The BBotE production window ending October 12th is now up and you may order away to your heart’s delight. Please do. Because that plane ticket to ain’t gonna pay for itself.
In October 19th, as previously mentioned, I will be jumping on a plane to Tel Aviv to join my friend Fr. Gabriel on a bit of a mosey around Israel and Jordan to help him fulfill a holy vow, see some amazing archaeological sites, and help some local communities. Also, holy shit, we will be going to Petra. I have wanted to visit Petra since I first saw it on the big screen as the temple in the Valley of the Crescent Moon in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and learned it was a real place.
This does mean that the coffee engines will go quiet for two weeks as I don’t return until November 1st. I will open another production window after the 12th and leave ordering active on the site but, obviously, nothing will ship while I’m overseas. In that brief window between the 12th and 19th, I will attempt to shove as much BBotE and Steins of Science out the door as I can.
With that, enjoy a bit of Petra and have a good weekend.
I have often said that my physics degrees are primarily used to make more esoteric dumb jokes and puns, especially if I can find a way to work math in to them. As a coworker will be going to a new job soon, I want to immortalize two connected stories that show why I’ll miss him. This is also another moment of satori in my life. To help make sense of the joke, all you need to know is that Hormeisis Theory is borrowed from chemical exposures, which is the idea that a little bit of poison strengthens you. This turned into the idea a low level of radiation damage prompts your body’s cellular self-repair systems to action.
[SCENE – COWORKER 1 and Phil are working at the radiation detection instrument calibration range. The large Cs-137 check sources have been brought out of storage and the radiation area barrier tape has been put up. Phil is setting up ion chambers at set distances on the range.]
COWORKER 1: Are you finished setting up? Phil: Almost. You can go ahead and get the smaller source out. COWORKER 1: Alright! Time to get my hormeisis for the day. Phil: [without missing a beat, without so much as a hesitation for thought, a perfect moment of satori] Your mom’s a hormeisis. COWORKER 1: [drops the tongs before even opening the source pig, slumps against the range table] You yermom’d me! Phil: Oh my god. I’m sorry. COWORKER 1: Do you have any idea how many years it’s been since I’ve been yermom’d? That was amazing.
After that, we had a special bond as he had finally figured out I was a strange garbage person he could relate to. That I was, in fact, weirder than him and could enrich his life with things. Like getting the Picard Song stuck in his head.
A few years of good times pass.
[SCENE – Seated at a table during the departmental holiday dinner, COWORKER 1 and Phil are sharing stories while enjoying refreshing adult beverages. COWORKER 2 enters and takes a seat.]
COWORKER 1: Do you remember when you yermom’d me? Phil: Of course I do! COWORKER 2: [incredulous] You yermom’d COWORKER 1? How? Phil: I said his mom was a hormeisis. [COWORKER 2 has a spittake. COWORKER 1 recounts the previous scene to him.] COWORKER 2: Well, you know what means right, COWORKER 1? COWORKER 1: What? COWORKER 2: It means a little bit of your mom is good for everyone. COWORKER 1: [gently rests forehead on the table] Oh god it got worse. How did it get worse? [Phil and COWORKER 2 make a toast to COWORKER 1’s mom.] COWORKER 1: Howwwwwwww???
I’m gonna miss him. He’s the only person in the whole department who can properly Slav Squat. All the rest of us have Western Spy Squat. Oh, and he’s gonna be a kickass health physicist.
An amusing conversation happened on Twitter last night and this morning with regards to holy water, it’s creation, dilution and retention of holiness. While I may be an atheist, I am very happy to count both a Dominican and Jesuit priest as friends and can thus aim fascinating questions at them. In this particular case, Fr. Gabriel got to field this one:
In fact yes. If you have a bowl of holy water and you add to it, it retains it’s blessing unless you add more than half the volume. If you do that, it loses it’s blessing. Fun facts.
To answer someone else’s question, all the letters after his name signify that he is a Dominican (OP: Order of Preachers) and is a Knight Religious of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher* (KHS: Knight of the Holy Sepulcher). This means he is a level 2 cleric with a prestige class as level 1 knight. Being a knight religious means he is allowed to ride his horse directly into the Vatican but, as a cleric, is still not allowed to have a sword. If you remember from your D&D reading, only clerics of very particular gods are allowed to have edged weapons. Part of why he is my friend is that he isn’t in the least bit offended at being described this way.
Anyway, this leads to obvious questions about mass balancing and making sure that the fonts are always actually holy. The conservative answer would be “Always refill with holy water.” If you start making withdrawls of holy water from the font and then tank it back up with mundane water, without rigorous chain of custody accounting, you run the risk of accidentally losing that holy status in the basin. My Lovely Assistant, with her PhD in Chemistry, started trying to work out the calculus for this and a Theory of Constant Blessedness. She needs better hobbies.
Other people asked questions regarding the possibility of blessings per minute or holy flow if you wanted to try to piping some high pressure holy water on demand. In my reckoning, the limitations here are the available labor resources. There’s only so many priests and most of them are older, tired men unaccustomed to manual labor and this sounds like shift work.
Now, you could go for blessing in mass quantity instead. For places that go through a hell of a lot of holy water per day, they will make up entire vats worth. Depending on traditions, however, this does involve other consumables like salt and oil added during the sanctification. This is why you can’t have a reactor pool filled with holy water; all you’re doing is adding crap that the reactor will activate and the filters beds will immediately remove.
The way I learned that holy water has things added to it is a story of it’s own…
Because I like history, I was totally willing to play chauffeur for my grandmother, who was an at least one mass per day Catholic, to take her to visit some of California’s missions. Most of the original churches are gone, since they were made of adobe, congregations greatly outgrew them, and earthquakes happen. But in ONE CASE the original mission church is still there and it was the original hub mission for Alta California:Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo.
So, we went. It’s tiny but neat. While grandma fully understood that I wasn’t Catholic, she also wanted to make damn sure I learned how to behave politely in such a space. When we walked in, she whacked me in the shoulder and gestured to the holy water to do a dab & genuflection.
For a moment, please imagine 18yo Phil, clean shaven, short hair, head to toe in black (probably wearing the Alapalooza Tour shirt), wearing SWAT pants and army boots, stepping up to the font, dipping a finger in, touching my forehead and then saying “Ow, fuck that burns!” more loudly than I should have.
The abuelas praying nearby began praying more audibly.
As I discovered, I had a small cut on my forehead because yay scratching tiny pimples and the little bit of oil and salt added to the font was enough to make it sting. Grandma whacked me again for swearing in church.
*: There will be more adventures with Fr. Gabriel this October as I have rules lawyered my way into visiting Israel & Jordan with him to help fulfill his knightly vows. Nowhere in the vow “Lead a pilgrimage of non-order members to the Holy Land” is there a specification that you actually need to take Catholics. I’m helping.
I’m feeling all salty today about underground services, subs to the nth degree subcontractors, shitty documentation and the tragicomedy poor communication between them all on Decontamination & Demolition projects. Most D&D projects follow a “graded approach” where they run three major phases:
Phase 1: Steal underpants. NO NO NO, what I meant to say was decontaminate all interior surfaces/components and remove fixtures.
Phase 2: asbestos & lead paint abatement as applicable, demolish the building, process the rubble for reclaimable material. At this point you have “taken the building to grade”. It is has been leveled to the ground surface. But you’re not done.
Phase 3: dig below grade to remove underground storage tanks (USTs), piping, and any contaminated soil.
I would like state that in 21 years of doing safety & environmental work I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen Phase 3 concluded. Even with a ridiculously contaminated building, it is much easier and cheaper to decon and take it down than to start digging holes in the ground. Because the first step in Phase 3 is asking the question “Sooooo, what’s down there and where is it?” And that’s where the tragicomedy kicks in as the questions you’re really asking are:
Where are the original plans for this building?
Where are the As-Builts?
Do we have a building maintenance log of changes and events?
[INSERT SCENE OF PHIL SCREAMING AT THE SKY BECAUSE THE RETIRED BUILDING MANAGER JUST LEFT EVERYTHING IN FILING CABINETS IN THE OUTBUILDING THE EXCAVATOR JUST RAN OVER]
Yes, that happened once. No, I haven’t quite gotten over it yet. Of course, for my hypothetical, this assumes you had a building manager AND they maintained that information.
