Playing Cops & Robots and Touching Faults, Pt. 1

There’s nothing quite like the end of the month, which is always paperwork crunch time, for new and interesting opportunities to crop up. Despite knowing the certain long hours they will demand in make up time, you just can’t…say…no. Two of those happened this week, I got to enter into UC Berkeley’s Lawson Adit (definition: an adit is the entrance to nearly horizontal mine) and I got to give a crash course in radiation detection using bomb squad robots to the local police departments (this part of the adventure may be found in Part 2).

Lawson Adit Gate

UC Berkeley’s Lawson Adit Gate

First, the questions everyone asks: why does UC Berkeley have a mine and how long has it been there?

Before UC Berkeley had a Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, it was known as the School of Mines and operated out of what is now known as Hearst Memorial Mining Building. Created by a grant by Pheobe Hearst in 1902 from the vast wealth her husband George had realized during the various gold and silver strikes during the late 1800s, Pheobe Hearst wanted to try to educate a new generation of competent mining engineers in George’s memory to work all the vermiculated placer bearing lands of the American West, rather than drag them over from the east coast or depend upon finding them among the flood of immigrants from Europe.

In 1918, it was decided that they’d have students dig & blast a mine in the hard rock of the hills behind the Hearst Memorial Mining Building. The result was the Lawson Adit. Upon discovery of the Hayward Fault running through there, they decided to dig that mine juuuuuust a little bit deeper so that they could actually cross the fault. You know, because it was there…in the name of Science…for More Awesome. Also, it had a special side gallery that was just for storing the student dynamite. Education used to be much more hands on and exciting once upon a time.

By the late 1950s, the excitement for mining had died down and having a mine bisected by an active (and often creeping) fault seemed a Bad Idea. There were numerous collapses in the adit, primarily where the fault crossed, that made the mine too dangerous to work with anymore. The decision was made to seal it up and then, several years later, seal it up much more thoroughly to prevent the homeless from camping in it and frat boys from getting up to shenanigans.

Lawson Adi Spike

Lawson Adit – This Is Why You Wear Hardhats

My entry was done in the interest of making sure that no one had done anything silly and tried to store/discard radioactive materials down there. It was unlikely, but I have made a career for myself in having a very dim view of the common sense and forward thinking of others and I thought it prudent to check, just in case. The first thing you see on entry into the adit is a giant goddamn spike hanging down from the ceiling, as shown in the picture to the right.

No, I don’t know why it was put there but it is definitely very educational. Unless you’re shorter than 4 foot tall, you probably only get to learn the “Wear A Hardhat In A Mine” lesson once from this spike.

Baby Stalactites - Aww, Aren't They Precious?

Baby Stalactites – Aww, Aren’t They Precious?

Rockfalls litter the floor and have dammed up the trickling groundwater, so it is a soggy stroll in the tunnel. Roots hang down from above, with that awful hairy appearance they have for sucking water from dank, moist air. Of course, where you have groundwater seeping through limestone, you get cave formations. This may be a man-made cave, but the natural processes are still going, trying to make some new stalactites on the concrete reinforcing of the side cut entry.

Are You Sure Building A Tunnel Through A Fault Is A Good Idea?

Lawson Adit – Are You Sure Building A Tunnel Through A Fault Is A Good Idea?

At the end of the tunnel, is the collapse that indicates where the Hayward Fault crosses. Lest a rather large hunk of limestone drop and make My Lovely Assistant get very upset with my corpse, I didn’t actually scramble over the debris pile to poke the fault fracture proper.

With the tunnel cleared for radioactive materials and nothing found,  they can now do installation of new seismographs before they lock it down good and tight for the foreseeable future.

Next time: Herr Direktor Funranium puts the UC and Berkeley PD bomb squads, and their robots, through their paces.

Fundamentals Q&A

“We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn’t we, Wang?” -Big Jack Burton, Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Some interesting bits that have come my way asking very basic questions about why I do things the way I do. I often find questioning the basic assumptions and things so common that they’re invisible reveals interesting information.

Question 1: Why do you ship BBotE in glass bottles and risk them breaking? Wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper to do it in plastic? – Marie of Ypsilanti, MI

Answer 1: A better question might be “why don’t you ship it in bags like box wine?” The reason why is flavor. I use glass because it is inert; typical bottle plastic I’ve discovered leaches into the BBotE and shifts the flavor, nevermind the eww factor. The plastic bottles are also rather difficult to clean and reuse. Glass can be cleaned for a refill and honor accumulation, but the plastic is stained forever. I’d like to encourage reuse of the bottles, and plastic runs counter to that.

