The Lost Cybernetics Safety Chapter

Woe is Phil
What Action Phil does, as explained by Action Phil – from Atomic Robo Volume 10, Chapter 2, Page 18, by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener

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

Enjoy!

 


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.

 

Containing Multitudes: Laser Safety Edition

Most of you found me as the ridiculous coffee & steins guy. Some think of me as the radiation safety man who knows way too much history and is an embodiment of Institutional Memory (this would definitely be the point of view from the researchers and students I wrangle). To others, I am the crazy coin ranter…who knows way too much history.

But last year, a whole new part of the internet found me and, often, decided they didn’t like what I had to say as I revealed I am the laser safety guy who isn’t a big fan of some aspects of maker & founder culture. I wrote a bit of a rant on a product whose existence I found infuriating as it, from start to finish, embodied those bits of culture that drive me crazy. This also caused the parts of the internet I didn’t piss off to send me a steady stream of things to see if they were bad too or, in most cases, in hopes of raising my blood pressure. I took home some lessons from all this I’d like to share with you:

  1. In the last couple years, something happened that caused a wave of cheap 405nm (deep violet) and 450nm (blue) laser diodes to come onto the market. Since shorter wavelength means more energy per photon, this was what the market has been waiting for to make small, cheap laser cutter/engravers. Cubiio was only one of dozens of different versions of similar systems.
  2. The FDA Center for Device and Radiologic Health (CDRH) are aware of these systems, or at least becomes so as soon as someone tells them. There are so many and they so understaffed that they don’t actively hunt them, merely address those that are directly reported to them or are revealed in the course of an accident investigation. There is some despair of ever getting ahead of the wave at this point. The days of a few large and responsible laser manufacturers to wrangle, who reliably file paperwork before selling products, are long gone.
  3. Amazon and eBay are oh so very complicit in the illegal importation and sale of laser systems that aren’t FDA compliant. Their hosting of third party sales without much (if any) vetting of what is being sold through their marketplace is a gushing pipeline of gray/black market items to America. When told to suspend sale of an item by the CDRH, they will very diligently remove that specific listing from that particular seller. If you heard a bit of sarcastic tone in your head there, good. Nothing prevents a different seller from selling the same item or the original seller for listing a substantially similar one, just different enough to evade the CDRH take down. Since listings are automated and fees are generated by listing and sale, there is no incentive for Amazon & eBay to do so self-policing. And then there’s Alibaba…
  4. USPS/Customs Enforcement stop what they are specifically told to stop. They haven’t been given much direction about lasers and, much like CDRH, they don’t have much hope against the wave. I can personally attest to my two Not At All Okay handheld lasers, purchased via 3rd party seller on Amazon, that were shipped direct from China and sailed through Customs. The Mail Cops’ focus is trying to interdict weapons and illegal drugs, so this is one of those eye-rolling “Sure, yeah, we’ll get right on that in our copious free time” situations.
  5. The intentionally reactive, rather than preventive, nature of control in the sale of laser products means we are way deep into whackadoo laser quackery on the market and have been for a while. It’s reminding me a lot of where we were with radioactive materials and x-rays, circa 1920. As an example, laser physiotherapy treatment, my entire ass. You are quite successfully selling a glorified heat lamp from China at a 100000% markup to overfunded sports programs. That piece of crap shouldn’t cost $100, much less $250k.

So, let me tell you how I got to this point in my life, or rather how I got back to it. Once upon a time, my first job out of college was working at one of the large industrial & scientific laser manufacturers in Silicon Valley. I began in production, building pretty much every laser they had on the market at the time. In short order I moved to service and then, thanks to having picked up all the safety roles for my division out of boredom and no one else wanted them, to the Environmental Health & Safety department when a layoff happened. By attrition, I was eventually the only person left in the EH&S department and I was the corporate laser safety officer (LSO) for the entire company. I was burnt out and desperately wanted out of there as management gave zero shits about their employees. After a particularly bad day at work, I discovered that it was possible to get a job working in Antarctica and submitted a resume.

Two years later, Raytheon Polar Services Corporation hired me to be a cryogenics/science technician to serve as a winterover at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. It was, however, a very last minute hire before deployment. From the time a verbal offer was made to the when a same day FedEx letter with paper contract and plane tickets to Denver to attend fire school arrived at my office was 7 hours. Because it was so late in the day, my boss who I loathed was already gone when it arrived. Which meant that before I finished for the day, I had placed a resignation letter in his box, giving two weeks notice and informing him that the first week would be spent on vacation as I learned to be a firefighter in Colorado. I also cleared out my more important items from my office and locked down all relevant things on my computer. It’s fair to say that I burnt that bridge very effectively and scattered the ashes to the wind.

However, as corporate laser safety officer for this company I’d had a prominent voice in the safety community despite being in my 20s. The collective laser safety officers of the San Francisco Bay Area pushed the issue that we needed to make some kind of certification for our field, that there was a bit of a difference between being the person wrangling the one welding laser in the shop and being responsible for an entire university worth of lasers. And so the Board of Laser Safety was formed and the very first Certified Laser Safety Officer (CLSO) examination was organized for October 12, 2002. By the time this date rolled around though, I’d left my job at $LASER_COMPANY and was no longer a practicing laser safety officer. But, I’d paid the money, so I figured what the hell, take the test and maybe it would be something good for the resume when I got back.

The CLSO exam is supposed to be a three hour exam; I was the first one done in 73 minutes. I know this because the proctor showed me his stopwatch and wanted to make sure I was actually done and didn’t want to take more time checking it over. I said no, walked out of the testing room at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and drove all the way back down to my parents’ hose in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I then finished packing my giant bodybag sized duffles and went to sleep. The next morning my dad drove me to San Jose airport to catch the first leg of my very long and delay prone flight to the South Pole.

