Sometimes I have feelings on topics. Once I’ve put enough coherent thoughts together that I don’t want them to slip away, I put them here to go back and reference later.

Hard Life Lessons from the Land of Q Clearances

In an ongoing effort to share helpful things in life about topics other than delicious coffee & beer, I want to take a moment to discuss something that effects all of us, every day.

Mt. Lassen, Bumpass Hell - I try to display more serenity than the heart of volcano that exploded, but it's hard sometimes

Mt. Lassen, Bumpass Hell – I try to display more serenity than the heart of a volcano that exploded, but it’s hard sometimes.

First, let us review the two fundamental pieces of wisdom that can so easily be forgotten in a moment of blinding internet rage:

  1. NEVER read the comment threads.
  2. NEVER feed the trolls.
You know these moments of blinding internet rage. It is unbecoming of you to lie and say they’ve never happened. They happen when someone, somewhere, on the internet is wrong and you need to correct them. Generally, you forget Rule #1 first, then Rule #2 goes out the window as you read, and then you need to call your doctor to up the dosage of your blood pressure medication (maybe get you some of that nice thorazine too to take the edge off). And if that troll was directed at you, well, it takes a truly serene Buddhesque state to resist their bait.
 
Let me discuss in a bit more detail why you need to heed Rule #2, in particular, as it relates to folks that work in a land of nuclear secrets.

 

When you have been entrusted with secrets, it is your obligation to not divulge them. If you are working at a rather secretive, tight lipped company, you are bound by some rather brutal Non-Disclosure Agreements and the breach of contract lawsuit can get nasty. In the Gub’mint, be it military or cleared personnel in other departments, the punishments can go all the way up through treason. In particular, The Man takes a very, very, very dim view of people who can’t keep their lips sealed when entrusted with the keys to the nuclear arsenal.

 

Now, you may feel that too many things have been classified or that things that have absolutely no reason to be classified, like the amount of toilet paper a given facility purchased, have been. Or that transparency is the only way to keep people honest as corruption breeds in the dark. I’ve lost more than a few friends on the topic of Wikileaks because, for the rest of my natural life or until 10CFR1016 changes, I am obligated to not read ANY of it until it appears in the media whereupon I still can’t comment on it as I am an “Informed Individual”. I am inclined to agree with transparency, declassification, and lack of classification in the first place, in general, but there are some things that I would prefer not be shared willy nilly such as nuclear secrets. And, unfortunately, I am all too aware of the intelligence value of a toilet paper order.

 

Is you brain hurting yet? Good, you are starting to understand what an NDA or clearance really means if you actually intend to honor your word.

 

A clearance is a way to verify that people are trustworthy and will not divulge secrets. This is not to say that secrets can’t be gleaned from cleared personnel. We have spent an inordinate amount of money over the last decade to “harden” our security infrastructure but we still have one weak link: people. In America, much of this money has been spent to try to engineer people out of security because people are seen as a source of error. I have seen this time and time again, where the after incident root cause analysis almost always comes to the conclusion that the problem was “a training issue”. Not that Jimbo here is too much of a goddamn idiot to not electrocute himself drooling on his keyboard, but that we just didn’t give him enough training. But that is a separate rant about how America has destroyed our bureaucracy through a lack of trust.

 

Back to people being a weak link in security. Going through the DOE, FBI, and CIA archives of turned agents and convicted violators, the most amazing part is how easy and how cheaply it has been been to get information from people at the most secured of facilities. Sure, you could try to blackmail them with sexual indiscretions, foster drug addictions, take advantage of the same in their family members, or just outright bribe them, but really that’s a lot of work and expense. The easiest way is to just ask, earnestly and with great interest, for someone to explain their work. People want others to be interested in what they do and it is crushing to be unable to share. To find someone genuinely interested with an inkling of the classified information you already know…conversation is almost too much to resist. This is doubly hard for those of us who also teach, we WANT to share.

 

Of course, that’s the nice way of doing it. The nastier way is an ego attack (or, if you are the kind of nerd that had the AD&D psionics handbook, an ego whip). It is very easy, with a modicum of knowledge about a person’s work, to level a broadside attack on the work and/or the person. Now, to defend yourself fully you may have to disclose information that you shouldn’t, but, but you know better than this…this fucking troll and YOU HAVE TO AND YOU CAN GODDAMN WIN, RIGHT?!?!

 

No, you can’t. This is what is so infuriating to cleared personnel, the inability to respond. To get a doctorate, to be willing to put yourself in harm’s way, or to be willing to work with the things no sane person wants to touch, this all takes hubris. To have this hubris is to also be so very vulnerable to ego attacks. Several times I’ve had to go smack someone upside the head for going on a forum and putting the puzzle pieces together. Yes, the individual puzzle pieces weren’t classified, but the full picture is and numbskull had no reason to do so other than, really, showing off.

