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.


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.

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.


[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.


Good Enough for Government Work

Okay, yet another rant. This is an old saw of mine which I’ve decided I want to write up so I could point at it later.

One of the many places I don’t EVER want to hear this phrase uttered in its current form. (photo courtesy of the Department of Energy)

When I hear someone doing a half-assed job that they’re just going to walk away from, usually incomplete, say with a shrug “Good enough for government work”, I get angry. I get particularly angry if this comes from a co-worker because for the last 15 years, in one form or another, I have either been a state/federal government employee or contractor. My co-worker is, effectively, letting me know that I’m going to need to redo their work, wasting my time, and they think it’s funny as they collect a paycheck doing it. When you add the extra layer of “Dammit you’re supposed to be a steward of taxpayer dollars and government resources, WAIT A MINUTE I’M A GODDAMN TAXPAYER!!!”, well, there’s a reason I asked to be transferred away from certain people. This is the behavior that erodes trust and leads people to think it’s okay to divert money away from government programs to private industry.

NOTE: I have never seen private industry actually do a job they’d been contracted to do work out to be cheaper. Oh, workers were certainly paid less and they had no pension to speak of but somehow the total contact cost never ended up cheaper than the original program. Ah, but this is a different rant.

But let’s talk about the phrase itself, “Good enough for government work.” The original phrase was “CLOSE enough for government work” and it came from the machinist trade. Prior to WWII, FDR’s administration reviewed the state of America’s manufacturing and were a bit disappointed that not much had changed since WWI. In WWI, American troops tended to use British and French artillery and machine guns because our own gear was so deeply unreliable, inferior, and just old by comparison. FDR’s War Department saw the writing on the wall in the 1930s and wanted to get things improved. For a while (so the story goes) there was the general industry machining schedule and the government machining schedule being used side by side*. The idea being that the government schedule would eventually  become the industry standard, since you couldn’t get government contracts unless you agreed to meet it and were tooled to meet their specs, at which point the government could go back to buying on the general market rather than demanding special requirements.

Also, as part of the Lend/Lease Act with us selling war materiel to the Allies before Pearl Harbor, the Allies had no interest in buying our crap unless we modernized our production. So, there was that too.

The original meaning of the phrase had an entirely different pejorative. Rather than meaning you’d done a half-assed job, it meant that you’d done such a precise job on this thing you’d made that it could potentially be sold to the government. That its precision could actually meet the exacting standards of the government schedule. It carried the implication of “We aren’t selling to the government, buddy. How much company time did you waste making your work of art when you probably could’ve made 12 more normal ones?”

And this didn’t original sense of the phrase didn’t go away with the end of WWII. My mother told me about working for an early semiconductor manufacturer in Florida that did work supporting NASA. While she wasn’t specifically working on production that was heading to Kennedy Space Center, other people certainly were, so two different quality standards were in use in the fab. She got yelled at by her boss for making wafers that passed through QA with too few flaws. It was assumed that she was wasting time being a perfectionist, despite the production reports and timecards that said otherwise. She was told “This isn’t government work, just get it done.”

I’m not quite sure when the Bizarro semantic shift in this phrase happened but the fact that it did says something. While I would like to blame it on Reagan and the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers’ Strike shattering the strength of unions in America, the change seems to have already happened at some point in the 1970s. The current connotation is corrosive to trust and belief in the machinery of government. It’s an assertion that the people that make up the machine are incompetent at best, malign leeches at worst, rather than stewards of the public trust. Why would you ever want to go work for an organization like this? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; give it enough time and enough potential employees who decide not to work in public service and, yes, the incompetent and leeches are the only ones who will be left…

…which is why you then contract all your work out to “Trusted Private Sector Industry Partners”. This very much smells like a return to the spoils system instead of the merit based appointments that the civil service reforms of 1883 were made to fix. Oops, I just wandered into that chunk of horrible American history I love and history classes like to ignore because those four decades after the Civil War are incredibly complicated and ugly. “Good Enough for Government Work” is a toxic meme that has spread around the world, impairing efforts to reform straight up corrupt bureaucracies, like America’s was before President Chester A. Arthur signed his name to obliterate the system that made him. We really don’t want that back. For the record, I have heard this phrase uttered in every country I’ve ever been to, except Ukraine though that might have been a function of not staying there long enough.

