually the case that my day job would be much easier. As a local boy done good, Shuzo’s desire is to see the people in the towns he’s always known and loved come home. He would also like people all over the world to see their hometowns in his. That you might remember to give your loved ones a call now and then, maybe go home and visit. They miss you, you know. 🙂

Shuzo is the person that wrote the procedures for entry into the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. Shuzo is the person who is ultimately responsible for the decon, demolition and reconstruction of all the towns in the Exclusion Zone. This is personal to him. So please know that it is with the greatest respect and amusement that I share this story from the end of our time together.

DO I SEE GASHAPON!!! – the derelict Family Mart of Okuma Town

We stopped at an abandoned Family Mart in Okuma that was damaged in the quake. While Robyn got all excited with her camera and dodging large spiders, I noticed the gashapon machines in front of the store. I walked up to test the cranks on the machines after seven years of being exposed to the elements with no maintenance. The knob on the machines in the bottom rank didn’t so much as budge, but the ones on the top felt like they had some give. And so I dropped my 200¥ into the machine on the top left to get myself an Exclusion Zone gashapon.

MR. COOL BEAN – My Golden Bean gashapon from the Okuma Town Family Mart

Sure enough, it dispensed me this sweet Cool Guy Bean. I saw Shuzo bent over laughing, hands on knees, because in 7 years of wandering past this abandoned convenience store no one, NO ONE, had bothered to so much as touch these gashapon. He also realized that he probably had to track down who owned these and let them know they had money sitting in them still. It took a crazy health physicist from Berkeley to even notice that this was a thing he might need to do. While I apologize for making some work for Shuzo, I cannot deny that Mr. Cool Bean here is pretty boss.

There will be more Fukushima stories to come, but in the meantime let’s talk about Extra Life!

Several years ago, I participate in the Tested.com Oktobercast to help support the Extra Life campaign. Last year, My Lovely Assistant and I joined Test Subject Not A Whale Biologist and Test Subject The World to embark on 24 hours of our favorite game, Shadows of Brimstone. Well, we’ve decided to do it again this year as part of my birthday celebrations. I do believe we’ll be livecasting it again although we’ll be running a week late, November 10th, due to logistics concerns. If you’d like to donate for this endurance trial, you can do it on my page or you can do on our the team page for TEAM SENSIBLE SHOES. Last year, we managed to raise $590 of Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital. We’re already at $450 and would like to break that total for this year. So please, if you’ve come here considering a bottle of BBotE, go hit our Extra Life campaign first. If you still want ultracoffee, the Funranium Labs store will be there for you.

Thomas & Phil, displaying typical behavior, at Flying Frog Production’s DICEFEST 2017.

Thank you for your support, and here’s a picture of Test Subject Not A While Biologist and I at DiceFest 2017, the con run by the people who make Shadows of Brimstone.

The Fringes of Regulation

One of the reasons I work as a safety person at a research university is the variety. On any given day, I have no idea what it is I am going to be asked to do and I like it that way. While this may sound like hell to people who like well-defined duties and schedules, please keep in mind that a safety person’s day is supposed to be dull. If our day is exciting, that means someone else is having a Very Bad Time™. This means we spend a lot of time trying to think through work before it’s done, to keep it compliant and within the boundaries of the regulations, and do our damnedest to make sure that Very Bad Time™ never happens.

That’s fine at a typical workplace. Research universities are not typical workplaces. When a group of physics students presents you with an aluminum block, some scotch tape, a roach clip, a servo motor, and a bell jar coating chamber and smugly ask how to register all the scotch tape on the campus as radiation producing machines, you’re waaaaay out in the weeds, far away from typical*. At typical workplaces, this means locking things down and regimenting them such that you don’t ever end up in off-normal situations. That doesn’t work with research.

So, my favorite thing is being presented with a problem where it is beyond the imagination of the current regs. Usually when I tell researchers they’re off the regulatory map, they get a little despondent as they’ve been acculturated that this means “No, you can’t do this.” I then get to brighten their day and tell them they’re looking at this all wrong. In America, research is part of the freedom of expression under the first amendment, you have a right to think and explore. I generally look for something in the regs close to what they’ve proposed to do and the work out a way to let them feel comfortable enough with their work that they’d be happy to let a regulator look at it. When you do this right, you become the “Do it like THIS” example that is used for new regulations.

