Sometimes I go places and do things. Sometimes I play with radioactive things or radiation producing machines.

Occasionally, I do them at the same time.

Fukushima Exclusion Zone Preview & Announcements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fringes of Regulation

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Meet Herr Direktor: DEFCON & National Atomic Testing Museum

it THICC

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

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

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

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

THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

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

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

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

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

See you there!

Upcoming Adventures: Sumo & Fukushima Daiichi

The Coffee Wave – by Jen Miller, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANSWER: 43 days

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

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

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

Containing Multitudes: Laser Safety Edition

Most of you found me as the ridiculous coffee & steins guy. Some think of me as the radiation safety man who knows way too much history and is an embodiment of Institutional Memory (this would definitely be the point of view from the researchers and students I wrangle). To others, I am the crazy coin ranter…who knows way too much history.

But last year, a whole new part of the internet found me and, often, decided they didn’t like what I had to say as I revealed I am the laser safety guy who isn’t a big fan of some aspects of maker & founder culture. I wrote a bit of a rant on a product whose existence I found infuriating as it, from start to finish, embodied those bits of culture that drive me crazy. This also caused the parts of the internet I didn’t piss off to send me a steady stream of things to see if they were bad too or, in most cases, in hopes of raising my blood pressure. I took home some lessons from all this I’d like to share with you:

  1. In the last couple years, something happened that caused a wave of cheap 405nm (deep violet) and 450nm (blue) laser diodes to come onto the market. Since shorter wavelength means more energy per photon, this was what the market has been waiting for to make small, cheap laser cutter/engravers. Cubiio was only one of dozens of different versions of similar systems.
  2. The FDA Center for Device and Radiologic Health (CDRH) are aware of these systems, or at least becomes so as soon as someone tells them. There are so many and they so understaffed that they don’t actively hunt them, merely address those that are directly reported to them or are revealed in the course of an accident investigation. There is some despair of ever getting ahead of the wave at this point. The days of a few large and responsible laser manufacturers to wrangle, who reliably file paperwork before selling products, are long gone.
  3. Amazon and eBay are oh so very complicit in the illegal importation and sale of laser systems that aren’t FDA compliant. Their hosting of third party sales without much (if any) vetting of what is being sold through their marketplace is a gushing pipeline of gray/black market items to America. When told to suspend sale of an item by the CDRH, they will very diligently remove that specific listing from that particular seller. If you heard a bit of sarcastic tone in your head there, good. Nothing prevents a different seller from selling the same item or the original seller for listing a substantially similar one, just different enough to evade the CDRH take down. Since listings are automated and fees are generated by listing and sale, there is no incentive for Amazon & eBay to do so self-policing. And then there’s Alibaba…
  4. USPS/Customs Enforcement stop what they are specifically told to stop. They haven’t been given much direction about lasers and, much like CDRH, they don’t have much hope against the wave. I can personally attest to my two Not At All Okay handheld lasers, purchased via 3rd party seller on Amazon, that were shipped direct from China and sailed through Customs. The Mail Cops’ focus is trying to interdict weapons and illegal drugs, so this is one of those eye-rolling “Sure, yeah, we’ll get right on that in our copious free time” situations.
  5. The intentionally reactive, rather than preventive, nature of control in the sale of laser products means we are way deep into whackadoo laser quackery on the market and have been for a while. It’s reminding me a lot of where we were with radioactive materials and x-rays, circa 1920. As an example, laser physiotherapy treatment, my entire ass. You are quite successfully selling a glorified heat lamp from China at a 100000% markup to overfunded sports programs. That piece of crap shouldn’t cost $100, much less $250k.

So, let me tell you how I got to this point in my life, or rather how I got back to it. Once upon a time, my first job out of college was working at one of the large industrial & scientific laser manufacturers in Silicon Valley. I began in production, building pretty much every laser they had on the market at the time. In short order I moved to service and then, thanks to having picked up all the safety roles for my division out of boredom and no one else wanted them, to the Environmental Health & Safety department when a layoff happened. By attrition, I was eventually the only person left in the EH&S department and I was the corporate laser safety officer (LSO) for the entire company. I was burnt out and desperately wanted out of there as management gave zero shits about their employees. After a particularly bad day at work, I discovered that it was possible to get a job working in Antarctica and submitted a resume.

Two years later, Raytheon Polar Services Corporation hired me to be a cryogenics/science technician to serve as a winterover at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. It was, however, a very last minute hire before deployment. From the time a verbal offer was made to the when a same day FedEx letter with paper contract and plane tickets to Denver to attend fire school arrived at my office was 7 hours. Because it was so late in the day, my boss who I loathed was already gone when it arrived. Which meant that before I finished for the day, I had placed a resignation letter in his box, giving two weeks notice and informing him that the first week would be spent on vacation as I learned to be a firefighter in Colorado. I also cleared out my more important items from my office and locked down all relevant things on my computer. It’s fair to say that I burnt that bridge very effectively and scattered the ashes to the wind.

However, as corporate laser safety officer for this company I’d had a prominent voice in the safety community despite being in my 20s. The collective laser safety officers of the San Francisco Bay Area pushed the issue that we needed to make some kind of certification for our field, that there was a bit of a difference between being the person wrangling the one welding laser in the shop and being responsible for an entire university worth of lasers. And so the Board of Laser Safety was formed and the very first Certified Laser Safety Officer (CLSO) examination was organized for October 12, 2002. By the time this date rolled around though, I’d left my job at $LASER_COMPANY and was no longer a practicing laser safety officer. But, I’d paid the money, so I figured what the hell, take the test and maybe it would be something good for the resume when I got back.

The CLSO exam is supposed to be a three hour exam; I was the first one done in 73 minutes. I know this because the proctor showed me his stopwatch and wanted to make sure I was actually done and didn’t want to take more time checking it over. I said no, walked out of the testing room at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and drove all the way back down to my parents’ hose in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I then finished packing my giant bodybag sized duffles and went to sleep. The next morning my dad drove me to San Jose airport to catch the first leg of my very long and delay prone flight to the South Pole.

Several months later, now trapped at Pole with no escape flights coming for the next nine months, my dad let me know that they’d received a giant envelope from the Board of Laser Safety. I asked him to open it. Inside was this certificate which he sent me a picture of.

My original Board of Laser Safety CLSO certificate.