I want “Good Enough For Government Work” to be a statement of pride, with no pejoratives. That you’ve done your job well, that you aren’t phoning it in, and more importantly that we, as citizens, expect it.



*: My main problem with this excellent story is that I have never been able to lay hands on or even find a picture of the original government schedule or equipment. There would have been reference tools and charts for the quality assurance people to make sure that work was within acceptable tolerances for the gov’t contract, and the separate set for the normal industry ones. As I cast my mind back 20 years to my History of Science and Technology class with Prof. Hugh Torrens, this is exactly what he was talking about with the practical bits of technology vanishing. Even the most packrat of machinists, and I know a few, must to toss these particular items out of their shops whenever they’re superseded lest they work to an old standard by accident an get torn a new one by auditors**. If you can lay your hands on a side by side comparison of these ~80 year old mundane bits of shop gear, I’d love to see them.

**: Wait, shit, I’m one of those people. Dammit.

Phil vs. the Russian Language

Here is your advance warning of my next, entirely too brief, trip: from November 9-14th, I will be going to visit Kiev, Pripyat and Chernobyl. This is a somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a very long time so I’m treating this as a slightly belated birthday present to myself as I collect one of the crown jewels of atomic tourism. Oh yes, there will be pictures.

However this is decidedly out of my comfort zone and let me tell you why. Most of my survival skills are related to my ability to speak to people and read postings. I am seriously more comfortable with the idea of wandering around a nuclear accident site than trying to get from the airport to my hostel in Kiev with my complete lack of Ukranian language. Like most Americans, I’m only fluent in one language, English. Because I’m me and I love linguistics and history I have fragmentary knowledge a dozen or so others, mostly at the word root levels, because this is the kind of thing that makes me a Cliff Clavin-grade trivia monster. English, being the Jello fruit medley of languages, gives you the benefit of some familiarity with Greek, Latin, German, and French even if you don’t really know where a given word came from.

Where it gets ugly for me is no longer having the Roman alphabet to work with anymore. I have a physics degree which means I learned the Greek alphabet one ugly equation at a time and how to transliterate from the Greek letters to Roman. When you realize you actually know a lot of Greek word roots and can combine it with the Greek alphabet, you suddenly realize you can kind of read some Greek words. Oh don’t get me wrong, I don’t for a minute try to pretend I actually understand Greek but I can sorta figure things out. This brings us to Cyrillic.

St. Cyril slapped something similar to the Greek alphabet, with some important additions, on top of a Slavic language. The phonemes between Greek and Russian didn’t quite match so some extra letters were necessary to cover the missing sounds and give pronounciation aids. The important thing to remember is that despite using a kind of, ish, Greek alphabet that Russian is decidedly Not Greek.

With all that established, let’s go through “Phil’s Extremely Back Assward Way To Read Russian Words in Cyrillic!”

STEP 1: Change all the Cyrillic letters to the Greek alphabet.

STEP 2: Change all the Greek letters to the Roman alphabet.

STEP 3: Now that the word is in Roman letters, see if you recognize any word roots, usually German.

STEP 4: Translate to English if possible as best as you can.

Now that we enjoyed that little excursion into how Phil’s brain works, I want to note how this method to translate Russian is ENTIRELY NOT HELPFUL IN KIEV. Ukrainian is not Russian. It’s in the same linguistic neighborhood but I hope you now understand my hesitation.

Let’s work an example problem! Starting word: шпильхалле

Step 1: Hmm, that looks weird, don’t quite recognize Greek equivalents to all those letters. The first one kinda looks like a sigma that fell over, so let’s go with ΣΠΝΛΧΑΛΛΕ

Step 2: I hope those missing letters don’t matter too much. SPILCHALLE

Step 3: Okay, “halle” I recognize, though the “h” I have identified came from a chi, which is a ch sound. “Spil”? That kinda looks like a word I remember from my game collection, speil.