Assuming you don’t have it or what you have is utterly untrustworthy, you’re gonna have to resurvey (SEE ALSO: pre-1960s underground services & anything the US military has ever built, EVER). Do you have in-house survey teams with ground-penetrating radar, soil moisture density gauges, and analytical labs, etc.? No? I’m shocked.
Looks like you need a contractor! Possibly several!
Depending on the building’s size and how exciting the history of use was, you may need to be surveying deep. Which means you’re going to need those survey teams onsite *OFTEN*. Please learn from the mistakes of others and write your contracts “for the duration of the project”. Because you do not want to dig the first 2m down, realize you need a resurvey for this depth, discover that Procurement only contracted for the one survey, and when you try to get them to come back:
1) The price is much higher.
2) They aren’t available.
But it’s cool you can just get another contractor, right? Sure! Did all information from the previous contractor’s survey get communicated to them? Do they use the same equipment and procedures so you can compare apples to apples? I’m sure it will be fine and there will be no confusion or issues.
Now, assuming you successfully dig holes without immediately doing something silly like cutting a 15kV cable with your backhoe on the first scoop, let’s also assume you find things that you weren’t expecting. What’s the next step? Well, now you have to go back to the drawing board and revise your 3D D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) D&D (Decon & Demolition) site map to add the new discovery, revise all the time tables to deal with working around the new thing, and most importantly, find more money in the budget to cope.
Asking for more money to deal with $PROBLEM you had no idea was there does not compute to your management. Also, if you tried to guess beforehand what things you might see without any proof of them to try to get some contingency funds, you will be accused of padding the budget by them and be denied. Without that contingency, this means you are DEVIATING FROM PLAN & BUDGET. This is tantamount to a personal betrayal in the mind of bad managers. If you are a subcontractor, you are now eating into potential completion bonuses. Thus, there is an incentive to not find things.
And that’s just conventional work tweaking for things like “I found utility service that we didn’t know was here, I don’t know where it comes from or what it feeds yet, but I do know it’s live.” How about if you discover soil or groundwater contamination? The first thing you’ll be asked is “Is it from our former activities on this site?”
If yes, then fuck. The scope of your work didn’t really change but it got harder and more expensive. And you probably have some reporting to do to regulators. Hopefully not to reporters too.
If no, then IT IS ON to find who to sue and make pay for it.
If you’re lucky, it’s your neighbor that has a leaky pipe or UST that’s crapping up your beautiful pristine soil.
If you’re supremely lucky, your neighbor is still in business and has the financial resources to pay to clean up their mess and the legal fees.
If you are the mostest luckiest, the contamination will be identifiably the federal government’s, probably the military’s, fault. Just remember, while the Fed pockets may be deep, they open reeeeeeally slooooowly.
But more often than not, that contamination is leftover from a company that folded before your grandparents were born just waiting to be discovered like the worst time capsule. Contamination for whom there is no responsible party to pay for it is why the Superfund Act, AKA CERCLA in the biz, was created.
Back to those legal fees. Below grade decon work generally stops, or goes into a “stabilize” mode, until the lawsuits are resolved. If you don’t already have a drink to cry into meditating on that thought, you should probably go get one. Because man oh man the amount of time & money people are willing to expend fighting over not having responsibility for surprise contamination is astounding. The legal arguments also pretty much boil down to The Bart Simpson Defense:
I didn’t do it.
It was like that when I got here.
You can’t prove anything.
Except if you are the owner of the property, you are a very interested party even if you aren’t a responsible one. The whole reason you would’ve even started Phase 3 in the first place is because you wanted to use this land again for unrestricted use. This why so very few projects even start Phase 3, much less complete it. Instead, at the end of Stage 2, they put up a fence, declare a new brownfield or possibly pave it to get a new parking lot, and declare MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!
Once upon a time, there was a big celebration for the “conclusion” of the decon & demolition operations on an old chemistry building. It was a big event as the better part of a decade had been spent taking that palace of nightmares down.
With a cheery voice and drink in my hand, I went up to the management team and asked “How did the removal of all the pipes and USTs go?”
I am pleased announce that after an absence of a mere month, the Philippine Barako coffee is back. I don’t have a lot of it and this is mostly to tide me over until the Filipino Cousin Network can get me a much larger quantity in a couple months, but the important part is that it is back. Barako is now a valid selection on all the listings on the store side of the house.
The more exciting news is that it didn’t come alone. Barako is a rather tasty representative of the liberica coffees that are awfully hard to find outside of the Philippines. And while liberica is tricky to find outside of the Philippines, the fourth standard cultivar of coffee, excelsa, was one of those things I’d read about but had kind of written off ever trying short of a trip to that side of the Pacific. And the FCN dropped 4 kilos of it in my lap to play with last week.
One of the bits about excelsa that it’s worth understanding for why there isn’t a lot of this on the market is to know a bit about the coffee trees themselves. We normally refer to coffee bushes when discussing arabica coffees as they don’t grow more than about 2m tall. Excelsa, on the other hand, comes from trees in the range of 10-15m tall. Harvesting excelsa comes with a level of personal hazard comparable to coconuts, AKA plummeting death, so I understand why this is rare.
Now, the exciting thing about the excelsa is the taste, which is also a southeast Asian adventure. The primary flavor note given from the grower was “jackfruit“. If you’ve never had the pleasure of the odd not quite pineapple, not quite mango, not quite banana flowery citrus flavor of jackruit I recommend giving it a try. This way, you’ll have a reference point when I tell you that first taste of excelsa BBotE had a strong jackfuit kick, a baking chocolate mid-palate, and a long coconut finish. I don’t know what booze I’d mix this with off the top of my head but it makes me want coffee based tiki drinks.
After saying all this about excelsa, this is all a bit of a tease as it isn’t available as a selection in the store until I nail down my exact process for this bean. It is likely to show up in Sampler Pack II orders as I’ll probably have leftovers from test runs to share with people. What this does mean is that I’ll have things nailed down the when the much larger shipment of excelsa comes my way in a couple months to share with all of you.
In other news, those of you who enjoy tales of Phil vs. Lasers may be happy to know I will be attending the 2019 International Laser Safety Conference in Orlando next month. I will happily tell tales of industrial-scientific horror and history in exchange fine drink and company when not actually at the conference itself. Drop a line and say hi!
[looks at calendar] Well, this is only four months late. Been too busy having other adventures. Sorry about that.
TL;DR version: I enjoyed the hell out of smart people sharing problems and solutions that I am not directly responsible for doing something about. Somebody else’s problems are the best problems.
So, as I mentioned previously, I made the somewhat last minute decision to attend DEFCON 2018. There was enough draw in the form of friends I knew were attending and, more importantly, available vacation time allowed me to actually attend. I’ve wanted to go since I first heard of DEFCON long ago but there’s only so much time in the year for all the adventures I might want to have. However, in the company of the former BBotE Ambassador of Chicago, Bill Weiss, and current BBotE Ambassador of Prescott, Dan Nowak, Black Blood of the Earth has been in attendance at DEFCON every year since 2011. While other people may have brought single bottles with them, Bill & Dan showed up with entire cases to keep their teams and all comers full of pep. So, in a way, I’ve been present in spirit.
But this year, in addition to the two they brought, my Lovely Assistant and I came with a third case as our luggage. You see, BBotE would be providing a special extra something to the cocktail repetoire for a Rift Recon‘s party. If you attended, you know how much fun those caffeinated cocktails were at 12am. I regret that there aren’t many pictures from this trip, but there are rules of decorum to be followed.
I have been informed that most people attend DEFCON primarily for the parties and just watch the sessions on youtube later. I was told I committed a rookie error by actually attending talks. “BAH!” I say. If I’d done that, I wouldn’t have had the chance to finally meet Aaron “I Should Have BLUE TEAM Tattooed On My Knuckles” Brown, AKA TheTarquin, in person after years of snarking at each other online. Aaron does infosec for Amazon at an interesting level where he gives the hard squint to new corporate acquisitions to see if it safe to plug them into the mothership. But that’s not what he was presenting on. He was here to talk about how H and H convey very different information to human brains versus computers and how you can use that for fun with and defend against homograph attacks. While I was there in person, you can watch his talk online and I highly recommend you do. It’s led me to have a lot of interesting conversations with my own IT, EECS, vision science, and philosophy folks, each from their different points of view.