Note the certification number: G1006. The first five certification numbers, G1001-G1005, were held by the members of the Board of Laser Safety. Because I’d finished the test first, I was the sixth. The members of the Board never revealed to me who Number One was, but I was Number Six. Yes, I have been making Prisoner jokes about this for 15 years.

You will also note there is a renewal date on that certificate of January 1, 2006. I spent most of 2003 at the South Pole where the need for laser knowledge was minimal other than telling people “Don’t stand under the dancing laser speckles on the ice from the Atmospheric Research Observatory’s lasers. That’s actually bad. Try not to go blind, I’ll see you in the bar.” Most of 2004 I was unemployed or temping for the water district doing groundwater flow modeling. 2005 was LLNL and they had no need for my mad phat laser sk33lz (well, that’s not true, my knowledge informed other projects I was doing in interesting ways). And so, without continuing education credits, my CLSO lapsed.

Four years ago, I got tapped by a whole bunch of people affiliated with Burning Man as “Hey, I know a guy that knows something about lasers” in the wake of this incident. It kinda rankled that I had to keep giving the caveat of “I am not a CLSO” as I ran people through how to conduct an accident investigation and create policies for control of lasers in a place that believes in Safety Third. Oh, the fun I have with people who try to bring that mentality to places I’m actually responsible for.

Two years ago, I was asked if I was willing to serve as the deputy LSO for UC Berkeley in addition to my other duties. I said yes and somewhat sarcastically replied “You mean formally, as opposed to what I’ve been doing in the hallways for the last eight years? You finally read my resume I gather.”

Last year, the tsunami of shitty laser products, as discussed earlier, hit me. I snapped and decided I needed to re-certify so that I could complain with authority. The weird long BBotE production window in May was because I spent a week in Rochester, NY taking that exam and attending the DOE Laser Safety Conference.

Yesterday, I was contacted directly by the Board of Laser Safety to inform me that I’d passed and was re-certified.

In conclusion…

via GIPHY

The Tale of the Schrempeltraps

Once upon a time, I worked at a company where the lead scientist/CTO for one of the divisions had some compulsive behaviors. He was a German PhD electrical engineer of the small, wizened tinker gnome persuasion. Whatever Grimm’s fairy tale mental picture you have of a watch/clockmaker is pretty much spot on, though put him in some North Face gear and wearing Birkenstocks. His name was Schrempel and this is the cautionary Tale of the Schrempeltraps.

Before he had come to work at my company, he’d been a scientist at CERN and before that at the Max Planck Institute. While Schrempel was a brilliant, wonderfully funny and charming guy, he was absolutely loathed in the laboratory because he was an inveterate button pusher, switch flipper, knob turner and lever puller. More than a few times he had caused experiments to be rebuilt or rerun because he couldn’t resist reaching out to flip a switch on a console. His students took to covering their benches and equipment racks with shrouds and putting up signs that said “DO NOT TOUCH. ESPECIALLY YOU SCHREMPEL. GO AWAY.” in each of the languages he spoke to make sure he got the point.

It never worked. He couldn’t resist.

After weighing the options of killing him vs. giving up on ever completing a project, one of the other scientists suggested that behavioral modification might work on Schrempel. That perhaps, like B.F. Skinner’s experiments, Schrempel could be conditioned to not touch shit. So, they came up with a plan: they would add a bunch of extra buttons and toggles to their equipment consoles that weren’t connected to anything on the bench, but were connected to a low voltage power supply. The hope was that if Schrempel got shocked enough times he would learn and would stop touching things. Basically, they wanted to do this:


Sadly, that didn’t work either.

They then hoped that perhaps shame would work, but it had to be a very particular shame. External shame from angry co-workers hadn’t worked. No, it need to be his own shame, disappointment in himself. After brainstorming how to do this, a student came up with a simple low cost solution. They took a Stanley tape measure, pulled it out 30cm, set the lock on it, placed it on a table in the break room with the end of the tape at the table edge and the body of it in the center of the table. They then took a screwdriver and removed the stay from the end of the tape. They placed the stay, the small screws, and screwdriver next along side the tape in perfectly clear view. They then put a large sign suspended from the ceiling above it that said “SCHREMPELTRAP” on it.

They then walked away and waited for Schrempel to find it. He walked into the break room, saw the tape measure on the table, picked it up, immediately released the lock and the tape retracted all the way into the body of the tape measure as there was no stay. He blinked a few times, looked at the tape measure in his hand, read the sign, looked at the tape measure again, looked at the screwdriver and parts, looked at the sign again and gave a deep sigh. He then sat down with the screwdriver to open the tapemeasure up to fix it by reattaching the stay.

That is what got him. That got him to stop and think before touching things.

Laser Products I Hate

I’m going to ask you all to bear with me here. I tried to find a way to divide this into a couple of posts but, well, it’s so intertwined and problematic that I couldn’t figure out a way to do it. This is gonna be a long one, but I hope educational.

TL;DR version: Don’t waste your money on Cubiio. You’re never going to see it. If you somehow get it, you’ll be breaking the law by using it.

Let’s start here by discussing my day job. While you might think that the production of ultracoffee would afford me zillions, health benefits and a life of luxury most people couldn’t even dream of, that isn’t the case. I am a radiation safety professional, AKA health physicist, who is tasked with wrangling the radiation producing machines (x-ray units, electron microscopes, particle accelerators, etc.), maintaining all the radiation detection instrumentation (Geiger counters and such) and, unofficially, The Weird Shit (when you open up a closet that’s been nailed shut for four decades for some reason and there’s an unmarked box that sets off the Geiger counter, you call Phil). But due to long familiarity with the field and experience building high powered industrial/scientific lasers, I am also the deputy laser safety officer for the campus. The day before I flew off to South Pole Station, I sat for the Certified Laser Safety Officer exam and was issued certificate G006. Certificates G001-005 went to the members of the certification board. So, yeah, I’m not just RADIATION DUDE as is often yelled at me from the facilities & trades trucks driving by but I am also LASER DUDE.

MAXIMUM EYE PROTECTION PHIL!!1!11!1!!!

Moderate Eye Protection: Ready for sunny outdoor chemistry.