But when you get out to those fringes of the regs, you start running into weird interactions and overlaps. Your formerly strict, ironclad rules start getting a whoooole lot of *¹†‡₂ attached to them to let you know “This is the rule 99.995% of the time, except for all these times.” Where this gets particularly exciting is when two regulatory bodies disagree on what is supposed to be done for the same special case. And when is it most exciting? Why, it’s when you hit law enforcement and add guns to regulatory conflict!

STORY TIME BEGINS! (please note, vagueness in details is intentional)

 


Once upon a time, there was a new worker that applied to work at the nuclear facility. Because it is a nuclear facility, there are some places you aren’t allowed to go to until your background check is completed and you have clearance. This is a thing management knows and understands, but they certainly don’t want to be paying you to do nothing. And so, they have created an uncleared area where these new workers can be escorted to and do all of their training while waiting for the background check to come back. It is called the Green Room. Because there tends to be A LOT of training and certifications involved with working at nuclear facilities and background checks are slow, workers could end up in the Green Room for months.

But this particular worker had a problem. It seems that he had some outstanding warrants. Normally, this would be a call to the local police to pick him up and present the worker to the court. Or maybe you’d call the sheriff or state troopers if those warrants were for another part of the state. But no, this particular worker’s warrants were federal with interstate pursuit. There was no need to call anyone to come pick this guy up; the flag came up with a notification “A US Marshal is on the way to apprehend the fugitive.”

Rocky Flats DEADLY FORCE sign, courtesy of the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum

And that’s fine. If there’s one thing a nuclear facility is, it’s secure, and he isn’t going anywhere. Nuclear facilities also have their own quasi-law enforcement called Protective Force Officers of Special Protection Officers. I have previously referred to the Big Guys With Guns. This is them. When you enter a nuclear facility, there is going a sign that may be somewhat short and terse or have a whole lot of verbiage explaining Do’s and Don’ts. The signs all end with the same phrase: DEADLY FORCE IS AUTHORIZED. These officers are some of the best shots America has. They would like you to be clear that you won’t even know where the bullet that kills you comes from when you try to do something shady at a nuclear facility, just that you will be very dead. It is the PFO’s job to make sure no threats enter a DOE or NRC licensed nuclear facility and protect special nuclear material from theft. Here’s their enabling language in the regs.

The US Marshals have a very special power that is reserved to them that almost no other law enforcement entity has: interstate fugitive pursuit. A US Marshal’s jurisdiction is quite literally anywhere they might have to go to pursue a fugitive. This includes Antarctica and orbit as some special cases.

And so, the marshal showed up at the badge office for the facility. While the marshal is a law enforcement officer and thus someone who has clearly passed a background check, the marshal isn’t cleared to enter all the places and see all the things at the nuclear facility. The marshal will need an authorized escort from the cleared staff of the facility. One of the health physicists gets tagged to greet the marshal. The events that followed went something like this.

Health Physicist: Welcome to $FACILITY. Your guy is the Green Room right now. We’ll go get him and bring him to you.
Marshal: No. You will take me to him so I can arrest him.
HP: Okay, well let’s get you badged in.
[annoying visitor badge issuance process ensues]
HP: Alright let’s head in. [approaches metal detector at the entry portal] 
PFO: Please empty your pockets, take off your belt and surrender your firearm before going through the metal detector…
M: I am not surrendering my firearm in pursuit of a fugitive.
PFO: You will if you want to enter this facility
M: [takes a step forward] Are you impeding a marshal in the execution of his duties?
PFO: [raises rifle] Step away from the portal.
M: [hand on pistol] I am a US Marshal!
PFO: [says nothing, aim does not waver]
HP: WHOA! How about we all call our supervisors and straighten this out?

After a few phone calls, the guy was brought out to the very huffy, but still alive, marshal. 

You see, a US Marshal’s authority while in pursuit extends almost anywhere. There are a whole lot of regulations that are universal, riiiiight up to the point they hit the fence line of a nuclear facility. At that point, NRC or DOE regulations have supremacy, including shooting an arrogant US Marshal through the heart if necessary to prevent an unauthorized firearm from entering the facility. If he had been less of a wannabe Wyatt Earp asshole, everything would have been fine. Big Guys With Guns would have accompanied him to make the arrest if the marshal really, really felt the need to have armed men present.