In addition to the main talks, there are effectively conventions within the convention at DEFCON for specific topics called Villages. I was a little disappointed that the laser cutting village never even set up as I was looking forward to being VERY EDUCATIONAL to people there with an impromptu laser/product safety audit. Rumor has it that the company that was going to set up the village either broke something irreparable in transit or irreplaceable parts were confiscated by customs. The Social Engineering Village runs a competition to see if contestant can manage to talk their way to access to selected personnel in organizations purely through the power of bullshit (NOTE: there are some restrictions on how you can bullshit, Thou Shalt Not Impersonate Authority, which is my favorite gambit right out the window).
Then there’s Skytalks. If I have one important piece of DEFCON advice to give it is this: figure out what one Skytalk you absolutely want to see, plan your entire day for it, because much like anything at Disney you will be spending a significant amount of time in line for it. Unlike Disney, the experience will be rewarding and you will walk out the other end of the ride having learned something very interesting indeed. Chatham House Rules apply for Skytalks, so no recording, no photographs, and no bullshit which suits my own residual Q clearance habits just fine. So, while I won’t discuss the content of the presentation I enjoyed, let me just direct you to Faithleaks. Let your journey begin from there.
More dear to my heart was this long and grim talk about the state of the scientific journals and the shitty discourse/politics they end up supporting by muddying the waters of what “scientific consensus” is. Thankfully, it is a very funny presentation even if it feels a bit gallows humor at times as this team maps out the networks of sham journals, sham reviews, and even entire sham conferences, all driven by the publish or perish mentality. MORAL: if you make a data scientist cranky your organization will become their project.
And as threatened in this post, I did indeed act as a docent for an informal tour of the National Atomic Testing Museum. There was some trepidation from the folks at NATM at the idea of a couple dozen DEFCON attendees descending upon their museum. There have been Incidents™ in the years past related to DEFCON and Black Hat that the locals have a loooong memory for, but I promised that everyone would be on their best behavior. I am happy to say that we’re welcome to come back anytime. The fact that we may have broken a sales record in their gift shop could be a contributing factor.
While I don’t know if I’ll have the vacation time to go again in 2019, I can confidently say that I had fun and learned enough that it would be worth going again to take a vacation to someone else’s conference.
No, really this is good news. Because the prices increases of ~$20 per item are on the Steins of Science. Which means… STEINS OF SCIENCE ARE AVAILABLE AGAIN!!!
The Steins of Science were never cheap in the first place, what with them being modified brand new laboratory hardware and all, but last year I lost my reasonable but expensive pipeline of dewars and instead only had ridiculously expensive pipelines available to me. This would have increased the average price of a Stein of Science by almost $150 each. While they are more expensive than before, I will happily take only $20 more expensive. Not all of the steins varieties will return, but I can cope with that.
The tricky news is that I won’t be receiving them until Friday of this week. I have put listings on the website if you would like to pounce on one, have me ship it next Monday and hope for the best from the fine folks of the United States Postal Services to get it to you ASAP.
Seriously, I am so happy to have them back.
UPDATE: I went back and checked. This is the first price increase for anything in the store in 8 years. Not bad work if I do say so myself. Now, if only postage prices had remained so constant…
It’s that time of year again where people think about giving gifts and wonder what the hell they can buy that isn’t just another gift card. I am here to help. While it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if you picked up a bottle of Black Blood of the Earth on the store side of the house, that’s not why we’re here today. Following in the traditions of my friend The Benchilada, I have taken the time to pull together my BIG SHILL 2018, where I have some products you might not have thought of. BRACE YOURSELF FOR SO MANY LINKS!
Let’s start with my friend Jen’s singular creation on Etsy. Jen is one of my favorite people because she is, among other things, an artist who is the curator of “The Worst Muse” list, AKA the horrible things Phil thinks of but has no idea how to turn into a real thing. If you have been lucky enough to see the 38th Cybercommandos unit insignia, the “Welcome to Neuschwabenland!” postcard, a variety of now out of print Li’l Bub merchandise, or most recently the Coffee Wave BBotE label, you have seen samples of her art. She finally, with arm twisting, made a store and there’s something you can buy directly from her. Folks, you can now give a butthole heart to anything. It is available in Fresh Pink and Chocolate Starfish.
Every year, I recommend people go check out what’s going on over at Topatoco. They are the one stop shopping source for the products of dozens upon dozens of creators of comics, podcasts, and music. I mean, c’mon people, you need to go here so you can post your toilet properly if nothing else.
I know I have made this recommendation in person many times to many people, but I would appreciate if everyone would go buy a copy of Linda Simon’s “Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-ray” for themselves and at least one relative they have a hope of reclaiming from the Whole Foods bulletin boards. Without getting yourself a subscription to Fortean Times, this is a great introduction to how some pseudoscientific theories propagate through the decades; the hyperbolic claims and the unfounded fear change target over time but somehow the beliefs don’t.
Atomic Robo. If you’ve been paying attention to me at all for the last decade, you know that Atomic Robo is a delight. I’m happy this year that they’ve made another expansion in the Real Science Adventures to add “The Nicodemus Caper” to take the party back to the Byzantine nights of Constantinople. But did you know they have fine merch as well? I highly recommend getting a paired set of the Tesladyne Field Guide and the ULTRA Field Manual.
The comic Romantically Apocalyptic has been a source of joy in my life since I first came across it in 2010. I recommend starting at the beginning, though I’m not sure jumping in at random places make the comic any less surreal. At the moment, there’s a whole bunch of bundles on sale on their store guaranteed to fill your life with more of Zee Captain.
(WARNING: SPIDER CONTENT) Do you have the #bugluv? Well, I have an opportunity for you. Allow me to introduce you to Jenn Rose and her Etsy, Cetonia Designs. Her store was actually my reminder that I needed to make my BIG SHILL 2018 post because she put new things up.
Do you have Neanderthals ripping corporate assholes in half in your life? No? Well, Ben Templesmith is here to help. “Original Hate” is definitely worth your time and watching it drop into my inbox page by page as on of his Patreon backers has been a real treat. Now you can have it as a bound edition (don’t worry, more volumes are coming). And, really, poke around at all of Ben’s stuff.
Lastly, I want to wave the flag for one of my favorite authors, Charlie Stross. He has a new book out in the Laundry Files series, The Labyrinth Index. I was originally handed the first book in this series, The Atrocity Archives, by a fellow Antartican, British Nick, who said it was perhaps the most Phil Book he’d ever read. He was right. If you haven’t taken any thing by Charlie for a spin, I highly recommend it as his brain is lovely and it will leave yours a few degrees off plum when he’s finished with it. But in a good way!
That’s all folks, though I made add to this list as time goes on! Go forth and consume!
First off, as my final shill before the big event and then I’ll hush about it, tomorrow I will be using the last part of my Birthdaytide Fortnight to participate in the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals EXTRA LIFE 24 hour gaming marathon. Starting at 8am tomorrow and ending at 8am on Armistice Day, I will be staying up with Team Sensible Shoes to play the tabletop game Shadows of Brimstone for 24hrs. I welcome you to join us tomorrow by watching on the twitch livestream that we’ve set up so you can enjoy our slow degeneration into madness. Yes, I know everyone else did their marathon last Saturday but we needed to wait for a team member to return from a Fish Conference in Japan first (I am not making this shit up). So please, donateand come watch! There will be increasingly incoherent tweeting in all likelihood too.
As the BBotE pre-order slots forthe window ending November 24th are now up that means we’re sneaking up on Thanksgiving and it’s time to roll out the PROTIPS for holiday shopping. To the people that are very proactive and organized in their holiday shopping, such as the gentlemen that I let place a reserve order in August, I’ll just answer question now: yes, you can place an order now in an earlier production window for a holiday shipment. Just leave a note saying “Delay shipment until $DATE” with your order so I know you want it later rather than as soon as possible.