Several months later, now trapped at Pole with no escape flights coming for the next nine months, my dad let me know that they’d received a giant envelope from the Board of Laser Safety. I asked him to open it. Inside was this certificate which he sent me a picture of.

My original Board of Laser Safety CLSO certificate.

Note the certification number: G1006. The first five certification numbers, G1001-G1005, were held by the members of the Board of Laser Safety. Because I’d finished the test first, I was the sixth. The members of the Board never revealed to me who Number One was, but I was Number Six. Yes, I have been making Prisoner jokes about this for 15 years.

You will also note there is a renewal date on that certificate of January 1, 2006. I spent most of 2003 at the South Pole where the need for laser knowledge was minimal other than telling people “Don’t stand under the dancing laser speckles on the ice from the Atmospheric Research Observatory’s lasers. That’s actually bad. Try not to go blind, I’ll see you in the bar.” Most of 2004 I was unemployed or temping for the water district doing groundwater flow modeling. 2005 was LLNL and they had no need for my mad phat laser sk33lz (well, that’s not true, my knowledge informed other projects I was doing in interesting ways). And so, without continuing education credits, my CLSO lapsed.

Four years ago, I got tapped by a whole bunch of people affiliated with Burning Man as “Hey, I know a guy that knows something about lasers” in the wake of this incident. It kinda rankled that I had to keep giving the caveat of “I am not a CLSO” as I ran people through how to conduct an accident investigation and create policies for control of lasers in a place that believes in Safety Third. Oh, the fun I have with people who try to bring that mentality to places I’m actually responsible for.

Two years ago, I was asked if I was willing to serve as the deputy LSO for UC Berkeley in addition to my other duties. I said yes and somewhat sarcastically replied “You mean formally, as opposed to what I’ve been doing in the hallways for the last eight years? You finally read my resume I gather.”

Last year, the tsunami of shitty laser products, as discussed earlier, hit me. I snapped and decided I needed to re-certify so that I could complain with authority. The weird long BBotE production window in May was because I spent a week in Rochester, NY taking that exam and attending the DOE Laser Safety Conference.

Yesterday, I was contacted directly by the Board of Laser Safety to inform me that I’d passed and was re-certified.

In conclusion…

via GIPHY

Philippines Barako BBotE Now Available

Reposting the relevant half of a previous post as it is now reality as I have just received a large quantity of Barako. Additionally, BBotE Ambassador service to Brisbane (Australia) is restored, so feel free to drop Dom a line.

1911 Philippines 1 Peso Reverse with Lady Filipinas & a gently smoking Mt. Pinatubo

There is a new BBotE selection now available in the store. This is a continued part of my interest in the historical coffees of colonialism and the part of my coin collection I like to call “These Are Also American Coins”. Years ago, sitting in a cafe in Hilo, I saw the marketing line “America’s Only Domestic Coffees” describing the fine produce of the Big Island. I knew this was wrong because I was familiar with the highland crops in Puerto Rico that had been there for centuries, but then mainlanders do seem to have a problem forgetting that PR is part of America. From a coffee point of view, the problem is that most of the historical coffee plantations in the wider American sphere of influence got torn up and replanted, because United Fruit was clearly a transtemporal corporate conspiracy dedicated to replacing things I love (coffee, pineapples) with things I hate (bananas). One moment, I need to go seed a new thread on abovetopsecret.com…

The Philippines have a longer coffee history than any current or former American possession thanks to being the Pearl of the Pacific. Wave after wave of traders and invaders showed up in the archipelago via the Straits of Malacca, heading for Manila, and all of them agreed that coffee was extremely important. Depending on the century, country of origin, and last port of call where they got cargo determined what strain of arabica coffee got taken to what island and then crossed with the native robustas that were already there. Because of this, the Philippines have an astounding amount of diversity in their coffee. Unfortunately, this also means every disease gets transported to the islands too and a blight in the 19th century almost wiped all of them out. The barako strain, rather than being arabica or robusta, is one of the coffee liberica species which was resistant to the disease, allowing the coffee industry there to continue.

The tricky part is getting it. For reasons I’m not quite clear on, the roasters of the American mainland are far more interested in importing Indonesian coffees rather than the Filipino ones. The doesn’t concern the Philippines much as they have plenty of their own roasteries and are every bit as prideful about “my island’s coffee is the best coffee”, much like the different growing regions of Puerto Rico. Lucky for me, as an extremely white man, I have access to the powerful logistics of the Filipino Cousin Network (FCN). If you have not already experienced the power of the FCN, it goes something like this:

  1. You express an interest in a $THING which is available in the Philippines, usually because your Filipino friend has kindly shared it with you.
  2. Your Filipino friend says “If you want more of $THING, I can get it for you from the islands.”
  3. You ask if they are going to the Philippines soon.
  4. They say no, but their sibling is already there.
  5. Their sibling’s spouse’s cousin has easy access to $THING.
  6. Sibling isn’t coming home soon, but sibling’ spouse’s cousin’s dad is a pilot and can just bring it over on his next leg to the States.
  7. Cousin’s Pilot Dad loves your friend’s grandma’s adobo, so if you can buy the fixings for grandma to make adobo, $THING is yours in the next 48-96 hours.

Your experience of the FCN may vary wildly in levels of complexity but it will be substantially similar in form with this example. A side-effect of the FCN is that there is absolutely no way to keep grandma, any grandma, from knowing absolutely anything she wants to know within the FCN. The grandmas are almost a hive mind, so that joke from Cookie Clicker is frighteningly accurate.

