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.

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.

 

More Atomic Fun Times!

The new BBotE production slots are now up, though this window will be a little longer than normal, ending on April 15th, because in the middle of it I will be taking a bit of a road trip. I will attempt to crank as much out before I depart on March 30th, but while I’m on the road the coffee engines will briefly wind down.

Why is there going to be a road trip? Because on April 1st the Trinity Test Site is opening up for it’s twice a year open house and there’s birthday fun for my Lovely Assistant to be celebrated around that time too. My nuclear/atomic trips have taken me some interesting places, not all of which where I can take photos, to share what I can with you, like the Nevada Test Site and Chernobyl. I suspect Trinity will give me a thing or two to pass along.

For your Two Minutes Hate, Andrew Jackson.
(By Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl, 1838)

So, order away to your hearts content, while I do more reading for my next reference rant for Lesson Four from this old post. I discovered there was much more to dislike about Andrew Jackson, just related to money, nevermind the rest of the shit he pulled. One of my favorite things about dark corners of history is finding that that dark corner is deeper and uglier than you thought. Sharing it with everyone else is the history equivalent of The Courtesy Sniff.

So, You Want To Test A Nuclear Weapon?

I dedicate the following rant to my Lovely Assistant, who can probably recite this by heart now, and Meredith Yayanos who hit boggleface about halfway through an in person version and asked “PLEASE, WRITE THIS SHIT DOWN.” Now I have.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you have a brand new nuclear weapon. Let’s not quibble for the moment over how it came to be. Perhaps you decided the Reliable Replacement Warhead program was a good idea after all and grabbed one of the designs that were put forward in the twilight of Bush/dawn of Obama and built it. Perhaps you had a brand new one whipped up and it’s gonna be great! All that matters is that you have it.

But does it actually work? The computer models say it’s A+, hunky dory, best nuke ever. Except now it’s a physical object, not a simulation. Were the engineering tolerances right? Did we get the metallurgy down? WILL IT ACTUALLY WORK?!?! Unless you can convince the brass that it’s does, they won’t order this new design, much less deploy it. And you won’t know unless you set it off, as a representative of a new fleet of nuclear weapons. And so begins the Choose Your Own Nuclear Adventure!

Question 1: Do you want to test it above ground (AKA atmospheric) or underground?

Atmospheric testing does have its benefits, namely that it’s comparatively easy to do and, by jingo, people will know that you set off a nuclear device. Very showy and attention getting, great media coverage I bet. Here’s a few demonstration videos. There is this one slight drawback in that Kennedy kinda, sorta signed a treaty and Congress ratified it 54 years ago that we said we wouldn’t do atmospheric testing anymore. That will make some people very unhappy. But you do you. Please enjoy this instructional video.

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

Underground testing then? Well, that’s a little more tricky but luckily we used to have a place where we did a lot of this. Assuming you’d like to go back to the former Nevada Test Site to start “stomping our feet” again rather than create a brand new national sacrifice area, I’ve got some great news! When we temporarily stopped underground testing (I say “temporarily” because you’re about to test again) in 1992 under the limited nine month moratorium that got extended into the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), we had another hole ready to go for the ICECAP test which never happened. You may remember this from my previous post about the Nevada Test Site. All we have to do is put our new device down that hole, connect it up to the diagnostic equipment, backfill and good to go, right?

Well, as a reminder, you will make some people upset with that whole violating the CTBT. On a positive note, you won’t actually be in violation of US law because, while the Clinton administration signed off on it, Congress never ratified the treaty like they did thirty years earlier with the atmospheric testing ban. If you look at the map under the CTBT link, you’ll notice that of the nuclear powers signed off on this, the United States and China are two that conspicuously did not ratify. The more recent additions to the Nukehaver Club (India, North Korea, and Pakistan) you’ll note are non-signatories. You can’t quite yell at them for violating a treaty they didn’t even sign, other than as a neighbor who is rather cranky.

But maybe the ICECAP setup isn’t right for our new device to test. Maybe you just feel a brand new nuke needs a brand new tunnel and shaft. Can’t use another bride’s wedding dress after all. Which brings us to the next question.

Question 2: Do you have the equipment to build this?

If you visit the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, NV you will get a chance to see the amazing mining technologies developed to build these tunnels and shafts. To run thousands of miles of cables, which you can see some of in the ICECAP picture, to collect all the test data and run them from the device back to “Mission Control” where the shot director is running the show with all the computers. I regret to inform you that the tunneling equipment is likely either gone, probably sold as gov’t surplus/scrap metal long ago, or it is in the condition that most things are when you abandon them in desert with no maintenance for 25 years. For example, that crane-like thing in the background of the ICECAP picture. I strongly recommend getting a tetanus booster before getting within 100′ of that much rust. Also, you need a new one of whatever that is if you want to pull those cables. Oh, and FYI, you need to replace all those cables as the insulation on wires reacts even worse to 25 years of open air exposure in the baking Nevada desert than the crane-thing did. Even if you wanted to recycle the ICECAP hole, assuming it was adequate for your test, you have to replace absolutely everything you see in this picture.

