Recent Improvements, New BBotEs, and Vacations

Let’s begin with the improvement you can’t see or, rather, won’t see anymore. At some point a “helpful upgrade” was done by BigCommerce who provide the architecture and servers for the store side of Funranium Labs. In the course of this upgrade, they managed to break the 3rd party SSL chain and depending on the browser you received a warning letting you know that my store was as suspect as a Moldovan merchant bank and to be avoided at all costs. It took far too long to figure out exactly how they broke it and then longer to determine how to fix it correctly with them. Needless to say, I have received a fresh customer service lesson which I will file away for how to treat others better. If I’ve done everything right, you won’t be getting nasty red flags anymore…at least until the next “upgrade“.

In the near future, I have some travel coming up which is going to make production schedules a little screwy. This weekend, I’m headed up to Portland to celebrate a friend’s birthday, which means for those of you who want go juice for Burning Man BBotE the schedule’s a little tight. Meanwhile, while Burning Man is going on, I will be fleeing to the Sierras to collect two national parks I haven’t been to yet, Kings Canyon & Sequoia. It is very important to give me camping hermitage time or I start getting stabby. And finally, there will be a longer service interruption as I go to Boston on Sept 20th to celebrate the wedding of Test Subjects Vision Science. I will then be fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I was 20 or so when my grandma did it and coming home via cross-country Amtrak trip, with a couple stops along the way. The coffee engines will fire up again after that trip on Oct 5th.  All that said, I’m not going to turn off ordering, but I’m going to ask your patience as listings may zero out on you and production windows may go longer or shorter than normal as I try to crank as much out as possible.

Now, on to new BBotE offerings and me rambling about history, war, and agronomy.

As previously mentioned, Guatemala Nueva Vinas is being retired until next year when, hopefully, the next crop comes in and is up to snuff. In the meantime, I have identified a Guatemala Antigua that I’ve enjoyed which has an impressive citrus brightness and dark chocolate flavor that, weirdly, reminds me of Pepperidge Farms lemon Milano cookies. My normal tasting crowd ran about a 50/50 split of “Coffee and lemons do not go together” and “Holy shit, this is like that weird Panama you make that tastes like blueberries. Are you gonna make more?” There was a universal opinion that the addition of pretty much any alcohol to it was a winner. Do not take this as a challenge to make BBotE & cynar cocktails.

Lastly, Test Subject Nimby, proprietor of Blackstar Group, recently went on vacation to Puerto Rico and asked if there was anything I’d like him to bring back. I instead sent him on a mission to see if he could find a worthwhile coffee for me to play with. You see, I keep cursing the name of United Fruit because in the course of setting up the banana republics around the world, even in places where they did the least political damage, their market distorting effects destroyed the coffee plantations that had been there for generations, all in the name of bananas & pineapples. After my trip to Hawaii, where I sampled as much coffee as I could stand, I started wondering about the coffee production in the Spanish-American War acquisitions. In Guam, the coffee crops are almost gone, long ago replaced by bananas, importing most of the coffee the consume from Sumatra. In the Philippines, their coffee production never really recovered from an awful blight at the end of the 19th century that, again made bananas look appealing. Production has resumed there, but the Philippines are net importers of coffee by a fair margin and most of their domestic crops are robusta.

Which brings us to Puerto Rico. Coffee production in Puerto Rico never really stopped. It was never as large scale production like Haiti, which supplied a quarter of the world’s supply at one time. Once the filthy Yanqui showed up, the production decreased as work moved to sugar cane instead. Because cane and coffee use very different terrain, the crop transition didn’t destroy the coffee plantations like happened for bananas, so much as them being abandoned or only being used for low key, local production. Once sugar beets displaced sugar cane as the primary source for everyone’s favorite diabetes fuel, they started firing up the the old coffee plantations again.

Initial run of Puerto Rico Yaucono headed to Test Subject Nimby, with a salute for me.

Initial run of Puerto Rico Yaucono headed to Test Subject Nimby, with a salute for me.