The name of the varietal, barako, is a bit of linguistic appropriation from Spanish. Verraco, Spanish for “wild boar”, became barako with the rough meaning of “stud”, in the animal breeding and machismo senses of the word. It is regarded as bolder than the arabicas and more palatable than robusta, an opinion I’ll agree with. The smell is sharp and the taste is flinty and rich, very much reflecting the fresh, ashy volcanic soils of the island. Not quite slopes of Mt. Pinatubo tephra in flavor, nor Philippine Sea Plate basalt, but a nice mix of the two (forgive me, as the frustrated volcanologist have pulverized and smelled/tasted a lot of different volcanic rocks, particularly from this region). Taking it to my favorite taste testers at St. George Spirits, it apparently mixes with everything they make, and they wiped out the test bottle in very short order. Per Test Subject Shiraz, it smells like eating Reese’s peanut butter cups.

Twitter Invisibility – A Customer Service Tale

I will start with the dispassionate assessment: for a period of no less than 8 days, my @funranium twitter account was functioning in a very limited visibility status and then it returned to full functionality. I have no idea why it happened or why it stopped.

To roll it back to the larger picture, this has been another one of my adventures in customer service failure. I gave my feelings on how customer service is supposed to work, and how it is usually structured badly, in a previous post seven years ago. Now you may say “Phil, we aren’t Twitter’s customers. We’re the product.” and you’d have a good point. The argument that all of social media’s actual customers are ad purchasers, not the users of the services, ignores that we are the audience they are attempting to sell to. If your service causes enough pain that we aren’t there to sell to, your ad purchasers will wander off to more lucrative outlets. In summation, it’s tricky.

This all first rose to my awareness on Monday, March 5th when my Lovely Assistant complained that my threading seemed to be broken as she went to go look at my stupid Alternative Chowder tweets. I dismissed it as [shrug] “sometimes things on Twitter don’t work so good”.

(ASIDE: I cannot consume any animals that come from the water, fresh or salt, other than whales, so clam chowder has always been dead to me. As a small child, I noticed that whenever my dad ordered clam chowder he got oyster crackers, whereas I got normal saltines for my soups. I became convinced that you could *only* get oyster crackers if you ordered chowder, which made stealing them from my dad all the better. I then developed the theory that oyster crackers were what made my dad’s clam chowder, which sure looked like a soup, a “chowder”. BY SIX YEAR OLD PHIL LOGIC, not yet understanding the transitive property, I came to the conclusion that adding oyster crackers to any other soup automatically makes it a chowder. Now, as a grown ass adult, no one can prevent me from adding oyster crackers to whatever I want to exploreAlternative Chowders“)

On Wednesday, two other friends noticed they weren’t getting notifications from me when I made comments. Again, I dismissed it as Twitter being Twitter.

Well, that’s not good. I seem not to exist.

On Friday the 9th, the journalist Nathan Edwards dropped me a line to let me know that I appeared to be shadowbanned. He had used a tool which did a quick search scrape of Twitter to see if a user who wasn’t logged in would be able to find anything from my account. It came up with zilch. Something was limiting my contact and this presented two possible conclusions:

  1. My name had been handed to a Report Brigade for trolls to hammer such that the automated systems at Twitter would defensively limit my reach as someone that was suspect. OR…
  2. Something at Twitter was broken which had somehow impacted my account.

To be clear, Twitter has emphatically stated that it does not do shadowbanning. I am inclined to believe that, but I am also aware that they don’t *quite* have the firmest grasp on the monster they’ve created.  While they might not have built shadowbanning as a feature, I am certainly willing to believe that effects indistinguishable from it have manifested as a bug.

Searching through my collective friends, I found one other person that seemed to be suffering the same problem, Meredith Yayanos. To be honest, I could fully believe she had pissed off enough people to justify Case #1, which is something she would wear with pride. As I help support her work with the the Blood of the Harpy, I was willing to believe I had inherited some guilt by association and been targeted in kind. But almost as soon as I let Mer know that she was subject to the same thing as me, she was returned to full visibility.

Okay, well, that’s weird…

Twitter Support Says “We Had A Problem But It’s Cool We Fixed It”

As a middle aged white man who works in safety with a firm confidence in Systems™, this meant it was time for me to go delve into the customer service of process of Twitter to get the help which I felt I richly deserved and expected to work.

(You may feel free to start snickering into your drink at this point.)

A conversation between Jamais Cascio and I, except I am invisible with “Tweet unavailable”, as captured by @slartibartfart

My experience of the Twitter customer support process may be described as a running into a brick wall as fast as you feel like. It’s always a wall but the question is how much it hurts. The first thing I did was hit the Twitter support functions. I looked at their feed first and found the message to the far right. It appeared that they had a problem but, that as of the 8th, they’d fixed it and everything was fine. [checks calendar] By Friday everything should have been fixed according to them, but I still seemed to be stuck in a corner where no one got notifications from me and all threads I commented in had broken links, as shown in the conversation with Jamais Cascio.

Phil waves jumps up and down trying to get the elephant to see the invisible mouse.

As it was not fixed, I sent a reply to the @TwitterSupport account to let them know that things were not fixed. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the problem, almost by definition, they wouldn’t see anything I posted to them. Since that wouldn’t work, I checked the Twitter Help functions. They recommended that I use the @TwitterSupport direct messages. Okay, sure thing. Will do.

I try to use @TwitterSupport Direct Messages, LOL

Ah, that was a good laugh. At some point in the recent past, @TwitterSupport decided to turn off their direct messages and set an autoreply but they didn’t decide to change their recommendation to pursue this route on the Twitter Help page. Speaking of Twitter Help, I would describe this page as roughly as functional as looping automated answer phone tree. If your question doesn’t quite conform to any of the pre-formulated answers to frequently asked question paths, well, you aren’t going to find any help here, nor an easy way to ask an open question, nor even really a way to make contact other than the @TwitterSupport twitter account. As of the writing of this post, there has been no response from any channel of communication.