The last pre-Xmas BBotE production window will close on December 16th. All things being equal, domestic or international, everything shipped by the 16th should end up at their destination by Christmas Eve. I can’t control weather, volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, or unilateral surprise withdrawal from international postal unions that may or may not happen in the next month since no one has given me control of the Illuminati to implement my Most Perfect Imperium, but a week is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination. I will put another pre-order window up after the 16th, and things shipped on Saturday December 22nd have a chance to get there by the 24th, but I make absolutely no guarantees about shipments in that window arriving in time. Express mail gets more and more necessary in the last days. I’ll do my best, but that’s all I can do.
To reiterate shopping advice from the previous years, here’s a few things you should probably think about if you decide to place an order for a holiday gift from Funranium Labs:
Steins of Science Are Made by Request Now: As mentioned in the previous Twilight of the Steins post, I lost my relatively cheap supply line for dewars. Everything has remained zeroed because I don’t want to maintain stock for steins when they are going to be at least $100 higher than their previous already high price. If you really, really want one drop me a line and I’ll give you a quote and then get to work on making it happen if you still want one.
BBotE Is Perishable: When refrigerated, it has a shelf-life of about three months (possibly longer, but I’m only going to quote three). If you’re going to wrap it up and put it under the tree, this a present to put out on Christmas Eve and the promptly put back in the fridge after unwrapping. Alternatively, embrace the idea of the holiday season and decide that give it to the recipient immediately, for all days are special.
Let People Know BBotE Is Coming: I know part of the joy in presents is the surprise of what you get. However, joy is not the emotion most people feel when a bottle of mysterious black liquid shows up on their doorstep, especially if it’s been sitting there for a week outside because they were out of town. Give them a heads up, that something’s coming they’ll want to stick in the fridge. I will also tuck handling instructions in the box for a gift and a note stating who sent it if you ask me to.
The pre-order slot dates date are “Ship No Later Than”, not “Ships After”: I get your orders out as soon as I can, but even in the furthest flung corner of the US with the slowest mail carrier, this means you should have your order in hand by December 18th for that last set of late order slots. If you want to order something NOW to ship later, effectively reserving a spot in a later order queue, you can do so but please leave a note with your order telling me when you want it to ship by.
International Shipments Go Out Express Mail: Because I don’t want BBotE to get stuck in postal facilities or customs, express is the only way to ship to minimize their time in bureaucratic hell. Expect it to take 3-5 business days to get to you, so time your orders accordingly to make sure things get to you in time.
APO/FPO: If you wish to send something out to someone with an Armed Forces address, there’s good news and bad news. Good news – it’s no more expensive than priority mail. Bad news – I can’t guarantee any date as to when things will arrive. Outside of active war zones, things move somewhat normally; inside war zones and ships at sea, things get iffy. Also, depending on routing, some nations (I’m looking at you, Turkey) have bounced BBotE on the basis that it is, and I quote, “Morally Questionable Material” because, obviously, any liquid from the West must be alcoholic in nature. Amazingly, shipments to Korea and Okinawa seem to arrive faster than they do to other places on the west coast. Go figure. In short, I’ll do my best but you’ve been warned.
Local Pick Up: Resupply shipments will go out to all the BBotE Ambassadors as fast as I can crank them out, so be sure to drop them a line if grabbing a bottle that way is more convenient for you. A message to them will help them decide what to fill their cases with. I’m sure they’d like clean and empty refrigerators as their Christmas present.
Turkey, Italy & Brazil: It breaks my heart to say this, I can’t ship to these countries. Italy, I absolutely do not trust your postal system. The level of theft shipping things anywhere south of Rome is, frankly, appalling. If you ask me to ship to Naples, I make absolutely zero guarantee of it arriving. Brazil, your customs causes shipments to languish for so long that the BBotE goes off before it arrives, even if shipped express; steins seem to be fine though. Turkey, well, I discussed those problems in #5.
BBotE Production Is First Come, First Served: My maximum daily production output is 12L per day. Thus, people who request 12pk cases will lock up production for an entire day.
BBotE Has No Kosher Or Halal Certification: While Robert Anton Wilson did confer the papacy upon me, and all the other people in the Porter College Dining Hall at UCSC in 1996, this does not permit me to sanctify food. While I do have a helpful Dominican priest around who’d probably be willing to bless BBotE for you, that’s still not helpful. Sorry.
For those of you who read this far, I congratulate you.
OPENING DISCLAIMER: I live somewhere that no trick or treaters ever go. My last trick or treating was done over 25 years ago and what kids have been doing for the last 20 of those years looks alien to me. Like Martians who have heard of Halloween but have no direct knowledge of it.
I was sitting here, minding my own business on Halloween and being Extremely Online as always, and this message of despair comes to me from Test Subject Not A Whale Biologist. I have been at his house for Halloween before for trick or treating and can vouch that this is absolutely true. I would like to think that my face of disappointment that I gave to every parent of a child who decided to wear their little league uniform for Halloween was plainly evident. Except this wasn’t even a uniform, just things from the Giants Dugout gift shop.
This has been irritating me since I was a kid. I remember the other kids that wore their little league or pop warner uniforms for Halloween and it struck me as lazy, possibly cheating. Because I’ve done it before, I know people regard the PPE I wear for work as a particularly scary costume. To me, it’s just “that stuff I wear” and that makes it feel uncreative as a costume. I understand being too wiped out to exert any effort on a costume, but there is some quid pro quo for the Halloween trick or treat relationship: you entertain me with your costume, I give you candy.
Accordingly, I have proposed the concept of the Penalty Bucket. This will require you to maintain two different bowls of “candy” to give out to trick or treaters. The Normal Bowl is full of candy you are proud to hand out to costumes that bring you joy and will be happy to eat if you don’t get cleaned out during the night. The Penalty Bucket, however, is filled with Brachs hard candies (AKA that stuff in Grandma’s candy dish), fruit flavored Tootsie Rolls, five pennies wrapped together with tape, Bazooka gum, and with my mom’s suggestion & disgust as they have been a part of her life as long as she can remember*, Smarties. If you want a good example of what the contents of the Penalty Bowl might look like, here’s the leftover candy that remained my work breakroom after the vultures descended.
The drawback is that the leftovers in the Penalty Bucket aren’t necessarily things you want to eat either. On a positive note, these candies are cheap and you won’t be heartbroken about throwing them away. On the other hand, as pointed out by another keen observer, these candies don’t really go bad and you can supplement the supply for next year with any candy your own kids bring home but don’t want.
As long as you’re committed to the possibility that your house is going to get egged anyway, you may feel free to pass judgment through the medium of candy. Of course, daylight trick or treating means those shenanigans are unlikely. Sigh, such are the changing times.
*: mom is marginally older than Smarties and also from New Jersey. Pity her.
Much like my trip to Kiev-Pripyat-Chernobyl in 2016, I took a lot of pictures (Robyn took more and much better pictures), and I learned a lot which I now need to sort out in my head and do a whooooole lot of follow up. I think I may have just signed myself up for an autodidact’s master course in city planning & demographics to process what I saw and learned in four hours. After going to Ukraine, I needed about three months to find the story and the correct inspiration to tell the three essays worth of the tale in a stream of rage, so I put up some of the better pics right away. This might take a bit longer so I didn’t want to leave you hanging.
Too Long, Didn’t Wait Months for Phil to Get His Shit Together Version: Fukushima was not, and is not, Chernobyl. Don’t light your reactors on fire, folks!!! When this all began seven years ago, the thing I never stopped repeating to people is that the disaster that ended lives and turned the world upside down was the earthquake and tsunami; a nuclear accident is just the icing on a really shitty cake that makes it a disaster trifecta.
First off, let me introduce you to Shuzo Sakai, Karin Taira and their project, Real Fukushima. Unlike the various Chernobyl tours of varying quality done by various independent operators, this is a Fukushima Prefecture government project to show the work done for decontamination and rehabitation of the towns in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. Karin is runs the prefecturally sponsored B&B in Odaka called Lantern House which I highly recommend if you have the time to stay overnight (sadly, I did not). Shuzo is a prefectural government official who grew up in a town that is now in the exclusion zone and he’s become head of the redevelopment agency. When you are the boss, you’re allowed to give yourself any extra tasks you want; the one he has chosen for his extracurricular activities is showing people the work done to rebuild and reoccupy. Only foreigners at the moment because, and I quote, “I feel foreigners have less radiophobia than the Japanese.” While I didn’t laugh out loud at this, I did tell him that if this was actually the case that my day job would be much easier. As a local boy done good, Shuzo’s desire is to see the people in the towns he’s always known and loved come home. He would also like people all over the world to see their hometowns in his. That you might remember to give your loved ones a call now and then, maybe go home and visit. They miss you, you know. :)
Shuzo is the person that wrote the procedures for entry into the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. Shuzo is the person who is ultimately responsible for the decon, demolition and reconstruction of all the towns in the Exclusion Zone. This is personal to him. So please know that it is with the greatest respect and amusement that I share this story from the end of our time together.