Phil has standard eye protection from the harsh glare from Ra’s Eye Above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What this means is that everyone’s very prone to seeing things online and thinking “This $RADIATION_OR_LASER_ PRODUCT looks fascinating-bad. I bet Phil would lose his goddamn mind in an entertaining way if I sent it to him.” This has gotten much, much worse in the age of crowdfunding. I have a few dozen bookmarked websites and campaigns that are ALWAYS OPEN at work to look at, just in case I need to replenish the rage that keeps me alive. My Lovely Assistant, because she was clearly worried about my blood pressure getting too low, sent me this gem on Wednesday, which set me off on a goddamn quest. I am going to use this project as an object lesson for several different things that bother me. I’m not even going to comment on how good or bad this thing is at engraving/cutting things because it’ll very likely never legally see the light of day in America or Europe. Let’s start with the operating characteristics of this laser, as best as I have been able to pull together for this system from the project page:

  • Operating Wavelength: 450nm (blue laser, insert Homestar Runner jokes here)
  • Operating Power: 500mW open air, 800mW in enclosure
  • Operating Mode: unclear, appears to be a continuous wave rather than pulsed
  • Laser Type: diode based solid state (likely an OSRAM 1.6W blue diode, with the power dialed down so as to not destroy their steering optics)
  • Emissions Indicator: Not really, but the on button lights up when pressed so that’s cool.
  • Aperture Labeling: No
  • Shutter: No
  • Interlock: None apparent. Really, other than password control for the app (pfft), doesn’t look like there’s interlocks of any kind, much less fail safe ones.
  • Control Software Integrity: unclear, but based on my experience with other “Agile Development” projects, pfffftHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
  • CDRH Labeling: No, but then that would assume the FDA’s Center for Device and Radiologic Health had already approved it. We’ll get back to that later.
  • UL/CE Marked: unclear, but looks like no. If you make it through Underwriters’ Lab testing, you toot that horn.

Before delving too deep into the problems of this product, lets take a moment to review the laser classifications and how they relate to the hazards they present. For laser safety classification, we have a slightly complicated classification system that runs like this:

  • Class 1: no accessible laser hazard during normal operation. There may be powerful lasers embedded in there but you can’t get at them. (e.g. laser printer)
  • Class 2/2M: not a viewing hazard under normal conditions, less than 1mW average power, usually with highly divergent or rapidly scanning beams such that the blink reflex saves you. Just…don’t stop the scanning head or add focusing optics, okay? (e.g. bluray player, supermarket checkout)
  • Class 3R: less than 5mW average power, visible wavelengths only, safe under normal normal viewing conditions without magnification (e.g. your typical red laser pointer)
  • Class 3B: 5mw-500mW average power, direct/reflected beam presents both an eye and fire hazard, diffuse reflections of the beam are theoretically safe but the higher the power the less okay it gets. (e.g. your bullshit illegally imported green laser pointer you bought online, most laboratory lasers for analysis of delicate molecules)
  • Class 4: >500mW average power, direct beam and diffuse reflections presents an eye, skin, and fire hazard. We’re talking blinding, burns, and fire alarms if used improperly. (e.g. any cutting laser, most laser light show systems, the Death Star, your EXTREMELY BULLSHIT “laser pointer” you bought online)

NOTEIf you have a Wicked Lasers product anywhere that I have authority and you don’t have a very convincing research purpose for having it, I will confiscate & destroy it promptly. They aren’t worth the trouble, their QA is terrible, and are nothing better than Geneva Convention blinding weapons. Yes, I know they look like lightsabers from Star Wars; they did this on purpose which is why Lucasfilms sued them. REGARDLESS, THEY ARE STILL ILLEGAL TO IMPORT AND USE IN AMERICA.

So this system would qualify, at a minumum, as a Class 3B visible wavelength laser which means it presents a retinal injury hazard, probably even with its scattered beams. Assuming the optional enclosure is worth a crap with interlocks that actually prevent the laser from turning on until it’s closed, it could then be a Class 1 with an embedded Class 4 system. There is a reason why all the laser cutters/engravers other than Cubiio are inside of enclosures, because you get the benefit of not needing protective eyewear or needing to restrict access to the entire work area to use it; the laser hazard is completely contained within the enclosure. Of course, the laser hazard isn’t the only problem because whatever you’re engraving with this laser is going to turn into a fine nanoscale particulates. Do that to a pancake and you make pancake smells; do that to a phenolic resin integrated circuit board and you get much more fascinating airborne particulates. The acronym for these are LGAC, Laser Generated Airborne Contaminants, which can go straight through most HEPA filters because they’re so small. The zeolite & activated charcoal indicated in their enclosure design are great for airborne organic volatile chemicals…for a few weeks at best the activated charcoal is useless after from exposure to air and they’re more or less useless against particulates this small. But at that point we’re talking industrial chemical safety and airborne release considerations, not laser safety.

Let’s be clear, my main objection to this entire project is the “open air use in public” aspect. Pretty much everything else can be fixed except, if you watch their video, this is their goddamn selling point. In the open air use, you are just asking to scatter that beam off of something and lase a bystander in your vicinity. Do that outside, lase toward the sky and hit a plane? You just made friends with the FAA and a terrorism charge which carries a $500k fine and federal prison time. When you do public use of a Class 3B or 4 laser you’re required to submit to the FDA-CDRH, in some detail, exactly how you’re going to set up and prevent people from getting burned by your operation. Assuming you’re approved, you are granted what is called a variance (as in, what you’re doing varies from the enclosed and safe operations CDRH really approves of) to use your laser as described. Laser light show operators may get general variances that let them do their operations in a variety of different venues, but still answering the same question “How are you going to keep the general public from hurting themselves with these?” Please note that all this work is on you, the laser operator, to do go through the CDRH variance process, not the laser manufacturer. 

(If you’re doing laser fun that involves shooting up into the sky, you have to give times, directions and power to the FAA so they can divert air traffic as needed. They will never say “OKAY, SUPER, SHOOT THAT BAD DOG ON UP HERE!” Instead, the FAA sends letters of non-objection to let you do your laser light show, which is as positive as they’re ever gonna get. I don’t know about you, but this might explain why you don’t see lasers at concerts so much anymore.)

The missing interlocks, labeling and indicators I can chalk up to a bad case of modernist Apple Design Disease, where if your product doesn’t look like it might be made by Apple then you clearly have too many “things” on it. You fix that by realizing you aren’t making an iPhone; this is a high powered laser…which you can control with an iPhone. Actually, that’s a problem too. Generally, we in the safety and industrial design gig aren’t big fans of hazardous equipment that you can operate remotely. We like it when you have to be there with direct line-of-sight when you’re operating equipment with high powered lasers, swinging robot arms, etc. to prevent you from turning on the band saw remotely from the toilet and causing a surprise amputation for a coworker. OSHA takes a very dim view of this. Contrast this with the bluetooth enabled, wireless, Internet-of-Shit, phone as magic wand future our consumer product producers are taking us toward. I’ve gone to Consumer Electronics Show (well, bartended at a safe distance) for the last three years and seen what they’d like to give us. When you start trying to turn industrial tools, like laser cutting units, into consumer products with consumer expectations of what a modern wireless smartProduct should be like, you’re going to have problems. OtherMachine did well at this; this project not so much.