Step 4: Game place? Did I find a game store, a stadium, or what? Only one way to find out…

(The actual answer is “casino”. This word is from the 1990s German/Russian hybrid times. These are the kinds of misunderstanding that lead to ADVENTURE!)

[EDIT: I’ve been told I got lucky with my transliteration, because I screwed up in a way that still worked. See? ADVENTURE!]

With that, I’m going to go back to the current cross-country train adventure while preparing for this next adventure.

The Money Rant

I think I promised that I would write up this rant roughly five years ago. Recent announcements of the coming changes to our printed currency has finally triggered me to share one of my favorite old man grumbles with you, a grumble I’ve had since I was 12 years old. The TL;DR version:



There, I said it. If I had my druthers we wouldn’t have Washington on anything, much less the rest of the questionably dignified dead presidents. In fact, Washington on money was the specific thing they were trying to avoid with the original Coinage Act of 1792. At that time, America was a little touchy about anything that, per the writers of the period, “smacked of Monarchy” or, more rudely, “We waged war to get one George off our coins, damned if we’re going to put another one on.” In the course of the Constitutional Convention, America was arguing about it’s very structure and it got down to seemingly minor things, such as what should our coinage look like? It seems minor until you remember that for as long as anyone in the western world could remember, coins had depicted the current or at least a relatively recent monarch (please ignore the coinage of any Muslim state or iconoclast Byzantium for this argument).

The initial proposal intended to put Washington on all the coins but this was argued back quite forcefully, with Washington’s approval, to a figurative representation of Liberty. And that’s the way our coins stayed until 1909. We had all manner of different representations of Liberty and a few unspecific representations of Native Americans, on the basis that the tribes were the embodiment of freedom and liberty… as long as you ignored the Indian Wars and reservation system entirely. We never depicted an actual person on our coins until the 20th century. Even the Confederacy held to this same minting guidance, not that they had an opportunity to make many coins down in New Orleans with their very limited supplies of bullion. Our paper currency was another matter, with our first post-Andrew Jackson federal bank note in 1862 depicting Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, but that’s a separate rant on Jackson being a worse person than most people think in addition to the horrible corruption of the banking system left in his wake.

As an aside, I hate the “In God We Trust” argument about this having always been on our coins, required by law. The only words that have been required since the beginning were “LIBERTY”, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA”, and something to tell you what the denomination of the coin is. That’s it. To bring it back to ol’ Chase again, he had to get Congress to pass a new Mint Act to permit the coins to actually say anything other than these three things. He started with the brand new two cent piece to see how “In God We Trust” was received and then added it to the rest of the coins from there. Once you start a change, it’s hard to undo it which is why people were so resistant to changing anything on coins in the first place.

Which brings us to 1909*.

To help stave off counterfeiters, the US Mint had been changing the designs of the coins roughly once per 25 years, often more frequently, but the penny had been one of those coins that was hard to change. History had shown Americans to be VERY PROTECTIVE of their pennies and they didn’t like it when people wanted to change them, putting the penny on something closer to a 30-50 year cycle. In 1904, Teddy Roosevelt embarked on a beautification campaign of American currency, arguing that a world class power deserved a beautiful world class money. He got easy agreement to update everything, except the penny. The Indian Head Cent was very popular and no one wanted it to change.

The 1909 VDB Lincoln Cent Obverse. The VDB refers to the engraver's initials, which they forgotten in early mintings but added later.

The 1909 VDB Lincoln Cent Obverse. The VDB refers to the engraver’s initials, which they’d forgotten in early mintings but added later.

That is until 1909, the centennial year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The case was made that The Great Emancipator deserved special recognition, that the most important president since Washington should be immortalized on our coinage in addition to a bunch of fresh statues and buildings in his honor. But that original restriction of the Coinage Act of 1792 remained: you could only depict a figurative representation of Liberty. For Lincoln we made an exception and Congress amended the act to specifically allow Lincoln to be put on the penny.