 

So, the next time you are tempted to respond to a troll, take a moment to realize that it is bait. No matter how you respond, if you do respond you have given up a little bit of your life to the troll. Once you have made that investment, it is hard not to compound it because you need the initial investment to be worthwhile; in other words, once you take the bait, you are a fish on the troll’s line. It takes nearly no effort on their part to play out the line to get you to divulge more information.

 

Take a moment to be sure of yourself. Before you so much as type a word in reply to something that has pissed you off, walk away from the computer and other media that might let you respond. Go to the beach, go to a bar, walk in the woods, give your baby a noogie, whatever. Realize you have better things to do than argue with trolls and that you cannot win this fight, ever.

 

This message brought to you by Herr Direktor Funranium’s +3 whiskey of troll resistance.

Another Rant: The Funranium Labs Customer Service Ethos

I do my best to compose these posts with the appropriate level of insobriety fueling me. I like to think that it allows me to summon the correct creativity needed to share More Awesome. In this case, it is the vitriol directed at organizations Doin’ It Wrong.

This morning I just shipped a replacement Stein of Science to a gentleman in Hawaii since the postal service decided to play hockey with his package. I’m girding myself to file the insurance claim (which I slap on every stein shipment for just this reason) but I am warmed by the thanks I received for turning a replacement out in 48hrs and not charging to ship it. With friends from Hawaii and Alaska, I know how goddamn irritating it is to see “Offer Not Available in AK & HI”. May your new stein arrive safely, Max.

I’m often complimented on my customer service and I can credit it to a couple of places: a childhood doing retail sales in a pet store run by my parents and the bad customer service I receive on a daily basis from a dozen or so major companies. Rather than be infuriated to the point I decide obliteration of all customer service reps is the only solution, I try to learn a lesson of what is going wrong here.

And if by some reason Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Verizon, AT&T, PG&E, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Enterprise Car Rental, Kaiser Permanente, Delta Dental, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, or Fry’s Electronics are reading this, please know that I have had the teeth gritting opportunity to learn something from all of you.

The primary failure all of these organizations have had is by approaching their customer service as a potential expense rather than an opportunity to make a future sale. Sure, the future is a nebulous place whereas the cash they already got from me is SOLID. Can’t take the future to the bank. However Verizon, as my favorite dead horse to beat, may rest assured that that they so thoroughly held on to the value of the original sale that they lost a customer of 10 years, my business for the foreseeable future, and (as they’re still getting here) continued bad word of mouth exposure. AT&T has definitely not endeared itself to me but they haven’t, thus far, managed to pass the very high irritation bar Verizon established.

How did these organizations fail me and so many others? One could list the myriad ways, but it comes from failure to understand the fundamental exchange in customer service, which is this:

YOUR CUSTOMER HAS A PROBLEM.

THEY NEED YOUR HELP.

It’s really that simple. The next part is figuring out what the problem actually is and what help you can give.The customer has not contacted you because they feel like having a chat and have nothing better to do. If there was something wrong but it wasn’t important, they wouldn’t be spending their time to tell you about their problem.

Unfortunately, I find that customer service normally treats the problem as being “there is a customer trying to take the company’s money away”. The customer’s time is irrelevant to them as this isn’t something that can be seen in the balance sheet, so there is no particular incentive to be expedient. Customer service staff wages are already paid for so there is no particular bottom line gain to the company for them being expedient, only more money lost due to the increased number of refunds and return authorizations they process.

Another matter is the empowerment of service personnel. For large organizations, first tier customer service folks are a gauntlet for the customer to prove they are worthy of service. I can think of few jobs more depressing than one with scripted service interactions. You don’t have the power to approve anything, just provide roadblocks to quickly deny access to the rest of the customer service chain. A former corporate buyer I knew had the habit of immediately asking customer service representatives, “Do you have the authority to approve this?” If the answer was no, she asked for the rep’s supervisor, and repeated the question until she got to someone in sufficient authority to make a decision other than “No”. If you refused to pass her along or, even worse, your script took people like her into account and forced her through the gauntlet, there was price to paid, literally. She billed them for her wasted time on the next invoice they sent her and hooboy did it get ugly when they didn’t pay.

The lesson she taught me was that, from the customer perspective, the entire customer service hierarchy is superfluous until you get to the point that you hit someone that can make decisions. So, why don’t they have the authority? Either they hired incompetents too untrainable to have this authority OR the employees aren’t trusted to work in the company’s interest. Either way, this isn’t a good sign for the future of the company’s stock.

