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…

via GIPHY

Do I Look Like I Have A Plan?

Sometimes you make something you’re proud of and need to keep it handy.

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.

Colonies and Gold, Part II

As a holiday and end of year gift, I have finished up Part II of the colonial currency and gold coin rant with all due haste. I’ve got three Dominions to cover here, so it’s a bit long. Take a break after the Raj and have a festive drink or something.

Remember that handy reference guide to predecimalization system of British coinage I shared in the previous post? Well, remember it fondly, as things are about to go a bit funny in the other colonies. The general rules of how coins work holds for the rest of Britain’s colonies, but you may notice some significant differences from the American experience. TL;DR version: I think Britain never really liked America.

The Jewel In The Crown: the East India Company (EIC) and the British Raj

Let’s start with the fact that the EIC and direct rule of India by the the British Crown, the Raj, are different entities. The Raj replaced the EIC after the company was nationalized in the wake of the First War of Indian Independence in 1858 (AKA the Sepoy Rebellion, for those of us who had a more Anglocentric education). While the Raj wasn’t necessarily pretty, it was nicer than the 250 years of company rule that preceded it.

The East India Company was organized in 1600, which puts it about the same vintage as the Charter of the Virginia Company of London that founded Jamestown and they shared some corporate officers. Unlike the CVC, the EIC didn’t go bankrupt, collapse, and revert to the Crown within two decades. Part of the reason for this was a vested government interest in cracking open the tea & spice trade routes to India and the islands of the Indonesian Archipelago, prying them away from the Portuguese and Dutch who were already there obliterating the over 3000 year old Indian Ocean & Silk Road trade networks.

{HOLIDAY ASIDE: for timely history related to the colonial war games, nutmeg was so important that the Dutch were willing to cede New Amsterdam to the British in exchange for remainder of the Banda Islands the spice originated on to secure a nutmeg monopoly in the Treaty of Breda, concluding the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Really, this was everyone admitting the truth on the ground as each colonial power had effectively kicked the other out of these territories. Go enjoy some egg nog or a coquito.}

1600-1601 8 Testern reverse (image courtesy of NGCcoin.com)

Of course, this calls for a new coin. In January 1601, a large silver coin, larger than anything that circulated in England was commissioned called the 8 testern, AKA the Portcullis coins because of the motif on the reverse. What is a testern? Theoretically, one testern was a sixpence, the two testern would’ve been a shilling, which meant the 8 testern was 4 shillings…WHICH EQUATED TO NO OTHER COIN. Five shillings is a half crown, not four. The broken denomination pattern is infuriating but expecting reasonable behavior out of the British government is rank foolishness. Speaking of foolishness, here is a link to a modern reissue of the testern from the extremely tasteless modern luxury brand incarnation of the EIC. Seriously, of all the brands to resurrect I’m having a hard time thinking of one more blood soaked and odius, except maybe the British African Company or the International Association of the Congo.

But why? Remember those Spanish 8 reales coins the Americans are using to the annoyance of their colonial overlords? Well, they’re over here in India too and they’re the standard for silver exchange. The 8 testern was minted with a weight and purity to be comparable with the 8 reales, except with the QE1 on it to make it good and respectable money. To the disappointment of the EIC, the merchants of Bombay & Calcutta gave precisely zero shits about the royal seal on the coin, they just wanted the silver for weight and pointed out, like a patronizing parent, “You guys do know that we do most of our commerce in gold, right? India is fabulously wealthy and you came with Poor People Money.” But it was good enough to establish trading post footholds and the return trips to England with goods made sure the EIC never had to worry about having gold to trade again.

And so, of all the British colonies, for cultural requirements and the sheer amount of gold washing around, they were the first to get gold coins locally minted. I can’t say it was with the blessing of the Crown, but rather as an act of expediency by the EIC to mint it locally in each of the presidencies (independently operated regions that franchisees of the EIC had bought or shot their way into control of). This was for their own needs, meaning there were a lot of mints and thus a lot of different coin patterns and denominations. The ulterior motive of transforming foreign coins into good and proper ones factored into it but, as the EIC was in it for the profit, they worked with locally familiar denominations to facilitate trade. Familiar coins like the rupee are there, but also the anna, mohur, fanam, pagoda, and strange to anglophone ears, the cash. I tried to build a conversion chart from these to the £/s/d system and my brain just gave up. As a physicist, unit conversion is supposed to be a bedrock skill and I just can’t do it. I am ashamed.