By 1948, every goddamn coin in the United States depicted a person, with the Walking Liberty falling to Benjamin Franklin on the half dollar. And now, 107 years later we still have Lincoln’s face on the penny. There have been many efforts to change the penny over the decades, with the back of the coin changing four times now, but the idea of replacing Lincoln’s face on the front with something else is a non-starter. Hell, even the argument that we lose money making pennies cannot stand against the tradition of pennies and the face of Lincoln. We are now trapped by the people we honor.

EDIT: As a follow up to answer someone’s question as to what the point of all that was, the purpose was to highlight something historians and archaeologists have always known: a culture’s money says a lot about it. Sometimes it tells the only story we’ll ever know about a culture when the distance in time becomes centuries and those stories also raise questions of their own. Questions like “What happened that they stopped worshiping Liberty and put these people on instead? Who were they? Or are they aspects of Liberty too, because we still see that word there?” This is one of those cases where I rather liked the original intent and the solid 70 years before the first modification of the Coinage Act of 1792. And to quote My Lovely Assistant “It suggests we worship the Founding Fathers like the gods they weren’t.”

These are the things I think about when bored.



The Columbian Expo Half-Dollar Reverse

The Columbian Expo Half Dollar Reverse

Columbian Exposition Obverse

The Columbian Exposition Half Dollar Obverse












*:  Or 1892 if you want to be super picky and include the very first commemorative coins. Special half dollars and quarters were struck as a fundraiser for the Columbian Exposition, but they were never intended for circulation and more like a collector’s item instead. Technically, Christopher Columbus is the first historical personage depicted on a coin the US Mint struck, followed shortly after by Queen Isabella for the same Expo.

FURTHER EDIT: As I had people argue with me that “obverse is where the face goes, idiot” I would like to clarify. That would be true on non-American coins and would be true all the way back to the first Lydian coins more or less. The face tells you who’s reign you’re in and thus the rough date it was minted. But America didn’t have kings, thus our obverse was defined by wherever we stamped the date and the word LIBERTY. Part of the olive branch in making the Columbian Expo coin was that Columbus’ head would not be put on the front of the coin with the date. It also doesn’t say LIBERTY, so it was never meant to be a “real” coin to the point that they had to make the qualifying statement “COLUMBIAN HALF DOLLAR”.

The obverse-is-wherever-the-date-is rule went out the window with the Presidential Dollar Coin Program. The Mint Act was amended to more or less remove all the restrictions of the original 1792 act in the interest of artistic freedom. You’ll notice the dollar coin’s date is on the rim now.

Another Rant: Art Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alcoholism in Antarctica

This is a post over two months in the making as it’s pulled together some hard times from Pole. I hope it helps someone. While I stand by what I’ve done and my justifications, I can’t say they give me great comfort.

Today is Midwinter in Antarctica. It is one of the most important dates on the calendar because it means you’ve hit the halfway mark of the Long Night and every day from here is one closer to the sun coming back above the horizon. You might think this is cause for jubilation. While it was certainly the reason for a feast and party, the more common reaction was “Fuck. It’s only halfway through winter. At least four months until the station opens again. Fuck. Pour me some more whiskey, dammit.”

I once gave a presentation to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where I opened, “Hi, I’m Phil Broughton. I’m not an alcoholic but I am a compulsive bartender.” From there, I told a tale of alcoholism and enabling from the perspective of a safety professional serving people booze to oblivion. In my previous tales of the Ice, I’ve discussed the fun associated with being at the end of the Earth, rivers of ions swimming in the sky over head, and a cocktail in your hand. This has generated a lot of fine detailed questions about the drinking culture of the continent which I’m going to try to tackle with one post. But it’s also time to discuss when that goes wrong, because when you’re 14000mi from home there’s a lot that can go truly horribly wrong. There are times I still wish we’d had a chaplain down there like they did in the Navy days but, alas, there was me. I like to think I did right, at least well enough, by people that were hurting.