Stainless steel has potential, but the vessels only get cost effective such that they don’t eclipse the BBotE itself at ridiculous volumes. Despite two particularly vocal and repeated calls (Test Subjects Misha and Sangre) we are still a long way off from the Keg O’ Caffeination. The Jug O’ Madness, a mere 4L vessel permitting musical ambitions after you’ve finished off your BBotE, is in the works.

Question 2: Do the Steins of Science have to have the worm gears on the strapping? They look clunky. – Several people, but most recently Marten of Bethesda, MD

Answer 2: When you figure out a better method to securely attach a handle that doesn’t destroy the dewar and satisfies your desire for a less clunky appearance, please let me know. Don’t get me wrong, I see your point of view and have been looking in order to satisfy the delicate aesthetic sensibilities of others, though not very hard. “Why?” you might ask. Because I rather like the look as it is.

One of the reasons I know this style of mounting works for the handle is that it also works for securing dewars in place as condensors/cold traps for big and impressive distillation setups. The Steins of Science look close to how I’m used to seeing dewars in use out in the wild.

Before you say to me “I’ve never seen a dewar mounted like that in a lab” I would ask if you’ve seen one shatter when knocked off a bench? If no, then your lab has probably gotten lucky and never broken one yet, destroying the science in progress, and scaring the bejeezus out of your fellow researchers. The learning curve is seems to be pretty steep as it is an expensive mistake you don’t want to make more than once.

Question 3: Why are the the shields on the FMJ Steins of Science aluminum and not steel or copper? Copper is sweet and a one of those with a brass handle would be hardcore Steampunk. – Paul of Oakland, CA

Answer 3: The lazy answer is that’s they way they’re manufactured and the shield is epoxied onto the glass, couldn’t change it even if I wanted to. It’s the lazy answer because it doesn’t answer the actual WHY, which is a bit more tricky.

It comes down to a matter of a trade off between protecting the dewar flask, the glass bit with a vacuum inside the metal jacket, ease of manufacturing process, and the overall weight of the completed dewar. Aluminum is quite ductile, even at the 1/16 thickness of the “rugged” style dewar; it flexes and you can easily wrap it around the glass without too much effort. Go grab a piece of sheet steel and see how easily that works (be sure to wear gloves so you don’t slice yourself to ribbons in the process). Steel is also quite a bit denser than aluminum, increasing the overall dewar weight and making survival less likely when you drop a glass vessel.

NOTE: There are dewar vessels out there made entirely out of stainless steel. They tend to be the larger transport dewars as steel is easier to work with at this size. The little stainless steel guys, by which I mean 2L, cost an arm and a leg for one that could potentially be used for a drinking vessel. The 4L ones make fantastic lemonade transports for picnics though. I’m just saying.

Native Copper - It's a long way from being a penny

Native Copper - It's a long way from being a penny

Copper, on the other hand, is quite ductile and would work just fine in place of aluminum, but it has the drawbacks of high metals cost, high density and very noticeable corrosion. But I have to admit, Paul is right, a copper jacketed stein would look boss. Can’t actually change the jacket, but I might be able to electroplate it without screwing up the dewar. Discussions about doing this are in progress but actual results may not happen for many months.

Right, time to get down to the post office and send you people the things you desperately desire.


Great Honor Through Caffeination + GLORY

Are you desirous of BBotE but would like more than mere coffee for you money? I have an opportunity for you.

Because I love the PDXYar kids so, I have put a case of BBotE at their disposal to give out as rewards. So, if you decide to back them at the $150 level, you will get a 750ml bottle of BBotE, a PDXYar t-shirt, a photo of El Tiburon when it is completed, a 1L glass mug, a shotglass, and 10cl graduated cylinder all etched with the PDXYar logo. That is rather substantial amount of swag.

Oh, and it comes with GLORY. As we learned from Team America World Police, Freedom costs a buck o’ five, but GLORY can be had for merely a dollar.

By all means, feel free to back or donate more than that. So far they only have one person at the top level and that is yours truly, Commodore Herr Direktor Funranium. It’s lonely at the top, so please feel free to join me.

DISCLAIMER: The BBotE Pimpstress of PDX, Greta, is a member of PDXYar. Actually, this isn’t a disclaimer at all. This is a point of pride.