The earliest suggestion on how to fix this, or at least get the attention of people who can fix things, came from friends who went to search what shadowbanning was and found this article. To summarize it’s idea, if you talk to the Twitter Ads team, rather than the Support team, as their purpose is to generate revenue they have an interest in getting your problem fixed so that you can pay them. For the price of $20, I was willing to play this experiment to see how the algorithm coped with two conflicting desires: limiting visibility vs. getting paid for visibility. I regret to inform you that the algorithm is capable of holding these two contrary thoughts. Also, Twitter Ads Support is very clear they they are stovepiped and do not  fix, nor will they even discuss, any issues not related to advertising even if this would impact the effectiveness of their work.

Because the Army of the Caffeinated contains several current and former employees of The Good Blue Website, they noticed that I had vanished from their feeds and were a little miffed about this. When they asked me some questions as to what was going on and then looked into this there was a fairly universal “Oh. That’s not good.” In the last year, Twitter has had a lot of turnover without the best/any knowledge transfer. I am fully willing to believe that recent tweaks to the algorithm broke shit they didn’t expect and they’ve been working hard to band-aid things ever since.

And then, just as mysteriously, on March 13th I returned to full visibility. There was no explanation as to why I had returned, much less why it happened in the first place. It just happened, like a capricious god had granted me the gift of being a real boy again. That doesn’t sit particularly well with me. As a safety person, I demand documentation from my researchers for their potential failure modes so that we expect them and know what to do when they occur. When things like this happen, I want to know what went wrong, how they fixed it, and how they intend to prevent it from happening again, not just that they are “conducting an internal review to ensure that this doesn’t happen again”.

Since this seems to be continuing with other users, it isn’t fixed yet and the process, whatever it is, is ongoing. We don’t know what it is and all avenues for direct communication are decidedly blocked off. That is shitty customer service.

Funranium Service Announcements – Steins, Coffees, and Tombs

First off, to confirm what many have already noticed and emailed me about with some panic, except for one 1000ml rugged style, there are no FMJ style steins left in the store. The last one went to the very welcoming hands of Steinweilder Morton in Wellington, New Zealand two weeks ago. Until I can get more at a reasonable price, that’s going to have to be that unless you’re willing to pay about $100 extra. If price is no object for you, feel free to drop me a line, but know that I am trying to find a way to get reasonably priced dewars again.

Next, BBotE Ambassadorial service to Indianapolis is restored! Jeremy has returned from his hiatus and looks forward to playing host to bottles for his local folks. Like all the Ambassadors, you can find his contact information here.

Third, the Ipsento Panama Natural selection will be going away in the near future as they’ve gone through all the beans from the last crop and the next isn’t due to show up for several months yet. I laid in a decent supply, but that is dwindling as well. I’ll make the formal announcement of when it’s gone, but if it makes it through the end of the month I’ll be surprised.

Test Subject Calkins successfully laid a wreath and fit into his uniform.
Herr Direktor Funranium, wearing the most regalia I am ever likely to.

Fourth, to explain the weirdly short production windows in the last couple weeks, there has been some exciting travel lately. Much like I put my name in the hat a couple years ago to take a tour of the Nevada Test Site and got picked, Test Subject Calkins did the same for a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While it is an awesome honor to get to do it, there’s a certain level of “Shit, I wasn’t expecting to actually get to do it” last minute planning that happens when you get the nod. My Lovely Assistant and I were invited to be witnesses for the event. As this seemed a suitably once in a lifetime opportunity, we went.

In the photo to the right, you can see that I am wearing my favorite bolo tie, a little doot of brass on my label that is my University of California service pin, and my Antarctic Service Medal. This is the first time I have ever actually worn it because I’ve never had occasion to do so until this trip. It is the only military medal a civilian can receive and I figured I might as well. There was one little boy who saw me in the bathroom, who had clearly been told in no uncertain terms “IF YOU SEE SOMEONE IN UNIFORM OR WITH MEDALS, YOU THANK THEM FOR THEIR SERVICE”, who thanked me for my service. I told him I had earned it by getting very cold for America and science. He ran away, which is the correct reaction.

There was also and excellent dinner at Mari Vanna to celebrate all this. Test Subject Calkins sang Katyusha in his excellent Russian which, per our waiter, is officially when a party is drunk. Apparently you celebrate this by giving the person who just sang Katyusha a complimentary shot. And rather than just see it on the menu like I did in Kiev, I totally ordered the Lard In The Acute Paprika this time.

Lastly, and most exciting, there is potentially a new BBotE selection coming your way soon if it passes one more test batch: Philippines Barako. This is a continued part of my interest in the historical coffees of colonialism. Years ago, sitting in a cafe in Hilo, I saw the marketing line “America’s Only Domestic Coffees” describing the fine produce of the Big Island. I knew this was wrong because I was familiar with the highland crops in Puerto Rico that had been there for centuries, but then we do seem to have a problem with forgetting that PR is part of America. From a coffee point of view, the problem is that most of the historical coffee plantations in the wider American sphere of influence got torn up and replanted, because United Fruit was clearly a transtemporal corporate conspiracy dedicated to replacing things I love (coffee, pineapples) with things I hate (bananas). One moment, I need to go seed a new thread on abovetopsecret.com…

The Philippines have a longer coffee history than any other current or former American possession thanks to being the Pearl of the Pacific. Wave after wave of traders and invaders showed up in the archipelago via the Straits of Malacca, heading for Manila, and all of them agreed that coffee was extremely important. Depending on the century, country of origin, and last port of call where they got cargo, is what determined what strain of arabica coffee got taken to what island and then crossed with the native robusta that was already there. Because of this, the Philippines have an astounding amount of diversity in their coffee. Unfortunately, this also means every disease gets transported to the islands too and a blight in the 19th century almost wiped all of them out. The barako strain, rather than being arabica or robusta, is one of the coffee liberica species which was resistant to the disease, allowing the coffee industry there to continue.

