Phil vs. The Otago Rail Trail, Part 1

Because I promised I would write this up when I found time, and was rather annoyed to find out that I hadn’t already done so, here you go. It’s a tale as old as time: three men set out on an adventure they are not prepared for and suffer in a hilarious manner. Really, since this was during our time in New Zealand after a year at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, I kinda feel like we were paying homage to the early Antarctic explorers and their misadventures.

TL;DR Version: You should absolutely bike the Otago Rail Trail. It’s gorgeous and is the best way to enjoy the Hills of Rohan and the Walls of Moria. DO NOT DO WHAT WE DID.

My Fellow Victim of the Otago Rail Trail, Tony, the Sexiest Man at Pole 2002-2003.

This story begins in the bar at New Zealand’s Scott Base, which is on the other side of the hill from McMurdo. I had gotten marooned in McMurdo for a bit waiting for my ship to come in with a large dewar of liquid helium, and I wasn’t particularly welcomed to help the science tech assigned to McMurdo, I kind of drifted to helping the New Zealand Antarctic Program a bit. The atmospheric scientist who was there, Becs, had two important suggestions for me when I got back to New Zealand:

  1. That I should make the acquaintance of KAOS (Killing As Organized Sport) when I got back to Christchurch. That they were my people and I should go unto them. The current state of their page confirms that still.
  2. The Otago Rail Trail had just opened up, it was awesome, and a great way to see New Zealand from the sea to Queenstown, AKA the Lake Tahoe of New Zealand. For the record the website for the Otago Rail Trail is much more detailed now than it was 16 years ago, when it was pretty much “This is a map with few details and some towns. Here ya go.”

Over the subsequent months during the Long Night, sitting at the bar of Club 90 South, one of the frequent topics of conversation was what vacation plans you were making for when you finally got off the Ice. Many people were planning round the world trips that would land them right back in Christchurch in time to start their next winter at Pole. Tony, Mark and I didn’t have globe trotting plans, but there were going to be some good times in New Zealand. We looked at the map (remember: less detailed than the current one), saw that there were towns at fairly regular intervals, making this a very nice backpacking/pub crawl from Middlemarch on the coast to Queenstown.

…at least, that’s what it looked like on the map with Yahoo Maps cross-referencing (Google Maps was still two years in the future). Because it was a NZ Department of Conservation brochure, much like a US National Park Service map, it had highlights. It certainly didn’t have all the towns that Yahoo Maps popped up on the way along the trail.

And so after our return to Christchurch and a week of thawing out, we picked up a rental car, drove down the Pacific coast to Dunedin and then took the turn up to Middlemarch, the coastal terminus of the Otago Rail Trail. Middlemarch wasn’t and still isn’t a big town. It had ~200 people in 2003. At the time, the town consisted of the old train station, which was the start of the rail trail, the Middlemarch Pub, and the Fisher & Paykel store that specialized in farm equipment (it also doubled as the post office, video store…everything, really). We parked in the side lot and walked in to ask the nice lady running the joint if she minded if we left our car in her lot for a week or so while we hiked the Otago Rail Trail. The exchange went like this:

F&P Lady: Where’s your bikes, lads?
Tony: We don’t have any. Like I said, we’re hiking the rail trail.
F&P Lady: Bike?
Tony: Hike.
F&P Lady: [still confused] Bike?
Me: [over-enunciating] HIKE.
F&P Lady: Ohhhhh, you’re hiking. Alright, then. Park as long as you like.

It was an odd exchange. It got odder when we got our packs out of the car and walked over to the trailhead/defunct train platform. A small girl was there with a camcorder. She wanted to film us as we took headed out and waved goodbye. It felt oddly final and creeped us out a bit.

The Middlemarch Death March had just begun. STAY TUNED FOR PART 2!

Holidays: The Decembering (2019 Edition)

First of all, I want to thank everyone that contributed, watched, and bullshitted with us for the Team Sensible Shoes Extra Life campaign, playing Shadows of Brimstone for a bit over 26 hours spread over two days. It was fun, still challenging to our increasingly old bodies, and we hit our fundraising goal. Again, thank you!

Moving on to business, as the BBotE pre-order slots for the window ending November 27th are now up that means we’re sneaking up on Thanksgiving and it’s time to give my PROTIPS for holiday shopping! To the people that are very proactive and organized in their holiday shopping, such as the gentleman that I let place a reserve order in August for shipment on December 18th, I’ll answer your 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 $DESIRED_DATE” with your order so I know you want it later rather than ASAP.