We stopped at an abandoned Family Mart in Okuma that was damaged in the quake. While Robyn got all excited with her camera and dodging large spiders, I noticed the gashapon machines in front of the store. I walked up to test the cranks on the machines after seven years of being exposed to the elements with no maintenance. The knob on the machines in the bottom rank didn’t so much as budge, but the ones on the top felt like they had some give. And so I dropped my 200¥ into the machine on the top left to get myself an Exclusion Zone gashapon.
Sure enough, it dispensed me this sweet Cool Guy Bean. I saw Shuzo bent over laughing, hands on knees, because in 7 years of wandering past this abandoned convenience store no one, NO ONE, had bothered to so much as touch these gashapon. He also realized that he probably had to track down who owned these and let them know they had money sitting in them still. It took a crazy health physicist from Berkeley to even notice that this was a thing he might need to do. While I apologize for making some work for Shuzo, I cannot deny that Mr. Cool Bean here is pretty boss.
There will be more Fukushima stories to come, but in the meantime let’s talk about Extra Life!
Several years ago, I participate in the Tested.com Oktobercast to help support the Extra Life campaign. Last year, My Lovely Assistant and I joined Test Subject Not A Whale Biologist and Test Subject The World to embark on 24 hours of our favorite game, Shadows of Brimstone. Well, we’ve decided to do it again this year as part of my birthday celebrations. I do believe we’ll be livecasting it again although we’ll be running a week late, November 10th, due to logistics concerns. If you’d like to donate for this endurance trial, you can do it on my page or you can do on our the team page for TEAM SENSIBLE SHOES. Last year, we managed to raise $590 of Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital. We’re already at $450 and would like to break that total for this year. So please, if you’ve come here considering a bottle of BBotE, go hit our Extra Life campaign first. If you still want ultracoffee, the Funranium Labs store will be there for you.
Thank you for your support, and here’s a picture of Test Subject Not A While Biologist and I at DiceFest 2017, the con run by the people who make Shadows of Brimstone.
One of the reasons I work as a safety person at a research university is the variety. On any given day, I have no idea what it is I am going to be asked to do and I like it that way. While this may sound like hell to people who like well-defined duties and schedules, please keep in mind that a safety person’s day is supposed to be dull. If our day is exciting, that means someone else is having a Very Bad Time™. This means we spend a lot of time trying to think through work before it’s done, to keep it compliant and within the boundaries of the regulations, and do our damnedest to make sure that Very Bad Time™ never happens.
That’s fine at a typical workplace. Research universities are not typical workplaces. When a group of physics students presents you with an aluminum block, some scotch tape, a roach clip, a servo motor, and a bell jar coating chamber and smugly ask how to register all the scotch tape on the campus as radiation producing machines, you’re waaaaay out in the weeds, far away from typical*. At typical workplaces, this means locking things down and regimenting them such that you don’t ever end up in off-normal situations. That doesn’t work with research.
So, my favorite thing is being presented with a problem where it is beyond the imagination of the current regs. Usually when I tell researchers they’re off the regulatory map, they get a little despondent as they’ve been acculturated that this means “No, you can’t do this.” I then get to brighten their day and tell them they’re looking at this all wrong. In America, research is part of the freedom of expression under the first amendment, you have a right to think and explore. I generally look for something in the regs close to what they’ve proposed to do and the work out a way to let them feel comfortable enough with their work that they’d be happy to let a regulator look at it. When you do this right, you become the “Do it like THIS” example that is used for new regulations.
But when you get out to those fringes of the regs, you start running into weird interactions and overlaps. Your formerly strict, ironclad rules start getting a whoooole lot of *¹†‡₂ attached to them to let you know “This is the rule 99.995% of the time, except for all these times.” Where this gets particularly exciting is when two regulatory bodies disagree on what is supposed to be done for the same special case. And when is it most exciting? Why, it’s when you hit law enforcement and add guns to regulatory conflict!
STORY TIME BEGINS! (please note, vagueness in details is intentional)
Once upon a time, there was a new worker that applied to work at the nuclear facility. Because it is a nuclear facility, there are some places you aren’t allowed to go to until your background check is completed and you have clearance. This is a thing management knows and understands, but they certainly don’t want to be paying you to do nothing. And so, they have created an uncleared area where these new workers can be escorted to and do all of their training while waiting for the background check to come back. It is called the Green Room. Because there tends to be A LOT of training and certifications involved with working at nuclear facilities and background checks are slow, workers could end up in the Green Room for months.
But this particular worker had a problem. It seems that he had some outstanding warrants. Normally, this would be a call to the local police to pick him up and present the worker to the court. Or maybe you’d call the sheriff or state troopers if those warrants were for another part of the state. But no, this particular worker’s warrants were federal with interstate pursuit. There was no need to call anyone to come pick this guy up; the flag came up with a notification “A US Marshal is on the way to apprehend the fugitive.”
And that’s fine. If there’s one thing a nuclear facility is, it’s secure, and he isn’t going anywhere. Nuclear facilities also have their own quasi-law enforcement called Protective Force Officers or Special Protection Officers. I have previously referred to the Big Guys With Guns. This is them. When you enter a nuclear facility, there is going to be a sign that may be somewhat short and terse or have a whole lot of verbiage explaining Do’s and Don’ts. The signs all end with the same phrase: DEADLY FORCE IS AUTHORIZED. These officers are some of the best shots America has. They would like you to be clear that you won’t even know where the bullet that kills you comes from when you try to do something shady at a nuclear facility, just that you will be very dead. It is the PFO’s job to make sure no threats enter a DOE or NRC licensed nuclear facility and protect special nuclear material from theft. Here’s their enabling language in the regs.
The US Marshals have a very special power that is reserved to them that almost no other law enforcement entity has: interstate fugitive pursuit. A US Marshal’s jurisdiction is quite literally anywhere they might have to go to pursue a fugitive. This includes Antarctica and orbit as some special cases. When the time comes to arrest someone on Mars, prior to the planet declaring independence as the Martian Congressional Republic, it’ll be a US Marshal.
And so, the marshal showed up at the badge office for the facility. While the marshal is a law enforcement officer and thus someone who has clearly passed a background check, the marshal isn’t cleared to enter all the places and see all the things at the nuclear facility. The marshal will need an authorized escort from the cleared staff of the facility. One of the health physicists got tagged to greet the marshal. The events that followed went something like this.
Health Physicist: Welcome to $FACILITY. Your guy is the Green Room right now. We’ll go get him and bring him to you. Marshal: No. You will take me to him so I can arrest him. HP: Okay, well let’s get you badged in. [annoying visitor badge issuance process ensues] HP: Alright let’s head in. [approaches metal detector at the entry portal] PFO: Please empty your pockets, take off your belt and surrender your firearm before going through the metal detector… M: I am not surrendering my firearm in pursuit of a fugitive. PFO: You will if you want to enter this facility M: [takes a step forward] Are you impeding a marshal in the execution of his duties? PFO: [raises rifle] Step away from the portal. M: [hand on pistol] I am a US Marshal! PFO: [says nothing, aim does not waver] HP: WHOA! How about we all call our supervisors and straighten this out?
After a few phone calls, the guy was brought out to the very huffy, but still alive, marshal.
You see, a US Marshal’s authority while in pursuit extends almost anywhere. There are a whole lot of regulations that are universal, riiiiight up to the point they hit the fence line of a nuclear facility. At that point, NRC or DOE regulations have supremacy, including shooting an arrogant US Marshal through the heart if necessary to prevent an unauthorized firearm from entering the facility. If he had been less of a wannabe Wyatt Earp asshole, everything would have been fine. Big Guys With Guns would have accompanied him to make the arrest if the marshal really, really felt the need to have armed men present.