Whichever US station you were at dictated how and what alcohol was available to you. Each of the three had a ship store from which you could by whatever sinful products of comfort you wished: liquor, beer, wine, smokes, soda, Keebler E.L. Fudge cookies, etc. One of the stereotypical flags that you might have a problem with alcohol is that you’re in your room drinking alone. The Navy knew this, which is why the bars were built; if you’re going to be consuming alcohol, you need to do it in public where everyone else is watching. McMurdo, being the largest station, was also unique among the stations for having three bars that all charged for drinks. Barbaric, I say. South Pole and Palmer Stations operated on the “bring some, take some” honor system. You want to drink in Club 90 South, you better put a bottle up on the shelf or beer in the case now and then. No one really said anything, but yes a silent tally of your consumption versus contribution was being made in the heads of your comrades. I formalized the honor bar a bit by making broadcast announcements of what the bar was lacking so that when the ship store opened on Saturday afternoon people could make sure we were well stocked for the evening and through the next week (this didn’t necessarily go over well with management as it was seen as encouragement).

I’ve been asked when the bars opened. Again, depended on the station. McMurdo’s bars had specific hours that they were opened to serve the various shifts and you as customer were supposed to attend the correct bar accordingly. I don’t know about Palmer, but Club 90 South at Pole was open 24/7/365. Not that I was there 24/7/365, mind you; my bartending duties were purely a volunteer matter which guaranteed me a chair when I showed up in the bar. At first during the summer it was just Saturday nights, but by the time winter rolled around I was up there most every night doing my thing for folks. This is the joy of an honor bar; come on in any time, no one’s gonna charge you, so help yourself. You are, of course, supposed to be working during the day but if it’s just you in the bar, and no one’s keeping a tab, who’s to say you were even drinking? (this is a very Zen alcoholic justification) The answer: me, when I find you passed out on the floor with a toppled barstool beside you when I come to “open” the bar at 8pm.

Antarctica’s problem is that you’ve run as far as a person possibly can to “escape”. I heard about every relationship shattered by the distance to the Ice…and all the ones that ended before you even thought about coming to Antarctica. The strings of jobs and towns abandoned as you tried to make a new start, a new life, in the next town, or state, or country over. But once you get to Antarctica, there’s simply nowhere further to go. Then the station closes for the winter with no more flights for nine months. When things start going wrong for you again, because the common denominator in all the situations you’ve fled from is you, you’re trapped. So you’d better get acquainted with yourself OR you can just drink yourself to oblivion and kill the days so that you aren’t even there. I’m not going to put a number on how many people took the latter route, but I’m having a hard time thinking of any that really made the former work.

I recall pouring glass after glass of Crown Royal for a person that, against all odds, was still managing to sit on a stool and semi-coherently ask for another drink. There were three people that individually pulled me aside and said, “Dude. STOP SERVING HIM. He is so far gone it’s not even funny.” Assuming they remember, as it was a decade ago, they were drinking too, and the ravages of hypothyroidism in Antarctica on memory, they probably still blame me for serving irresponsibly. I had a different perspective. I try to keep in mind and control the most serious danger and deal with the other ones as they come up. The most dire danger in Antarctica is always failure to respect the absolutely lethal environment of Antarctica itself. I was far happier to serve until I could guide him over to a couch to pass out than to see him stagger out into the -85F night. I was doubly happy to be serving him in the bar rather than have him get to this state, or worse, alone where something dumb/wrong might happen and no one would be able to help him until it was far too late.

So, yes, I ended up cleaning up more than my fair share of puke from my fellow Polies that were in a bad way. I apologize for any bruises I may have given manhandling them into chairs or onto couches because I wasn’t going to let them lie on the floor. But I am happy to say very few people had to shamefully look at their vomit permanently frozen into the ice, until painstakingly chiseled out so that the crew wasn’t embarrassed when the new people arrived. And no one, no one, had to be treated for hypothermia and frostbite due to getting drunkenly disoriented or passing out in the cold.