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 14th. All things being equal, domestic or international, everything shipped by the 14th 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 (again), but a week and change is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination, even international. I will put another pre-order window up and crank as much out as I can after the 14th, and domestic shipping on Saturday December 21st 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 Availability is Limited: As mentioned in the previous Twilight of the Steins post a few years ago, I lost my relatively cheap supply line for dewars. I am maintaining some inventory, but not many. If you really, really want one and the one you want is not available, contact me sooner rather than later so I can do my best to get one for you ASAP.
  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.
  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 on ships at sea, things get iffy. Also, depending on routing, some nations (I’m looking at you, Turkey) have bounced BBotE back to me on the basis that it is, and I quote, “Morally Questionable Material”. Amazingly, my shipments to Korea and Okinawa seem to arrive faster than they do to other places on the west coast of the US mainland. 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 that 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. I do have a helpful Dominican priest in Portland who’d probably be willing to bless BBotE for you, but that’s still not helpful. Sorry.

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

Back From Jerusalem & Extra Life 2019

Allow me to fill your life with GOOD NEWS!!!


First of all, I’m back from vacation which means the coffee engines have fired up again and some of you should already have received your shipments. My trip summary:

  • If it’s always a good idea to take a Hollywood photographer on vacation with you for the best photos, it is similarly good to go with an archbishop to assure excellent service and access to locations in the Holy Land.
  • Similarly, having hot and cold running archaeologists available to give two to three thousand year old cultural context is excellent.
  • As I was promised, I am now broken forever for hummus, falafel, and lamb. The secret to a good falafel sandwich is ALL THE PICKLED THINGS. All of them. Cram them in that pita.
  • Do not order “Turkish coffee” if you aren’t in Turkey.  Your helpful Palestinian hosts will remind you that it is Arabic coffee, it has cardamom, and is inherently better.
  • IDF teenagers on patrol in the Old City have terrible muzzle discipline.
  • I didn’t have nearly enough time in Jordan. However, I may not have the intestinal fortitude to survive more time in Jordan than I got.

There’s was so much more than that and I’ll be processing that trip for a long time. But now that I’m back, it is time for the next important event: EXTRA LIFE 2019!

“But Phil,” you say “Extra Life was last weekend. It’s over.” Au contraire, because I didn’t get home until last weekend, we bumped our time out to this weekend to play 24 hours of Shadows of Brimstone. Also, some assholes decided it would be fun to do a DDOS attack on a fundraiser site on the day proper, doing some damage to the effort. So, here’s our chance to kick a little in after the fact and offset that. If you feel like it, please go donate to either my personal pageor to our group, Team Sensible Shoes. We are old and weak vs. 24 hours of gaming, but we will do our best with all the caffeine and fine drink we can. And, yes, there will be a Twitch stream. We’ll do our best to remember there is a chat function.

Also, I look forward to getting to yell “PORK DELIVERY!” when the fresh chicharrones from the Pig Wizard shows up.

See you then!

Upcoming Service Interruption

The BBotE production window ending October 12th is now up and you may order away to your heart’s delight. Please do. Because that plane ticket to ain’t gonna pay for itself.

In October 19th, as previously mentioned, I will be jumping on a plane to Tel Aviv to join my friend Fr. Gabriel on a bit of a mosey around Israel and Jordan to help him fulfill a holy vow, see some amazing archaeological sites, and help some local communities. Also, holy shit, we will be going to Petra. I have wanted to visit Petra since I first saw it on the big screen as the temple in the Valley of the Crescent Moon in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and learned it was a real place.

This does mean that the coffee engines will go quiet for two weeks as I don’t return until November 1st. I will open another production window after the 12th and leave ordering active on the site but, obviously, nothing will ship while I’m overseas. In that brief window between the 12th and 19th, I will attempt to shove as much BBotE and Steins of Science out the door as I can.

With that, enjoy a bit of Petra and have a good weekend.


Hormeisis Jokes

I have often said that my physics degrees are primarily used to make more esoteric dumb jokes and puns, especially if I can find a way to work math in to them. As a coworker will be going to a new job soon, I want to immortalize two connected stories that show why I’ll miss him. This is also another moment of satori in my life. To help make sense of the joke, all you need to know is that Hormeisis Theory is borrowed from chemical exposures, which is the idea that a little bit of poison strengthens you. This turned into the idea a low level of radiation damage prompts your body’s cellular self-repair systems to action. 

