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, 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 CDPH 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 CDPH, 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!”

BBotE Line Up Changes & Vacation Alert, Summer 2017

The Last Time I Went To Alaska – America’s Northernmost Brewery, Silver Gulch, with Stein of Science & exquisite root beer in hand.

For those of you that pay exquisite attention to the length of the BBotE production windows, you may have noticed they tend to be two weeks long and end on Saturdays. The slots that have just gone up are for a slightly shorter window than normal as I’ll be heading up to Alaska for a week or so on the 20th and I want to make sure that the decks are clear before I jump on a plane. For the production window after that one, I’ll leave ordering open while I’m off in Seward’s Icebox but, obviously, nothing will ship until I get home.

Next, for a short period, we will have to bid the delicious blueberry-citrus flavor Ipsento Panama Natural adieu. Until their next shipment of beans clears customs, they can’t roast anything for me, so off it goes from the selection choices. But the good news is it won’t be for long. I’ve been tentatively told that I should get my next stab at some around the start of September.

In the meantime, I have been enjoying the Nicaragua Recreo enough that I’m adding it to the regular selections you can grab rather than just a special run of 375ml bottles. I can’t recommend enough the joy of combining this or the Puerto Rico Yaucono with a good dark rum. Koloa dark has been my personal preference and it’s just heavenly.

State of the Black Blood of the Earth, 2017 Update

Short version: production is ticking along nicely, a new experimental variety going into play, a reminder on special requests, and Ambassadors.

So, first off the the pre-order slots for the production window ending June 10th are now up. To be honest, everything is gonna ship by the 9th as I have a wedding to be the best man at on the 10th, but there you go, slots are up. Order away at your leisure.

I’ve received a lot of special production requests lately which, production schedule permitting, I’m happy to entertain. In general, I am willing to do custom request BBotE for people if I can fit it in, you’re willing to make an order for at least 3L of BBotE to make it worth doing the batch, and are willing to accept the caveat that I’m making a batch for you with no idea how it’s going to turn out. For example, the original special request runs of Jamaican Blue Mountain was a bit more than double the normal price, but I’m told the resulting BBotE was worth dipping cigars instead of cognac. On a somewhat less classy end, I’ve cranked out a couple dozen liters of Dunkin Donuts BBotE because people asked and I hate saying no to people seeking the caffeine of their youth. If you’re providing me with beans, I’ll knock something off the total to compensate for that. All you need to do is drop me an email and ask and we’ll figure out how to make a special run happen.

Now, that said, I have a special run that I did for Test Subject Bonner of Nicaraguan from his favorite roaster, Recreo. Unlike most roasters, they’re effectively a tied house source back to their family farm in Nicaragua. In many posts over the last 7 years, I’ve related how much of a sucker I am for Central American coffees and Recreo didn’t disappoint. Interesting honey/toffee flavor that was consistent and solid. I’m thinking of adding it to the repertoire, so I’ve made a limited run of 375ml bottles of it you can buy here. If it’s well received, who knows, maybe it will become a regular offering. I know Test Subject Bonner would be thrilled with that.

On a related note, another Test Subject has raised his hand in hopes of finding a good Ecuadorian medium roast for BBotE purposes. I checked in with my usual roasters and came up empty handed. If you have a recommendation of an Ecuadorian coffee you’d like me to take a stab at, please drop me a line.

On the BBotE Ambassadorial front, I’m sad to report the Justin in Toronto has has to step down from the post. Life happens to the best of us. The Ambassador of Chicago has just cleared his stock out and assembling new requests, much like the Caffeinatrices of Portland and Boston. Ambassador Vernon of Santa Barbara just got a restock. Ambassador Karl in down in Perth would like to clear his last few remaining bottles so out so he can get a new order in and get the special swag his next case will have. If you’re local to one of them drop a line and make a friend who has access to cheaper than normal shipping prices BBotE :).

Asshole Cat is a legitimate hazard in any home with beverage in it. My cat, in particular, likes licking ice cubes in my cocktails giving me fur rimmed glasses.