The alternative is that they simply don’t give a flying fuck once they get your cash. Their “customer service”, such that it is, exists to fulfill an organizational requirement, not actually function. See also: Death by Phone Tree, now with mystery auto-disconnects.

For better or for worse, Funranium Labs is me, my very patient webmaster, my even more patient Lovely Assistant, and the very brave volunteers that fill out the ranks of the Ambassadors…but mainly me. I would like to thank all the organizations that have given me so many object lessons in how to treat you all well. I think I’ve got it down to the point that I could do without any further education.

Oh wait, I have an insurance claim to make with USPS. Pardon me…it’s time to go take an advanced course.

A Bit Of A Rant

Yes, there are fresh batches of Death Wish, Retiro, Colombia, and Mundo Nuvo up to tell you about and the Ambassador of Greater Los Angeles is resupplied, but I want to have a bit of a rant and it starts six years ago with a chocolate bar in England. Let’s see how many people I can piss off here…

Yorkie Bar

Yorkie – The Candy Bar I Couldn’t Believe I Was Seeing

After a very long walk toward the Thames that ended at Regents Park, our feet were aching and we were starving. Don’t ask how we achieved this fundamental geography failure, I blame all the crescents. We popped into a corner shop and I was lusting for a Bounty bar but the thing that drew my eye was a candy bar I’d never seen before, the Yorkie. I called Joe over to make sure that I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing.

Obviously, I also brought a bar home so that I could taunt my little sister with it as the Chocolate She Could Not Have. This is what big brothers are for after all. And because I am a nice big brother, I brought her plenty of other chocolate home from the land that didn’t change the definition of chocolate for economic reasons.

You may call this bar a manifestation misogynistic “laddie” culture. You may see this as a rather blatant flag waving for a war between the sexes in the interest of making a profit, the same as any arms merchant looking to sell bullets to both sides in the Central African Republic for a few diamonds.

If you ask me, it isn’t nice. It also seems a rather loud declaration that you don’t like sex with women. I’d be damn surprised to hear a tale of a lady swooning at the sight of you with a Yorkie hanging out of your mouth and that wrapper waving in her face.

Why do I bring this up?

A Test Subject with a keen eye sent me these words that came with a link to Black Blood of the Earth:

Men should grow a pair and brew their own. It’s not a woman’s job.

This is what happens when man makes coffee, and it is glorious.

Yes, I am a man. Yes, the coffee I have made is glorious. It is because it is made with SCIENCE, not because I have a penis. I’m pretty sure you don’t want penis coffee.

It is a twisty, backhanded statement in reply to a video compilation of 1950s commericals about wives ruining their menfolk’s coffee because the wives weren’t using Maxwell House, if I remember the commercial archive correctly. I like to always keep in mind the historical contexts because so many things don’t make sense if you can’t imagine the world they happened in (a skill that really helps as Eternal DM For Life). That said, it’s good to always remember when doing this that you live in the Now.

Some people are fond of the ironic misogyny for humor value. If you do this, and I’m not sensing humor in the comment I was sent, doing it in the written word is asking for trouble. It needs to be done face to face, to the female friend in question (do not play this game with strangers), with the full recognition that you are being an ass and don’t believe this (which is why you don’t do this to strangers), AND you have to be quite willing to accept the corporal punishment for having been unable to resist saying the horrible thing you just said.

I can get away with saying horrible things because I don’t believe in them. Because friends know damn well that this is coming from a diseased mind that has spent far, far, FAR too much time in the dark corners of history. I have a firm belief that you need to pull the history we don’t like to talk about out from time to time to look at it, to get a feel for that history, to realize how very recent some of it is, because we start to forget what it was and may not recognize Bad Things in progress now. But, damn, be careful lest you accidentally bring the Bad Things back.

Yes, I’m an ass. But I’m a cognizant one with poor impulse control and I happily take my lickings for being an ass. So, to the young lads reading this old man’s words, you don’t know enough to be an ass properly. And when you do it improperly, in the words of the Caffeinatrix of PDX, you are a brodouche. It takes an awful lot of education to do it right, so for the sake of your mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and special lady friends you probably shouldn’t. I’m sure they’ll educate you, if they care to stick around.

Besides, Yorkie bars didn’t even taste all that good.

ADDENDUM: To the brodouche that happily threw my own safety recommendation back at me as proof of women being the weaker sex, I had to do the *MUST NOT KILL AGAIN* rub of the temples to quiet the soothing voices of unwise action. Let us review that safety recommendation.