Phil Does Stupid Human Tricks, AKA "The Dragon", with Liquid Nitrogen in Club 90 South

Phil Does Stupid Human Tricks, AKA “The Dragon”, with Liquid Nitrogen in Club 90 South

Oh, the Crown Royal. One of those odd things that just happens, any bartender will tell you this, is that bars have peculiar booze consumption characters. That there will be a type of alcohol that sells remarkably well in one bar but doesn’t even move in the bar the next block down. Or, for similarly unknown reasons, a college town bar will see that each different year progressing through college has it’s signature booze, i.e. the class of 2014 all order dry martinis, but the class of 2015 is all Jaegerbombs, all the time. For the South Pole 2002-2003 winterovers, the booze of choice was Crown Royal, I think because of the lovely felt bags the bottles came in. Every time a new bottle was opened, the bag got suspended from the Christmas lights over the bar, slowly making a curtain. In the picture to the above, taken January 2002, it was still pretty sparse up there; by July, one of the communications techs took down about 50 of the bags to make a quilt. There were so many by then that we didn’t even notice.

A fair question I’ve been asked is “How did you get all that booze down there? What did you have? Was there non-alcoholic anything?” At Pole & McMurdo, you could buy hard liquor, wine, beer, and soda from the ship store, though as memory serves we had a better variety at Pole though not the same vast inventory. It is telling that the very first cargo pallet that came off the plane when I arrived at Pole on the opening flight was nothing but beer (my luggage didn’t arrive for another two weeks).   While bulk cargo can be brought to McMurdo & Palmer by boat, everything that comes to Pole has to do it by plane. I would describe the variety of booze in the ship store as comparable to a middling supermarket. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see both sweet vermouth and Makers Mark on the shelf, because it meant that I didn’t bring the Angostura bitters in my luggage for nothing and that there’d would be manhattans to drink all the way through winter.

Actually, the fact that I was in no danger of running out of Makers Mark or sweet vermouth is an interesting point, given that the United States Antarctic Program and the contractor running the station had made a commitment to reduce alcohol dependence. Turning the stations dry was, frankly, out of the question, though it was threatened. During the offload of the cargo vessel in McMurdo by the NAVCHAPS (US Navy Cargo Handling And Port Services), all the bars and booze sales in the ship store shut down lest there be trouble, again, for the who knows how manyeth time. Of course, the research vessels constantly circumnavigating the continent are always dry vessels, not that this stops homebrewing in the finest of prison wine traditions on the boats. So, there was proof of concept that it was possible to go dry…but booze sales were a decent moneymaker for the contractor because, really, how many t-shirts are you gonna sell to each person? Alcohol, tobacco, and candy are consumables and have the possibility of repeat business that selling souvenirs lacks. People generally got some percentage of their paycheck paid to them on continent in cash and then promptly went to the ship store to buy booze with it.

As bartender that year, I was paying attention to our consumption rates and what things ran out when (something not done before, it seems) and, frankly, it wasn’t complimentary. Remember for this timeline, South Pole Station opened on October 30th with first flight and the station closed on February 14th, with several resupply flights coming in per day while the station was open:

  • Ran out of Dr. Pepper & Mountain Dew in late March
  • Ran out of red wine in early April. SEE ALSO: South Pole “Enhanced” Sangria
  • Ran out of Coke & Pepsi in mid to late April
  • Ran out of Diet Coke & Pepsi, 7-Up, and root beer in early to mid May
  • Ran out of tonic and Bailey’s Irish cream in July
  • Ran out of Crown Royal, Bacardi 151 and club soda in August
  • Ran out of all beer except the worst one (New Zealand’s Export Gold) by early September.
  • Ran out of Export Gold the night before first flight arrived and the station opened.

At the end of the year, we still had more hard liquor than you could shake a stick at on the shelves and in storage. Of the three we ran out of, this was due to irrational popularity (Crown Royal), a special item shipped down by a cargo manager one time, three years prior (151), and for only one of them, a bartender that made mixed drinks (Bailey’s). As a responsible bartender, I made a point of trying to alternate people’s booze with non-alcoholic options but I ran out of those damn early, other than water. We had quite a few varieties of New Zealand’s beers available but they dwindled away one by one through the winter, leaving only Export Gold by the end. Therefore, as the months wore on, the alcohol consumption not only increased in quantity, but it increased in alcohol content per drink. By the end, I was regularly tossing out 4-7 empty liquor bottles a night for a 6-12 people. This doesn’t jibe with a desire to reduce alcohol dependence and the letter I wrote to the USAP and Raytheon stating this got no response.