Lastly, if you follow me on twitter you have noticed I have found a new obsession which is making rather silly safety signs. If you’ve been grumbling wondering where Part II of the 2017 Atomic Heritage Roadtrip is, well, that time and creativity has been absorbed into signs. I’ve included an examples here. Don’t worry, I can’t resist talking about radiation for long.

But, in the meantime, if you’re jonesing for more nukechat, may I recommend following my friend Martin Pfeiffer’s patreon who had a guest starring role in 2017 Atomic Heritage Roadtrip Part I? As a starving grad student, he would prefer to starve less but also continue playing in the archives and doing his research into how the weapons program sold itself to the government and the public.

Based on all the episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives I’ve watched, Guy seems to be a big proponent of public transport. (Guy head provided by Tal Waterhouse)

Here, have another safety sign for good measure and catch you next time!

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.

 

Some Holiday Related Bullshitting I Am Proud Of

[NOTE: This tale is originally occurred before Easter 2009]

At work on Thursday, my co-worker asked me what my holiday plans were for Easter. I told him that I’d be going down to see my folks and eat some delicious ham. A puzzled look crossed his face and he asked, “Phil, why is it considered normal to eat ham on Easter?”

I replied with a completely deadpan delivery, “Because after Jesus was crucified and entombed, his followers went on a rampage and killed the Pharisees with pork legs. This is also why observant Jews consider pork to be unclean.”

He started to nod, followed by the waaaaait-a-minute face, and then glared at me. “People should not be able to spout complete and utter bullshit as well as you do.”

Today, while reprising this gem of bullshit to my friend, I changed it to the idea of God being wroth at the death of his one and only son rained ham down upon the evil-doers of Judea and smote them. It grew to the following:

 

Scene: Jerusalem, early Roman Imperial period. It is dusk.

A very special post-Passover crucifixion extravaganza has taken place, but it is over now. The last of the condemned went in the ground three days ago, but even at this hour the slaves are still cleaning up Golgotha to get it ready for the next event.

The first shooting star crosses the sky. Then another. Then more. Soon comes the first flash and cloud of dust when a building explodes in a Michael Bay-esque manner as a meteor strikes the city. It will not be the last.

The next morning, the shepherds from the outskirts of the city creep in, drawn by the smell of a sumptuous feast but they find no one to greet them as they approach what remains of the walls. Fires are still burning here and there.

They head to the Temple but it is not there. Instead there is only a crater, but there’s something at the bottom. The bravest of the ragged band of shepherds scampers down the still warm crater wall.

At the bottom is a perfectly cooked and honey glazed ham. Its re-entry burn left it juicy and succulent with a perfect caramelized shell. The shepherd cannot resist this perfection and buries his face in it. The other shepherds find hams of their own in other craters.

And thus the first Easter was celebrated.

The Twilight of the Steins

Some unfortunate news to share which impacts you, the beverage consuming public.

Herr Direktor Funranium On “Beer Safari”, circa 1am and 3L of beer in

The Steins of Science which I have on hand right now are, likely, the last of their line. I’ve lost my good supplier connection that allows me to keep the steins reasonably priced. Yes, I know that may seem silly to say for something where the cheapest of them costs $230 but without that good connection that base price jumps up to about $300. I’m not sure that the market will bear that price, but we’ll see. If there’s no love for the steins at that price, then I will allow the product line to gracefully fade away. For the time being, all the Steins of Science on hand will remain at their current prices but once they’re gone, they’re gone.

For the record, once they’re gone the “textured rugged FMJ” style won’t return either. Not only would they end up much more expensive (more like $400, rather than $300) but my QA on these dewars has shown 1 in 4 to fail vacuum test on arrival to me, which drives prices even higher. Just not worth it.

If I’m lucky, I’ll secure a new pipeline of reasonably priced dewars in time for all of those currently on hand selling out. So, in the meantime, order away and enjoy these *comparatively* cheap prices.

Herr Direktor Funranium Goes to Chernobyl & Kiev, Part 3 – Kiev, Hero City

STRATEGIC RESERVE IN UKRAINE: In addition to infinite pierogis, FINE RESTAURANTS will offer you a selection of lard (really, it’s just hog belly). “Lard In The Acute Paprika” is a reason to return to Kiev alone.