That said, most of Puerto Rico’s production remains for local consumption. Puerto Rico has struck me with proud, just this side arrogant, pride of place for their their food. Each valley has the best coffee, everyone’s grandma has the best coquito recipe; it’s one of the things I miss about living around lots of Puerto Ricans. The Yaucono that Test Subject Nimby sent me is a dark roast which generally gives me pause. Dark roasts tend to leave very little of the original coffee’s character which is why there’s so few of them as BBotE, I want to actually taste something other than the roast. However, I got a treat every bit as good as my surprise with the Peru Salkanty here, the taste was like the smell of opening a cedar chest and a cup of hot cocoa. Considering Caribbean fun times, I decided to try a rum addition rather than vodka and a 6:2:1 hot water to Yaucono to dark rum mix is a goddamn treat.

Both of these go on the Limited Run line up and I’m happy for it.

Antarctic Medical Evacuation 2003

I’m putting this here to, potentially, stop questions.

I, honestly, remember near to nothing about the medevac we had in late 2003. Hypothyrodism due to protracted exposure to cold and dark takes a lot of forms and mine was memory loss and appalling Yoda like grammar. I remember very little about September 2003 and near to none of October other than excruciating frostbite at the very end.

I remember two people leaving. One due to a serious medical issue and one who wanted out before he got lynched.

I remember a plane basically didn’t stop moving for fear it would freeze up and never move again.

I remember a BBQ that needed a continuous propane torch to keep burning because it was too cold to go otherwise. That probably has nothing to do with the medevac flight.

I know there is another one happening now in the 2016 winter season, in the dead of austral winter. September was bad enough, but at least the continent was warming up at that point. Late June, right after Midwinter really, is as bad as it gets. Wish them well, everyone. This is dangerous as all fuck and they wouldn’t even attempt if it wasn’t dire.

Great Moments In Teaching – Fecal Samples

PLEASE NOTE: there is a very good reason there are no pictures associated with this story.

As some of you may know, I teach radiation safety course at a local community college. A while back, we were discussing bioassay techniques (read: ways determine if there’s been an uptake of radioactive material in the body, where, how, and how much) in my radiation safety class. 

My fellow instructor, after explaining how fecal dosimetry techniques work, declared that no one, not the subject providing the sample, not the dosimetrist who has to process it, certainly not the rest of the lab staff, nor even the lab building’s neighbors, likes it when you have to do fecal samples.

I begged to disagree before the class. I clearly remembered an occasion that a world renowned health physicist and internal dosimetrist loudly declared in my presence “I LOVE FECAL SAMPLES!

I stared at him very hard. He saw me staring. There was then a several beat pause…

He then corrected himself, declaring somewhat less loudly, “I love the numbers I get from fecal samples.”

Once again, I love making sure lessons hit home and stick for life with memorable vignettes like this to hang the information on. I’m proud to declare all our students aced that part of the exam. I’m just sad no one took video of my “Rubbin’ My Ass On Uranium” dance to demonstrate proper dosimeter badge usage.

The Picric Acid Tale or “Why I Can’t Have Four Day Weekends Anymore”

Once upon a time, the radiation safety officer (RSO), let’s call him Bob, had been out performing the inventory of source material* and ran across a bit of excitement.

In this particular lab, they had approximately 10 grams of uranyl acetate, a very common contrast stain for electron microscopes.  The poor unfortunate grad student who was trying to wrangle things for the RSO presented the uranyl acetate to Bob for him weigh and verify, but Bob ignored him.  Bob was looking over the grad student’s shoulder at the fume hood behind him.  Bob took a picture of it for us all to enjoy later, evacuated the lab, and told the grad student to get the department chair down here RIGHT NOW while Bob called the chemical safety folks to come up and help.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

Picric Acid Sat. Sol. 3/18/69 ☺ – You see, the ☺ means it must be safe.

Flash forward to the staff meeting as Bob presents his pictures.  I may have let out a pained yelp of terror when this one came up on the screen.  I apologize for the lack of detail for this picture, but the brown bottle has a handwritten label that reads “PICRIC ACID, SAT. SOL., 3/18/69, *happy face*”