Also by the back of the envelope calculations, 1 liter consumed in a fairly short time period might hit the LD50 acute dose for caffeine for a 160lbs male hairless ape. And, just for the record, women are generally somewhat more caffeine sensitive. Use your BBotE wisely.

This is not proof that men are “better” than women because we, on average, can safely consume more caffeine. It makes me a little bit sad when someone compliments BBotE strictly on it’s caffeine jolt rather than the taste. I can tell you from my “So you weren’t kidding about that 100ml/day” email file that the overwhelming majority of people that decided to start their consumption at 100ml and had a bit of an oopsie are men of the gaming persuasion, the alpha geeks… theoretically, My People. So, while you may be able to consume more caffeine than a similarly BBotE-armed lady, please don’t try to claim that you’re better on that basis.

Post-Tsunami Japanese Reactor Problems

While I like to keep my discussions here coffee, beer, and historical science related some things just can’t be ignored especially when people keep poking me for answers. So, I have some thoughts that are quite lacking in insobriety.

First, I am not a nuclear engineer, contrary to how more than a few people have referred to me; I am a health physicist. It is the purpose of my field to keep radiation doses as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA, as the acronym goes) for radiation workers and the public. More often than not, this means protecting the radiation sources from people as humans are rather dangerous when we ignorantly play with fire. So, I cannot definitively speak to the quality of the reactor’s construction or it’s current post-earthquake condition, though I’m pretty sure no one builds reactors with a M9.0 quake in mind (certainly not the outbuildings that held the cooling & filtration systems that have been damaged, never mind the rest of the city infrastructure). The job of a health physicist is now to protect the public from an accident that has gone beyond the confines of the reactor. For that, I can say things:

  1. If you do not live in northern Honshu, you do not have cause for panic. The radiation release from the reactor has been localized to the immediate vicinity. A downwind plume exposure pathway emergency planning zone (~10mi radius) as already been evacuated. A wider 50 mile radius will be drawn for confiscation of foodstuffs to minimize any potential ingestion of radioactive iodine & cesium.
  2. Please be understanding of the fact that thousands are dead from a tsunami and earthquake with associated services badly disrupted. Terrifying as a nuclear reactor having trouble may seem to you via television/internet report, there are much more lethal and immediate problems than the reactor to the people who are still in the middle of this. Just getting there to help is a logistical nightmare. Contamination can be cleaned up, but people can’t be unkilled. Life saving takes precedence over property & environment.
  3. Normal operations of a nuclear reactor involves the operation of air and water monitoring stations in the facility itself and area environmental monitors for many miles around. A tsunami is likely to have broken more than few of those, but many more mobile units were rushed to the scene. This is how we are keeping track of what has been/is being released to the surrounding area from the reactor.
  4. Radioactive materials are being released to the air in the form of radioactive steam and water. Dissolved metals in the water and small particulates are particularly prone to becoming activated and thus radioactive, especially without a functional cooling and filtration loop to clean the water up. The radioactivity is very short lived, in general on the order of minutes to about a week, but rather nasty while it is present.
  5. Reports have indicated the presence of small quantities radioiodine and radiocesium in monitoring. This indicates that some of the nuclear fuel cladding has been damaged due to overheating.
  6. Unless ordered by a medical professional, DO NOT self-administer prophylactic iodine or Prussian blue treatments to protect against radioiodine & radiocesium uptake. These treatments carry some significant metabolic risks at the body saturating doses necessary to offer protection.
  7. Please don’t mob the health professionals. They are badly outnumbered and doing their best. People with burns and crush injuries take precedence over potential radioactive materials uptake every time. Your latency for cancer is 40 years; their latency for a crushed arm may only be minutes. Do not be upset when they press-gang you for assistance at the triage station rather than treat you like victim, because you are still ambulatory and capable.
  8. The symptoms of acute radiation sickness (ARS) begin with vomiting. There’s an awful lot of things that may cause vomiting in a disaster situation like this, not the least of which is stress and psychosomatic response. At this point we will segregate you and watch for further advancement of symptoms. At present, only one person who has presented with symptoms that has had an actual radioactive materials uptake; his dose was less the 1/10th the what is normally associated with associated with ARS.

If you want to help with all of this, please, instead of buying a Stein of Science or Black Blood of the Earth go donate to the Red Cross. You will do far more good than staring at the TV with growing panic. Several colleagues I rather respect are already on their way to Japan to help with the reactor problems and I wish them the best. As endless a supply of caffeine as I can make is going with them.

I also recommend watching for announcements to come through the International Atomic Energy Agency, American Nuclear Society, and World Nuclear News.