Makers vs. Manufacturers

I have some misgivings about maker culture despite, well, being one. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone brings me a neat concept where I rain on their parade by pointing out that their new innovative features and convenient operation are really just removing all the safety controls that a properly designed consumer product should have. The key words here are “consumer product”. If you want to tear apart a laser printer to get at the Class 4 laser within to build a novelty laser that will burn funny pictures on your steak, go for it. As a private citizen in the United States, it is your right to tear whatever you own apart and tinker as part of your 1st Amendment freedom of expression. But much like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ saying “The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins”, your right to tinker similarly ends when your laser beam hits someone else or you try to sell your creation. The don’t hurt other people bit is relatively straightforward, so lets go to the part that isn’t: selling laser products.

You may argue that one of the problems is that technology has advanced and that these regulations are antiquated, that they no longer apply to the world as it now is. Since laser diodes first hit the market, laser systems have gotten smaller, cheaper, and more powerful every year. Once upon a time, not very long ago, you could rely on the fact that a 40W laser with good beam quality would be a serious capital investment in the five to six figure range, you were gonna need some serious utilities to plug it into, a chilled water system to keep it all from overheating, which means you’re talking a laser bench and maybe a dedicated room. Now you can buy all that as a single diode module you can hold in your hand for a couple hundred bucks and can run it off of wall power or even just batteries. If you’re creative and not as picky about QA,  you can get it at higher powers, any color you like, for cheaper than that. For a lower power but still potentially blinding laser, like a 1.6W blue laser diode module for example, you can find them as small as a pencil eraser for $12. You can buy them in bulk with a discount if needed.

Makers, when you slap a laser on your project, congratulations, you just became a laser manufacturer. Now if you’ve made this with the expectation that it would be attached to something more complete, you’re a laser Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) instead. GOOD NEWS: the CDRH rules don’t apply to you. For every maker and researcher that has gone apeshit at me for saying the laser diodes are dangerous as hell and that they should be allowed to buy anything because lasers don’t blind people, people do [VIGOROUSLY HUMPS LARGE COLLECTION OF AR15s], well, you win this one. You are allowed to buy and build absolutely anything you want, your research will not be stifled. In the confines of your own home or laboratory, you can do whatever you like with your lasers.

But heaven help you if injure somebody with your uncertified laser.

(This is not me in this video, but I sure have been sent it a lot times. This guy is terrifying.)

OEM products, again like a 1.6W blue laser diode module for example, aren’t supposed to be selling to the consumer market because they aren’t selling finished products. They’re selling parts. What stops you from buying these parts? Nothing, for the internet provides. Is this a problem? Depends, how much FREEDOM!!! you like in your life? The reality for this kind of shit is that it’s always been the Wild West, heading toward Mad Max these days, in terms of regulation. The only thing that used to be a restraint was cost and a limited number of manufacturers that gave the CDRH a chance to keep pace. My laser experiences have made me very aggressive with x-ray devices on the grounds of “OH, I KNOW WHERE THIS LEADS. NO! [shakes squirt bottle]” but no x-ray diodes have appeared yet, but plenty of juuuuust this side of OEM equipment crap has.

I would argue that goal of the regulations, NOT BLINDING EVERYONE AND SETTING THE WORLD AFLAME WITH DEATH RAYS, still stands (this isn’t the official mission statement of the CDRH, but I will suggest it at the next laser safety conference in 2018). You don’t throw up your hands in frustration, close all the agencies, and put your regulatory money into new Subdivisions, rather than mere Houses, For The Blind instead. Fundamentally, all of these regulations and standards exist because, at some point, we hurt someone. We will never get accidents to zero because humans continue to exist and we are nothing if not creative in how we injure and kill ourselves (SEE ALSO: all the Darwin Awards). This doesn’t mean we’re incapable of learning and trying to make it a little bit harder to hurt yourself by accident next time. But the ability to control what makes it to market has gotten much harder as time has marched on.

The Responsible Agency: FDA-CDRH

Unlike the control of radioactive materials, which have a small mountain of regulation regarding their manufacture, transport, possession, use, and disposal to prevent things from going wrong every step of the way, lasers have comparatively little control. You have one agency, the CDRH, who approves the introduction of a finished consumer laser product into commerce in the United States (NOTE: this is very specific wording) and then you have whatever your local flavor of OSHA is to tear you a new one when you blind someone. The regulations and agencies with a finger in the pie regarding lasers may be safely described as “reactive” rather than “preventive”.  In this case, commerce has a very particular definition which may be interpreted as “giving a laser you built to someone else or using it somewhere other than where it was originally built”. This may seem like an odd distinction, but it covers the fact that sometimes we don’t demand money in exchange for a laser and that the hazards of your laser may not be quite the same in one place as another. The reason why this matters is that if you are the person who originally built the laser, you have intimate hands on knowledge of the system you built and, as the creator, you theoretically know what and where the hazards you introduced to the world are and can protect yourself.

If you are going to let anyone else use this laser you have, from a regulatory point of view, you put this laser into commerce and now must comply with all the device performance standards from the CDRH. The very first performance standard requirement in the CDRH Laser Compliance Guide is:

The protective housing must prevent human access to laser radiation in excess of the limits of Class 1 (and collateral radiation in excess of the collateral radiation limits) at all places and times where and when such human access is not necessary in order for the product to accomplish its intended function.

Cubiio seems to fail right off the bat. Human access is, generally, not necessary for a cutter/engraver to perform it’s function. If you were able to convince CDRH that this product must operate without an enclosure, the regulations do allow for variances and exemptions for products from part or all of the Laser Compliance Guide, but it requires the director’s sign off. Good luck with that.