A New Coupon For Upcoming Adventure

Very soon Scientific Drinking Tour 2011 will be taking yours truly and his Lovely Assistant to around this fair nation of ours do places north of the Mason-Dixon line that we have never been. Yes, we freely admit that our mutual failure to go to the Smithsonian is simply unacceptable and we aim to remedy that.

It is not, however, free and my MacArthur Genius Grant has somehow not arrived yet.

In the interest of defraying the cost of our trip to the Capital Wasteland, along with Fairbanks, AK and NYC, a new 10% off coupon code has been created! From now until May 31st, type “JOHNHENRYEDEN” when checking out and reap the rewards that will have us knee deep in Science and Adventure.

And oh yes, there shall be tales of Adventure. Have no doubt.

Playa Grade & Rugged Steins Of Science

665ml Rugged Style FMJ Stein of Science

665ml Rugged Style FMJ Stein of Science, with standard reference soda

So, I think I’ve taken the hint that you guys like the silicone sheathed dewars for your steins based upon my inability to maintain any stock of them. The reason I bring this up is because I normally quote a three week production window on the steins from the time of order until it ships. Typically, turn-around time runs much faster, usually within 72hrs…but not so for the Rugged 665ml FMJ & Playa Grade. Some terrible, bad, no good, unknown thing happened in January (based upon my Frustration Angry STABSTABSTAB Tracking Chart) that has the slowed the supply chain on these style of dewars to a trickle. I’ve managed to get roughly two of them a month and they go out the door again as quick as they arrive, leaving folks grumpy. So, if you are interested in claiming one of these Steins of Science I’ve got two recommendations for you:

  1. Go check the Steins Available RIGHT NOW to see if I actually have any on hand. Don’t be surprised if there aren’t any listed (which is part of why I’m making this announcement).
  2. If you really, really want one, drop me a line to call dibs. Better yet, place an order, be patient, and I’ll keep you informed what the supply chain is looking like. If I’m feeling particularly guilty about how long things are taking there is a fair to middling chance I’ll apologize in the form of BBotE.

If you’re ordering a gift for a birthday, Mother or Father’s Day, upcoming BBQ season, Coachella*, Burning Man, etc. and want one of these, don’t dawdle. I have high hopes the supply spigot will open up, but I have to prepare as if it won’t and let you folks know appropriately.

*:Actually, for Coachella, you’re already too late I reckon.

Spambot(?) Q&A

As an increasingly infamous denizen of the Internet, I am forced to reckon with the potent evolving AIs that want to give me formidable never-ending erections for the Russian girls that want to talk just to me. Our robot overlords only want what’s best for Herr Direktor Funranium, obviously.

Charles Stross had a very good discussion about the Spamularity. I spend at least 15 minutes a day obliterating the chaff coming at Funranium Labs and the Contact Us link and not all of it is easy to dismiss. In this Q&A, I am answering those questions that are sufficiently strange in content but well enough written that I’m pretty sure that they weren’t generated by bots. I will not, however, rule out the possibility that the bots have sufficiently evolved that they can appreciate my beard.

Question 1: Your beard is neat looking. What kind of a razor do you use to get it like that?

Answer 1: What? Are you sure you aren’t a Gillette bot? Most of the time, I use a set of Wahl clippers to beat the hedge back. Having Type 2 red hair, however, my stubble goes to 40 grit sandpaper within hours of shaving. Some days I need to be presentable to strangers that have higher standards of civility than my normal relaxed Warren Ellis quote offensive t-shirt and wild eyed hypercaffeinated stare. When that is needed, or I need to don a full face respirator, I have this antique Gillette safety razor I picked up shortly after returning from Antarctica. Note the tasteful brass of the razor and regal purple felt cushioning of the box:

The 1911 Gillette Safety Razor

The 1911 Gillette Safety Razor

Question 2: These steins are really beautiful. Would they work well on Kilimanjaro or other African volcanoes?

Answer 2: I am almost certain you are a sophisticated bot that synthesized from several previous posts. Bravo for this feat of content recognition.

More seriously, the dewars are rather robust from an air pressure sensitivity point of view. You may feel free to eject them from the airlock of Discovery if you like and they won’t pop. Send them to the bottom of Challenger Deep and they’ll probably crush under the pressure, but I doubt you’ll be doing any beer drinking aboard ALVIN anyway.