[SCENE – COWORKER 1 and Phil are working at the radiation detection instrument calibration range. The large Cs-137 check sources have been brought out of storage and the radiation area barrier tape has been put up. Phil is setting up ion chambers at set distances on the range.]

COWORKER 1: Are you finished setting up?
Phil: Almost. You can go ahead and get the smaller source out.
COWORKER 1: Alright! Time to get my hormeisis for the day.
Phil: [without missing a beat, without so much as a hesitation for thought, a perfect moment of satori] Your mom’s a hormeisis.
COWORKER 1: [drops the tongs before even opening the source pig, slumps against the range table] You yermom’d me!
Phil: Oh my god. I’m sorry.
COWORKER 1: Do you have any idea how many years it’s been since I’ve been yermom’d? That was amazing.

After that, we had a special bond as he had finally figured out I was a strange garbage person he could relate to. That I was, in fact, weirder than him and could enrich his life with things. Like getting the Picard Song stuck in his head.

A few years of good times pass.

[SCENE – Seated at a table during the departmental holiday dinner, COWORKER 1 and Phil are sharing stories while enjoying refreshing adult beverages. COWORKER 2 enters and takes a seat.]

COWORKER 1: Do you remember when you yermom’d me?
Phil: Of course I do!
COWORKER 2: [incredulous] You yermom’d COWORKER 1? How?
Phil: I said his mom was a hormeisis.
[COWORKER 2 has a spittake. COWORKER 1 recounts the previous scene to him.]
COWORKER 2: Well, you know what means right, COWORKER 1?
COWORKER 2: It means a little bit of your mom is good for everyone.
COWORKER 1: [gently rests forehead on the table] Oh god it got worse. How did it get worse?
[Phil and COWORKER 2 make a toast to COWORKER 1’s mom.]
COWORKER 1: Howwwwwwww???


I’m gonna miss him. He’s the only person in the whole department who can properly Slav Squat. All the rest of us have Western Spy Squat. Oh, and he’s gonna be a kickass health physicist.

Phil vs. Holy Water

An amusing conversation happened on Twitter last night and this morning with regards to holy water, it’s creation, dilution and retention of holiness. While I may be an atheist, I am very happy to count both a Dominican and Jesuit priest as friends and can thus aim fascinating questions at them. In this particular case, Fr. Gabriel got to field this one:

The Reverend Sir Gabriel T. Mosher, OP KHS. No, the V does not stand for Vatican and that is definitely not holy water he’s holding. The T might be for Tiberius.

To answer someone else’s question, all the letters after his name signify that he is a Dominican (OP: Order of Preachers) and is a Knight Religious of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher* (KHS: Knight of the Holy Sepulcher). This means he is a level 2 cleric with a prestige class as level 1 knight. Being a knight religious means he is allowed to ride his horse directly into the Vatican but, as a cleric, is still not allowed to have a sword. If you remember from your D&D reading, only clerics of very particular gods are allowed to have edged weapons. Part of why he is my friend is that he isn’t in the least bit offended at being described this way.

Anyway, this leads to obvious questions about mass balancing and making sure that the fonts are always actually holy. The conservative answer would be “Always refill with holy water.” If you start making withdrawls of holy water from the font and then tank it back up with mundane water, without rigorous chain of custody accounting,  you run the risk of accidentally losing that holy status in the basin. My Lovely Assistant, with her PhD in Chemistry, started trying to work out the calculus for this and a Theory of Constant Blessedness. She needs better hobbies.

Other people asked questions regarding the possibility of blessings per minute or holy flow if you wanted to try to piping some high pressure holy water on demand. In my reckoning, the limitations here are the available labor resources. There’s only so many priests and most of them are older, tired men unaccustomed to manual labor and this sounds like shift work.

Holy Water Spigot at St. Teresa’s in Dulbin. By Kaihsu Tai – Kaihsu Tai, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Now, you could go for blessing in mass quantity instead. For places that go through a hell of a lot of holy water per day, they will make up entire vats worth. Depending on traditions, however, this does involve other consumables like salt and oil added during the sanctification. This is why you can’t have a reactor pool filled with holy water; all you’re doing is adding crap that the reactor will activate and the filters beds will immediately remove.

The way I learned that holy water has things added to it is a story of it’s own…

Because I like history, I was totally willing to play chauffeur for my grandmother, who was an at least one mass per day Catholic, to take her to visit some of California’s missions. Most of the original churches are gone, since they were made of adobe, congregations greatly outgrew them, and earthquakes happen. But in ONE CASE the original mission church is still there and it was the original hub mission for Alta California: Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo.