The moral of the story is that thing you are utterly sure of probably has an exception to the rule.

 


*: Yes, this actually happened. As a physicist myself, I am well-prepared for the assholery of my people. They didn’t like my very reasonable answer and went away less smug. It went something like this. You want to play games with the rules? I love games.

Meet Herr Direktor: DEFCON & National Atomic Testing Museum

it THICC

Doctor What rides the B-35 at the NATM’s Dr. Strangelove Movie Night

First, the business matters. Because DEFCON makes things tricky, production of this window is now closed and the production slots for the window ending August 18th are now up for order on the website. At DEFCON proper, the BBotE Ambassador of Flagstaff (Dan Nowak) and the former ambassador of Chicago (Bill Weiss) will be there and equipped with cases. I’ll be there with some too if you want to hit me up in advance to save on shipping. Considering the conference we are attending and where, the acceptable forms of payment are cash, precious metals, and valid casino gaming chips.

A couple months ago, I floated an idea on Twitter and Facebook where asked “If I were to offer to play informal docent for a trip to the National Atomic Testing Museum while at DEFCON, would anybody be interested?” The response was surprisingly positive and large. So…it’s on. 

And it won’t be just me! While I know a thing or two, my Lovely Assistant will also be there and she’s the one with a PhD in Chemistry, specializing in nuclear forensics. My faithful Las Vegas consiglieri, Doctor What, will also be in attendance, probably looking a bit like Max from Fury Road.

THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

WHEN: Saturday August 11th, at 10:15am. The Atomic Testing Museum opens at 10am and that’s when we’ll be there, but I want to give 15min for people to make their way over before heading in. If you’re late, the museum isn’t too big and we won’t be hard to find. Probably wrap up around noon so everyone can get back to the convention.

WHERE: The National Atomic Testing Museum (NATM) is located at 755 East Flamingo Rd. It’s close to UNLV’s Desert Research Institute and there’s plenty of parking if you’re driving.

COST: Admission to the museum is $22. The $16 discounted price is if we had a large enough group and had arranged in advance. They also have a gift shop you may want some extra cash on hand for. Nuke swag is the best swag. 

WHAT: NATM can be charitably described as the overflow of the DOE/NNSA Nevada Site Office Archives into a Smithsonian grade presentation format. The Archives are upstairs so it’s pretty easy for them to rotate exhibits in and out.

See you there!

Upcoming Adventures: Sumo & Fukushima Daiichi

The Coffee Wave – by Jen Miller, 2018

In late September, I will be continuing my long standing tradition of visiting new continents by going to their islands first. I went to Britain before I made it to Italy, New Zealand before Australia (don’t start your sunken continent in the Tasman Sea crap), Ross Island before South Pole Station, and now Japan before the rest of Asia. I assume when I eventually get around to Africa I’ll start with Madgascar and, for South America, Easter Island before Peru. I’ve set some precedents.

Let’s get to the shill bit right away, this won’t be a cheap trip and I have a cunning plan. As she lived there once upon a time Test Subject SumoYokai, AKA Jen Miller, will be joining me as translator, sumo nerd, and general knower of Japan things to prevent me from dying in a humorous smartToilet incident. More importantly, Jen is an excellent artist who has unleashed many fine things on the world that have made me giggle, like this, various Lil Bub related arts, the SUX 6000 stickers I’ve stuck into some BBotE shipments and, for cannibalism joy, the WWII/WPA spoof zine “Recoverable Meats”. I will also send you to her Deviant Art with the fair warning of naughtiness. She is a dear friend I’m extremely happy that I finally got her to make some art for Black Blood of the Earth which you can now have as either a single bottle or part of the a special label three pack!

Due to the minimal amount of vacation time that Americans have (and I know I have more than most) this will be something of a whirlwind trip, similar to my Long Weekend in Chernobyl. Three non-travel days in which I will attend Harumafuji’s yokozuna retirement, something rarer and more exciting than a Triple Crown winner to me, and visit the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. As I said after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck, that was the actual disaster; the destruction of the Daiichi power station complex was a sideshow but one that triggered a DEADLY RADIATIONS terror response that overwhelmed the sympathy for people that just endured a major natural disaster. I spent most of the year after the quake fielding phone calls, emails, and tweets from worried people who wanted to know what they should do about Fukushima. The vast majority didn’t want to be told that, unless they lived in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima Daiichi power station, what they should do is donate money to relief charities trying to help people put their lives back together. I managed to be diplomatic enough to not tell scared Americans looking for advice that they were ignorant and being selfish, but I sure did think it at them hard.

