Category Archives: Adventure & Radiation

A New Ambassador and Another Rant: Art Safety

GOOD NEWS, ALBUQUERQUE! The people of the Atomic City (not to impugn the honor of Arco, ID and Los Alamos, NM of course) now have a BBotE Ambassador of their own. When not evangelizing ultracoffee, Lee is an professor of electonic arts at the University of New Mexico. He’ll be receiving his first case next week, so drop him a line at bboteABQ[at]gmail[dot]com if you’d like to place dibs on a bottle.

Probably more important to the rest of you: the November 8th pre-order window is now open. Go for it.

And now, a rant I’ve been thinking about for a while. Let me open by saying this is hasn’t been brought on by any particular event, but enough things from all over have piled up that I want to try to put my thoughts together in hopes that it helps someone.

The rise of the maker, as social media is very happy to tell me about constantly since I theoretically am one, is nothing really new. To me it’s more a matter of people remembering that tinkering in the shop is fun, despite a world full of disposable things that are cheaper to replace than repair. Also, that it’s a good idea to have a separate building to store your highly flammable but non-potable liquids and tetanus inducing rusty tools that you don’t actually live in. Despite the abusive work practices of our grad students bringing cots and sofas to labs so they can sleep during long data runs, people rarely live in their lab spaces anymore than a machinist sleeps in the machine shop.

However, the live-work artist studio is a cultural staple. Just close your eyes, and you can imagine it. The high ceilings, the canvases stacked in the corner, drop cloths on the floor, the flowers growing from wine bottles in the windows, paint spattered coffee mug for coffee that looks identical to the paint spattered coffee mug for brush cleaning, a half finished sculpture over there on the table overflowing with magazines. Your imagined space may vary depending on your exposure to dancers and other more exotic visual artists.

But now I want you to imagine that space again with my eyes. That coffee mug for brush cleaning, is that water that for dipping the brushes into or is it turpentine? Either way, don’t want anyone drinking that because I’m looking at the paints now and it’s been a while since mercury-based vermillion was on the market, where did you even get that? Oh, you found it in a discount bin at Goodwill, of course. Is that Strip-Eaze? Holy shit, that’s the old methylene chloride based formulation. Why is your woodworking tool box bloody? Exactly how many gallons of lacquer do you have stored in the corner over there under the space heater? That sure is a lot of old fishing weights…oh, of course, you’ve been melting them on the stove and making new sculptures in cast lead using an pre-Norman Conquest technique from Exeter. No, no thank you, I don’t want any food prepared here until we decon and gut this space.

Okay, back to reality. This is not because artists are ignorant of science & technology, goodness no. They usually have a deep and intimate knowledge of their tools and medium. Sometimes entirely new tools have been made to do a thing no one even thought of before, or existing things brought together in a novel manner to make something new. But that creation can come at the cost of wider vision, the ability to see consequences. When you are focused on making the performance come together at the theater, especially if you are dealing with students, you can forget little things like fall protection working above the stage in the rafters of your 100+ year old theater.

The more concerning artistic idea that sends a shiver up my spine are people that create things with a willful disregard for consequence, that want to “challenge people’s vision and see how the world changes once I set my art free”. That is a quote from a student here at Cal. That’s fine if your creation is a painting; it is less fine if your creation is a giant kinetic sculpture made of rotating parts crush injuries and it never occurred that this might look a bit like a jungle gym to kids.

Then there is a cultural matter that I feel comes into play that I wish would stop: suffering for your art. If you feel bad that your project isn’t coming along and that drive toward self-loathing helps wrench a chunk of your soul out and present it to the world, well, that sounds horrible but thank you. NOTE: the trope is “suffering for your art”. It is not “heavy metals poisoning for your art”, “accidental amputation for your art”, “electrocution and arc blast injuries for your art”, “laser burns & blinding for your art”,  or “plummeting to your death for your art”. While I understand and sympathize with the terrible toll on mental health artistic pursuit may lead to, it’s my job to try to minimize the physical toll.

The thing is, I don’t want artists to stop doing dangerous art. I would just like them to be willing to listen to the people that are trying to keep them alive, rather than rejecting this advice as authoritarian bullshit (another student quote). At the very least, I would be happy if they’d be merely as resistant as the average chemistry researcher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Reactor Accident Cocktail

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

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

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

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

VERDICT: Revolting

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

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

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

VACATION TIME

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

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

And with that…

Nevada Test Site Cocktails

These both come to me from retiree workers at the Nevada Test Site who were there when we were still “stamping our feet”.  Some vocabulary review is necessary:

Mercury, NV was the ghost town inside the Nevada Test Site that was taken over by DOE and the military. It’s about as nice as you could imagine a pre-1950s middle of nowhere desert town subsequently attacked by military aesthetics and architecture to be. These days, with staffing levels dramatically reduced, it’s effectively a ghost town again.

A “shot”, in Atomic Energy Commission/Department of Defense/Department of Energy parlance, refers to a nuclear test, as opposed to NASA where this refers to a vehicle launch.

The Nevada Test Site was formerly known as the Nevada Proving Grounds.

The Proving Grounds Test Shot
1 part whatever juice mix (usually military Bug Juice) or soda type item the Mercury commissary has available
1 part spectroscopic grade (99.999%) ethanol
Mix with ice, if available, in a large container, serve in shotglasses stolen from a Vegas casino or commissary coffee cups (whichever is handy)

Safety recommendation: DO NOT serve in Dixie cups.  The wax melts in the heat and dissolves with alcohol that strong.

Frenchman’s Flat Martini (be sure to bring ingredients in a cooler)
4 parts gin
1 part dry vermouth
Crush desert sage and drop leaves into the drink
Mix with ice in a shaker, serve in a martini glass in the presence of a nuclear device to be detonated within the next 24 hours.

Etiquette Recommendation:
The device is a member of the team as well.  Team members should toast the device by clinking their glass against it.

Safety Recommendation:
DO NOT drink from that side of the glass.
DO NOT use desert sage collected within the Nevada Test Site.