So, we went. It’s tiny but neat. While grandma fully understood that I wasn’t Catholic, she also wanted to make damn sure I learned how to behave politely in such a space. When we walked in, she whacked me in the shoulder and gestured to the holy water to do a dab & genuflection.

For a moment, please imagine 18yo Phil, clean shaven, short hair, head to toe in black (probably wearing the Alapalooza Tour shirt), wearing SWAT pants and army boots, stepping up to the font, dipping a finger in, touching my forehead and then saying “Ow, fuck that burns!” more loudly than I should have.

The abuelas praying nearby began praying more audibly.

As I discovered, I had a small cut on my forehead because yay scratching tiny pimples and the little bit of oil and salt added to the font was enough to make it sting. Grandma whacked me again for swearing in church.

*: There will be more adventures with Fr. Gabriel this October as I have rules lawyered my way into visiting Israel & Jordan with him to help fulfill his knightly vows. Nowhere in the vow “Lead a pilgrimage of non-order members to the Holy Land” is there a specification that you actually need to take Catholics. I’m helping.

A Stream of Consciousness Rant on D&D Projects

No, not that kind of D&D.

I’m feeling all salty today about underground services, subs to the nth degree subcontractors, shitty documentation and the tragicomedy poor communication between them all on Decontamination & Demolition projects. Most D&D projects follow a “graded approach” where they run three major phases:

A very different phased process

Phase 1: Steal underpants. NO NO NO, what I meant to say was decontaminate all interior surfaces/components and remove fixtures.

Phase 2: asbestos & lead paint abatement as applicable, demolish the building, process the rubble for reclaimable material. At this point you have “taken the building to grade”. It is has been leveled to the ground surface. But you’re not done.

Phase 3: dig below grade to remove underground storage tanks (USTs), piping, and any contaminated soil.

I would like state that in 21 years of doing safety & environmental work I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen Phase 3 concluded. Even with a ridiculously contaminated building, it is much easier and cheaper to decon and take it down than to start digging holes in the ground. Because the first step in Phase 3 is asking the question “Sooooo, what’s down there and where is it?” And that’s where the tragicomedy kicks in as the questions you’re really asking are:

  • Where are the original plans for this building?
  • Where are the As-Builts?
  • Do we have a building maintenance log of changes and events?


Yes, that happened once. No, I haven’t quite gotten over it yet. Of course, for my hypothetical, this assumes you had a building manager AND they maintained that information.

Assuming you don’t have it or what you have is utterly untrustworthy, you’re gonna have to resurvey (SEE ALSO: pre-1960s underground services & anything the US military has ever built, EVER). Do you have in-house survey teams with ground-penetrating radar, soil moisture density gauges, and analytical labs, etc.? No? I’m shocked.

Looks like you need a contractor! Possibly several!

Depending on the building’s size and how exciting the history of use was, you may need to be surveying deep. Which means you’re going to need those survey teams onsite *OFTEN*. Please learn from the mistakes of others and write your contracts “for the duration of the project”. Because you do not want to dig the first 2m down, realize you need a resurvey for this depth, discover that Procurement only contracted for the one survey, and when you try to get them to come back:

1) The price is much higher.


2) They aren’t available.

But it’s cool you can just get another contractor, right? Sure! Did all information from the previous contractor’s survey get communicated to them? Do they use the same equipment and procedures so you can compare apples to apples? I’m sure it will be fine and there will be no confusion or issues.

Now, assuming you successfully dig holes without immediately doing something silly like cutting a 15kV cable with your backhoe on the first scoop, let’s also assume you find things that you weren’t expecting. What’s the next step? Well, now you have to go back to the drawing board and revise your 3D D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) D&D (Decon & Demolition) site map to add the new discovery, revise all the time tables to deal with working around the new thing, and most importantly, find more money in the budget to cope.

Asking for more money to deal with $PROBLEM you had no idea was there does not compute to your management. Also, if you tried to guess beforehand what things you might see without any proof of them to try to get some contingency funds, you will be accused of padding the budget by them and be denied. Without that contingency, this means you are DEVIATING FROM PLAN & BUDGET. This is tantamount to a personal betrayal in the mind of bad managers. If you are a subcontractor, you are now eating into potential completion bonuses. Thus, there is an incentive to not find things.