Once the reorganization happened in 1858 for direct rule by the Crown, one uniform monetary system was established for the Raj, with the gold rupee at the top of it. Please note, at no point was it questioned that gold coinage would be used and minted in country under either the EIC or the Raj.

The Great White North: The Canadas

At about the same time Britain was trying to kick the Dutch and Portuguese out of India for spices, they were doing about the same to the French in North America to wrestle the fur trade and fishing rights away. Canada, as we know it today, didn’t exist until 1949 when Newfoundland and Labrador finally joined the confederation and, as a whole, Canada didn’t get full sovereignty until 1982. Speaking as a frustrated geologist, dominions and provinces slowly accreted onto The Canadas until it looks like it does today, kinda like the geology that assembled the land itself. The big difference is that the North American craton doesn’t speak French, unlike the people on top of it who very much shaped the colonial experience. Imagine if the 13 American colonies were regularly invading & murdering each other, mostly using local Native American tribes as proxies, rather than somewhat ignoring each other and instead spending their time murdering their local tribes. That’s the difference between Canada and America.

The French had a somewhat enlightened point of view toward money in all their colonies. As the first settlers in the region, with their network of farmers & voyageurs canoeing hither and yon, the deal went like this: bring us furs, and we will pay you in the same currency we use at home. Of course, sous from La France weren’t terribly helpful out in the beaver ravaged lands of the Quebecois frontier, so the trappers preferred to take trade in kind and, of course, blow their cash in the big city of Montreal (pop. ~1000). The local tribes that the French had established good relations with didn’t particularly care about coins either, preferring to receive good steel, gunpowder and muskets instead.

1842 Bank of Montreal Token Obverse, image courtesy of numista.com

1842 Bank of Montreal Token Reverse, image courtesy of numista.com

But to fast forward a bit through a lot of killing, Canada had a monetary & economy problem much like colonial America did. Like many countries before them and after, the answer was to make proxy currency. The various merchants and banks started making tokens that were effectively business cards, but also because the metal and size were right, would get used as pennies. Keeping in mind that Canada wasn’t quite Canada until at least the early 20th Century, the colonies/provinces were each figuring out their own proxy money to maintain internal economy while they were separated from the larger confederation. But, really, when you get down to it, it all comes to the Hudson Bay Company being happy to maintain debt ledger tables in the background of what looks like a pure barter system. They were the broker of good faith that let the fur to blankets and trinkets trade happen as if money was unnecessary. Of all the original Crown chartered colonial companies from the 17th century, the Hudson Bay Company is still kicking around and you may not be remotely surprised about how much they still own in the 21st century.

Once the Acts of Confederation went through and the Dominion of the Canada was established, they got their own currency and they decided to go with a decimalized system like the United States. As I mentioned in the previous post, they were already used to thalers, so dollars made sense. What Canada DID NOT get was permission to mint gold. For reasons I haven’t quite found the answer to, Newfoundland, who didn’t join the confederation, was permitted to have $2 gold coins during Queen Victoria’s reign. The $2 coin also was struck with a value of “200 cents/100 pence” as an early attempt at bridging the conversion to from the £/s/d system to decimalized in one coin.

And then the Klondike Gold Rush happened.

It was felt that processing the proceeds of the Canadian side of the Klondike Gold Rush into local currency might imbalance the Dominion/Home Country power relationship. Having already lost one major colony on the North American continent over issues of money and taxation, they weren’t up for a second. Canada didn’t get permission mint gold coins of their own until 1912 out of paranoia, despite all the gold coming out of the Klondike. But after two years brief years of making the $5 gold coin, Canada had to quit in minting it in 1914 because all that gold was needed to pay for war preparations as World War I broke out. Vimy Ridge wasn’t gonna pay for itself and mere blood wasn’t going to be enough to cover the tab. Much like Gallipoli taught Australia and New Zealand they weren’t just “British but far away”, Vimy taught that to Canada.

Captain Bligh’s Bounty: Australia & New Zealand

Okay, once again, we’re over 1500 words in and I haven’t had a poop joke yet. So let’s jump directly into DUMP COINS. HURHURHUR, dump.