The tricky part if getting it. For reasons I’m not quite clear on, the roasters of the American mainland are far more interested in importing Indonesian coffees rather than the Filipino ones. The doesn’t concern the Philippines much as they have plenty of their own roasteries and are every bit as prideful about “my island’s coffee is the best coffee”, much like the different regions of Puerto Rico. Lucky for me, as an extremely white man, I have access to the powerful logistics of the Filipino Cousin Network (FCN). If you have not already experienced the power of the FCN, it goes something like this:

  1. You express an interest in a $THING which is available in the Philippines, usually because your Filipino friend has kindly shared it with you.
  2. Your Filipino friend says “If you want more of $THING, I can get it for you from the islands.”
  3. You ask if they are going to the Philippines soon.
  4. They say no, but their sibling is already there.
  5. Their sibling’s spouse’s cousin has easy access to $THING.
  6. Sibling isn’t coming home soon, but sibling’ spouse’s cousin’s dad is a pilot and can just bring it over on his next leg to the States.
  7. Cousin’s Pilot Dad loves your friend’s grandma’s adobo, so if you can buy the fixings for grandma to make adobo, $THING is yours in the next 48-96 hours.

A side-effect of the FCN is that there is absolutely no way to keep grandma, any grandma, from knowing absolutely anything she wants to know within the FCN. The grandmas are almost a hive mind, so that joke from Cookie Clicker is frighteningly accurate.

The name of the varietal, barako, is a bit of linguistic appropriation from Spanish. Verraco, Spanish for “wild boar”, became barako with the rough meaning of “stud”, in the animal breeding and machismo senses of the word. It is regarded as bolder than the arabicas and more palatable than robusta, an opinion I’ll agree with. The smell is sharp and the taste is flinty and rich, very much reflecting the fresh, ashy volcanic soils of the island. Not quite slopes of Mt. Pinatubo tephra in flavor, nor Philippine Sea Plate basalt, but a nice mix of the two (forgive me, as the frustrated volcanologist have pulverized and smelled/tasted a lot of different volcanic rocks, particularly from this region). Taking it to my favorite taste testers at St. George Spirits, it apparently mixes with everything they make, and they wiped out the test bottle in very short order.

So, it’ll probably start showing up as the Mystery Vials in Sampler Pack II in the near future before becoming a drop down selection for all the other ordering options.

Colonies and Gold, Part II

As a holiday and end of year gift, I have finished up Part II of the colonial currency and gold coin rant with all due haste. I’ve got three Dominions to cover here, so it’s a bit long. Take a break after the Raj and have a festive drink or something.

Remember that handy reference guide to predecimalization system of British coinage I shared in the previous post? Well, remember it fondly, as things are about to go a bit funny in the other colonies. The general rules of how coins work holds for the rest of Britain’s colonies, but you may notice some significant differences from the American experience. TL;DR version: I think Britain never really liked America.

The Jewel In The Crown: the East India Company (EIC) and the British Raj

Let’s start with the fact that the EIC and direct rule of India by the the British Crown, the Raj, are different entities. The Raj replaced the EIC after the company was nationalized in the wake of the First War of Indian Independence in 1858 (AKA the Sepoy Rebellion, for those of us who had a more Anglocentric education). While the Raj wasn’t necessarily pretty, it was nicer than the 250 years of company rule that preceded it.

The East India Company was organized in 1600, which puts it about the same vintage as the Charter of the Virginia Company of London that founded Jamestown and they shared some corporate officers. Unlike the CVC, the EIC didn’t go bankrupt, collapse, and revert to the Crown within two decades. Part of the reason for this was a vested government interest in cracking open the tea & spice trade routes to India and the islands of the Indonesian Archipelago, prying them away from the Portuguese and Dutch who were already there obliterating the over 3000 year old Indian Ocean & Silk Road trade networks.

{HOLIDAY ASIDE: for timely history related to the colonial war games, nutmeg was so important that the Dutch were willing to cede New Amsterdam to the British in exchange for remainder of the Banda Islands the spice originated on to secure a nutmeg monopoly in the Treaty of Breda, concluding the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Really, this was everyone admitting the truth on the ground as each colonial power had effectively kicked the other out of these territories. Go enjoy some egg nog or a coquito.}

1600-1601 8 Testern reverse (image courtesy of NGCcoin.com)

Of course, this calls for a new coin. In January 1601, a large silver coin, larger than anything that circulated in England was commissioned called the 8 testern, AKA the Portcullis coins because of the motif on the reverse. What is a testern? Theoretically, one testern was a sixpence, the two testern would’ve been a shilling, which meant the 8 testern was 4 shillings…WHICH EQUATED TO NO OTHER COIN. Five shillings is a half crown, not four. The broken denomination pattern is infuriating but expecting reasonable behavior out of the British government is rank foolishness. Speaking of foolishness, here is a link to a modern reissue of the testern from the extremely tasteless modern luxury brand incarnation of the EIC. Seriously, of all the brands to resurrect I’m having a hard time thinking of one more blood soaked and odius, except maybe the British African Company or the International Association of the Congo.

But why? Remember those Spanish 8 reales coins the Americans are using to the annoyance of their colonial overlords? Well, they’re over here in India too and they’re the standard for silver exchange. The 8 testern was minted with a weight and purity to be comparable with the 8 reales, except with the QE1 on it to make it good and respectable money. To the disappointment of the EIC, the merchants of Bombay & Calcutta gave precisely zero shits about the royal seal on the coin, they just wanted the silver for weight and pointed out, like a patronizing parent, “You guys do know that we do most of our commerce in gold, right? India is fabulously wealthy and you came with Poor People Money.” But it was good enough to establish trading post footholds and the return trips to England with goods made sure the EIC never had to worry about having gold to trade again.