The moral of the story is that thing you are utterly sure of probably has an exception to the rule.
*: Yes, this actually happened. As a physicist myself, I am well-prepared for the assholery of my people. They didn’t like my very reasonable answer and went away less smug. It went something like this. You want to play games with the rules? I love games.
First, the business matters. Because DEFCON makes things tricky, production of this window is now closed and the production slots for the window ending August 18th are now up for order on the website. At DEFCON proper, the BBotE Ambassador of Flagstaff (Dan Nowak) and the former ambassador of Chicago (Bill Weiss) will be there and equipped with cases. I’ll be there with some too if you want to hit me up in advance to save on shipping. Considering the conference we are attending and where, the acceptable forms of payment are cash, precious metals, and valid casino gaming chips.
A couple months ago, I floated an idea on Twitter and Facebook where asked “If I were to offer to play informal docent for a trip to the National Atomic Testing Museumwhile at DEFCON, would anybody be interested?” The response was surprisingly positive and large. So…it’s on.
And it won’t be just me! While I know a thing or two, my Lovely Assistant will also be there and she’s the one with a PhD in Chemistry, specializing in nuclear forensics. My faithful Las Vegas consiglieri, Doctor What, will also be in attendance, probably looking a bit like Max from Fury Road.
THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
WHEN: Saturday August 11th, at 10:15am. The Atomic Testing Museum opens at 10am and that’s when we’ll be there, but I want to give 15min for people to make their way over before heading in. If you’re late, the museum isn’t too big and we won’t be hard to find. Probably wrap up around noon so everyone can get back to the convention.
WHERE: The National Atomic Testing Museum (NATM) is located at 755 East Flamingo Rd. It’s close to UNLV’s Desert Research Institute and there’s plenty of parking if you’re driving.
COST: Admission to the museum is $22. The $16 discounted price is if we had a large enough group and had arranged in advance. They also have a gift shop you may want some extra cash on hand for. Nuke swag is the best swag.
WHAT: NATM can be charitably described as the overflow of the DOE/NNSA Nevada Site Office Archives into a Smithsonian grade presentation format. The Archives are upstairs so it’s pretty easy for them to rotate exhibits in and out.
In late September, I will be continuing my long standing tradition of visiting new continents by going to their islands first. I went to Britain before I made it to Italy, New Zealand before Australia (don’t start your sunken continent in the Tasman Sea crap), Ross Island before South Pole Station, and now Japan before the rest of Asia. I assume when I eventually get around to Africa I’ll start with Madgascar and, for South America, Easter Island before Peru. I’ve set some precedents.
Let’s get to the shill bit right away, this won’t be a cheap trip and I have a cunning plan. As she lived there once upon a time Test Subject SumoYokai, AKA Jen Miller, will be joining me as translator, sumo nerd, and general knower of Japan things to prevent me from dying in a humorous smartToilet incident. More importantly, Jen is an excellent artist who has unleashed many fine things on the world that have made me giggle, like this, various Lil Bub related arts, the SUX 6000 stickers I’ve stuck into some BBotE shipments and, for cannibalism joy, the WWII/WPA spoof zine “Recoverable Meats”. I will also send you toher Deviant Artwith the fair warning of naughtiness. She is a dear friend I’m extremely happy that I finally got her to make some art for Black Blood of the Earth which you can now have as either asingle bottleor part of the aspecial label three pack!
Due to the minimal amount of vacation time that Americans have (and I know I have more than most) this will be something of a whirlwind trip, similar to my Long Weekend in Chernobyl. Three non-travel days in which I will attend Harumafuji’s yokozuna retirement, something rarer and more exciting than a Triple Crown winner to me, and visit the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. As I said after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck, that was the actual disaster; the destruction of the Daiichi power station complex was a sideshow but one that triggered a DEADLY RADIATIONSterror response that overwhelmed the sympathy for people that just endured a major natural disaster. I spent most of the year after the quake fielding phone calls, emails, and tweets from worried people who wanted to know what they should do about Fukushima. The vast majority didn’t want to be told that, unless they lived in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima Daiichi power station, what they should do is donate money to relief charities trying to help people put their lives back together. I managed to be diplomatic enough to not tell scared Americans looking for advice that they were ignorant and being selfish, but I sure did think it at them hard.
While I am excited to tick another exclusion zone off my nuclear tourism checklist, what I’m really looking forward to is getting to speak with some local officials who have been overseeing the zone because I have some questions. I don’t need to ask questions about the engineering and remediation at the Daiichi reactors because this isn’t Chernobyl and the clean up is more straightforward and easier, though dealing with that activated/contaminated seawater is gonna be a sonofabitch for a long time to come. What I want to know about are the outreach & communication efforts I never heard about because they stayed in Japan. TEPCO has been very justifiably raked over the coals for their actions in the immediate wake of the quake but, at some point, the local and national governments have a responsibility to tell their populace what needs to/can be done. They go like this:
While I had to deal with people forgetting that a quake and tsunami happened, I don’t think the local authorities would have had much trouble with that in the immediate vicinity. But with time, I assume the further you people were from Fukushima the more the focus would have turned to the reactors rather than reconstruction. What did you do to keep people remembering the scope and size of the disaster? How did that message change with time?
Japan doesn’t have a lot of spare real estate so abandoning huge tracts of land was never in the cards. Once decon was done, how did you get people to return or even new people to come?
What have you done to reassure the public about the safety of local products to restore the old economy? Is it working?
In the wake of the bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the survivors of these cities and their descendants, thehibakusha, suffered from discrimination and were treated as unclean and unmarriageable in the subsequent years. What education have you done to try to prevent that from happening to residents again?
I will say that in planning this I ran face first into some Very American Assumptions. As a train nerd, I am excited about the prospect of riding the shinkansen,even if it isn’t this one, but then I immediately said to myself “Oh wait, it might be hard getting out there with the amount of damage the quake and tsunami did. The shinkansen might not be up and running to Sendai yet.” After all, it’s been over a decade since Hurricanes Katrina & Ike and we haven’t gotten the Gulf Coast Amtrak routes repaired yet, which are comparatively primitive trains, and this was a much worse disaster. So, when I looked it up and saw that it was repaired and running, I was impressed. Then I got curious as to how long it took Japan to restore shinkansen service to the hardest hit area.
ANSWER: 43 days
It has been 13 goddamn years since Katrina and we can’t get Amtrak running, much less a bullet train. Amtrak’s trains are slower than what used to run on our rails 60 years ago. Not gonna lie, I was shook. As someone who complains regularly about terrible infrastructure and disaster response, I didn’t realize how acclimated to it I had become. I am disappointed in myself and, by extension, America because of this.
I will not be going to Hiroshima & Nagasaki on this trip because I am explicitly forbidden from going there without My Lovely Assistant. That will have to wait for the next trip to Japan, whenever that’ll be.
So, head over to the store side of the Funranium Labs and make sure that Jen & I can eat food when we’re in Tokyo with a side order of getting up to shenanigans. Going to Ukraine generated nearly 9000 words of history, health physics and general bullshitting for you. Let’s see what Japan yields!
If you weren’t already aware, one of my many roles in life is as the science/history/weirdness consultant for the comic Atomic Robo. My reward for this is that my alter-ego, known as Action Phil, appears in the comic as Atomic Robo’s “heart” specialist, radiation safety officer, and government liaison. (really, my reward is that I get to help make the Atomic Robo team’s lives just a little weirder)
This is a little behind the scenes look at things that didn’t make the cut. The original Tesladyne Field Manual features some sections that are described as adaptations from the lecture series “I’m Yelling Because I Care”, by Dr. Phil Broughton. Well, there was one section that didn’t make it in because it was over 3000 words as I have devoted an awful lot of time in my life to thinking about things going wrong with cyborgs. It got redone into something much more succinct and point-of-view appropriate for the ULTRA Field Manual that came out a few years later.
If you love the game Paranoia or are a current/recovering government employee with residual classified work brain, you will enjoy the ULTRA Field Manual. It warped Brian’s mind working on it such that he had to take frequent breaks to remember how the normal world works. That’s how much fun it is.