Australia had a bad case of being very far away from Ol’ Blighty, which means the logistics of getting the money all the way there was hard. Considering that Australia was a series of penal colonies, how much effort do think they were willing to expend? Right, zero, go find some rancid whale blubber to chew on, transportee. Of course, even in Australia, an economy did develop, even if it was sheep and blue gum based at first and the sheep isn’t the best medium of exchange (NOTE: the traditional Irish denominations of sheep/cow/wife based currency will disagree with me here).  So, the lazy answer was to go grab the nearest convenient money and re-mint it into proper British coin. Now, would you like to melt down and restrike these coins? Goodness no! Did you forget we’re colonial strivers from Mother England (AKA the Sterling), being lazy out in the colonies “running the place” lest the native born prisoners’ children think they’re in charge?

1813 5 shilling “Holey Dollar”, image courtesy numista.com

1813 15 pence DUMP COIN, image courtesy numista.com

No, the answer was to take an 8 reales coin, punch the center out of it (AKA “the dump”) to strike a new coin out of that, value of 1 shilling and threepence, and do that again to the remaining ring as well (AKA “the Holey Dollar”) with a value of 5 shillings. Because why make things easy? I should note that this creative answer, which Governor Macquarie authorized, was carried out by a convict who had been transported for the crime of forgery. Australia similarly used merchant tokens as proxy currency in the absence of the real stuff. I’m to understand that one mid-19th century Tasmanian draper’s token circulated as a penny well into the 20th. That’s effectively deciding that your dry cleaning claim ticket is good enough to function as money.

1894 Half Sovereign, Melbourne mint, I got this with casino winnings in Auckland, along with a complete set of pre-decimalization NZ coins. All of them. I got really lucky that day.

A bit later, there were several gold rushes which made Australia even more worthwhile to Mother England, except the same very, very far away problem reared it’s head again. It was decided that the prudent course of action was to mint all this bullion into sovereigns before shipping it to the other side of the globe. If you were going to engage in piracy to steal this gold, you were going to have to exert effort to change it into your own coinage. Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney all got to have mints to handle the flux of gold, but little of it actually stayed in Australia.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, they had the structural benefit of not being settled by convicts, but they were even less convenient than Australia. They got the full suite of non-gold British coinage minted for them, just not often. To the New Zealanders reading this, please don’t take this as an insult, but your country is a cultural backwater, much like Alaska and New Hampshire (NH is a goddamn numismatic oddity, I tell you what). As this is a hydrological metaphor, what it means is that things brought to New Zealand somehow don’t leave. Coins that circulated throughout the British Empire just kinda…stopped…when they got to New Zealand and after that only circulated within the islands. What gold coins New Zealand received were all minted in Australia.

Then New Zealand had a gold rush of their own on the South Island. And so, the mint Dunedin was set up to make the largest gold coin the world has ever seen, the Golden Moa, and… sorry, no, I’m lying. Because the Crown had already solved the remote gold rush problem with mints in Australia, all of New Zealand’s gold was shipped to Australia for minting. Australia already had enough sheep, so New Zealand got to keep those.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER COLONIES, PHIL?

Frankly, these were the ones that merited special treatment. Hong Kong was odd in that it had dollars rather than the normal British system or a hybrid with the local traditional coinage. They tried a hybrid for one year before selling the entire mint to the Japanese as their coins didn’t impress the Chinese merchants in Shanghai at all. Shanghai was already used to the 8 reales, they were already minting dollars for Canada, so why not do it for Hong Kong too?

South Africa, for the early years, didn’t get any special coins of their own because they were on the way back and forth to India and Australia. The challenge for Cape Town was exchanging back and forth between all the different, but equally valid, coins of the British Empire washing through their port. For the west and east African colonies, the authorities followed the British currency model pretty strictly, with the exception of the guinea entering circulation from the British African Company (BAC) which had taken control of the gold fields of Ghana. The location of the former BAC headquarters in London is what gives the Elephant & Castle underground station it’s name, as the corporate heraldry (and the early guinea coins) featured an elephant and castle.

The Caribbean, as the sugar part of the triangular trade, never had much call to develop an independent economy that deserved its own coinage independent of Britain’s. “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” as the song goes, not much room for coins in that.

Money Rant: Colonies, Coinage, and Gold

In my continuing efforts to share my odd view of American history through the medium of our money, it’s time to talk colonies and gold. Since the Lydians first introduced the concept of coinage to the world ~3000 years ago and the first larger nation-states organized, there has been bickering about who is allowed to have which coins and made of what.