When you submit your product for approval for release into commerce, the CDRH accepts your packet and starts checking it out. In the best case scenario, where you have all your ducks in a row and have built a laser system which actually meets the product performance standards, the time from submission to granting of an accession number is in the year or so range. If there’s questions about your product, that clock can run much longer. After all, once you’re on the market, what happens with your laser is almost completely out of the CDRH’s hands so they want to make sure what they approve is solid. I say almost, because you are required to keep a log of recalls and retrofits you do of your approved product and you are supposed to notify them when an injury happens involving your CDRH approved laser. Hurt enough people and they will yank your accession number, which means you can’t legally sell that product anymore.

You are also required to put all kinds of helpful labels on your laser product, but must importantly the two that say where the laser beam is coming out of (the aperture label) and the hazard class of the laser beam being emitted. Yes, even your laser pointer has this sticker, and it probably says “CAUTION” and “Class 3R or Class IIIa” on it. Even the illegal shit from Wicked Lasers has these labels, since they’re at least pretending at legality. Because of Apple Design Disease, Cubiio lacks those.

Generally, you need to send your product for certification through Underwriters’ Lab too. This doesn’t even touch the getting a CE mark or getting through IEC certification to sell in Europe. CDRH approval is not transferable to other countries, but it’s a good sign you’re gonna make it through their process too…once you do it.

Cubiio claims to be “undergoing the certification process” for both the CDRH and IEC60825-1. Folks, if you didn’t already have this certification in hand when you started this Kickstarter, there is no way in hell this is shipping in November. Also according to their project page, they already have them built. This is a shame, because they cannot legally ship to America or Europe yet, and if any changes are demanded (and I can think of a few) they’ll have to rework them, which also means there is no way in hell this is shipping in November.

WHAT THE FUCK SHOULD WE DO ABOUT THIS?!?

I got nothing. Give me unlimited power and funding and we’ll see what I can do. (really, don’t do that, no one would like living under my Most Perfect Imperium)

The CDRH, like most regulatory agencies, is understaffed and underfunded but doing their damnedest to cover everything that comes their way. The United States Postal Service Inspectorate are the real forefront of customs enforcement for America with the wave of WTF sloshing around in our postal system, but they’ve got more or less the same problem. It’s easy to recognize illicit alcohol, firearms, and explosives traveling through the postal system yet hard to stop them compared with the sheer volume. By comparison, a small laser like this just looks like more odd electronics among a sea of such things coming from Amazon. Now add the the fact there is also UPS, Fedex, OnTrac, Amazon’s whatever, DHL…you have to depend on them to successfully interdict shit as well.

The proliferation of laser LEDs powerful enough to do retinal injury available in quantities and at prices such that you can buy them by the pound, means we’ve got a future with steady employment for ophthalmologists. The international marketplace which Amazon, Alibaba, and eBay bring to your door means that even if a product wasn’t certified in the United States, you can still buy one from overseas (China usually) and take a gamble with the postal service.

The 1st Amendment issues of freedom of expression mean that you have the right to build whatever you want with these increasingly powerful, small, and cheap lasers. Eventually, they get powerful enough we need to start considering the 2nd Amendment issues with these things and we all know how well that’s gone with conventional firearms.

But most importantly, don’t waste your money on this Kickstarter.

The 2017 Atomic Heritage Roadtrip, Part 3: Trinity & Titan

As it is July 16th, the anniversary of the dawn of the Atomic Age, I suppose it’s time to get to the third and final part of the Atomic Holiday.

The whole genesis of this trip was the fact that we could go visit the Trinity Test Site on April Fools Day, along with all the other doofuses like us that thought going to walk around at ground zero was a pretty neat idea. To do that means you to actually have to get there first. As the open house website says, the Stallion Gate checkpoint to White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) opens at 8am and there will be people lined up waiting for that. If, like us, you began your journey in Albuquerque, that means you have a roughly two hour drive ahead of you before you even hit the Stallion Gate Rd. turn off from US380. Depending on when you’re get there, it may be another two hours before you make it from the turn off to the checkpoint. I recommend stopping in San Antonio to use the bathroom and stock up on water & snacks, which I DOUBLE RECOMMEND not consuming until you get to the Trinity Site parking lot. Don’t have more regrets than necessary in that long traffic line.

The remains of the old Jumbo containment vessel for Gadget, which they decided not to use.

FAIR WARNING: the turn on to Stallion Gate Road from US380 isn’t well marked, but the steady parade of cars and the protesters should give you a good hint that you’re in the right place. Also, pretty much the moment we hit the turn off, our cell signal dropped to zero for our entire time on WSMR. If you’re trying to rendezvous with folks, you better set up your meeting place & time in advance because you may not be able to get in touch with each other once you get there. May I recommend the Jumbo vessel as an excellent landmark for this.

Ah, yes, the protesters. A life spent growing up around Santa Cruz and the SF Bay Area, and then working at LLNL & UC Berkeley, has left me with a jaundiced outlook toward protesters, mainly because they usually lose their message to useless incoherence the more of them that are there. One of the games I like to play when approaching a protest is to look for a lonely “FREE LEONARD” sign in the crowd; that’s my signal that a protest has gotten sufficiently large that it collectively doesn’t know why it’s here anymore. I try to count the number of people present and guess what the magic number was when sign appeared. I refer to this number as the Peltier Limit. (Exception: a FREE LEONARD sign is always relevant at Native American rights protest)

This was not one of those protests. Their complaint was crystal clear and unified in a way I’ve rarely encountered.

Rather than go in to detail about the grievances of the denizens of Tularosa, I’ll sum it up with this: it is rude to set off an atomic weapon in the vicinity of people and then not do follow up. “We’d never done this before and didn’t know what would happen” isn’t a great excuse for not doing much of anything for the next 70 years. If you’d like more thorough reporting on the topic, Kelsey Atherton did a damn fine write up on it. I have gone through the Tularosa Basin Downwinders’ and the CDC study proposal’s papers and I come down strongly on the side of “Do what science you can this far after the fact.” From a health physicist point of view, this population constitutes a study cohort…if you take the time to actually study them. Considering we’ve already nuked them once without really asking, it would be considerate to at least involve them in the study at this stage, if only for very self-interested reason that it is much easier to study a cooperative population.