Bob: “So, does anyone see any problems with this picture?”
Me: “YES!  There’s a four fucking liter bottle of picric acid!”
Bob: “Note that the bottle says ‘Sat. Sol.’  How would we know if it weren’t safe?”
Me: “Well, I suppose if it wasn’t safe they would’ve labeled it with a frowny face instead of a happy one.”
Bob: [gives me a glare] “Right, no more four day weekends for you.  You get sarcastic if we give you too much time off.  I was referring to the crystalline sediment in the bottom of the bottle that shows this is clearly a supersaturated solution now.”
Me: [emits another yelp of terror]
Co-Worker 1: “Jeez, they haven’t cleaned their lab in 40 years if that’s been lying around since it got labeled.”
Co-Worker 2: “No…the building they’re in now has only existed for 17 years.  The had to move it here from somewhere else first…*trails off into contemplative horror*

Supersaturated picric acid is a shock & light sensitive bomb, similar to unstable crystallized ether.  There have been an awful lot of lab explosions over the decades due to forgotten picric bottles which is why it is pretty much banned in anything other than microquantities.  A 4L bottle is a job that even the bomb squad is reluctant to touch.

As a nice bonus, if you look closely you’ll notice that there’s a bottle of 70% percholoric acid next to it, which is another potential bomb. At the very least, a POWERFUL oxidizer to help promote the coming firestorm when everything goes sideways.

The happy ending is that everything worked out nicely and nothing had to be detonated with a sniper rifle from a safe distance. This time.

 


* Source material is defined as naturally occurring or depleted uranium or thorium materials which could, potentially, be refined and enriched.  In practice, this normally translates to “anything we feel like nailing you for not having on your inventory already” as this is stuff any member of the public can buy, but as license holder you have a responsibility to keep track of it.

No Pants-Bear Bad

Adding this slice of life from almost a decade ago at LLNL to the permanent record of Funranium Labs as a reference point for Test Subject Vision Scientist (subcategory: Male)

[SCENE: Early April 2008, Lawrence Livermore Nat’l Lab. The transition to the new managing private consortium, primarily run by Bechtel, has proven to be very uncomfortable and isn’t improving. All the people involved in this story, and even the departments, have moved on or are dead.] 

The only thing I hate almost as much as group projects are All Hands meetings.

There is nothing more fun than a one hour meeting that runs a half hour over where no useful information is conveyed despite actual insightful, searching questions from the audience.  It was very much a meeting because management felt it necessary to Say Something, except that everything anyone wanted to know they couldn’t say.

After then All Hands meeting I went to go visit a former co-worker who now works in the Department That Doesn’t Get Out Much Because They’re Too Busy Thinking Terrorist Thoughts.  She asked how things were going out in the Lab at large where people get to see sunlight.  After due consideration I described it, speaking very fast and panicky, “Ohgodohgodwe’reallgonnadietheskyisfallingit’scoldoutsideilostmypantsandthere’sabearthatwantstoeatme!!!”

She blinked a few times and then she began laughing in way that I felt justified in grabbing the spill clean up kit just in case, which only made her laugh more. They’re a little short of entertainment in there.

This morning I was shocked to hear someone else describe a situation as “No Pants-Bear” Bad. I’ve gotten a stern finger waggling whilst sniggering by my manager for creating a new term that is spreading through the Laboratory like curium-244 contamination.   I now give it to you to enjoy and share with the rest of the world.

Klingon Scrabble and Odd Units of Measure

The other day I was trading tales with the former BBotE Ambassador of NYC, @EditrixW, and after sharing my new favorite Beatles cover song from Mongolia we drifted by COMPLETELY REASONABLE CONNECTIONS to the reason why my Lovely Assistant and I haven’t played Scrabble in quite some time. You see, we used to play it in a way I like to call Klingon Scrabble; you aren’t playing for the actual points but rather for honor. You can claim honor with such things as, but by no means limited to:

  • Longest word
  • Most words made at the same time
  • Dirtiest word
  • Bingos are still impressive
  • Most swear words
  • Most ridiculous acronym which you can explain
  • Really, you managed to play “HITLER” on the board more than once?
  • AND “STALIN”?!?!

And because both my Lovely Assistant and I hold science degrees, a PhD in her case, some latitude has been made to allow scientific terms because they also hold honor and are generally pretty hard to play. Also many scientific terms are proper nouns, so we had to kinda give up on that rule too but took it on a case by case basis. A complete list of the words played by each player should be written down for use to create a story, which is also a source of honor. Now that you’ve got the setup, let me now tell the tale of the last game of Scrabble we played which more or less went as follows.

SCENE: a late Sunday afternoon sitting at the dinner table, playing Scrabble.