But there was always this nagging thought about what was left out and I got permission to put the original version up here. There are a few in-Roboverse references where it might help to have read the comic, but by no means necessary for the main ideas. Which means I get to inaugurate a new post category for the ol’ website here: Fiction
CYBORGS: WHY WE WON’T TURN YOU INTO A MAN-TANK
Adapted from the lecture series “I’m Yelling Because I Care”, by Dr. Phil Broughton
Here at Tesladyne we may be called at any moment to risk life and limb in the name of Action Science. In accordance with the Tesladyne Injury & Illness Prevention Plan’s Accidental Death & Dismemberment Policy, you are entitled to the finest prostheses that we can buy or design. PLEASE NOTE: Prosthetics ≠ cybernetic enhancements. The last thing we need is people sticking their various bits in machinery on purpose.
When most people think of cybernetics, they don’t envision replacement parts as good as the one that was lost. No, they expect replacements to make them harder, better, faster, stronger. Or with completely new abilities that their boring human body never had. The problem is that your boring human body is a very defining part of you and how you think. Once we move beyond that basic form and function, things (i.e. you) start to get weird in all kinds of ways.
The perfect prosthetic is one that is identical to the body part that has been lost: it is no heavier or lighter, it replicates lost functionality, doesn’t trigger a mental rejection, i.e. “this isn’t me”, doesn’t get uncomfortable with long duration of use, requires no power source beyond the body itself, and doesn’t trigger immunological rejection. In fact, the perfect replacement body part is easy to ignore because it just seamlessly works for the recipient. Therefore the perfect prosthetic is a vat grown copy of whatever got damaged or missing.
We say vat grown because inducing regeneration in vivo usually isn’t fast enough to replace an organ that’s failing right now. And if you do it wrong, we are talking ALL THE CANCERS; also, accidentally growing three extra lungs makes things in the average torso awfully crowded.
This is where we make the functional distinction of “bionics” as opposed to “cybernetics” for our terminology. A bionic implant is one that seeks perfect mimicry of the body part it replaces; a cybernetic implant, in short, does not. Tesladyne’s Exotic Medicine department is always interested in improved prostheses, of course, but in general bionics are not an Action Science concern . Unfortunately, bionics are the gateway drug for rogue cyberneticists. It’s a little too easy to go from helping an accident victim to creating a technübermensch just to show you can.
MORE THAN SWISS ARMY KNIFE, NOT QUITE HUMAN
While there is something to be said for the idea adding extra cybernetic features like GPS, a small repair torch, a multi-screwdriver, biometric diagnostics, and onboard communications to the human frame, this is really just an excuse for wanting to not drop your ++ultraphone in the toilet anymore. Really, isn’t it enough you have the computational and diagnostic power of Star Trek in the palm of your hand without actually putting it in your hand? The answer is obviously no, because there are cyborgs and, even worse, cyborg designers.
Now, what if I offer you the ability to see more of the electromagnetic spectrum, extend your vision far into the infrared and UV, perhaps give you visual acuity far beyond your simple meat eye? These are abilities you already have, if you can afford the right digital camera, but they are mediated by being external technology. If I make this part of you, that changes everything even if these extra things can be turned on and off with a thought. Your normal eye has no “off” switch for the color red, but you would like one for IR & UV now that you have it? Would you ever turn it off? And if this becomes your new default state of being, seeing a world no one else perceives, how will this color your reaction to it? How will that affect your interaction with the rest of humanity? Will there be alienation because you can’t express what you see to the unenhanced? Will you feel better, more capable, than them? Will you consider the entire world to be filled with ignorant boobs with their narrow band eyes that don’t and can’t know what’s really here?
This is the beginning of cyberpsychosis and we’ve only discussed a simple eye upgrade, one that is distressingly common in the cyborgs we’ve encountered.
ASIDE: HOW DOES THIS STUFF EVEN WORK?
No machine works without a power source of some kind and conventional power sources with enough energy density are generally toxic in the human body. Fuel and organs do not mix, and then there’s the heat issue. Y’know how your laptop gets hot? Now imagine that heat trapped inside your body. Do not imagine what a leaking battery will do to your guts.
This is probably why the vast majority of cyborgs encountered in the field have been of the “total conversion” type. From Helsingard’s Autosoldat army to the Daedalus Combat Cyborgs of today, the less blood there is to poison, the easier it is to build a machine around it.
TAKING THE CHROME
All assumptions regarding bionics and cybernetics are predicated on a direct mind-machine interface, or MMI for short. Once you have MMI, there is no limit to what interesting things you might think to connect to your brain because your body just became irrelevant. You’re living the brain-in-a-jar dream, just waiting to be connected up to anything, right? Wrong, if for no other reason than your nervous system and your sense of identity is contained in more than a few pounds of meat in your head.
Our best example of this is phantom limb syndrome, which is a disorder of proprioception, AKA your sense of body in space. Just because you have physically lost your arm doesn’t mean that your mind accepts that it’s gone; it will simulate the sensations of that arm, typically manifested as pain. We can trick the brain into accepting the phantom limb is gone and the sense of body will reformat to the new shape. Except our goal with bionics is to get the mind to extend itself through MMI to actually control the replacement limb; we have to convince people who have lost a limb that this new one is part of them. Merely having a way to plug a new arm into the brachial nerve isn’t enough; it has to be your arm.
When you move beyond that to cybernetics, we have to figure out how how you get the mind to visualize a network of hoverfans and avionics as suitable replacements for legs. But hey, humanity is adaptable as heck. If you’ve ever gone to sleep and still felt the motion you felt from earlier that day when you were skating, or boating, or flying, then you’ve already experienced this. Race car drivers and pilots similarly start to perceive the size, speed, and agility of their vehicles as an extension of their own bodies. But, if they were able to actively connect to the vehicle and control it with their mind, it’s something deeper than proprioception. You being a vehicle is not quite as straightforward as just changing speed and direction. How do mental processes re-map from normal bodily functions to control a transmission gearbox? And, once you break the connection, what residual echoes of the vehicle stay with you? Does the world seem so very slow when you aren’t connected to fine German engineering? And there’s no need to stop at vehicles. We think some of the people we’ve interviewed in asylums recently with vehicle and architecture paraphilias may have been victims of residual proprioception imprinted from cyberlinking.
Of course, not all augmentations have to be made of metal and plastic. In the dawn of the bio-engineering age, we are getting steadily closer to the dreams/nightmares of Shelley and Wells with the ability to graft biosynthetic organs on to the human form. When you get down to it, tentacles can be quite useful.
The reverse of this, the cyber-enhancement of animals, tends to end tragically. Those that are incapable of making the body map change invariably end up attacking their new attachment and, perceiving it as an enemy, it attacks back. Those that manage the integration, well, cyber-designers never seem to want to make peaceful cybercows, do they? It’s always sharks and bears and other apex predators. As if ravens aren’t already smart and evil-minded enough without turning them into a murder network of stirges with tungsten beaks and laser precision targeting systems with micro-obsidian serrated feathers…
The standard vision conjured by the word cybernetics is of a superhumanly strong hand crushing with Servos Of Might, like Ash in Evil Dead 2. This, not coincidentally, is one of the few things that can be done without running into problems; it’s trying to get a superhumanly strong hand to not crush everything you put in its grasp that is more of an issue. When you move up to an entire arm capable of superhuman strength, now you have a big bio-mechanical engineering problem. Your new arm may be able to lift 400lbs one-handed, but your shoulder joint certainly can’t. The obvious solution is to upgrade the shoulder joint as well! Except now it will yank several vertebrae out of the spine. Guess you better get a spinal replacement. We think you get the point of how once you start enhancing instead of replacing, it’s a slippery slope to Total Body Prosthesis.
The more sane cybernetic upgrade is to take the body toward the peak of human performance, so that you’re still within the design spec of flesh and bone but without all that tedious exercise, diet, and genetic luck. The problem is that while you are still within the potential of the human body, it isn’t where the rest of your body is. The answer to this is the intuitively obvious, but also horrifying, synthocrine processor implant to pump your body full of every hormone it’ll need to withstand the thousands of microfractures, tears, sprains, and edemas you are about to subject your remaining meat to. The problem is that your brain is marinating in the better living through chemistry juice that is now constitutes your blood stream. If there’s something that’s the kind of fun you want to be running directly away from, its a cyborg with ‘roid rage.