Until quite recently, the logistical systems to keep money well distributed throughout a realm were difficult and this regularly lead to money shortages, particularly at the periphery. This is extra bad for the periphery because you have troops there defending the frontier and, if you don’t pay them, pretty soon your frontier isn’t where you left it. When you add long overland or ocean journeys to these frontier locations it gets even worse and you start to wonder how it was, exactly, that any imperial/colonial power ever actually functioned.

The solution was to create local mints that could strike coins to pay the local troops and, more importantly, transform filthy foreign currency and freshly mined bullion to good, wholesome “real” currency with the correct ruler’s head on it. This was a calculated risk. Sending bullion out to local officials and giving them the power to mint coinage or less invited secession and civil war (all you have to do is change the dies and now it’s your face on the coins and BAM! Instant Legitimacy). If you now have you own treasury, what makes you financially beholden to the Crown? The answer is simple: the Crown has waaaaaay more money than you and can buy your rebellion out several times over. Why does the crown have so much more you ask? The answer to that is also is relatively simple: you were only given brass & copper to work with for your coinage, maybe silver if you were important. The Crown’s treasury and mint was the only one that got to strike gold.

As you move forward through time, the perennial complaint from the colonies is that they send their gold to the capitol but only silver comes back. Then the next complaint is that what silver they get vanishes quickly into other people’s hands. The colony is underpaid for the raw materials being extracted and finished goods from the home country are overpriced. The solution is to make your own finished goods right? AHAHAHAHAHAH, that’s illegal, you colonial scum. The point of a colony is to enrich the the charter owners back home, not the colonists. Jeez. C’mon. Get with the program.

I want to focus this primarily to Britain’s colonial children, particularly America, but thematically the behavior of other colonial/imperial powers regarding their subordinate regions has been quite similar over the millennia. In the British context, the thing that dictated what colonies could and could not do was called the Royal Prerogative. In an abbreviated and not terribly legalistic sense, the Royal Prerogative was the collection of powers directly vested in the monarch, not in Parliament, and certainly not any of the local colonial assemblies. To this day, if you have QE2’s face on your coins, you are still subject to some residual bits of the Royal Prerogative, as exercised by the Governor-General with the tacit approval of HM Gov’t. And as coins are why I am writing, here’s the topics where the Royal Prerogative held longest and/or still hold:

  1. Monopoly on Force & Diplomacy – you don’t get to independently declare war & peace and you don’t get to organize armed forces without the Crown’s say so. If you have more than one army without a single, unitary command, you very soon have a civil war between rival generals. SEE ALSO: most all of history, particularly Rome, Persia, and China.
  2. Citizenship/Immigration – only the Crown gets to say who is a subject of the Crown. NOTE: this can get ugly and racist very fast.
  3. Currency – The only money that counts is what has been issued by the Crown. We’ll let you know if we feel like setting up a local Royal Mint in your colony, but that’s for our convenience, not yours.

What you get to mint and where it’s minted is where the story gets fun and starts running face first into the comedy of errors we like to call History. If you don’t already have some familiarity with the predecimalization system of British coinage, here is a handy reference guide. But I’ll warn you, that’s only a starting point for the headscratching multitude of money choices that Britain made for her many colonies.

Britain’s Largest Failed Colony: America

Well, that’s a bit wrong, it wasn’t just one colony and there were more than thirteen. Colonial “America” is better regarded as a collection of failed commercial enterprises that the Crown took over directly, the descendants of some religious nutbars & emigres from the English Civil War who had a relationship with the Crown best described as “tense and complicated”, and Stuff Stolen From The French/Dutch. In the early days of the British colonization of America, only Virginia was a Crown Colony directly ruled by the king, hence its nickname “Old Dominion”. New England was made up of royal charter colonies where a contract had been written up with the Crown to dictate how the place would be ruled somewhat autonomously in the Crown’s name (no one loves arguing a good charter/contract law more than a Puritan). Then there were the proprietary colonies (Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York) which had been granted to loyal courtiers as fiefs to develop as they pleased with absolute power over them. Lastly, were the colonies that were corporate concerns (Georgia and the Carolinas) which were established by companies paying a royalty to the Crown for the pleasure of extracting whatever they could. NOTE: at this point in history, what we now consider Canada was also “America”. Early British Canadian colonial history and organization ran similarly to Virginia’s as Crown Colonies, but with a whole lot more fighting with the French. I’ll get back to The Canadas in the next post.