The other thing all this booze did was cause an extra rift in the station population. Antarctica has always suffered a cultural split between the “beakers” (researchers on NSF grants) and “support” (all the workers from the Contractor that operate/build the stations, i.e. everyone else). As support staff that very directly helped keep experiments up and running, I was in an odd bridging role that let me play in both camps. The new rift that revealed itself was the Teetotalers vs. the Drunks and it was a roughly 40/60 division in a winter station population of 58. I’m to understand that the bar became much more central in the life of the station my year than it normally was, and that might partially be my fault. It was a standing complaint from the Teetotalers that any event that happened always drifted to Club 90 South, or that the event just didn’t work because everyone was at the bar instead. Stitching these two groups together, which were almost but not quite broken along the traditional beaker/support lines, is a task our station manager had that I didn’t envy.

I’m to understand the solution that was implemented the following year was an HR representative from Contractor HQ that stayed for the whole winter to help with problems, by doing such things as sitting in the bar and monitoring drinking habits. When I was told of this plan I predicted the HR representative would be the Most Hated Person At Pole. The result was a lot of solitary drinking and little cohesion in the crew, which made for a very hard winter for everyone. Being at the bottom of the globe for a year, surrounded by two mile thick ice sheets, and no escape is hard enough without trying to do it alone.

While I have misgivings about my bartending and the things I saw in Antarctica, I still think it’s preferable to the alternatives.

EDIT: The original 2nd to last paragraph said “no cohesion in the crew” . As someone that was there the year after me was quick to point out this may also have been a function of a largest station winterover population ever, spread across the old Dome and the new berthing in the elevated station, separated by a decent hike and 96 stairs at ~10000′ of altitude. More people is an opportunity for more cliques so, by comparison, two major blocs looks cohesive next to a dozen or so smaller fractious groups. However, even one friend that isn’t a bottle is a better than none.

Horrible People Dragging The World Forward

This rant had it’s genesis chatting outside the Burger King, around 2pm on a Sunday, in Terminal C of Las Vegas’ McCarran “Sad Bro” International Airport. Let me tell you, early afternoon on Sunday in McCarran is a sea of desolate, hungover, broke, exhausted, and, above all, chica-less bros. It earned my new name for it that day. However, this rant is a blither across academic organizational theory, prions, not offending Germans, and the Most Important Man at the University of California, Berkeley (hint: not me, nor the Chancellor).

A friend who is a writer in the tech press related to me that he’d like to go back to school, get a new degree, and do actual science rather than report about the toys of others. No, I won’t tell you who or where, but I have renamed the company he works for to “Techcrotch”. Then he said something that I’ve heard from a lot of prospective grad students:

“I want to work in a new field, NEW SCIENCE. A field where there’s a chance to do something without all the hierarchy and the weight of your predecessors on you.”

I gave a sad smile and said, “Oh, it’s different, but definitely not nicer.”

DISCLAIMER:  While I am scientifically trained, I am not exactly a participant, nor am I quite an observer. To the point of view of the most of the research community, I am a small, petty bureaucrat. A simple obstacle to be overcome/ignored at best, an active impediment to THE PROGRESS OF ALL HUMANITY at worst. On rare beautiful occasions, I’ve been a collaborator to help make their experiment the best that it can be. This may have colored my worldview a titch.

At some level, it comes down to a fight for scarce resources. The hierarchies of the old hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology and the electrical/mechanical engineering) are inherited structures from medieval clerics needed to keep an abbey or cloister running. The purpose is to translate knowledge, but also to insure that there is a safe future for those clerics to grow old in.  To assure the new novices that they too could safely become emeritus if they take care of their seniors and teach their juniors properly.

Except good science doesn’t work like good religion. Good science questions assumptions and grows the body of knowledge. Sadly, people in academia today aren’t much different than they were in the monasteries 1000 years ago. Uppity undergrads that appear to have stumbled on something for their adviser which refutes the adviser’s old adviser, they are not rewarded with an immediate pope hat and made full professor on the spot. Goodness no, they get told they’re an idiot and did it wrong (to be honest, there’s a very good chance they did). This preserves the institution but may hinder science. Hopefully, things will get to the right answer by and by. Eventually.