Trinity Test Monument – Me & the Obelisk, April Fool’s Day 2017

Once you get through Stallion Gate, you have a helpful marked route out to the parking lot outside the fenced of Trinity Test Site itself. If you really, really need to pee after that long wait in traffic, there is a bathroom halfway along the WSMR drive to ground zero (the walk from wherever you get to park in the Trinity parking to the outhouses may be more than you can take, depending on desperation level). President Eisenhower opened up the site in 1953 (after the Atomic Energy Commission decon’d it) with the surface level noble principle that the American people spent two billion 1940s yanquibuxx and should be able to see what they got for it. The deeper, less noble principle was a demonstration that you could set off an atomic weapon and, soon enough, it was safe to visit ground zero. That we had this shit under control. While the original open houses through the 1970s happened in July for the test anniversary, they moved to April & October later on because July is a fucking miserable time to be out there. There’s a reason the non-gypsum dune part of that area is also known as Jornada del Muerto (rough translation from my terrible high school Spanish, “Trail of Death”). It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975 and incorporated into the White Sands National Monument.

The open house was a surprisingly well attended even with the level of security, and even shuttles, which I assume the Army isn’t entirely thrilled about having to provide. While the White Sands National Monument (WSNM) has a nice continuous chunk of land south of the missile range, the Trinity Test Site is smack in the middle of the northwestern chunk of Army territory. Because it is designated as public land, the general public must be granted access to it at least one day a year. This means you can’t shoot missiles at this general area during the open house, which I assume is a real bummer in the WSMR planning office. It is, however, an absolutely gold star event for the WSMR PR folks to put a good face on “we blow the shit out of some of the most beautiful parts of New Mexico including, once upon a time, with Gadget”.

A new entry for my specialized warning sign collection. It’ll go nicely with my dengue fever one.

This sign greets you before you walk into the fenced off ground zero area. As I said before, the AEC cleaned up most all of the radioactive fused glass from the atomic test, AKA trinitite, before letting the public in but they didn’t get it all. In fact, they missed some fairly large chunks. There’s some unfissioned leftover plutonium in the trinitite and technically speaking all plutonium in the United States belongs to the federal government. If you have some plutonium in your laboratory, you have it on loan from the feds who may take it back anytime they feel like and you are required to inventory & submit reports on it. This is why you aren’t allowed to stuff your pockets full of trinitite, not that there is all that much of it left at the test site.

The beautiful piece of trinitite My Lovely Assistant found.

“But Phil,” I hear you ask “What about all the trinitite that got used in paperweights, jewelry, and novelty pens or just straight up chunks that I can buy on the Internets?” For that stuff, the cat is out of the bag and it can be freely traded. As Martin, who guest starred in part one of this adventure, said in the Atlas Obscura article about trinitite “It is the traditional gift of nukewonks.” While wandering around east of the obelisk, My Lovely Assistant found a beautiful half-dollar sized piece which we took a picture of and then put right back down on the ground. Playing happy camper, taking only pictures and leaving only footprints, we made sure that this was there for someone else to discover again in the future. Hopefully, they’ll leave it there too because that was some damn pretty slightly radioactive jade.

McDonald Ranch House – Exterior Door to the Former Gadget Assembly “Clean Room”

Trinity ground zero isn’t the only place you can visit out there. When the historical monument designation was given, they also included one of the instrumentation bunkers and the McDonald ranch house. From the parking lot you can jump one of the Army buses that will take you on the bumpy ride out to the location where the final assembly on Gadget was done. Other than the historical curiosity of what happened here, the ranch house and out buildings are somewhat unremarkable until you stop and consider “They turned a rancher’s living room into a weapons assembly clean room.” Well, a less dirty room perhaps, you take what you can get out here. The chalk marks on the posts and lintel for this door are recreations from the restoration work to stabilize the decaying building, with exquisite care done to recreate what the exterior looked like in the days before July 16, 1945.

Looking out across the desert to the south from the ranch house, there is a low fence and gate. I’m not sure exactly what they were hoping to keep out, but it sure wasn’t the Army. The McDonalds hadn’t wanted to give up their ranch in the first place and the decidedly did not get it back after the war, as they’d been hoping for. Eminent Domain is a bit of a bastard that way.

Commander’s Launch Console, post-key turn. Target 2 is about to have a Very Bad Day.

After Trinity was the long drive Tuscon, with a VERY EDUCATIONAL REST STOP on the way, and the following day the Titan Missile Museum in Sahaurita, AZ.  If you played Fallout New Vegas’s Lonesome Road expansion, you are very familiar with what the nose cone of a Titan II looks like and have detonated many if you were trying for that achievement. Alternatively, if you watched Star Trek First Contact, you’ve seen this specific silo and missile as it was filmed here. As a recommendation, if you are going for a special occasion, saaaaay someone’s birthday, let your guide at the Titan Missile Museum know and you might get to turn the keys on a simulated launch alert. As my Lovely Assistant would prefer I not put her picture up, let me show the console after she turned the launch key, successfully executing her duties as an acting missileer major.

The normal tour here lasts about an hour, though you’re welcome to fart around for as long as you like topside. For those with more time to spend in Tuscon, the Titan Missile Museum is affiliated with the Pima Air & Space Museum with their amazing boneyard of parked/derelict planes. You could do both in the same day, but I’d really recommend giving a full day to the boneyard tour. And, as someone who works with derelict, decades old and hard to repair equipment all the time, I would like to reiterate the Titan Missile Museum’s admonition against touching things or even leaning against walls. This place, and most of the equipment in it, is now unique; if you break something, it’s gone forever. The rest of the Titan II sites were destroyed as part of an arms reduction treaty, with this one kept as a museum. A hole was cut in the skin of the missile to make sure it would never fly again and the silo doors have been permanently locked open with bollards put in place to keep them that way…and thus easily verifiable from orbit.

 

Atomic Liquors of Las Vegas – They have a connected restaurant with a hard to miss large radiation trefoil.

The end of the line for this road trip was Las Vegas and bachelor party I needed to attend. And, as always, if I’m going to Las Vegas, I’m going to take a trip to the National Atomic Testing Museum. And, as per usual, every time I go to the NATM I come away with something new I want to go track down. We decided to end of our atomic history roadtrip by visiting the physical site of some the vestigial Atomiciana of Rat Pack Vegas era in a picture we saw at the museum. Atomic Liquors did not disappoint with their decent booze selection and I strongly recommend reading their history page on the website. When you hold Las Vegas Liquor License #00001, you’ve got some stories to share. Their attached restaurant, The Kitchen at Atomic, was closed when we went there so I can’t tell you how the food was.  It’s design, however, reminded me of some of the research reactor buildings I’ve visited over the years. If they haven’t tried to approximate Cherenkov blue in a cocktail, and stuck that in the name, they’re missing out on a nuke nerd branding opportunity.