Let me get this out of the way upfront. I didn’t even spend long enough in Kiev and I want to go back before it’s too late. My time in the city was all too brief and all too enjoyable, among people who are putting on a brave face over deep insecurity and fear. Get in the habit of saying “Ukraine”, not “the Ukraine”. The latter version implies that they are just a region rather than a country, which is very much how Russia regards them. Also, my pierogi lust has no end. I already knew this, but Kiev catered to it.

As a reminder, I left San Francisco the day after the presidential election and arrived in Kiev a day after that. As the only American I met until I got to Chernobyl (even my compatriot was Canadian), the conversations I had with Ukrainians who spoke at least some English generally went like this:

  1. You’re American?
  2. Did you vote for Trump?
  3. How did ANYONE vote for Trump?
  4. What happens next?

Because I’m me with funny answers to questions and a decent knowledge of recent events, Ukranian companions were happy to offer PROTIPS. And I quote from the woman running the front desk at 3am and I had terrible instant coffee with because I couldn’t sleep, “You can get rid of Putin’s puppets. If you paid attention, we showed you how. Just…don’t wait until winter. Maidan was cold.” The assumption from the Ukrainian point of view is that within a year or so, they won’t have an independent country anymore. That with Trump in office there isn’t an America to act as backstop for NATO (read: the Europeans won’t actually do something without America jabbing them in the back with a stick) if Russia decides to “assert territorial rights”. I can’t fault this fear for a second, since they have recent events in Crimea and Donetsk to point to. Some parts of the city haven’t quite recovered from the Orange Revolution, much less Euromaidan, but they put up a nice facade, literally. The empty or damaged buildings around Andriyivskyy Descent have been covered with cloth that have pictures printed/painted on them showing what the buildings looked like when they were occupied or new.

An Iron Cross made entirely of Iron Crosses taken from dead Nazis at the 2nd Battle of Kiev.

Which is part of why I decided to devote what meager Kiev tourist time I had not to staggeringly gorgeous Eastern Orthodox churches, not to the treasures and art that date back to when the the Kievan Rus were Vikings that had neat found a way to trade with/raid Constantinople, not to the many sex clubs that Kiev is quite certain western tourists want…no, I went to the Motherland Memorial, the Rodina Mat, and the Museum of  the Great Patriotic War that rests beneath her feet. To be fair, under de-Sovietification it was renamed the Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War which doesn’t quite pop the same way. I could see places where one or two exhibits had been removed or maybe an informational plaque had been changed, but generally it didn’t look like much had been altered from when the place was dedicated in 1981. Based on the exhibits inside, I think it would be entirely fair to call it the Ukrainian Museum of Art Made with Stuff We Took from Dead Nazis Because We Killed A LOT of Them.

And so I set out into Kiev as the snow started coming down. Normally, I would have happily walked across the city from our hotel to the Rodina Mat. That was not a normal day, which is why I summoned my first Uber* ever.

I also have to give the sad report that a lie told enough times becoming accepted fact got proven for me with the driver who was impressed that we had elected Obama, a Kenyan, as president of the US. On a positive note, he didn’t think it was bad that America had elected a non-citizen as president, just odd. We corrected him and also pointed out that Hawaii is one of the states of the United States of America, even if the islands are far away from the continent. The Birther Movement lie is alive and well overseas but with less information about how America is supposed to work, garbling the disinformation campaign. I want to give my driver full honors and accolades for braving the first major snowstorm of the year, driving on slick cobblestone streets, among the other drivers who appeared determined to die. It was a beautiful moment where one remembers humans are the same everywhere: for the first major storm of the year, rain or snow, everyone forgets how to drive in it and hilarity ensues. Doesn’t matter if its San Francisco, Denver, Sydney or Kiev, just listen for the sounds of brakes, squealing tires and crunching fenders.

Rodina Mat (Motherland) Monument- I’m not sure this photo does justice to how large this statue is. Below her feet is the four story Great Patriotic War Museum of Ukraine. Big. Please note the complete lack of other people dumb enough to go out as a snowstorm starts.