And so, of all the British colonies, for cultural requirements and the sheer amount of gold washing around, they were the first to get gold coins locally minted. I can’t say it was with the blessing of the Crown, but rather as an act of expediency by the EIC to mint it locally in each of the presidencies (independently operated regions that franchisees of the EIC had bought or shot their way into control of). This was for their own needs, meaning there were a lot of mints and thus a lot of different coin patterns and denominations. The ulterior motive of transforming foreign coins into good and proper ones factored into it but, as the EIC was in it for the profit, they worked with locally familiar denominations to facilitate trade. Familiar coins like the rupee are there, but also the anna, mohur, fanam, pagoda, and strange to anglophone ears, the cash. I tried to build a conversion chart from these to the £/s/d system and my brain just gave up. As a physicist, unit conversion is supposed to be a bedrock skill and I just can’t do it. I am ashamed.

Once the reorganization happened in 1858 for direct rule by the Crown, one uniform monetary system was established for the Raj, with the gold rupee at the top of it. Please note, at no point was it questioned that gold coinage would be used and minted in country under either the EIC or the Raj.

The Great White North: The Canadas

At about the same time Britain was trying to kick the Dutch and Portuguese out of India for spices, they were doing about the same to the French in North America to wrestle the fur trade and fishing rights away. Canada, as we know it today, didn’t exist until 1949 when Newfoundland and Labrador finally joined the confederation and, as a whole, Canada didn’t get full sovereignty until 1982. Speaking as a frustrated geologist, dominions and provinces slowly accreted onto The Canadas until it looks like it does today, kinda like the geology that assembled the land itself. The big difference is that the North American craton doesn’t speak French, unlike the people on top of it who very much shaped the colonial experience. Imagine if the 13 American colonies were regularly invading & murdering each other, mostly using local Native American tribes as proxies, rather than somewhat ignoring each other and instead spending their time murdering their local tribes. That’s the difference between Canada and America.

The French had a somewhat enlightened point of view toward money in all their colonies. As the first settlers in the region, with their network of farmers & voyageurs canoeing hither and yon, the deal went like this: bring us furs, and we will pay you in the same currency we use at home. Of course, sous from La France weren’t terribly helpful out in the beaver ravaged lands of the Quebecois frontier, so the trappers preferred to take trade in kind and, of course, blow their cash in the big city of Montreal (pop. ~1000). The local tribes that the French had established good relations with didn’t particularly care about coins either, preferring to receive good steel, gunpowder and muskets instead.

1842 Bank of Montreal Token Obverse, image courtesy of numista.com
1842 Bank of Montreal Token Reverse, image courtesy of numista.com

But to fast forward a bit through a lot of killing, Canada had a monetary & economy problem much like colonial America did. Like many countries before them and after, the answer was to make proxy currency. The various merchants and banks started making tokens that were effectively business cards, but also because the metal and size were right, would get used as pennies. Keeping in mind that Canada wasn’t quite Canada until at least the early 20th Century, the colonies/provinces were each figuring out their own proxy money to maintain internal economy while they were separated from the larger confederation. But, really, when you get down to it, it all comes to the Hudson Bay Company being happy to maintain debt ledger tables in the background of what looks like a pure barter system. They were the broker of good faith that let the fur to blankets and trinkets trade happen as if money was unnecessary. Of all the original Crown chartered colonial companies from the 17th century, the Hudson Bay Company is still kicking around and you may not be remotely surprised about how much they still own in the 21st century.

Once the Acts of Confederation went through and the Dominion of the Canada was established, they got their own currency and they decided to go with a decimalized system like the United States. As I mentioned in the previous post, they were already used to thalers, so dollars made sense. What Canada DID NOT get was permission to mint gold. For reasons I haven’t quite found the answer to, Newfoundland, who didn’t join the confederation, was permitted to have $2 gold coins during Queen Victoria’s reign. The $2 coin also was struck with a value of “200 cents/100 pence” as an early attempt at bridging the conversion to from the £/s/d system to decimalized in one coin.

And then the Klondike Gold Rush happened.

It was felt that processing the proceeds of the Canadian side of the Klondike Gold Rush into local currency might imbalance the Dominion/Home Country power relationship. Having already lost one major colony on the North American continent over issues of money and taxation, they weren’t up for a second. Canada didn’t get permission mint gold coins of their own until 1912 out of paranoia, despite all the gold coming out of the Klondike. But after two years brief years of making the $5 gold coin, Canada had to quit in minting it in 1914 because all that gold was needed to pay for war preparations as World War I broke out. Vimy Ridge wasn’t gonna pay for itself and mere blood wasn’t going to be enough to cover the tab. Much like Gallipoli taught Australia and New Zealand they weren’t just “British but far away”, Vimy taught that to Canada.

Captain Bligh’s Bounty: Australia & New Zealand

Okay, once again, we’re over 1500 words in and I haven’t had a poop joke yet. So let’s jump directly into DUMP COINS. HURHURHUR, dump.

Australia had a bad case of being very far away from Ol’ Blighty, which means the logistics of getting the money all the way there was hard. Considering that Australia was a series of penal colonies, how much effort do think they were willing to expend? Right, zero, go find some rancid whale blubber to chew on, transportee. Of course, even in Australia, an economy did develop, even if it was sheep and blue gum based at first and the sheep isn’t the best medium of exchange (NOTE: the traditional Irish denominations of sheep/cow/wife based currency will disagree with me here).  So, the lazy answer was to go grab the nearest convenient money and re-mint it into proper British coin. Now, would you like to melt down and restrike these coins? Goodness no! Did you forget we’re colonial strivers from Mother England (AKA the Sterling), being lazy out in the colonies “running the place” lest the native born prisoners’ children think they’re in charge?