Thing is, the synthocrine processor isn’t even rare. For cyborgs, it’s absolutely necessary to generate the anti-rejection compounds that keep your remaining meat from rejecting augmentations almost as quickly as you add them. We have a hard enough time getting the human body to accept transplants from ideally matched donors. If the processor only did that, it would be the medical marvel of the millennium.
THE CONSENSUS MIND
The most basic cybernetic base package appears to be MMI interface, synthocrine processor, and bone antenna short range radio networking. In this era of wifi enabled everything, this last implant might seem the most reasonable of the lot. If you’re going add any kind of GPS or communications system, you’re going to need a way to access those satellites. If you’d wear a heads-up display connected to the internet clipped to your glasses, you’d certainly wear the contact lenses that do the same. From there, it’s only a small step to visual cortex integration.
It’s not the wisest thing to hook the internet directly with your mind. Plain old run of the mill viruses in the meat are bad enough without adding firmware corrupting worms that can go to town on your hardware: defined, in this case, as your brand new body parts. There is the well documented case of the “stophittingyourself.cyb” trojan malware that a disgruntled Daedalus engineer managed to infect the Personnel Department with in 1973. Middle managers were slapping themselves, hard, in unison for days until it could be sanitized from the Backbone. The limited radio communication and departmental only channels are perhaps all that prevented the virus from condemning all of Daedalus to a slapstick doom. You’d think this experience would frighten away people from downloading things into their mind, but keep in mind these are people who volunteered to remove ever larger portions of their body to be replaced by other things.
Really, what the short range radio gets used for the most is communication with a more modern class of augmentations. Just like all other technologies that are cutting the cord, hardwired-to-nervous system cybernetics are reliable but also resource and surgery intensive. It is much easier to just attach a hard point for a limb and then remote control it from an MMI transmitter implant. This means it would be possible to have mix-n-match limbs so you could have just the right matte finish legs to match your outfit for a night dancing at the Chrome Club. Except it takes a lot of bandwidth to communicate all the things you’d like your implant to do and you don’t even want to have to consciously think about how organs work. For this reason, a great deal of the operation of your average cybernetic body part is fairly automated and then subordinated to the conscious will.
But what happens when you’re asleep, when the will isn’t quite in charge? It’s no fun to wake up and discover you’re missing a hand. It’s far worse to discover that your hand has gone and strangled the upstairs neighbor for playing awful nu-metal on his badly tuned guitar all night before you fell asleep angry. We don’t have any documented cases of modular limbs disconnecting from their host body to seek out the dreaming cyborg’s whims. Whether that’s because it doesn’t happen or because Project Daedalus staff aren’t the most ethical scientists around, so they’re not inclined to be honest about the unintended horrors of their work, is not entirely clear.
Some of your heart’s dark desires aren’t meant to be acted upon, but how are your subordinate components supposed to know that? You could try to give the cybernetics more intelligence and autonomy, but then you may have to argue with legs that don’t want to take a walk today.
COMBAT VS. CYBORGS
We cannot stress enough that cyborgs are not zombies, though it is possible that some zombies might be cyborgs. Even if they are so herky-jerky that the cyborg looks like it’s doing The Robot, the standard call to “SHOOT IT IN THE HEAD” may not apply here. For one thing, if you conquered the technical difficulties of the mind-machine interface, then relocating the brain elsewhere in the body is a trivial matter. At the very least, you may find that the you need HEAT rounds to penetrate the armored braincase of a cyborg skull. It should go without saying that attempting to sneak up behind the cyborg and pistolwhip it is failure waiting to happen. Assuming it doesn’t stop you thanks to the standard issue 360-degree continuous ranging radar array that sensed your approach, striking its head will probably hurt you more than it.
In our experience, no one ever builds cyborgs out of amazing space age polymers. It’s always armor plate or high chrome alloyed metals. This means they are much, much heavier than your mostly water flesh, even when the quartermaster issues you all the gear needed for an extradimensional incursion. If you can run, the odds of them being able to catch up is low. If they can keep up with you, the key is to use their momentum against them as you are capable of making much more abrupt turns than a comparably sized humanoid that weighs 4-10 times as much. Try to aim their missed turns into rather solid objects. Like buildings. Or explosive ones! Also, rickety wooden stairs and bridges make for an excellent defensive retreat. They’ll support your weight but not theirs. Just be sure to get across before they try to!
As mentioned earlier in SO SOMEONE PLUGGED AN AUTOMATIC INTELLIGENCE INTO THE MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX AND NOW THERE ARE ROBOT FACTORIES PUMPING OUT HUNTER-KILLER DRONES, major to full body conversion cyborgs are well on their way to being some of the most complex pieces of technology that have ever existed. This technology is not well suited to the dirty, filthy, wet outside world. Just because they may be armed and armored like tanks, doesn’t mean they can take to the field like one. It may seem like they’re disposable heroes the way they’re fielded by Daedalus, but the expense must be appalling. They may have some decent environmental protection, but do your best to run them through the foulest places you can to clog up their inorganic bits.
Like fighting any humanoid form, there are certain vulnerable points that simply cannot be completely protected and still expect to be functional. Your friend THE KNEES! Even if your opponent is a total conversion titanium alloyed monster, relative to the rest of the cyborg its knees are painfully delicate. Once you have them on the ground such that they’re not standing up again, you now have the time to bring some force to bear. Or to run far, far away. There’s the usual tactical advantage of a well timed retreat, but there’s an extra advantage to running away when we’re dealing with combat cyborgs. Because we’re also dealing with the maniacs who design them. Someone who is already turning another human being into his or her personal murder machine, will find it both prudent and trivial to implant a self-destruct device with everything else.
Of course, some cyborgs will not have knees as such. But they’ve all got metaphorical knees. Tank treads and hover modules are just as delicate if you hit them right.
NOTE: If you can identify it, you may be tempted to try to target the self-destruct device to kill the cyborg. This Is Wrong. While we are confronting some questionable morals and intellects behind the creation of cyborgs, they are almost certainly people that have learned the importance of safety linkages in light of the Manhattan Project. Attempting to set off the self-destruct without it being armed first is just silly. Also, speaking of morals, you have no idea if this cyborg still has independent personality and thought. The only thing worse than being a brain in a jar, is being one that knows its lower order functions are being used and abused against its will.
If you have a body that is capable of lifting a tank, obviously you should mount weapons comparable to a tank on it, right? We’d say no. Which is probably why they don’t ask. It’s hard to say exactly what armament you’re going to see on your cybernetic foe, but rest assured that if it’s a Deadalus model, it’s gonna have lasers. The good news is lasers are quite manageable (SEE ALSO: Lasers Do Not Go Pew Pew Pew) and once they’re taken care of you’re merely left with an superhumanly strong cyborg.
But why stop with lasers as long as you’re tricking out that chassis? Working on the principle of “If I can lift it, I can shoot it”, designers have an unfortunate habit of giving cyborgs shoulder or arm mounted rocket launchers and chain guns. A classic Helsingard design featured a torso mortar once. It’s been a couple decades since there’s been a documented cyborg mounted flamethrower sighting, as they are inherently an endangered species. If the cyborg has weapons that requires ammunition, just try to stay out of the line of fire until they run out or explode. Either is likely to happen and ammo explosions inside body parts are so much more messy than a gun merely exploding in the hand. When cyborgs are equipped with melee weapons, something deep in the cyborg designer’s mind seems to cry out “human body = giant switchblade.” Why hand a cyborg a sword designed to withstand its strength when you could have a retractable sword extend from its arm? Entangling these melee weapons is a great way to trap the cyborg. It’s not like they can drop them short of removing their arm.
No, the real thing to be worried about is a cyborg that advances on you with no visible weapons, doubly so if there are no gleaming chrome parts. A flashy half-tank / half-man suggests someone of considerable genius but perhaps little foresight was involved in the design. But a combat cyborg that, at a distance, passes for an ordinary unenhanced human suggests a designer who trusts what their creation can do with its superhumanly strong, fast, and nearly indestructible bare hands.
Do note that’s also a fair description of our founder. Let’s hope no one builds his match.