In conclusion, let’s try not to add any brand new sites to my southwest atomic history road trip, okay?

Titan II, 571-7, as viewed from above. As always, it is weird seeing the USAF weapon configuration rather than NASA’s Gemini program. You can see the hole in the nose cone made for validation of “NOPE! No nukes in here!”

The 2017 Atomic Heritage Roadtrip, Part 2: What Are You Doing Here, Jeff?

Gonna skip to the oddest bit of trivia I picked up from this trip for Part 2, rather than talk nuclear weapons and atomic ephemera this time. We started with fun in Albuquerque for Part 1 and I’ll get back to fun at the Trinity Open House and the Titan Missile Museum next time for Part 3.

 

No seriously, this is a thing.

Jefferson Davis Highway Trail Marker at the Deming, NM rest stop on westbound I-10

When we left Trinity Test Site, the long drive to Tuscon began. We made a pit stop in Truth or Consequences, NM for refreshments and to wave at the Virgin Galactic spaceport. On a more fictional level, we also waved to their neighbors, the new Tesladyne HQ. Of course, when you get refreshments this guarantees you will soon need to make use of a rest stop for a bathroom. And thus how we came to the Deming, NM rest stop on I-10, where My Lovely Assistant found this. When I came out of the bathroom, she instructed me to go read the marker and my jaw dropped. In disbelief, I asked a bit loudly “ARE WE ON THE EVIL TWIN OF THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY?!?”

The answer is yes, kinda. This is a relic of an early time in American auto culture history. Before interstates and before numbered routes (think Route 66 or US 1, 101, ) there were the Named Highway Auto Trails to try to map out long distance paths on the patchwork of dirt roads, railroad grades, and old wagon trails. The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental route, designated in 1913 and running from New York City to San Francisco. It is important to note that this wasn’t necessarily a paved transcontinental route, merely a marked path so you could know you were still going the right way, but this was way better than the previous nothing. We didn’t achieve a continuously paved long distance highway until Route 66 got that honor in 1938. The Lincoln Highway was a resounding success and spawned dozens of auto trails before they were superseded by the US Numbered Highway System in 1925.

Which is how the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway (JDH) came to pass. The year after the Lincoln Highway was inaugurated, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) proposed a southern coast-to-coast route to honor the man they thought more than Lincoln’s equal. So, they started drawing up maps to pass through every state of the old Confederacy, the Davis plantation, and where he was captured. How could they do this? Before the Highway Act of 1925, all these auto trails were created, promoted, and maintained by organizations who had an interest in doing so, say because they’d like to help drive traffic near their tourist attraction, with government support (or at least tacit approval) usually at the state level. With state governments rather weak in this period and, especially in the South, with more or less no highway agencies, the UDC were free to promote whatever route they wanted, wherever and however they liked.

If you’re geographically inclined, you may notice this itch in the back of your mind which says that a route that goes where the UDC wanted and then goes out to the Pacific Coast is not what one might refer to as “direct”. When the Highway Act went through, there was a rush from all the auto trail organizations to get their pet trail formalized into one of numbered US Routes, which also would come with DOT money to improve those roads, increasing the amount of traffic they’d get. Unfortunately for the UDC, the JDH was such a hodge podge due to the conflicting interests of different UDC affiliated chapters that they had a hard time drawing a single continuous line to say where, exactly, their road went. They couldn’t even answer definitively if the highway’s eastern and western termini were Miami or Washington, DC  for the Atlantic seaboard, or if it was San Diego or Seattle* for the Pacific seaboard. The DOT also couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the road segments the JDH overlapped with other auto trails.

And so, given the big thumbs down, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway as a transcontinental idea faded into memory, but many of the individual segments maintained that name scattered around the country and the UDC put up plaques to make sure people remembered. As I’ve oft said, once you name something and set a standard they are remarkably persistent through time. A lot of the old auto trail names still persist as local shibboleths where outsiders will call it the name their GPS says, but locals will call it by the name that’s been passed down for a few generations at this point.

To be fair, most of the old auto trails didn’t get outright turned into US Routes either. Even the Lincoln Highway, popular as it was at the time, got carved up into various US Routes and then interstates. It had a bit of resurgence in popularity after it’s 75th birthday and the Lincoln Highway Association resurrected in 1992. President Eisenhower’s absolutely miserable cross-country trek with an Army convoy as a young officer in 1919 was his inspiration for the modern interstate system on the basis of we CAN and WILL do better than that. In his case at least, a long road trip was very character, and infrastructure, building. By contrast, the JDH has no organized central organization caring for it and it depends on the interest and funding levels of the local UDC chapters. One might be inclined to draw some parallels to their respective namesakes…

US 1 segment through Alexandria, VA with its other name clearly visible (map courtesy of Google Maps)

I was later informed by Test Subject Kristobek and Alexandra Petri that they either traveled on or looked out their office directly at the US Route 1 segment which runs right up to the Potomac Bridge, which if you look at Google Maps is quite clearly labeled as the Jefferson Davis Highway. Of all the pieces that have been ignored or sidelined this is the segment that’s perhaps the most traveled, improved, and retains its original name.

For those of you who live in the South and may feel like hunting down your local remnant of the old JDH, as a hint, go look for monuments to Confederate generals. If you’d like some help tracking things down, and to understand why My Lovely Assistant & I always read the plaques, well I have the website Read The Plaque for you. And, if you find one they don’t have, go upload it.

Also, don’t get tricked by the Jefferson Highway; that’s a totally different highway and Jefferson. [shakes an angry fist at New Orleans]

 


*: To explain how Seattle was a potential terminus of the southern transcontinental auto trail, this was to commemorate one of Davis’ last acts as Secretary of War prior the Civil War as he was responsible for commissioning surveys for wagon & train routes to Puget Sound. In 1939 the Washington State Legislature passed legislation to rename US 99 as the Jefferson Davis Highway in their state, making it the last segment of the JDH. Even though the auto trails were dead and gone at that point, the UDC were still quite keen to keep this going. When the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed, we started retiring the US Routes but US 99 was popular enough that California, Oregon, and Washington all retained the number designation for their state highway.

Until May 2016 when they finally changed the name, if you were driving on WA-99, you were on the Jefferson Davis Highway, Seattlites.