And that’s just conventional work tweaking for things like “I found utility service that we didn’t know was here, I don’t know where it comes from or what it feeds yet, but I do know it’s live.” How about if you discover soil or groundwater contamination? The first thing you’ll be asked is “Is it from our former activities on this site?”

  • If yes, then fuck. The scope of your work didn’t really change but it got harder and more expensive. And you probably have some reporting to do to regulators. Hopefully not to reporters too.
  • If no, then IT IS ON to find who to sue and make pay for it.
    • If you’re lucky, it’s your neighbor that has a leaky pipe or UST that’s crapping up your beautiful pristine soil.
    • If you’re supremely lucky, your neighbor is still in business and has the financial resources to pay to clean up their mess and the legal fees.
    • If you are the mostest luckiest, the contamination will be identifiably the federal government’s, probably the military’s, fault. Just remember, while the Fed pockets may be deep, they open reeeeeeally slooooowly.

But more often than not, that contamination is leftover from a company that folded before your grandparents were born just waiting to be discovered like the worst time capsule. Contamination for whom there is no responsible party to pay for it is why the Superfund Act, AKA CERCLA in the biz, was created.

Back to those legal fees. Below grade decon work generally stops, or goes into a “stabilize” mode, until the lawsuits are resolved. If you don’t already have a drink to cry into meditating on that thought, you should probably go get one. Because man oh man the amount of time & money people are willing to expend fighting over not having responsibility for surprise contamination is astounding. The legal arguments also pretty much boil down to The Bart Simpson Defense:

  1. I didn’t do it.
  2. It was like that when I got here.
  3. You can’t prove anything.

Except if you are the owner of the property, you are a very interested party even if you aren’t a responsible one. The whole reason you would’ve even started Phase 3 in the first place is because you wanted to use this land again for unrestricted use. This why so very few projects even start Phase 3, much less complete it. Instead, at the end of Stage 2, they put up a fence, declare a new brownfield or possibly pave it to get a new parking lot, and declare MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

Once upon a time, there was a big celebration for the “conclusion” of the decon & demolition operations on an old chemistry building. It was a big event as the better part of a decade had been spent taking that palace of nightmares down.

With a cheery voice and drink in my hand, I went up to the management team and asked “How did the removal of all the pipes and USTs go?”

I did not make any friends that day.

TWO Coffees from the Philippines!

I am pleased announce that after an absence of a mere month, the Philippine Barako coffee is back. I don’t have a lot of it and this is mostly to tide me over until the Filipino Cousin Network can get me a much larger quantity in a couple months, but the important part is that it is back. Barako is now a valid selection on all the listings on the store side of the house.

The more exciting news is that it didn’t come alone. Barako is a rather tasty representative of the liberica coffees that are awfully hard to find outside of the Philippines. And while liberica is tricky to find outside of the Philippines, the fourth standard cultivar of coffee, excelsa, was one of those things I’d read about but had kind of written off ever trying short of a trip to that side of the Pacific. And the FCN dropped 4 kilos of it in my lap to play with last week.

One of the bits about excelsa that it’s worth understanding for why there isn’t a lot of this on the market is to know a bit about the coffee trees themselves. We normally refer to coffee bushes when discussing arabica coffees as they don’t grow more than about 2m tall. Excelsa, on the other hand, comes from trees in the range of 10-15m tall. Harvesting excelsa comes with a level of personal hazard comparable to coconuts, AKA plummeting death, so I understand why this is rare.

Now, the exciting thing about the excelsa is the taste, which is also a southeast Asian adventure. The primary flavor note given from the grower was “jackfruit“. If you’ve never had the pleasure of the odd not quite pineapple, not quite mango, not quite banana flowery citrus flavor of jackruit I recommend giving it a try. This way, you’ll have a reference point when I tell you that first taste of excelsa BBotE had a strong jackfuit kick, a baking chocolate mid-palate, and a long coconut finish. I don’t know what booze I’d mix this with off the top of my head but it makes me want coffee based tiki drinks.

After saying all this about excelsa, this is all a bit of a tease as it isn’t available as a selection in the store until I nail down my exact process for this bean. It is likely to show up in Sampler Pack II orders as I’ll probably have leftovers from test runs to share with people. What this does mean is that I’ll have things nailed down the when the much larger shipment of excelsa comes my way in a couple months to share with all of you.

In other news, those of you who enjoy tales of Phil vs. Lasers may be happy to know I will be attending the 2019 International Laser Safety Conference in Orlando next month. I will happily tell tales of industrial-scientific horror and history in exchange fine drink and company when not actually at the conference itself. Drop a line and say hi!