Worse comes to worse, it makes fun internet research for future people looking for how many times the radio was invented and by whom.

But it takes a very special kind of person to stand up to their adviser and grand-adviser. To, in fact, stand up to the entire world and say “I am right, you are all wrong, and I am going to prove it.” And then argue for enough money, space, time and support to prove it and change What We Know. To build an entirely new field of study!

With rare exception, the personality that can do this is a magnificent, utterly unrepentant, abyssally cavernous, asshole.

This is not the cute “I’m on the spectrum, tee hee” social awkwardness of the average first year physics or EE grads. This is malignant. It is self-centered to the point of ego singularity and it accretes people to feed it. If the old discipline is a medieval fossil serving the monolithic Church of Science, the new one they’ve created, at first, is a cult of personality, handling dangerous snakes out in the shed around back of the old gas station…I think I lost hold of my metaphor there and wandered into a Call of Cthulhu module.

When you actively seek the shiny new field of research to do New and Exciting things, you are actively engaging a small coterie of people that founded it, their students, and their collective egos. You are free of the stultifying hierarchy of the big ol’ department, but beholden to the vicissitudes of your founders (SEE ALSO: any number of 19th century American sects).

The book that particularly comes to mind is “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep” by D.T. Max and the tale of discovering prion diseases. In the course of doing so, we come to know the two major personalities who both garnered Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine, Dr. Stanley Pruisner and Dr. Daniel Gajdusek. It should come as no surprise that they aren’t entirely wonderful people, and hooooo nelly Dr. Gajdusek should come with a trigger warning for some folks, but they certainly advanced…hell…created the field of prion research.

But, sometimes, that personality backfires in the wrong setting. I recall the tale of certain astrophysicist visiting the Max Planck Institute for a discussion of the brand new, at the time, theory of dark matter. The chair of the physics department of the Institute was giving a plenary talk where he likened dark matter to a Tenth Planet, AKA no basis for this being THE explanation, but it makes the math work. Many things could make the math work and the point the chair was trying to make was that some more rigorous testing of the theory was in order before advancing it.

An institutionalized researcher would’ve gone back, chastised, and tried to bring something better, more supported back. Not the founder personality, oh goodness no. A perceived attack on their theory is an attack on them. Said astrophysicist resorted to ad hominem attacks on the chair from the crowd. The chair asked him to leave the room. He was met by the bursars who were there with his luggage, who then escorted him off the grounds and told him to get a hotel because he no longer had access to the grounds of the Institute. Oh, and he’d best a arrange a flight out first thing in the morning because his visa had been revoked by the sponsor, the department chair.

PROTIP: In America, a departmental chair gets a nice office but no particular power. In Germany, they have utter rule over everything their influence touches. Don’t piss them off.

When people pull the I-am-more-important-than-you card, which has happened often lately playing with biochem folks, I am quick to reply, “That may be, fellow staff member, but do you think you are the most important person at this University?” This usually gets met with a confused blink and declarations that they suppose that would be the Chancellor. Only once has a Nobel laureate declared that, indeed, he was the most important person on campus, which is a sure sign that he isn’t.

The correct answer is that the most important person at UC Berkeley is Juan, the bartender at the Faculty Club. When protestations start, I ask them to consider that Juan has the pleasure of taking the time (and he does take his time) to make fine cocktails in a stately old bar filled with brilliant people, people untangling the knots of the universe and human condition at his tables. But more than that, he is UC Berkeley staff, not a food service contractor. He, too, is Professor Egopants’ colleague. He is a bartender with the same benefits as a full professor. This generally causes people to consider their place in the world and the importance of their role in it. If said researcher is still up for it, I then invite them to join me for a joyous, but humble, drink from Juan as we discuss their work.

In summation, I wish my friend luck in his endeavors, that he will successfully navigate the founder personalities, and that I will smack him upside the head if he starts behaving like an ass. But a cocktail from Juan will set him right as rain.