While I am excited to tick another exclusion zone off my nuclear tourism checklist, what I’m really looking forward to is getting to speak with some local officials who have been overseeing the zone because I have some questions. I don’t need to ask questions about the engineering and remediation at the Daiichi reactors because this isn’t Chernobyl and the clean up is more straightforward and easier, though dealing with that activated/contaminated seawater is gonna be a sonofabitch for a long time to come. What I want to know about are the outreach & communication efforts I never heard about because they stayed in Japan. TEPCO has been very justifiably raked over the coals for their actions in the immediate wake of the quake but, at some point, the local and national governments have a responsibility to tell their populace what needs to/can be done. They go like this:

  1. While I had to deal with people forgetting that a quake and tsunami happened, I don’t think the local authorities would have had much trouble with that in the immediate vicinity. But with time, I assume the further you people were from Fukushima the more the focus would have turned to the reactors rather than reconstruction. What did you do to keep people remembering the scope and size of the disaster? How did that message change with time?
  2. Japan doesn’t have a lot of spare real estate so abandoning huge tracts of land was never in the cards. Once decon was done, how did you get people to return or even new people to come?
  3. What have you done to reassure the public about the safety of local products to restore the old economy? Is it working? 
  4. In the wake of the bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the survivors of these cities and their descendants, the hibakusha, suffered from discrimination and were treated as unclean and unmarriageable in the subsequent years. What education have you done to try to prevent that from happening to residents again?

I will say that in planning this I ran face first into some Very American Assumptions. As a train nerd, I am excited about the prospect of riding the shinkansen, even if it isn’t this one, but then I immediately said to myself “Oh wait, it might be hard getting out there with the amount of damage the quake and tsunami did. The shinkansen might not be up and running to Sendai yet.” After all, it’s been over a decade since Hurricanes Katrina & Ike and we haven’t gotten the Gulf Coast Amtrak routes repaired yet, which are comparatively primitive trains, and this was a much worse disaster. So, when I looked it up and saw that it was repaired and running, I was impressed. Then I got curious as to how long it took Japan to restore shinkansen service to the hardest hit area.

ANSWER: 43 days

It has been 13 goddamn years since Katrina and we can’t get Amtrak running, much less a bullet train. Amtrak’s trains are slower than what used to run on our rails 60 years ago. Not gonna lie, I was shook. As someone who complains regularly about terrible infrastructure and disaster response, I didn’t realize how acclimated to it I had become. I am disappointed in myself and, by extension, America because of this.

I will not be going to Hiroshima & Nagasaki on this trip because I am explicitly forbidden from going there without My Lovely Assistant. That will have to wait for the next trip to Japan, whenever that’ll be.

So, head over to the store side of the Funranium Labs and make sure that Jen & I can eat food when we’re in Tokyo with a side order of getting up to shenanigans. Going to Ukraine generated nearly 9000 words of history, health physics and general bullshitting for you. Let’s see what Japan yields!

The Lost Cybernetics Safety Chapter

Woe is Phil

What Action Phil does, as explained by Action Phil – from Atomic Robo Volume 10, Chapter 2, Page 18, by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener

If you weren’t already aware, one of my many roles in life is as the science/history/weirdness consultant for the comic Atomic Robo. My reward for this is that my alter-ego, known as Action Phil, appears in the comic as Atomic Robo’s “heart” specialist, radiation safety officer, and government liaison. (really, my reward is that I get to help make the Atomic Robo team’s lives just a little weirder) 

This is a little behind the scenes look at things that didn’t make the cut. The original Tesladyne Field Manual features some sections that are described as adaptations from the lecture series “I’m Yelling Because I Care”, by Dr. Phil Broughton. Well, there was one section that didn’t make it in because it was over 3000 words as I have devoted an awful lot of time in my life to thinking about things going wrong with cyborgs. It got redone into something much more succinct and point-of-view appropriate for the ULTRA Field Manual that came out a few years later.