Lovely Assistant: [plays the word “EXAM”, claims a triple word score]

Me: [looks hard at the letters on my rack, has a staggering realization, starts giggling]

LA: (very suspiciously) What?

Me: I got a bingo! [lays down the rest of my tiles after the M in “EXAM”]

LA: [making a Face] “EXAMONGOLIA” is not a word.

Me: Sure it is! It’s 1018 Mongolias.

LA: There is only one Mongolia and it is a proper noun.

Me: In the infinite multiverse, there is a similarly infinite number of Mongolias.

LA: No. You can’t just add unit prefixes to things. Mongolia isn’t a unit.

Me: It is too. Mongolia is the unit of hordeosity.

LA: [makes the Face again] Hordeosity isn’t a word either.

Me: When you have a group of people, you have to look at them to assess their likelihood/capability of going on a rampage. This is how horde-y  they are. Their hordeosity.

It is too totally a word

EXAMONGOLIA – 21 Points For Straight Letter Value Isn’t Bad (it is totally a word)

LA: [looks at me quietly with the Face that says she is working really hard to remember precisely WHY she loves me]

Me: Obviously, the Mongolia is one of those ridiculous basic units that’s hard to use like the Farad, Tesla, and Becquerel.

LA: Nope. We’re done here.

 

To end this story, she would like me to remind all of you that examongolia is totally not word. I, in turn, encourage you to contact the International Bureau of Weights and Measures to get this new fundamental unit recognized.

More Volcano & Coffee Contemplation

As mentioned in the previous post, I fled the mainland for a week to escape Super Bowl madness in the SF Bay Area to the lovely Big Island of Hawaii. As my Lovely Assistant had never been to that island before, we split our time between Hilo and Kailua so she could experience both sides. Given my druthers, I will happily spend any and all time possible in Hilo. It reminds me of Santa Cruz, CA before the 1989 Loma Prieta quake forced the urban renewal that stomped the a lot of the kindness out of the town too. To be fair, I haven’t crunched a syringe underfoot in well over a decade in downtown Santa Cruz but then my desire to go wander around downtown for fun is gone too.

As I read back over this, that’s probably not be the tourism recommendation the Hilo Chamber of Commerce is looking for. It’s a quiet and beautiful town that hasn’t been destroyed by a tsunami in well over 50 years, so high fives. No really, they changed their urban planning in the 1960s to create a flood plain for typical tsunamis (yes, Hawaii gets enough to have “typical” ones) to exhaust themselves in a serene park. To be fair, that park used to be a fishing village separate from Hilo proper, but after the second time you get wiped out within a generation you start reconsidering your real estate development options.

Years ago, I mentioned that I did work as an undergrad that involved pulverizing a lot of volcanic rocks. To be more specific, I was doing isotope geochemistry on volcanic rocks trying to answer an important geological question: Does what goes down come back up? TL;DR answer is yes, but it’s complicated. if you’d like to know more you’re welcome to read this paper, which became someone else’s PhD outlined by my undergrad thesis, that resulted from me playing with a lot powerful acids and reducing rocks to tiny samples that I then vaporized on a mass spectrometer. Trust me, this is actually relevant to coffee.

That fundamental question was tested by looking for something that had a very distinct isotopic mix, subducting under another plate, with a resulting volcanic arc. If you take the Pacific Ocean, away you can see the chain of dead volcanoes extending  across the plate from the vicinity of Midway all the way to Izu-Bonin volcanic arc. These are big mountains, the kind that are large enough to deform the oceanic crust around them, which makes big troughs on either side that collect sediments, which are mostly landslides from the seamounts and chert from dead abyssal plankton. The Western Seamounts basalt, when mixed with the chert, makes a quite particular isotopic profile that, funny enough, isotopically looks an awful lot like the volcanic island directly above the where they subduct, AKA the island of Guam. As you move north or south from Guam, that isotopic signal fades away.

Which lead me to an odd thought: hey, Guam is in the Coffee Belt and has the right volcanic soil, I wonder if 100% Guamian coffee tastes close to Kona coffee? The mode of volcanism is different but the chemistry is similar. Or, at the very least, I could answer the question of what would coffee grown on the slopes of the submerged mountains I did my thesis on; Guam is as close as I can get. This, unfortunately, is an academic question as Guamian coffee appears to damn near impossible to get outside of Guam as pure varietal as there is very little under cultivation there anymore.