If you are a Woods Hole Oceanic Institute employee and going to do drinking aboard ALVIN, notify me at once to receive your Stein of Science. No, I am not kidding, all I demand is pictures.

Question 3: Would you go to other zeppelin hangars and review them for us? I like your style.

Answer 3: In a heartbeat. I’ve actually gotten a lot of positive feedback, mostly of a despairing nature, about my field trip to NASA Ames Research Center. Not a lot of then left, sadly, and they are scattered to the winds around the world. On a positive note, I’ve gotten some destinations to visit on future Scientific Drinking Tours. The likely next one will be the Tillamook Air Museum, and it comes with CHEESE!

Incidentally, if any of you around out there have actually been to the other sites, particularly the one in Brazil, I’d love to hear about them.

Corporate Culture vs. The Frozen Frontier

Right out the gate, I must highly recommend the work of Mr. Nicholas Johnson writer of Big Dead Place and curator of the website of the same name. I started giggling at his tales while I was still in Antarctica and it now helps me maintain a connection to a continent I never expect to see again. Whenever someone wants to know what going Antarctica is really like, I always recommend Big Dead Place because the process of going to and being in Antarctica is about people, not the place. The place itself is cold, strange, absolutely unforgiving, and staggeringly beautiful; what can make it a delight or misery is other people.

And, for good or ill, many of those other people aren’t even there.

In the dawn of Antarctic exploration, you didn’t get to know what happened on a voyage until the ship returned to port. Considering that expeditions regularly got stuck in the winter ice pack, that might have been a  matter of months between contact.

By the time of the Admiral Byrd and the Nazis declaring vast tracts of Antarctica to be Neu Scwabia, it was a matter of days until the aircraft in question could get back off the continent to tell tales of dash and daring-do.

With the International Geophysical Year in 1957 and the initiation of Operation Deep Freeze to establish the three modern American stations in Antarctica, constant contact was available via shortwave radio communication but mainly used for station critical operations. Personal communication by radio was limited to emergencies that actually percolated through the military chain of command AND someone decided was worth sharing with someone at the bottom of the Earth (i.e. births & deaths that might require a legal decision). Everything else was limited to the notoriously unreliable US Army Post Office, which can’t get anything to you for the duration of the Antarctic winter anyway.

By my time in at Pole in 2002-2003, internet access was been available roughly 16hrs a day with speeds ranging from 200bps to 1Mps depending on which satellite was in the sky. We also had the Iridium satellite phones available to us, so a call home could be made at anytime or, more likely, a call to us. This means that we never really lost contact with home and, much worse, people back at home in America really didn’t get that they were talking to people who were as isolated as it is possible to be and still be on Earth.

The United States’ stations in Antarctica are managed by Raytheon Polar Services Company (RPSC) which, as far as I can tell, is the sole non-military arm of Raytheon. RPSC is run out of a corporate park in Centennial, CO with lovely groomed lawns and cubicle farms. It wouldn’t look out of place in pretty much any commercial/light industrial commerce zone in America. Like any corporate office, they have ice cream socials, baby showers, birthday cake, summer picnics. Group bonding activities. Things that you’d put in the corporate newsletter.

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station Aerial

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station Aerial View, circa 2003: Note The Lack Of Picnic Benches

Things you just absolutely cannot fucking do in Antarctica. Sending this newsletter, or worse invitations to these events, during the dead of Antarctic winter just shows a cruel failure to relate to the remote employees you are “distance managing”.

All the normal trappings of corporate America comes with this level of contact: weekly sitreps, quarterly, HR code of conduct announcements, weekly safety meetings, etc. We had a station manager who’s role, nominally, was to make sure that we fulfilled all the demands from the Mother Raytheon back in Colorado. As the year wore on, we had a decidedly less reverent adherence to these demands. I made a point of including horribly inappropriate songs in my sit reps (that song went with April 2003’s sitrep, as I recall). Another person began doing their parts inventories as haiku.

But the safety meetings, that’s where we achieved true virtuosity as we had to submit reports on topics presented and the insights gained. We ran out of topics very early on because, really, there’s only so much going on when you can’t escape and are on caretaker duty. The solution was to start watching movies and then justify this with safety lessons. I had brought my complete DVD collection with me, so were well set. One of the last things I purchased for the collection was the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volumes 1-4, which included a DVD full of the safety video shorts. Our very favorite was “Shake Hands With Danger”, a video by the National Safety Council and Caterpillar from the 1970s.