DEFCON 2018 After Action Report

[looks at calendar] Well, this is only four months late. Been too busy having other adventures. Sorry about that.

TL;DR version: I enjoyed the hell out of smart people sharing problems and solutions that I am not directly responsible for doing something about. Somebody else’s problems are the best problems.

So, as I mentioned previously, I made the somewhat last minute decision to attend DEFCON 2018. There was enough draw in the form of friends I knew were attending and, more importantly, available vacation time allowed me to actually attend. I’ve wanted to go since I first heard of DEFCON long ago but there’s only so much time in the year for all the adventures I might want to have. However, in the company of the former BBotE Ambassador of Chicago, Bill Weiss, and current BBotE Ambassador of Prescott, Dan Nowak, Black Blood of the Earth has been in attendance at DEFCON every year since 2011. While other people may have brought single bottles with them, Bill & Dan showed up with entire cases to keep their teams and all comers full of pep. So, in a way, I’ve been present in spirit.

But this year, in addition to the two they brought, my Lovely Assistant and I came with a third case as our luggage. You see, BBotE would be providing a special extra something to the cocktail repetoire for a Rift Recon‘s party. If you attended, you know how much fun those caffeinated cocktails were at 12am. I regret that there aren’t many pictures from this trip, but there are rules of decorum to be followed.

I have been informed that most people attend DEFCON primarily for the parties and just watch the sessions on youtube later. I was told I committed a rookie error by actually attending talks. “BAH!” I say. If I’d done that, I wouldn’t have had the chance to finally meet Aaron “I Should Have BLUE TEAM Tattooed On My Knuckles” Brown, AKA TheTarquin, in person after years of snarking at each other online. Aaron does infosec for Amazon at an interesting level where he gives the hard squint to new corporate acquisitions to see if it safe to plug them into the mothership. But that’s not what he was presenting on. He was here to talk about how H and H convey very different information to human brains versus computers and how you can use that for fun with and defend against homograph attacks. While I was there in person, you can watch his talk online and I highly recommend you do. It’s led me to have a lot of interesting conversations with my own IT, EECS, vision science, and philosophy folks, each from their different points of view.



In addition to the main talks, there are effectively conventions within the convention at DEFCON for specific topics called Villages. I was a little disappointed that the laser cutting village never even set up as I was looking forward to being VERY EDUCATIONAL to people there with an impromptu laser/product safety audit. Rumor has it that the company that was going to set up the village either broke something irreparable in transit or irreplaceable parts were confiscated by customs. The Social Engineering Village runs a competition to see if contestant can manage to talk their way to access to selected personnel in organizations purely through the power of bullshit (NOTE: there are some restrictions on how you can bullshit, Thou Shalt Not Impersonate Authority, which is my favorite gambit right out the window).

Then there’s Skytalks. If I have one important piece of DEFCON advice to give it is this: figure out what one Skytalk you absolutely want to see, plan your entire day for it, because much like anything at Disney you will be spending a significant amount of time in line for it. Unlike Disney, the experience will be rewarding and you will walk out the other end of the ride having learned something very interesting indeed. Chatham House Rules apply for Skytalks, so no recording, no photographs, and no bullshit which suits my own residual Q clearance habits just fine. So, while I won’t discuss the content of the presentation I enjoyed, let me just direct you to Faithleaks. Let your journey begin from there.

More dear to my heart was this long and grim talk about the state of the scientific journals and the shitty discourse/politics they end up supporting by muddying the waters of what “scientific consensus” is.  Thankfully, it is a very funny presentation even if it feels a bit gallows humor at times as this team maps out the networks of sham journals, sham reviews, and even entire sham conferences, all driven by the publish or perish mentality. MORAL: if you make a data scientist cranky your organization will become their project.



And as threatened in this post, I did indeed act as a docent for an informal tour of the National Atomic Testing Museum. There was some trepidation from the folks at NATM at the idea of a couple dozen DEFCON attendees descending upon their museum. There have been Incidents™ in the years past related to DEFCON and Black Hat that the locals have a loooong memory for, but I promised that everyone would be on their best behavior. I am happy to say that we’re welcome to come back anytime. The fact that we may have broken a sales record in their gift shop could be a contributing factor.

While I don’t know if I’ll have the vacation time to go again in 2019, I can confidently say that I had fun and learned enough that it would be worth going again to take a vacation to someone else’s conference.

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…