If you love the game Paranoia or are a current/recovering government employee with residual classified work brain, you will enjoy the ULTRA Field Manual. It warped Brian’s mind working on it such that he had to take frequent breaks to remember how the normal world works. That’s how much fun it is.

But there was always this nagging thought about what was left out and I got permission to put the original version up here. There are a few in-Roboverse references where it might help to have read the comic, but by no means necessary for the main ideas. Which means I get to inaugurate a new post category for the ol’ website here: Fiction

Enjoy!

 


CYBORGS: WHY WE WON’T TURN YOU INTO A MAN-TANK

Adapted from the lecture series “I’m Yelling Because I Care”, by Dr. Phil Broughton

Here at Tesladyne we may be called at any moment to risk life and limb in the name of Action Science. In accordance with the Tesladyne Injury & Illness Prevention Plan’s Accidental Death & Dismemberment Policy, you are entitled to the finest prostheses that we can buy or design. PLEASE NOTE: Prosthetics ≠ cybernetic enhancements. The last thing we need is people sticking their various bits in machinery on purpose.

When most people think of cybernetics, they don’t envision replacement parts as good as the one that was lost. No, they expect replacements to make them harder, better, faster, stronger. Or with completely new abilities that their boring human body never had. The problem is that your boring human body is a very defining part of you and how you think. Once we move beyond that basic form and function, things (i.e. you) start to get weird in all kinds of ways.

The perfect prosthetic is one that is identical to the body part that has been lost: it is no heavier or lighter, it replicates lost functionality, doesn’t trigger a mental rejection, i.e. “this isn’t me”, doesn’t get uncomfortable with long duration of use, requires no power source beyond the body itself, and doesn’t trigger immunological rejection. In fact, the perfect replacement body part is easy to ignore because it just seamlessly works for the recipient. Therefore the perfect prosthetic is a vat grown copy of whatever got damaged or missing.

We say vat grown because inducing regeneration in vivo usually isn’t fast enough to replace an organ that’s failing right now. And if you do it wrong, we are talking ALL THE CANCERS; also, accidentally growing three extra lungs makes things the average torso awfully crowded.

This is where we make the functional distinction of “bionics” as opposed to “cybernetics” for our terminology. A bionic implant is one that seeks perfect mimicry of the body part it replaces; a cybernetic implant, in short, does not. Tesladyne’s Exotic Medicine department is always interested in improved prostheses, of course, but in general bionics are not an Action Science concern . Unfortunately, bionics are the gateway drug for rogue cyberneticists. It’s a little too easy to go from helping an accident victim to creating a technübermensch just to show you can.

 MORE THAN SWISS ARMY KNIFE, NOT QUITE HUMAN

While there is something to be said for the idea adding extra cybernetic features like GPS, a small repair torch, a multi-screwdriver, biometric diagnostics, and onboard communications to the human frame, this is really just an excuse for wanting to not drop your ++ultraphone in the toilet anymore. Really, isn’t it enough you have the computational and diagnostic power of Star Trek in the palm of your hand without actually putting it in your hand? The answer is obviously no, because there are cyborgs and, even worse, cyborg designers.

Now, what if I offer you the ability to see more of the electromagnetic spectrum, extend your vision far into the infrared and UV, perhaps give you visual acuity far beyond your simple meat eye? These are abilities you already have, if you can afford the right digital camera, but they are mediated by being external technology. If I make this part of you, that changes everything even if these extra things can be turned on and off with a thought. Your normal eye has no “off” switch for the color red, but you would like one for IR & UV now that you have it? Would you ever turn it off? And if this becomes your new default state of being, seeing a world no one else perceives, how will this color your reaction to it? How will that affect your interaction with the rest of humanity? Will there be alienation because you can’t express what you see to the unenhanced? Will you feel better, more capable, than them? Will you consider the entire world to be filled with ignorant boobs with their narrow band eyes that don’t and can’t know what’s really here?

This is the beginning of cyberpsychosis and we’ve only discussed a simple eye upgrade, one that is distressingly common in the cyborgs we’ve encountered.

ASIDE: HOW DOES THIS STUFF EVEN WORK?