1813 5 shilling “Holey Dollar”, image courtesy numista.com
1813 15 pence DUMP COIN, image courtesy numista.com

No, the answer was to take an 8 reales coin, punch the center out of it (AKA “the dump”) to strike a new coin out of that, value of 1 shilling and threepence, and do that again to the remaining ring as well (AKA “the Holey Dollar”) with a value of 5 shillings. Because why make things easy? I should note that this creative answer, which Governor Macquarie authorized, was carried out by a convict who had been transported for the crime of forgery. Australia similarly used merchant tokens as proxy currency in the absence of the real stuff. I’m to understand that one mid-19th century Tasmanian draper’s token circulated as a penny well into the 20th. That’s effectively deciding that your dry cleaning claim ticket is good enough to function as money.

1894 Half Sovereign, Melbourne mint, I got this with casino winnings in Auckland, along with a complete set of pre-decimalization NZ coins. All of them. I got really lucky that day.

A bit later, there were several gold rushes which made Australia even more worthwhile to Mother England, except the same very, very far away problem reared it’s head again. It was decided that the prudent course of action was to mint all this bullion into sovereigns before shipping it to the other side of the globe. If you were going to engage in piracy to steal this gold, you were going to have to exert effort to change it into your own coinage. Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney all got to have mints to handle the flux of gold, but little of it actually stayed in Australia.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, they had the structural benefit of not being settled by convicts, but they were even less convenient than Australia. They got the full suite of non-gold British coinage minted for them, just not often. To the New Zealanders reading this, please don’t take this as an insult, but your country is a cultural backwater, much like Alaska and New Hampshire (NH is a goddamn numismatic oddity, I tell you what). As this is a hydrological metaphor, what it means is that things brought to New Zealand somehow don’t leave. Coins that circulated throughout the British Empire just kinda…stopped…when they got to New Zealand and after that only circulated within the islands. What gold coins New Zealand received were all minted in Australia.

Then New Zealand had a gold rush of their own on the South Island. And so, the mint Dunedin was set up to make the largest gold coin the world has ever seen, the Golden Moa, and… sorry, no, I’m lying. Because the Crown had already solved the remote gold rush problem with mints in Australia, all of New Zealand’s gold was shipped to Australia for minting. Australia already had enough sheep, so New Zealand got to keep those.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER COLONIES, PHIL?

Frankly, these were the ones that merited special treatment. Hong Kong was odd in that it had dollars rather than the normal British system or a hybrid with the local traditional coinage. They tried a hybrid for one year before selling the entire mint to the Japanese as their coins didn’t impress the Chinese merchants in Shanghai at all. Shanghai was already used to the 8 reales, they were already minting dollars for Canada, so why not do it for Hong Kong too?

South Africa, for the early years, didn’t get any special coins of their own because they were on the way back and forth to India and Australia. The challenge for Cape Town was exchanging back and forth between all the different, but equally valid, coins of the British Empire washing through their port. For the west and east African colonies, the authorities followed the British currency model pretty strictly, with the exception of the guinea entering circulation from the British African Company (BAC) which had taken control of the gold fields of Ghana. The location of the former BAC headquarters in London is what gives the Elephant & Castle underground station it’s name, as the corporate heraldry (and the early guinea coins) featured an elephant and castle.

The Caribbean, as the sugar part of the triangular trade, never had much call to develop an independent economy that deserved its own coinage independent of Britain’s. “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” as the song goes, not much room for coins in that.

Money Rant: Colonies, Coinage, and Gold

In my continuing efforts to share my odd view of American history through the medium of our money, it’s time to talk colonies and gold. Since the Lydians first introduced the concept of coinage to the world ~3000 years ago and the first larger nation-states organized, there has been bickering about who is allowed to have which coins and made of what.

Until quite recently, the logistical systems to keep money well distributed throughout a realm were difficult and this regularly lead to money shortages, particularly at the periphery. This is extra bad for the periphery because you have troops there defending the frontier and, if you don’t pay them, pretty soon your frontier isn’t where you left it. When you add long overland or ocean journeys to these frontier locations it gets even worse and you start to wonder how it was, exactly, that any imperial/colonial power ever actually functioned.

The solution was to create local mints that could strike coins to pay the local troops and, more importantly, transform filthy foreign currency and freshly mined bullion to good, wholesome “real” currency with the correct ruler’s head on it. This was a calculated risk. Sending bullion out to local officials and giving them the power to mint coinage more or less invited secession and civil war (all you have to do is change the dies and now it’s your face on the coins and BAM! Instant Legitimacy). If you now have you own treasury, what makes you financially beholden to the Crown? The answer is simple: the Crown has waaaaaay more money than you and can buy your rebellion out several times over. Why does the crown have so much more you ask? The answer to that is also is relatively simple: you were only given brass & copper to work with for your coinage, maybe silver if you were important. The Crown’s treasury and mint was the only one that got to strike gold.

As you move forward through time, the perennial complaint from the colonies is that they send their gold to the capitol but only silver comes back. Then the next complaint is that what silver they get vanishes quickly into other people’s hands. The colony is underpaid for the raw materials being extracted and finished goods from the home country are overpriced. The solution is to make your own finished goods right? AHAHAHAHAHAH, that’s illegal, you colonial scum. The point of a colony is to enrich the the charter owners back home, not the colonists. Jeez. C’mon. Get with the program.

I want to focus this primarily to Britain’s colonial children, particularly America, but thematically the behavior of other colonial/imperial powers regarding their subordinate regions has been quite similar over the millennia. In the British context, the thing that dictated what colonies could and could not do was called the Royal Prerogative. In an abbreviated and not terribly legalistic sense, the Royal Prerogative was the collection of powers directly vested in the monarch, not in Parliament, and certainly not any of the local colonial assemblies. To this day, if you have QE2’s face on your coins, you are still subject to some residual bits of the Royal Prerogative, as exercised by the Governor-General with the tacit approval of HM Gov’t. And as coins are why I am writing, here’s the topics where the Royal Prerogative held longest and/or still hold:

  1. Monopoly on Force & Diplomacy – you don’t get to independently declare war & peace and you don’t get to organize armed forces without the Crown’s say so. If you have more than one army without a single, unitary command, you very soon have a civil war between rival generals. SEE ALSO: most all of history, particularly Rome, Persia, and China.
  2. Citizenship/Immigration – only the Crown gets to say who is a subject of the Crown. NOTE: this can get ugly and racist very fast.
  3. Currency – The only money that counts is what has been issued by the Crown. We’ll let you know if we feel like setting up a local Royal Mint in your colony, but that’s for our convenience, not yours.