For the benefit of folks who don’t know what the Great Patriotic War was, why it deserves a museum, and why the heck does Kiev has this giant statue, here’s a quick review. The Great Patriotic War was the USSR’s term for WWII because, relative to the Soviet Republics, this was a war fought on their soil for their very survival. WWI, for which most of Europe still uses the old term “The Great War” with the assumption there wouldn’t be another war ever, wasn’t something the Soviet authorities were terribly proud of. It was the war that belonged to the Tsar and the Bolshevik Revolution happened at least in part to get the hell out of said war, and to then promptly begin the civil war for control of the former Russian Empire which also wasn’t something to be particularly proud of. Relative to the start of the Soviet Union, this was the big one, the GLORIOUS MOMENT FOR GLORIOUS STATE, and hence the name Great Patriotic War. That demands museums, monuments, and parades to put America to shame; we merely had the Greatest Generation in WWII, they have the Hero Generation of the Great Patriotic War.

The Flame of Glory, Unlit, On a Cold Day

For the cities that fought the longest, that had the roughest battles, the Politburo had a special designation: Hero City. While the casualties were higher and battle of longer duration in Leningrad and Stalingrad, Kiev had the “pleasure” of being a major battlefield against the Nazis twice and a long, lethal Nazi occupation. This monument and museum were part of a larger patriotic park to tell the story of the Battles of Kiev in sculpture and architecture. In a subtle manner, it tells newer stories too; the Flame of Glory, which is a giant Olympic Games-like cauldron that was meant to be an eternal burning flame of memory, is now only lit for major events like Victory Day because natural gas supplies from Russia aren’t to be counted on.

DER FLAMMENWURFER – It wurfs flammens. With great effectiveness, as one of the Nazi terror weapons the helped them win Kiev in the first battle.

Other than the docents who worked there, I more or less had the park and the museum to myself other than the British dad who seemed just a little bit too excited about all the Nazi gear on display to show his son. I was offered an English audio tour of the museum but declined it. I wanted to see how much of the story I could figure out with the limited postings in English, my almost non-existent skill at reading the Cyrillic alphabet, and my compendious knowledge of the horrors of war.

In light of the recent Holocaust Remembrance Day and how badly our administration flubbed it, I want to share with you that the Great Patriotic War Museum very much remembers with a point of view that is powerful. You’ve been repeatedly told “6 million people were systematically murdered by the Nazis” your whole life, the Ukrainians add this addendum: “…and a 1.5 million of that number was from here.” Remember the term “Final Solution” which came out of the Wannsee Conference in 1942?  This was a response to the Nazi death squads wandering around the recently conquered Ukraine in Operation Barbarossa, putting hands on hips, shaking their heads and saying “There’s gotta be a better way” after perpetrating horrors like Babyn Yar. It is hard for Kiev to forget things like Babyn Yar since it happened in a ravine in the northern part of the city, rather than just far enough away from a town for things to be out of sight, out of mind like most of the concentration camps. This also made it really easy for Soviet authorities to go collect artifacts from the killing grounds and the Nazi attempt to hide the evidence of it.

The Babyn Yar Bone Mill, side view

The Babyn Yar Bone Mill, with Fertilizer Sacks.

And, oh that evidence. In this museum, you had to ask if you could do photography first but it was permitted. Every other Holocaust exhibit I have ever been to around the world has strictly forbidden photography. In the Holocaust Room at the Great Patriotic War Museum, I was encouraged to take pictures, of the things even *I* was uneasy with. To remember. To remember the bone grinder used in Babyn Yar to mulch the bodies victims into fertilizer and the Nazi eagle stamped sacks the bone meal went into. To remember the soap made from rendered human fat. To remember and take a REAL CLOSE LOOK at the human skin driving gloves for the commandant’s wife. To remember that all of these “consumer products” were once Ukrainians. That they will never let this happen again because they can’t afford it, the loss was too cruel and dire. I’ve shared the pictures of the bone mill but I can’t quite bring myself to put the human-based products up.

The small exhibit that got my attention after the Holocaust Room was the one dedicated to the Hero Mothers. Nazi Germany gave medals to the women who had six our more good, racially fit Aryan children for the Reich. The Soviet Union gave medals to the women who had five our more children die in service trying to defend the country from invasion, as opposed to those whose families had been lost to wholesale slaughter. The museum put some of them with their pictures up on display. I’m sure a medal next to her face wasn’t quite enough for the lady with the pictures of nine sons below her, each of them with a red line across his face, crossed with a bullet casing.