 No machine works without a power source of some kind and conventional power sources with enough energy density are generally toxic in the human body. Fuel and organs do not mix, and then there’s the heat issue. Y’know how your laptop gets hot? Now imagine that heat trapped inside your body. Do not imagine what a leaking battery will do to your guts.

 This is probably why the vast majority of cyborgs encountered in the field have been of the “total conversion” type. From Helsingard’s Autosoldat army to the Daedalus Combat Cyborgs of today, the less blood there is to poison, the easier it is to build a machine around it.

TAKING THE CHROME

All assumptions regarding bionics and cybernetics are predicated on a direct mind-machine interface, or MMI for short. Once you have MMI, there is no limit to what interesting things you might think to connect to your brain because your body just became irrelevant. You’re living the brain-in-a-jar dream, just waiting to be connected up to anything, right? Wrong, if for no other reason than your nervous system and your sense of identity is contained in more than a few pounds of meat in your head.

Our best example of this is phantom limb syndrome, which is a disorder of proprioception, AKA your sense of body in space. Just because you have physically lost your arm doesn’t mean that your mind accepts that it’s gone; it will simulate the sensations of that arm, typically manifested as pain. We can trick the brain into accepting the phantom limb is gone and the sense of body will reformat to the new shape. Except our goal with bionics is to get the mind to extend itself through MMI to actually control the replacement limb; we have to convince people who have lost a limb that this new one is part of them. Merely having a way to plug a new arm into the brachial nerve isn’t enough; it has to be your arm.

When you move beyond that to cybernetics, we have to figure out how how you get the mind to visualize a network of hoverfans and avionics as suitable replacements for legs. But hey, humanity is adaptable as heck. If you’ve ever gone to sleep and still felt the motion you felt from earlier that day when you were skating, or boating, or flying, then you’ve already experienced this. Race car drivers and pilots similarly start to perceive the size, speed, and agility of their vehicles as an extension of their own bodies. But, if they were able to actively connect to the vehicle and control it with their mind, it’s something deeper than proprioception. You being a vehicle is not quite as straightforward as just changing speed and direction. How do mental processes re-map from normal bodily functions to control a transmission gearbox? And, once you break the connection, what residual echoes of the vehicle stay with you? Does the world seem so very slow when you aren’t connected to fine German engineering? And there’s no need to stop at vehicles. We think some of the people we’ve interviewed in asylums recently with vehicle and architecture paraphilias may have been victims of residual proprioception imprinted from cyberlinking.

Of course, not all augmentations have to be made of metal and plastic. In the dawn of the bio-engineering age, we are getting steadily closer to the dreams/nightmares of Shelley and Wells with the ability to graft biosynthetic organs on to the human form. When you get down to it, tentacles can be quite useful.

The reverse of this, the cyber-enhancement of animals, tends to end tragically. Those that are incapable of making the body map change invariably end up attacking their new attachment and, perceiving it as an enemy, it attacks back. Those that manage the integration, well, cyber-designers never seem to want to make peaceful cybercows, do they? It’s always sharks and bears and other apex predators. As if ravens aren’t already smart and evil-minded enough without turning them into a murder network of stirges with tungsten beaks and laser precision targeting systems with micro-obsidian serrated feathers…

The standard vision conjured by the word cybernetics is of a superhumanly strong hand crushing with Servos Of Might, like Ash in Evil Dead 2. This, not coincidentally, is one of the few things that can be done without running into problems; it’s trying to get a superhumanly strong hand to not crush everything you put in its grasp that is more of an issue. When you move up to an entire arm capable of superhuman strength, now you have a big bio-mechanical engineering problem. Your new arm may be able to lift 400lbs one-handed, but your shoulder joint certainly can’t. The obvious solution is to upgrade the shoulder joint as well! Except now it will yank several vertebrae out of the spine. Guess you better get a spinal replacement. We think you get the point of how once you start enhancing instead of replacing, it’s a slippery slope to Total Body Prosthesis.

The more sane cybernetic upgrade is to take the body toward the peak of human performance, so that you’re still within the design spec of flesh and bone but without all that tedious exercise, diet, and genetic luck. The problem is that while you are still within the potential of the human body, it isn’t where the rest of your body is. The answer to this is the intuitively obvious, but also horrifying, synthocrine processor implant to pump your body full of every hormone it’ll need to withstand the thousands of microfractures, tears, sprains, and edemas you are about to subject your remaining meat to. The problem is that your brain is marinating in the better living through chemistry juice that is now constitutes your blood stream. If there’s something that’s the kind of fun you want to be running directly away from, its a cyborg with ‘roid rage.