Actually, there’s a good chance the digging equipment, the moles, are still around, as they are incredibly expensive, but they may not be anywhere convenient and probably are in active use. If you want to call it back to cut some new shot tunnels, you’ve got to make some hard choices as to which other critical infrastructure project around the country you’d like to give up on. I suppose you could order a new one, though people do tend to ask what multi-billion dollar infrastructure project you’re going to be doing with it.

fuck you, USAF for your connector standards

Okay, You’re Shitting Me Right? What Is This Even For? At least I know what right-side up is…

Okay, let’s say you’ve appropriated, and not ask too hard about how you did it, all the requisite equipment. That probably cost a few billion bucks. You’ve went out to the cable spools you saw sitting in the desert, ordered more and are ready to hook it all together. Then you see a connector that looks like this at the end of the cable.

Umm, uh oh. Your new nuclear device doesn’t have such a connector as it was designed and built in the 21st century. Neither, for that matter, does any of the diagnostic equipment you bought off the shelf from a variety of suppliers to save on procurement costs.

You see, you don’t just need to replace all the equipment that was once there. You need to either completely reconstitute the state of technology as it was in 1992, which was probably something close to early 1980s state of the art as we tend to be rather picky about choosing very reliable and tested equipment with lots of spare parts, or you need to update Every. Last. Goddamn. Thing. involved in a nuclear test to the current state of the art. The latter course requires you to qualify all these technologies as “nuclear test worthy” reliable and that’s gonna take a while and quite a lot of money too. Doing the former, partying like it’s 1992, probably isn’t any cheaper and it may just flat not be possible. All the old suppliers have moved on to making other things and there may be no parts left.

This includes all the computers. I really can’t do justice to how non-trivial that upgrade is and the QA the software will require. The Computer History Museum will get stripped bare if you choose the time capsule method of restarting operations. Either way, I figure we’re getting into the hundreds of billions of dollars and several years of effort territory here.

Which brings us to a tiny, minor problem. Hardly worth mentioning, really.

Question 3: Do you have the people to run any of the equipment, or the test itself?

Much like pulling a mole off an infrastructure project has an opportunity cost of not doing that project, you’re going to need to pull that work crew too. Can you convince them to, for example, move from Seattle where they’re working on replacing WA-99 Alaskan Way Viaduct and move to North Las Vegas? Or Pahrump, NV of Art Bell fame? Maybe, but I suspect you’ll be paying a hefty premium for them. This isn’t the Medieval Europe with the corvée to compel public service, so you have to pay for these skilled workers. Oh, and you’re gonna have to get them all clearance.

Repeat with each and every one of the trades you’re going to need. Especially IT support. Hooboy, this is getting incredibly expensive now.

But wait, what about all the workers who are already there, can’t we just use them? Well, no. The people who once worked the nuclear tests have either:

  1. Retired at some point in the last 25 years.
  2. Long since moved on/been laid off since testing stopped 25 years ago.
  3. Died at some point in the last 25 years.

Precious few people who worked in the nuclear weapons program, involved with actual tests, are left in government employment. More than you might expect, as they tend to hang around longer than others out of a sense of mission, but less every year. I suppose you could call up folks and see if they’d like to leave retirement to add some knowledge base to your project, but you’re looking at folks with decades rusty skills who you’re asking to either do a technological leapfrog OR download their complete career knowledge into newbies in short order. One of the many arguments for not continuing the moratorium through the end of the 1990s was precisely to keep this expertise available and sharp, but such is life and we did not.

People are gonna screw up developing these skills. They’re going to be slow at first as they learn. If you try to rush this, bad things happen. There is a saying from the American testing program, a point of pride, “We never screwed up the same thing twice. Can’t think of a lot of government agencies that can claim that.” I’d like them to keep that streak going, but I’d prefer they not screw something up in a new and instructive way.

MORAL OF THE STORY

If you have a nuclear device you want to test RIGHT NOW, you might as well give it to North Korea. They’ve got fresh and sharp skills. It’ll take us, and Russia for that matter, several years and a hell of a lot money to stand up a functional and ongoing nuclear testing program again.

This is the primary reason why the United States built the National Ignition Facility (NIF). If I can’t go set off the old nuclear weapons in Nevada to see if they’re working properly, can I take tiny pieces of those weapons and simulate blast conditions on them with a laser-based artificial star to see how they behave? Oh sure, we’ve found a lot of other pretty neat science the NIF can contribute to as the years have gone on, but this is it’s original purpose: stockpile verification. Russia, on the other hand, never built an equivalent of NIF. Other than setting them off, they don’t have a method to test their stockpile. Unlike the United States, the Yeltsin administration not only signed the CTBT but the Duma ratified it. It would be tacky for Russia to unilaterally resume testing.

Of course, if we resumed testing on our own and tossed the CTBT in the trash can, then it would just be sensible policy on their part.