Speaking of Kona coffee, I drank a great deal of it. I also made a point to sample as much Ka’u, Puna, Hilo and Hamakua coffee as I could get my hands on just to compare the very different flavors from what is, more or less, very similar volcanic soils. In particular, I would like to give appreciation to the work of Hilo Shark’s Coffee, which you can hang out at for hours in downtown Hilo. Their coffee, chocolate, and vanilla is coming from their farm on the Hilo coast up the road a bit. When you order a hot chocolate and the whipped cream is sprinkled with nibs rather than dusted with cocoa powder, that’s a damn good sign. The small bar I bought is some of the best bittersweet dark chocolate I’ve had. While sitting savoring our coffee and cocoa, I remarked to my Lovely Assistant that if they had a tea plantation I might have a hard time getting her to leave. She immediately began searching and found one a few miles away from the Sharky Farm so, umm, if Hilo needs a PhD chemist who’s a also decent programmer I think you’ll have little difficulty convincing her to move there.

WELCOME TO THE WAIPIO VALLEY OUTLOOK - Please look, but don't touch or enter

WELCOME TO THE WAIPIO VALLEY OUTLOOK – Please look, but don’t touch or enter

There was one unfortunate thing that happened while there which was a fresh outbreak of dengue fever. The Waipio Valley is beautiful but difficult to get to at the best of times, which also makes treatment for re-eradication of disease difficult. Unfortunately, sick visitors and workers regularly bring dengue back to Hawaii and it sets up residence to make a disease reservoir anew in Waipio. I was ambivalent about finding this sign: while I’m glad this sign exists for me to take a picture of for my collection of interesting safety signs, it’s telling that it happens enough that they have this sign ready to go. As a friend who is now responding to this outbreak said, “It could be worse. They didn’t just leave the sign up at the overlook and add an extra sign & lights of WHEN LIGHTS ARE FLASHING.”

The Waipio Valley in its lush and drizzly glory

The Waipio Valley in its lush and drizzly glory

But that doesn’t do justice to Waipio. Really, it is gorgeous there. I’ll leave you today with this picture from the overlook.

Apologies For The Weird Production Windows

The production window closing on January 23rd, which was a long one due to CES 2016, has pretty much sold out and shipped. The next production window will be completely open on Saturday (some slots are already up) but its going to be a short window ending on February 2nd.  “Why?” you might ask. Because my Lovely Assistant and I will be heading to the Big Island of Hawaii for a week to get the hell out of the SF Bay Area during the Super Bowl. I hope everyone enjoys the game and general festivities but, honestly, the getting around here is bad enough at the best of times. Adding a couple hundred thousand extra people means it’s time for me to be elsewhere.

As has been previously discussed here, I love me some volcanoes and doing isotope geochemistry on their rocks has informed some of my coffee palate. As my other convenient volcanoes require serious snow and winter gear at the moment,  Hawaii is the name of the game. It’s been almost a decade since I’ve been there so I’m excited to see if my golden, transcendent memories of drinking all the coffee at the Kona Pacific Coffee Co-op hold true or it was all just a dream.

So, get you orders in now for the short pre-Hawaii tip production window. The window after that will go until February 27th. Sorry for the weird production windows to start 2016 but the holidays and travel have made things tricky.

As a slice of life from bartending at my friend’s hospitality suite for the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show, by far the weirdest moment was helping another friend, Fr. Gabriel, say mass. You see, the EZPR Suite is the happiest place in Las Vegas during CES as it has a well stocked bar, run by me, and a collection of wonderful people to hang out with, which happens to include a Dominican priest. Travel was badly messed up for everyone coming into Vegas so Fr. Gabriel got in painfully late and missed getting to mass at the cathedral. Its helpful to think of priests and monks as dedicated computers that run a very particular program, mass.exe, and it must be executed at least once per day; doesn’t need to be done in a church proper, doesn’t need a lot of people, but the program must be run.

It's sacrilicious!

Fr. Gabriel’s INSTANT ALTAR! Just add wine.