Stunningly High Quality “1652” Massachusetts Pine Tree Coin, which may have been minted any time bewtween 1667 to 1682. Don’t ask, its a very complicated story. – Photo by Phil Arnold/PCGS.com

Prior to the revolution, America functioned on an incredibly limited amount of coinage provided from the home country and on rare occasions they were allowed to mint their own coins locally like the Pine Tree Coin. Instead they had paper Colonial Currencies that were despised as being not quite worth the paper they were printed on and, doubly annoying, not easily transferable between colonies. This is one reason why the Interstate Commerce Clause is in the US Constitution: to make sure silly tariffs and trade barriers, much less independent currencies, didn’t pop up between states. For coinage, most all of it was copper in the farthing to penny range with the occasional silver threepence, sixpence, or LIVING LARGE big shilling-style. They were also explicitly forbidden to mint gold, which was an easy enough order to follow because there hadn’t been a gold strike in the colonies yet (America’s first gold rush in the Carolinas wouldn’t happen until after independence). English merchants weren’t even supposed to even bring gold coins to America.

The good news for the colonies is they didn’t particularly need to mint higher denomination silver because their world had been awash with very pure silver coins for almost 200 years at this point in the form of the Spanish 8 reales, AKA thalers. It was, unfortunately, very Spanish and the British hated that, considering trade from the colonies was supposed to be exclusively with British merchants. Technically, you weren’t supposed to use them. If you ever wondered why America and Canada have dollars rather than pounds, it’s because they were so used to the term: dollar is an English corruption of the German word thaler. But the importance of the 8 reales coin to American and world history is a topic for another time.

With no one in the colonies allowed to mint anything of higher denomination than a shilling, it is damn hard to run an internal economy. Consider trying to go buy a new car with small change; this is about the same problem of trying to commission a vessel to then ship anything within the colonies. For the most part, all the colonies worked on local credit systems and borrowed the term “wampum” from the New England tribes to describe debt-signifying goods and notes, which suffered bad inflationary problems and frequent devaluation. I highly recommend reading Graeber’s “DEBT: the First 5000 Years” to explain how debt exchange systems are the basis of economies and currency, not barter. Barter is what the Britain wanted the colonies to function on, with the mother country as the only acceptable trading partner for finished goods.

Stunningly High Quality Silver Continental Currency – Photo by Phil Arnold/PCGS.com

So, before 1775, the coins in America may be described as old, badly worn, low denomination, often foreign and, largely, counterfeit. Counterfeiting is a problem but, well, when you’re short of coins in the first place, you work with what you’ve got. When your colonial masters are squeezing you for more taxes (because war with the French is expensive even when you keep winning), but you don’t have any legitimate money to pay it, they flatly refuse to let you mint more locally, you have no representation in the Parliament to try to change their mind, and then Parliament decides colonial tea merchants still need to pay import duties but the East India Company awash in gold does not, what do think happens? This would also be why more or less the first order of business for the Continental Congress, right after slapping together the Continental Army (violating Royal Prerogative 1), was to work on making a Continental Currency (violating Royal Prerogative 3). One of the other things that Paul Revere did, as a silversmith, was volunteer bullion and his skills as an engraver to the Continental Congress to start minting coinage.

Please note that the Continental Currency didn’t actually have a denomination, it was just called The Continental. There weren’t many of the coin versions made because Congress was perennially short of bullion, so they printed paper Continentals to pay for the army. The only thing backing the paper Continental was the good faith and promises to freely exchange them for coins, as soon as we had some, which meant the value of the Continental was very much tied to the success of armies in the field and that was pretty poor for most of the Revolutionary War. Accordingly, the term “as worthless as a Continental” was thrown around, but for entirely different reasons, by both Tories and Patriots. Also, because I’ve gone nearly 2000 words without a poop joke, Continental was also slang for toilet paper. The American grumble* about fiat currency vs. bullion based is older than the country itself. 

But what about the other British colonies? Did they get screwed with as badly as the backwater of America? What did America do when it had colonies of its own? FIND OUT NEXT TIME ON PHIL’S MONEY RANTS!


* there is no internet helldive deeper into the truly disgusting depths of the American psyche than Precious Metals social media and forums. There isn’t enough whiskey in the world for me to take the Journey to the Goldbug’s Lair again and it has some worrying overlaps with the cryptocurrency communities. When you see XAU to BTC price quotes at the top of a website, run. Don’t look back. Never look back. Just run.