 

The 2017 Atomic Heritage Roadtrip, Part 1: ABQ & the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Well, I’ve now stood on my second nuclear weapon ground zero. (the first I did on this trip)

April 1st was the Trinity Test Site open house, one of the two times a year that the White Sands Missile Range opens up to allow the public to visit. They used to open it up on the test anniversary date as well but, funny thing, people seem to have a hard time in the middle of the desert in mid-July.  Heatstroke used to be part of the Trinity experience, which is why they have since moved the open house dates to the first Saturday in April and October. It also happened to be close enough to My Lovely Assistant’s birthday that we decided to make a roadtrip of it and collect a few more locations on the way. This first means flying to Albuquerque and, luckily, I already have operatives in place there.

In the long long ago, in the beforetime, Albuquerque was the administrative center for the nuclear weapons program. It’s where the Atomic Energy Commission sited their main office for the western half of the country; close enough to run up the hill to Los Alamos as needed, but a more transportation friendly place to, for example, bring personnel in for polygraph tests. The office is still there, but is now held by the Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA, not to be confused with NSA or NASA) and associated with Kirtland Air Force Base. Like any place that is important for long enough, they accumulate crap. Did I say crap? I meant to say “Smithsonian-grade museum archival materials”. And much like the old office and it’s archives in Las Vegas gave rise to the National Atomic Testing Museum (NATM), the Albuquerque office and Kirtland AFB spawned that National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. We decided to go hit this on the day before visiting Trinity.

Martin Pfieffer, guest starring the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. For the record it was very windy and I made him laugh before this picture.

It is always worth having a docent with you in these museums to point out the things you might have missed and give you the extra details that the placards are missing. In this case, we had University of New Mexico anthropology grad student, Martin Pfeiffer as our guest docent for the day. Martin’s research, among many things, involves how the nuclear weapons complex sold itself as safe and necessary to the public, to recruit prospective employees, and most importantly, to appropriators and procurement people with the purse strings. This means he spends A LOT of time going through magazine archives for advertisements from the 1950s & 1960s that are Jet Age/Mad Men masterpieces at their weirdest. Because take a moment, lean back in your chair, take a contemplative sip from your beverage of choice, and ask yourself “How would I sell nukes?” It’s a non-trivial one and that’s why he’s getting a anthropology PhD. I recommend any number of market research firms hire him promptly. Hell, hire him now and supplement the embarrassingly low grad student stipends that UNM pays.

Big Bada Boom

Mk17/24, the second highest yield nuclear weapon the US ever made, with Martin for scale.

Now you might ask how is NMNS&H different than the NATM. I can sum that up easily in two words: Delivery Systems. Where Vegas focuses on the work that happened at the Nevada Test Site, AKA blowin’ shit up real good, Albuquerque would like to tell you about all the weapons systems that Sandia built and Kirtland maintained. This means that it is bigger, because you need room for all that stuff and a lot of it isn’t small fiddly bits. We’re talking missiles and bombs of various size, and when you get to the big stuff, like planes, you have to go outside which is when I got incredibly giddy because they have a rocket garden. You see, I’m originally from Cocoa Beach, FL which means Kennedy Space Center was very easy to go visit on a whim. In particular, when I was little, before they fenced them all off and demanded you pay first, I constantly demanded that my parents take me to the KSC Rocket Garden to have a picnic under the X-15.

NUKES!!!

Titan II, on it’s side, and stage separated. If you’ve played the Lonesome Rode DLC for Fallout New Vegas, that is a very familiar nosecone.

NMNS&H’s rocket garden, however, is all about delivery systems and I’ve never seen a collection like this before. Thor, Mace, Polaris, BOMARC, Titan, Snark…so many missiles. Looking at a Titan II on its side and getting close to the nose cone where the warhead would have gone, all you have to do is change the payload from military to civilian and you’ve got NASA’s Gemini program instead. Then there’s the bombs too large to fit in the building like the Mk17.

I want to pay special attention this bomb in the wake of the recent use of a MOAB in Afghanistan and the reporting that accompanied it that has some semantic problems around the phraseology “biggest bomb we’ve got”. “Big” can refer to physical size, or weight, or explosive yield (which is often related to but not on a 1:1 basis to weight and size). The 11 ton MOAB has greater explosive yield, but the MOP (Massive Ordnance Penetrator) is more massive at 15 tons, using that weight to sink through dirt, rock, cement before exploding with it’s smaller yield, but in the place you need it. As one weapons engineer once described it to me, “It’s puttin’ ass behind that blast.” The Mk17/24 bomb is the most massive bomb, nuclear or otherwise, that America ever made though only the second largest yield. The Mk41 holds that record at a 25MT yield, with it’s intended mission of obliterating hardened underground facilities by collapsing them with force from above, but only weighed a quarter as much as this 20 ton monster. Per pilot anecdote, when you dropped a Mk17/24 it wasn’t so much that that you’d released a bomb as the bomb had released you, with the plane rapidly jumping up in altitude.

big bada boom

Bomb fragments from the May 27, 1957 Mk17 broken arrow incident in Albuquerque, with poker chip for size reference.

Albuquerque was also home to a broken arrow incident with one of the Mk17s, as one accidentally got dropped from a bomber near Kirtland AFB when someone leaned against the wrong button on their B-36 as they headed back to base. Luckily, it wasn’t properly armed so just the conventional explosives went off on impact, terminally inconveniencing one cow rather than removing New Mexico’s largest city. The Army cleaned up the wreckage and decon’d the radiological contamination but, well, the Army is the Army, which is mostly made up of surly teenagers and twentysomethings that don’t really want to be there. If you look hard enough while hiking around in the hills you can find bits of the bomb they missed, which is something Martin did and is why my curio cabinet now contains a few fragments. To be fair, they are small fragments because it blowed up real good and even the Army can manage to notice and clean up large chunks.

We then got the pleasure of beers and fine New Mexican cuisine afterward. Courtesy of my other New Mexicans I had already learned the joys of what I refer to as New Mexican Background Chile Levels; there will always be some, the question is how much spicier would you like it above and beyond that. My personal spicy preference tends toward hot mustards and horseradish, not capsaicin, as my recent experiments with “chemical weapon bagels” will attest to. That said, New Mexico has made a convert of me with pork adovada. That was heavenly, I was lusting for more of it while at the Trinity Test Site, and as I’m sure friends will attest to, I have been whining about it’s absence from my life here in California ever since.

Next time: Trinity Test Site, Titan Missile Museum, and… umm… a discussion of the Jefferson Davis Highway.