Deep down, this entire post is an excuse just to get you to listen to this song.

Attacking Befuddled Travelers With Kindness & Stein Tragedy

Wednesday evening I had the pleasure of picking up Test Subjects Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener, and Scott Wegener’s Beard from San Francisco International Airport.  Both of them had just completed an arduous journey through several of this nation’s finest and most delayed airports. My Lovely Assistant and I felt it appropriate to greet them on arrival with a bottle of BBotE and a bottle of St. George Single Malt Whiskey, to help with the creative process if you will. Also, in a matter of pure happenstance, I parked next to Tesla roadster and it was still waiting for them in the garage when we got back out to car.

If they were crestfallen that the Tesla wasn’t specifically put there for their use, they hid their disappointment well.

It was a pleasure to walk their bleary-eyed, starving, travel corpses over to my favorite restaurant in Chinatown, give them a strange wandering history of San Francisco/California from the pre-Colombian period through John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble In Little China”. I took special care to make sure the Wing Kong didn’t get them and pointed out the supreme difficulty Big Jack Burton would have had in getting the Pork Chop Express anywhere around Grant St.

The following day, they gave a talk to the Academy of Art 2nd Annual Comic Symposium about how to insert robots into any idea you can find. This is known as the Team Robo Method(TM). I am sorry I had to miss it but I had a minor bit of crazy preparing for a trip to Las Vegas to hand  have deliver Stein #200 to Steinwielder & Test Subject Zitron and celebrate my Lovely Assistant’s birthday.

More seriously, I have had the pleasure of reading Atomic Robo since it was a brainworm that would not leave Brian Clevinger’s head. I have yet to meet someone that I’ve introduced to Atomic Robo that hasn’t ended up both adoring the story and laughing at the jokes. I still swear it is amazing the amount of emotion Scott Wegener’s gotten Robo’s almost featureless face conveys. And boy howdy do I have a deal for you, you can read the first issue for free online at Comixology. As they say, want some, get some! Besides, the more comics they sell the more likely I get to see them all again and I’m keen on that. Consider this a continuation of my Shameless Whorebaggery on Behalf of Others from last week.

Right before leaving for Vegas, a package arrived for me. I might have cackled with delight. Dr. Dinosaur is dear to my heart because, as my Lovely Assistant has said, I am prone to feats of broken logic that do a supergenius ‘raptor proud (and I have finger wriggles of anticipation at getting even more Dr. Dinosaur in the coming Free Comic Book Day, if rumor is to be believed). Now that I have both Atomic Robo and Dr. Dinosaur statuettes, I was able to let the duel begin as they chose their respective seconds:

Yes, I still play with dolls. DON'T JUDGE ME!

Atomic Robo & Stein of Science vs. Dr. Dinosaur & BBotE: FIGHT!

The heartbreaking aftermath of this otherwise awesome photo is that the cats of Funranium Labs were feeling very, very, VERY unloved in the wake of 36 hours worth of food ape-less kitty eternities. An episode of cat crazy demolition derby sent them crashing into the stand where the stein was mere minutes after this picture was taken. Therefor, there is now a new cat-damaged stein in the Prototypes & Clearance section, dagnabit.

Buffalo, Hear The Plight of Your Canadian Neighbors

I have an email folder devoted to messages of “Yeah, you weren’t kidding about the 100ml/day thing” but I could start a second one, nearly as large, regarding “Why is it so expensive to ship BBotE to Canada? WE’RE RIGHT ACROSS THE BORDER!!!” There’s normally a bit more swearing in the email than that. The potential cross-species lineage of postal and customs officials gets brought up sometimes too.

Honestly, there isn’t much to be done shipping direct to Canada despite the proximity of most of population being right across the line. I have to ship international express to get BBotE through customs in a timely manner, even to America’s closest neighbors. However, there is hope. As I outlined in “Oh, Canada” (with very similar complaints) the key to reduce costs to folks in Toronto specifically is for a brave soul to step forward as BBotE Pimp/Pimpstress of Buffalo. Torontonians, it will then be up to you to cross over to the Empire State for a caffeination mission.

But first, Toronto, go make friends with Buffalo. Let’s not have a Die Hard 3 situation when you do it though, mmmkay? The Nord des Lignes truck stop looked like a nice place before McClane got there.