To this end, Fr. Gabriel has a Portable Altar which looks REMARKABLY SIMILAR to my 1960s portable bar from Executair. He was just going to use a closet in the suite, but I had the bright idea that there’s a bunch of wedding chapels in the hotel, usually unused, and maybe they’d be willing to let him use it as a quiet space. As happens a lot in my company, we got told “That’s a new one on me”, “I thought I’d heard everything”, and “No one’s ever asked that one before” a lot.

Please imagine, if you will, a fully decked out Dominican priest saying mass to himself, functioning as celebrant and congregation all in one, with an altar in miniature in the alcove of a casino chapel where they normally put the flowers and gifts. Please also imagine me, a long hair bearded ginger in shorts and Fallout t-shirt, elsewhere in the chapel trying to arrange refrigerator repair by phone at the same time. If there wasn’t a bunch of people gathered around the security monitors asking “What the fuck is going on here?” I’d be very surprised.

Regarding Breathalyzers in Antarctica

As I have been asked by a number of people about the latest Office of Inspector General’s report, and in the case of Wired they interviewed me and generated a very cherry picked set of quotes designed for maximum clickbait, allow me to share my collected thoughts about it here. TL;DR version: the NSF response to the audit is good and proper in my opinion, not that my opinion is all that important, though I’d worry about breathalyzers a bit.

  1. Remember there are three different groups of people going to Antarctica under the auspices of the National Science Foundation: grantees (research staff paid by NSF grant, AKA beakers, from various institutions around the world), contractor (station support staff paid by any of a number of management contractors and subcontractors), and military (the Air National Guard provides flight support and the Navy Cargo & Handling Group does ship offload). That said, the NSF has overarching responsibility for all the operations going on there.
  2. Compared to contractor personnel, grantees going to the continent have a “license to kill”. This is not to say they are unsupervised or lack any repercussions for their actions, but the chain of command over them and enforcement for infractions is looser. This is supposed to be intentional over the whole population to leave the latitude to manage a small and remote crew with as much flexibility as possible through the long winter. The NSF Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines that no contractor is allowed to be looser than, but in practice the contractor has much more management staff on site to enforce their corporate policies, which tend to be more strict than the NSF. It’s a matter of perspective.

    In my opinion, the NSF has been doing the right things to keep things open enough that the program is responsive to needs as they arise. Codify things too tightly in the safety of an office back at home and you may be inadequately prepared for problems as they come up.

  3. The station managers are deputized as special Deputy US Marshals to deal with the worst contingencies of human behavior that can happen in a remote place. This isn’t exactly law enforcement and it sure isn’t part of the day to day duties of a station manager; it’s an emergency response role. Response to incidents that require using this aspect of their duties is something I suspect is documented quite well and rare.
  4. The idea of using of breathalyzers for cause by managers to insure fitness for duty isn’t all that out of the ordinary anywhere in the American workplace, particularly under government contract. The weird thing for the Antarctic stations is that your workplace also is your home. What you do in your own time should be up to you, but for South Pole Station the population is small enough that there are no separate emergency responders. If you’re in no shape to respond to an alarm going off, that’s a tricky problem. Can I be upset with you for not being respond outside of your regular work hours?

    During work hours, just like anywhere else in the world, if you’re staggering up to a piece of heavy equipment because you just had a three martini lunch, people are going to notice and have cause. If you’re so badly hungover from the night before that you can’t clearly see which buttons do what on a console, same deal, testing for cause. Your boss would be delinquent in their duties if they didn’t pull you aside and send you to the doc.

  5. Now, whether those breathalyzers are going to work properly on the Antarctic Plateau is another question entirely. You’re hard pressed to get most manufacturers to certify equipment for high altitude, very low humidity, or temperatures below -40 and without that certification any actions you take based on the results will lack foundation. Hell, I couldn’t even get the manufacturer of my “arctic expedition grade sunglasses” to give me assurance that they wouldn’t fall apart at Pole. That said, it can be done, but it’s going to require some testing. The contractor says they’ve found one that will work without calibration so all the better. Where there’s a will there’s a way to make this happen for almost any gear.
  6. The bar culture of Antarctica is not a bad thing and it had the best interests of the crew in mind when established by the US Navy. Thousands of jokes about sailors aside, the Navy has long experience of how to manage crews in tight quarters, morale building, and how to blow off steam. Acknowledging that people were going to drink, the bars were created make sure they were drinking safe booze rather than homebrew hooch (which happens when you go “dry”) and to bring people together to reduce consumption. You might not think of a bar as a place for moderation of drinking, but it gives your fellow crewmates a chance to watch out for you. If you’re drinking alone in your room, and hoo nelly is that a bad sign, there isn’t any potential for the positive aspects of peer pressure to help rein you in or ask if you’re doing alright.