Thing is, the synthocrine processor isn’t even rare.  For cyborgs, it’s absolutely necessary to generate the anti-rejection compounds that keep your remaining meat from rejecting augmentations almost as quickly as you add them. We have a hard enough time getting the human body to accept transplants from ideally matched donors. If the processor only did that, it would be the medical marvel of the millennium.

THE CONSENSUS MIND

The most basic cybernetic base package appears to be MMI interface, synthocrine processor, and bone antenna short range radio networking. In this era of wifi enabled everything, this last implant might seem the most reasonable of the lot. If you’re going add any kind of GPS or communications system, you’re going to need a way to access those satellites. If you’d wear a heads-up display connected to the internet clipped to your glasses, you’d certainly wear the contact lenses that do the same. From there, it’s only a small step to visual cortex integration.

It’s not the wisest thing to hook the internet directly with your mind. Plain old run of the mill viruses in the meat are bad enough without adding firmware corrupting worms that can go to town on your hardware: defined, in this case, as your brand new body parts. There is the well documented case of the “stophittingyourself.cyb” trojan malware that a disgruntled Daedalus engineer managed to infect the Personnel Department with in 1973. Middle managers were slapping themselves, hard, in unison for days until it could be sanitized from the Backbone. The limited radio communication and departmental only channels are perhaps all that prevented the virus from condemning all of Daedalus to a slapstick doom. You’d think this experience would frighten away people from downloading things into their mind, but keep in mind these are people who volunteered to remove ever larger portions of their body to be replaced by other things.

Really, what the short range radio gets used for the most is communication with a more modern class of augmentations. Just like all other technologies that are cutting the cord, hardwired-to-nervous system cybernetics are reliable but also resource and surgery intensive. It is much easier to just attach a hard point for a limb and then remote control it from an MMI transmitter implant. This means it would be possible to have mix-n-match limbs so you could have just the right matte finish legs to match your outfit for a night dancing at the Chrome Club. Except it takes a lot of bandwidth to communicate all the things you’d like your implant to do and you don’t even want to have to consciously think about how organs work. For this reason, a great deal of the operation of your average cybernetic body part is fairly automated and then subordinated to the conscious will.

But what happens when you’re asleep, when the will isn’t quite in charge? It’s no fun to wake up and discover you’re missing a hand. It’s far worse to discover that your hand has gone and strangled the upstairs neighbor for playing awful nu-metal on his badly tuned guitar all night before you fell asleep angry.  We don’t have any documented cases of modular limbs disconnecting from their host body to seek out the dreaming cyborg’s whims. Whether that’s because it doesn’t happen or because Project Daedalus staff aren’t the most ethical scientists around, so they’re not inclined to be honest about the unintended horrors of their work, is not entirely clear.

Some of your heart’s dark desires aren’t meant to be acted upon, but how are your subordinate components supposed to know that? You could try to give the cybernetics more intelligence and autonomy, but then you may have to argue with legs that don’t want to take a walk today.

COMBAT VS. CYBORGS

We cannot stress enough that cyborgs are not zombies, though it is possible that some zombies might be cyborgs. Even if they are so herky-jerky that the cyborg looks like it’s doing The Robot, the standard call to “SHOOT IT IN THE HEAD” may not apply here. For one thing, if you conquered the technical difficulties of the mind-machine interface, then relocating the brain elsewhere in the body is a trivial matter. At the very least, you may find that the you need HEAT rounds to penetrate the armored braincase of a cyborg skull. It should go without saying that attempting to sneak up behind the cyborg and pistolwhip it is failure waiting to happen. Assuming it doesn’t stop you thanks to the standard issue 360-degree continuous ranging radar array that sensed your approach, striking its head will probably hurt you more than it.