But all that is the past Kiev is trying to move on from, to find prosperity and, honestly, the place looks pretty good all things considered. The repeated efforts by Russia, and Ukraine’s own problematic oligarchs, to stifle their modernization are frustrating but haven’t stopped the process, just slowed it down. I’m to understand some of the smaller places away from the capital still have some timewarp/neglect issues, but I can’t speak to what I didn’t really see, other than on the drive to Chernobyl. Having done my fair share of traveling, no city has quite sunk it’s claws into my heart as fast as Kiev did, which is why I also picked up their fear. All the precarious hope for the future, teetering on an uncertain war in the east and a West that wants to ignore what’s going on. This is why I want to go back again, because one day and change wasn’t remotely enough time. I encourage everyone to give Kiev a go while it’s still a free and independent Ukraine. If that dark day comes when they aren’t anymore, I don’t expect them to give up without a fight. I expect nothing less from a Hero City, but I also know it would’ve happened because Putin got a tacit green light from America. I can’t express how disgusted I am by the very thought.

And as long as you don’t travel on the weekends, the roundtrip flights remain surprisingly cheap. After all, that was the first condition I had to fulfill when this trip started back in Part 1. So go, before you can’t anymore.

Folks, they sat me amongst a collection of their finest tubas and fed me “Horseradish Tincture”. I love this place.

 

 


*: Okay, now for the part where I swear I am not sponsored by Uber. Prior to visiting Ukraine, I had never had the Uber app before and only ever rode in Uber vehicles as a passenger. In light of the many people who had warned me about the “mid-trip fare renegotiation” of cabs in Eastern Europe, but particularly Kiev, I decided an alternative was a good idea, just in case. It’d be expensive I reckoned, but always good to have contingency, right? Right. So, let me set the scene.

I had just left the Great Patriotic War Museum. The snow, which was respectable when I’d gone in several hours earlier, had picked up by the time I exited. I slogged through the completely empty park, past the patriotic statuary and frozen friezes, and up the steps to the road to get out to the main streets. Normally, I would be happy take the several mile walk across a new city just for the chance to soak it and have great times in places where people later tell me I certainly should have died (i.e. wandering into communist neighborhoods in Rome). Unfortunately, my nice windstopper fleece & gloves were getting increasingly useless against the accumulating snow, which was melting and wicking through. And so, standing outside Cafe Kupol, a converted sacristy to restaurant, I took off my glove, pulled out my phone, mumbled “Fuck it” to myself, and turned on international roaming so I could summon an Uber to get me back to my hotel. My after action report:

1) It was remarkably cheap. While more expensive than a normal taxi would have been in Kiev, it was a fuckton cheaper than comparable rides I’ve seen in SF & NYC. A ride that typically goes for $50 in those cities, with congestion charges that never ever go away, only hit a whopping $3.05 in Kiev, in the middle of a serious snowstorm and wrecks everywhere.
2) It was a fixed rate, which preempts the “Mid-Ride Fare Renegotiation”. Again, while more expensive than Kiev’s normal cabs, it removes the pain of haggling, which most Americans hate anyway.
3) It got around the language barrier. I requested my ride in my language on a map I could read and it communicated that information to the driver in his language. No pointing and grunting at Google maps which only one of the parties can read.
 
Uber is, and this feels weird to type, a superior product which also fulfills a need when overseas in unregulated markets. Uber-level self-regulation is a step up when the local flavor of regulation is None. To a stable, regulated market they are cancer. While points #1 & #2 are nice, to the usual monolingual American with travel hesitancy because of that, #3 opens up the world. The fact that Uber doesn’t tout this as a major selling point in astounding because it’s an actual problem they solve, rather than create for a change, is telling.
 
 

An Old Friend Returns and the Harpy Cometh

DON’T PANIC – In customary Megadodo Publishing “Super Soothe” font (courtesy of BBC Two Productions)

Got a few changes to report to you this Inauguration Day. Don’t panic, this is all good news.