    When I got asked why I wouldn’t cut people off, it’s because I was much happier for them to pass out in front of me in the warmth and safety of the bar than have them “finish the job” alone or, worse, lose consciousness in the cold on their way back to their room. Really, the bar is a safety mechanism.

Welcome to the Wasteland

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a piece of Nevada that America decided was expendable. It had eaten countless settlements, boomed and busted so many times with the precious metal of choice, and the taken the lives of settlers with it. We then sacrificed it on the altar of national security and science, to forever be removed from the world, burning it with nuclear fire. The Nellis Bombing Range, AKA Nevada Proving Grounds, then renamed the Nevada Test Site (NTS), and now known as the Nevada National Security Site. Because for most of my life, certainly during the period when I worked in the complex, it was known as the NTS that is what I will refer to it as in this post.

NOTE: I once held endorsement to go to the Nevada Test Site in an official capacity but never actually made it out there. This was the first time I ever made it there and it was as a member of the public, not as the privileged and clearance holding.

ICECAP Test Assembly Tower (photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office)

ICECAP Test Assembly Tower (photo courtesy of DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office)

I was lucky enough to get to take a public tour out there back in March. If you have the slightest interest in the desert and Big Science, or you’re just an atomic tourist, you owe yourself putting your name in the hat to take one of these tours. Slots normally open up in June, so keep on eye on the the DOE/NV Site Office Website for further announcements about tours. Yes, you will need to do some paperwork and possibly use a fax manchine. If you aren’t an American citizen, you may need to do even more.

Your tour begins at the Atomic Testing Museum at UNLV, which I’ve previously discussed, at 7:30 in the morning. Why so early? Because the next thing you do after collecting your badge is to climb on a bus as it drives an hour north of Vegas to the south entrance of the NTS. As a matter of entertainment, you’ll pass by Creech Air Force Base and have an opportunity to watch an air field that seems devoid of humans but with drones buzzing by regularly. The nearby town is boarded up, but the skies are humming.

I should add that I didn’t go alone on this trip. I was accompanied by my mother and sister, my Lovely Assistant, and Test Subjects Mortician & IT to Porn. This was a trip I had tried to organize before my father passed, but it took a couple extra years to get it all together. Some of the observations I’m sharing are collected from the larger group.

Once you actually arrive at the NTS, your first stop is badge check at the main gate. Just because you got issued a badge already doesn’t mean someone that shouldn’t be there hasn’t snuck aboard in the last 50 miles of lonely highway, so they check. This is the location that most of the old “No Nukes” protestors probably remember best as this is where the civil disobedience arrests used to take place. Our minder related his memory of when things had started to get a bit rowdy and there were too many people at one time to easily deal with, so they built a holding pen out there. Funny enough, the sherrifs discovered if you put too many likeminded people of a certain age together, of opposite sexes, bored, and possibly (very likely) stoned out of their minds… well, you need to build two holding pens. As described, it sounded like practice for future Burning Man camps.

Our next stop after going through the gate was the small town that is Mercury, NV because we’d been on the road for over an hour already, and there wasn’t going to be another good bathroom stop for quite a while; remember, this place is big, as in comparable to some states in New England. The more I think about it, town is much too generous a term for Mercury. It’s a quasi-military encampment that been there for decades, but it has a post office and zip code, therefore the place has to have a name and the original postmaster dredged up one of the old ghost town names for the area. Honestly, ghost town is a really good description for what Mercury was like. Other than the cashier in the NTS Cafeteria & Steakhouse, I saw one other person in Mercury who wasn’t on our tour.

Regarding the Steakhouse & Cafeteria, the Steakhouse wasn’t open when I was there, but I did peek through the window on the heavy wooden door. It reminded me of the fake rustic doors of old 1970s Italian restaurants you find in mini-malls, the ones with the tiny watery glass window with bars over them. On the inside, well, it wasn’t impressive. It reminded me of some of the less cared for VFW hall bars, except it lacked the character that comes with the old soldiers adding memorabilia and decor. Trestle tables, plastic table cloths, and a menu featuring Sam Adams as it’s microbrew. While it doesn’t look great, I’m to understand the steak is quite good, especially after a 12 hour long training exercise.