In our experience, no one ever builds cyborgs out of amazing space age polymers. It’s always armor plate or high chrome alloyed metals. This means they are much, much heavier than your mostly water flesh, even when the quartermaster issues you all the gear needed for an extradimensional incursion. If you can run, the odds of them being able to catch up is low. If they can keep up with you, the key is to use their momentum against them as you are capable of making much more abrupt turns than a comparably sized humanoid that weighs 4-10 times as much. Try to aim their missed turns into rather solid objects. Like buildings. Or explosive ones! Also, rickety wooden stairs and bridges make for an excellent defensive retreat. They’ll support your weight but not theirs. Just be sure to get across before they try to!

As mentioned earlier in SO SOMEONE PLUGGED AN AUTOMATIC INTELLIGENCE INTO THE MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX AND NOW THERE ARE ROBOT FACTORIES PUMPING OUT HUNTER-KILLER DRONES, major to full body conversion cyborgs are well on their way to being some of the most complex pieces of technology that have ever existed. This technology is not well suited to the dirty, filthy, wet outside world. Just because they may be armed and armored like tanks, doesn’t mean they can take to the field like one. It may seem like they’re disposable heroes the way they’re fielded by Daedalus, but the expense must be appalling. They may have some decent environmental protection, but do your best to run them through the foulest places you can to clog up their inorganic bits.

Like fighting any humanoid form, there are certain vulnerable points that simply cannot be completely protected and still expect to be functional. Your friend THE KNEES! Even if your opponent is a total conversion titanium alloyed monster, relative to the rest of the cyborg its knees are painfully delicate. Once you have them on the ground such that they’re not standing up again, you now have the time to bring some force to bear. Or to run far, far away. There’s the usual tactical advantage of a well timed retreat, but there’s an extra advantage to running away when we’re dealing with combat cyborgs. Because we’re also dealing with the maniacs who design them. Someone who is already turning another human being into his or her personal murder machine, will find it both prudent and trivial to implant a self-destruct device with everything else.

Of course, some cyborgs will not have knees as such. But they’ve all got metaphorical knees. Tank treads and hover modules are just as delicate if you hit them right.

NOTE: If you can identify it, you may be tempted to try to target the self-destruct device to kill the cyborg. This Is Wrong. While we are confronting some questionable morals and intellects behind the creation of cyborgs, they are almost certainly people that have learned the importance of safety linkages in light of the Manhattan Project. Attempting to set off the self-destruct without it being armed first is just silly. Also, speaking of morals, you have no idea if this cyborg still has independent personality and thought. The only thing worse than being a brain in a jar, is being one that knows its lower order functions are being used and abused against its will.

If you have a body that is capable of lifting a tank, obviously you should mount weapons comparable to a tank on it, right? We’d say no. Which is probably why they don’t ask. It’s hard to say exactly what armament you’re going to see on your cybernetic foe, but rest assured that if it’s a Deadalus model, it’s gonna have lasers. The good news is lasers are quite manageable (SEE ALSO: Lasers Do Not Go Pew Pew Pew) and once they’re taken care of you’re merely left with an superhumanly strong cyborg.

But why stop with lasers as long as you’re tricking out that chassis? Working on the principle of “If I can lift it, I can shoot it”, designers have an unfortunate habit of giving cyborgs shoulder or arm mounted rocket launchers and chain guns. A classic Helsingard design featured a torso mortar once. It’s been a couple decades since there’s been a documented cyborg mounted flamethrower sighting, as they are inherently an endangered species. If the cyborg has weapons that requires ammunition, just try to stay out of the line of fire until they run out or explode. Either is likely to happen and ammo explosions inside body parts are so much more messy than a gun merely exploding in the hand. When cyborgs are equipped with melee weapons, something deep in the cyborg designer’s mind seems to cry out “human body = giant switchblade.” Why hand a cyborg a sword designed to withstand its strength when you could have a retractable sword extend from its arm? Entangling these melee weapons is a great way to trap the cyborg. It’s not like they can drop them short of removing their arm.

No, the real thing to be worried about is a cyborg that advances on you with no visible weapons, doubly so if there are no gleaming chrome parts. A flashy half-tank / half-man suggests someone of considerable genius but perhaps little foresight was involved in the design. But a combat cyborg that, at a distance, passes for an ordinary unenhanced human suggests a designer who trusts what their creation can do with its superhumanly strong, fast, and nearly indestructible bare hands.

Do note that’s also a fair description of our founder. Let’s hope no one builds his match.

 

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…

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