First of all, I’m happy to report the return of Ipsento Panama BBotE, the lovely tart blueberry light roast coffee which has been missed by yours truly, is back for little while. The nice folks at Ipsento were kind enough to roast a small lot for me even though it isn’t currently on offer at their shops. So, if you look closely on the radio buttons when making an order, you’ll see it’s back as an option.

For those that were concerned and asked, I seem to have a good line on Jamaica Blue Mountain supplies for the moment. While it remains painfully expensive, it won’t be vanishing in the near future.

Blood of the Harpy – A New Label for a New Blend and a New Era (instigation by Meredith Yayanos and art by Paul Komoda)

Second, I am happy to announce a new label for BBotE and my first ever BBotE blend as a project with my friend Meredith Yayanos in support of the HARPYCORPS Project. I’ve mentioned Mer to you all before, usually around Halloween to share my dad’s endorsement her previous project, The Parlour Trick, as “The finest spooky music for the season since the Omen soundtrack.”

So, this is something a little different than normal. When my friend Mer first proposed this in support of her HARPYCORPS Project, she wanted something special, something dedicated to the harpy, a symbol embraced to properly express rage and unapologetic living. Or, to paraphrase Randall said Clerks II, reclaiming harpy from it’s connotations as a nasty or contentious woman. If I remember our conversation over pizza correctly, “The Blood of the Harpy needs to be a bit harsh, like a cruel truth, but invigorating once you accept it.” Blood of the Harpy is a blend of the African BBotEs with a primary base of Death Wish, and an extra spice kick. Accordingly, the caffeine content on this one is a might bit higher than normal run of the mill BBotE, but milder than just straight up Death Wish. You can’t say you haven’t been warned.

The exquisitely detailed label was drawn and hand lettered (something I still can’t believe he did) by noted sculptor, monstermaker, horrorsmith and friend of Mer’s, Paul Komoda. If you need your home to creep people out more than it already does, please purchase anything and everything you can from him. My only warning is that, oh yes, his work appears and then sells quickly. You’ll have to be on the ball.

For the record, if you would like this filled with something different because you think the bottle is awesome but can’t take the elevated caffeine level of the Death Wish base, I understand. I am willing to do so, just leave me a note with order and let me know the variety you’d like and I’ll make it happen.

With that, I give you the Blood of the Harpy. Enjoy everybody and, please, look out for each other.

Money Rant Two: America Could Plan Once

In the previous money rant, I finally addressed Lesson Nine from this list of potential rants. It’s time to move on to a more positive one. Let’s talk about a time when America had its shit together, The Great Depression. No, really. I’m not kidding.

Much as we may deride President Woodrow Wilson for other very racist things, the League of Nations was a great progressive idea. Unfortunately, Great Britain and France wanted to see Germany burn at the end of World War I, so it all fell apart promptly. It’s understandable but the American government was left throwing its hands in the air and saying, more or less to quote Cartman, “Screw you guys, I’m going home.” Admittedly, a Congress that felt that America had no business in Europe, other than Business, had no interest in it. Also, they wanted their war loans that they gave to the Allies paid back; a creditor/debtor relationship does not make for good international relations. But that doesn’t mean that the machinery of American government wasn’t looking around and paying attention. Okay, to be fair, it didn’t do much until FDR got into office. The Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations were, in short, pretty excited about things going on in America and hegemony in the Caribbean, less so further afield.

But come 1933, by my general feel of history, an American generation that had not been listened to during and in the wake of WWI found itself in power and said collectively to themselves, “Let’s not do that again. Also, this Depression sucks.” There may also have been a glance over toward Europe with a wince and the pained teethsucking noise of “Oooo, ouch. Well, at least we aren’t Europe. We tried to tell ’em. This Hitler guy seems to be a bit of a dick and, MAN, do we not like what Japan is up to over there. They better not fuck with the Philippines, we just finished pacifying that a little while ago. Invented ridiculously high caliber guns to do it and everything.” While trying to figure out a way out of the hole America had fallen into and fix the myriad problems, the New Deal bureaucracy FDR’s administration assembled was thinking big. Beyond the borders of America big. How to win the peace of the next war big.