In the cafeteria proper, we who had woken up far too early for the tour had a chance to get desperately needed coffee. This was a mistake. A venerable government machine urinated into a cup for us. Test Subject Mortician took a sip, made a face, and said, “Tastes like its filled with scalding sadness.” I similarly winced and agreed with him, while my mom looked on and laughed at us for, truly, nothing had changed. The term she’d learned at Harris Technologies for this, circa 1970, for the magical machines that dispense coffee, tea, and chicken noodle soup, which all came out tasting identically horrible, was “Let’s get some kerosene”.

We then piled back into the bus with our snacks, to head out into the desert. Our minder for the tour was a former program director through 1980-90s for the non-nuclear experiments at NTS, so we got some interesting insights and tales of experiments that we might not associate with the place. For example, answering questions like “If you were to successfully shoot down a SCUD missile with a Patriot, which is POWERFULLY unlikely, and it’s loaded with chemical weapons, would the results of the interception be any worse than not doing anything?” or “If I wanted to try to weld a pipe onto the side of leaking chlorine rail car that’s leaking DID I MENTION THAT IT’S LEAKING to try to safely offload the contents, is there a way to do that without starting a chlorine fueled metal fire?”

Our next stop was the three mile line for the the Plumbob test series where, in addition to doing bomb performance studies, we were also doing survivability tests for different architectures and materials of typical infrastructure. We piled out of the bus and then looked up at the desert rusted heavy steel structure of the box girder train trestle, bent from blast forces, bolts sheared or yanked out of the concrete. The circle of concrete pediments continued at three miles from ground zero. We then kept driving and saw pummeled concrete domes, blasted houses, quansit huts. At the three mile mark most things survived; at the one mile mark, even the strongest, thickest, reinforced dome bunker looked like it had been smote from above.

The last stop I want to tell you about, because I want to leave some surprises for your own trip, is ICECAP (see photo above). In 1992, President Bush the First signed a temporary nuclear test moratorium. It’s still temporary, but the original 9 month moratorium has now become the more or less permanent 23 years and counting. Like anything that’s an ongoing process you bring to an end, not only is there something that has to be the last one but there also was going to be a next one. ICECAP is the nuclear test that never happened.

Depending on who you ask, ICECAP was either days, weeks, or months away from being ready for testing. It was intend to be what’s known as a String of Pearls test where more than one device was tested/disposed of at once, one stacked on top of another. But in particular it was intended to be a test of a British nuclear device where they were interested in perfomance in freezing temperatures, so there was an integrated freezer unit. They had the hole drilled, all the cabling and the diagnostic equipment prepped, and devices in preparedness to be loaded down the hole.

Why would we be testing a British nuclear device in Nevada? Once upon a time, the UK used to test in northern Australia until it got pointed out that the wind patterns weren’t great, hey, how about we test your stuff underground in Nevada instead? We’ve got a lot of Nevada, it’ll be great.

And then the moratorium took effect. Allow me to assemble a sarcastic, abbreviated year of diplomacy for you:

Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE): We really wanted our test.

US: We just put a moratorium in place. Sorry.

AWE: That’s your moratorium. We didn’t sign any of moratorium. We want our test.

US: Well, test away. Just not in Nevada.

AWE: We spent many, many millions of pounds for this test!

US: Cool.

AWE: NOT COOL! We want our test! We want our money back!

US: [whistles to itself walking around the desert]

AWE: C’monnnnnnnnnn

US: Nope.

And this is how a Smithsonian grade museum exhibit of late 1990s nuclear testing capabilities came to be in the middle of Nevada Site. Thanks, British government!

You will also get to see the Sedan Crater (which is the very large physical remains of the Plowshare Program), visit the nuclear waste facility where the remains of the Manhattan Project are slowly buried one football field worth at a time, and drive through Bilby Crater so you can say you’ve been to Ground Zero of a nuclear test. I cannot stress what a wonderful history and atomic archaeology nerd once in a lifetime experience this is. My only regret is no pictures, I have to hold it in my head as a dear memory.