Since you’ve read this far it shouldn’t come as big surprise the answer to this was money.

The idea they came up with was called Provisional Currency*. Cash that the United States could bring with them to a war theater and instantly reconstitute an economy that we could participate in and bring into the American sphere of influence. Oh sure, it would obliterate the previous economy that was there but the US Army isn’t completely dim, they would happily exchange the old precious metal currency that may have remained for the Provisional Currency. But more importantly, if the US lost and had to abandon territory (unthinkable!!!) this was currency that was different than normal domestic US legal tender which could be disavowed. We could easily say “Things that look like $QUALITY? NOPE, those aren’t valid anymore. You sure do have a lot of these, Mister… [reads passport closely] Berwin Rommelle?”

Let’s have a compare and contrast moment starting with a pre-Monopoly money five dollar bill.

Five Dollar Federal Reserve Note, Obverse, Series of 1963A (from the Broughton Collection)

Please note the specific wording used on this bill. It is a “Federal Reserve Note” worth “Five Dollars” and “This Note Is Legal Tender For All Debts, Public And Private”. I don’t want to start a fiat currency argument here, but let’s just leave it at this bill is worth five bucks but it’s some what nebulous what exactly a dollar is. Prior to 1964 and the demonetization of silver, we had had another kind of bill called the silver certificate. This bill was worth its stated value but you could exchange it for an equivalent amount of legal tender in silver, i.e. coins. While I don’t have a crisp normal five dollar silver certificates in my collection, I do have a one dollar silver certificate.

One Dollar Silver Certificate, Obverse, Series of 1957 (from the Broughton Collection)

While the statement about legal tender is there, you can see some differences. First off, rather than saying “Federal Reserve Note” it has “Silver Certificate” at the top. Instead of just declaring ‘The United States of America”, in case you forgot which nation would put Lincoln and Washington on its money, the words “This Certifies That There Is On Deposit In The Treasury Of” above it to make a leading statement that continues with the additional words below. Instead of just saying “One Dollar”, we also promise “In Silver Is Payable To The Bearer On Demand”. The earliest versions of the silver certificates were missing the statement about deposit with the Treasury which, technically, meant every single bank had to maintain sufficient silver on hand to cover every yahoo that wanted sacks of coins rather than bills. This lead to all kinds problems, hence the change, but that’s a different story that involve bank runs, bankruptcies, bank robberies and other phrases that involve the word bank. But the most plain difference between the two different kind of bills was the color of the seal and serial number: federal reserve notes were green, silver certificates were blue. Similar to the silver certificates, there had been gold certificates with a yellow seals and serial numbers, but gold was demonetized in 1933 and the gold certificates discontinued. This meant that in 1934 the color yellow was available to use to do this.

Five Dollar Silver Certificate Provisional Currency, Obverse, Series of 1934A (from the Broughton Collection)

The appearance of this bill is inconsistent. You have all the silver certificate language. You’ve got serial numbers done in blue, like a silver certificate should have, but then you’ve got this giant yellow seal like it should be a gold certificate. In short, it’s weird and sticks out like a sore thumb in any stack of money. As long as we all agree it’s valid money, it’s valid, but it’s really easy to tell people what to confiscate/ignore if you disavow it. This is the original Provisional Currency that the United States printed up in preparation for the next time they had to occupy a country and had it available in $1, $5, and $10 denominations. Please take a moment and look at the year.

Yes, that’s right. You read that correctly.

NINETEEN FUCKING THIRTY FOUR! WE HAD THIS READY FOUR YEARS BEFORE THE FUCKING NAZIS ANNEXED AUSTRIA, MUCH LESS ANYTHING ELSE. SEVEN YEARS BEFORE GODDAMN PEARL HARBOR.

[takes to deep breath and a swig of bourbon to calm down]

Not that we actually used them until 1943 after Gen. Patton landed in North Africa, which is why the yellow seal silver certificates are colloquially known North African bills. As the story goes, the first wave of landing ships dropped off Patton and his tanks and the second wave brought the pallets of cash. I don’t believe that for a second, but it’s a nice story. Actually, the funny thing is that they’re known as North African bills and not Reconstruction bills because there was a diplomatic rift about whether to use them in an increasingly liberated France. Use ’em in Africa and Italy? No problem. France? SACRE BLEU, NON! As an empirehaver that intended to get it’s empire back once this “small German embarrassment” was resolved, France wanted to make sure the Francophone world that looked to Paris for authority also recognized the supremacy of the Franc, so no yellow seal bills for France.

But those are all game time decisions when you roll the Provisional Currency out. The fact of the matter is that we had it and had been sitting on the final printed product for almost a decade before using it. We were ready. We had the experience, we knew how the economy got disrupted in war, and we knew how to start putting things back together and make friends (okay, that term might be a bit strong) while doing it. Even if you take the usual black market and profiteering into account, they’re working with with the currency and formal markets we created because nothing else works at the moment and that, sort of, makes even the criminals our allies. Rather than pillaging the treasuries of conquered lands and replacing their money with pot metal, which is what the Nazis & Fascists did everywhere they went and their Occupation Currency coins are fucking garbage, we dropped a limited functionality Army-driven American economy on them. When you stack things like the much grander Marshall Plan on top of this after the war is over, you start to marvel that America used to have an incredibly competent leadership across the entire span of government in career, appointee and, yes, even elected positions that earned the respect of the entire world.

…and then you look at Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq and ask what the hell happened? We walked into Iraq with the assumption oil revenues, oil that wasn’t America’s, would pay for everything. We took planeloads of cash to Iraq & Afghanistan to nominally rebuild them, which mostly vanished back into the coffers of American contractors, sucking the air out of the local economies rather than rebuilding them. How did we clearly learn the lessons of how to win the peace and then forget them so quickly?

I don’t know the answer to this question but I like to look at my yellow seal $5 silver certificate and remember “Once upon a time, America knew how to plan.”

 

 

 


*: Okay, America wasn’t the only nation that thought up provisional currencies but we were the only one that decided to put the full faith and credit of the nation behind it. In fact, America had two provisional currencies, though the second one was a little less planned.

On the other side of the world from North Africa, after Pearl Harbor there was a bit of an “Oh shit” moment with respect to Hawaii as the powers that be considered the real possibility of Japanese invasion of the islands, in particular that this would mean they’d get to seize all the American currency that was there. In January 1942, most all paper currency was withdrawn from the islands with strict limits placed on how much individuals ($200) and businesses ($500, other than payroll) could possess. By June, bills from the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank showed up freshly stamped with the words “HAWAII” in a particularly unsubtle manner on the front and back with a red seal**. After they showed up, it became illegal to use currency in Hawaii that wasn’t stamped. Just like the yellow seals, if the Japanese managed to capture the islands, all bills stamped “HAWAII” could be disavowed.

One Dollar Silver Certificate Hawaiian Overprint, Obverse, Series 1934A (courtesy of the Langford Collection, photo by Anthony Langford, 2017, all rights reserved)

 

One Dollar Silver Certificate Hawaiian Overprint, Reverse, Series 1934A (from the Langford Collection, photo by Anthony Langford, 2017, all rights reserved)

 

But why didn’t they just use the already made Provisional Currency with the yellow seals in Hawaii? I don’t know the actual justification but I can think of a few reasons. First, they were intended to reconstitute an entire country not, don’t take offense Hawaiian readers, what was at the time a lightly populated island chain of strategic importance but with a comparatively tiny economy. Secondly, and I think more important as I put all scenarios through my Lazy/Horny/Greedy Filter of Human Motivations, the yellow seals were on the wrong side of the Rockies from Hawaii. Much easier to just go grab some of the cash sitting in unused in the vaults in San Francisco and just stamp HAWAII on them than load the yellow seals up on trains, send them west, and then ship them from SF to Hawaii.

After the war was over, they were demonetized and most were burnt, rather than shipped to the mainland for destruction, in the local crematorium and the furnaces of the Aiea sugar mill as fuel. These days, it’s a point of pride in the islands to own any of the old stamped bills.

**: Please don’t ask me to explain where the red seal came from. That is a very ugly discussion in it’s own right and we are well rid of the United States Notes.