What you get to mint and where it’s minted is where the story gets fun and starts running face first into the comedy of errors we like to call History. If you don’t already have some familiarity with the predecimalization system of British coinage, here is a handy reference guide. But I’ll warn you, that’s only a starting point for the headscratching multitude of money choices that Britain made for her many colonies.

Britain’s Largest Failed Colony: America

Well, that’s a bit wrong, it wasn’t just one colony and there were more than thirteen. Colonial “America” is better regarded as a collection of failed commercial enterprises that the Crown took over directly, the descendants of some religious nutbars & emigres from the English Civil War who had a relationship with the Crown best described as “tense and complicated”, and Stuff Stolen From The French/Dutch. In the early days of the British colonization of America, only Virginia was a Crown Colony directly ruled by the king, hence its nickname “Old Dominion”. New England was made up of royal charter colonies where a contract had been written up with the Crown to dictate how the place would be ruled somewhat autonomously in the Crown’s name (no one loves arguing a good charter/contract law more than a Puritan). Then there were the proprietary colonies (Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York) which had been granted to loyal courtiers as fiefs to develop as they pleased with absolute power over them. Lastly, were the colonies that were corporate concerns (Georgia and the Carolinas) which were established by companies paying a royalty to the Crown for the pleasure of extracting whatever they could. NOTE: at this point in history, what we now consider Canada was also “America”. Early British Canadian colonial history and organization ran similarly to Virginia’s as Crown Colonies, but with a whole lot more fighting with the French. I’ll get back to The Canadas in the next post.

Stunningly High Quality “1652” Massachusetts Pine Tree Coin, which may have been minted any time bewtween 1667 to 1682. Don’t ask, its a very complicated story. – Photo by Phil Arnold/PCGS.com

Prior to the revolution, America functioned on an incredibly limited amount of coinage provided from the home country and on rare occasions they were allowed to mint their own coins locally like the Pine Tree Coin. Instead they had paper Colonial Currencies that were despised as being not quite worth the paper they were printed on and, doubly annoying, not easily transferable between colonies. This is one reason why the Interstate Commerce Clause is in the US Constitution: to make sure silly tariffs and trade barriers, much less independent currencies, didn’t pop up between states. For coinage, most all of it was copper in the farthing to penny range with the occasional silver threepence, sixpence, or LIVING LARGE big shilling-style. They were also explicitly forbidden to mint gold, which was an easy enough order to follow because there hadn’t been a gold strike in the colonies yet (America’s first gold rush in the Carolinas wouldn’t happen until after independence). English merchants weren’t even supposed to even bring gold coins to America.

The good news for the colonies is they didn’t particularly need to mint higher denomination silver because their world had been awash with very pure silver coins for almost 200 years at this point in the form of the Spanish 8 reales, AKA thalers. It was, unfortunately, very Spanish and the British hated that, considering trade from the colonies was supposed to be exclusively with British merchants. Technically, you weren’t supposed to use them. If you ever wondered why America and Canada have dollars rather than pounds, it’s because they were so used to the term: dollar is an English corruption of the German word thaler. But the importance of the 8 reales coin to American and world history is a topic for another time.

With no one in the colonies allowed to mint anything of higher denomination than a shilling, it is damn hard to run an internal economy. Consider trying to go buy a new car with small change; this is about the same problem of trying to commission a vessel to then ship anything within the colonies. For the most part, all the colonies worked on local credit systems and borrowed the term “wampum” from the New England tribes to describe debt-signifying goods and notes, which suffered bad inflationary problems and frequent devaluation. I highly recommend reading Graeber’s “DEBT: the First 5000 Years” to explain how debt exchange systems are the basis of economies and currency, not barter. Barter is what the Britain wanted the colonies to function on, with the mother country as the only acceptable trading partner for finished goods.

Stunningly High Quality Silver Continental Currency – Photo by Phil Arnold/PCGS.com

So, before 1775, the coins in America may be described as old, badly worn, low denomination, often foreign and, largely, counterfeit. Counterfeiting is a problem but, well, when you’re short of coins in the first place, you work with what you’ve got. When your colonial masters are squeezing you for more taxes (because war with the French is expensive even when you keep winning), but you don’t have any legitimate money to pay it, they flatly refuse to let you mint more locally, you have no representation in the Parliament to try to change their mind, and then Parliament decides colonial tea merchants still need to pay import duties but the East India Company awash in gold does not, what do think happens? This would also be why more or less the first order of business for the Continental Congress, right after slapping together the Continental Army (violating Royal Prerogative 1), was to work on making a Continental Currency (violating Royal Prerogative 3). One of the other things that Paul Revere did, as a silversmith, was volunteer bullion and his skills as an engraver to the Continental Congress to start minting coinage.

Please note that the Continental Currency didn’t actually have a denomination, it was just called The Continental. There weren’t many of the coin versions made because Congress was perennially short of bullion, so they printed paper Continentals to pay for the army. The only thing backing the paper Continental was the good faith and promises to freely exchange them for coins, as soon as we had some, which meant the value of the Continental was very much tied to the success of armies in the field and that was pretty poor for most of the Revolutionary War. Accordingly, the term “as worthless as a Continental” was thrown around, but for entirely different reasons, by both Tories and Patriots. Also, because I’ve gone nearly 2000 words without a poop joke, Continental was also slang for toilet paper. The American grumble* about fiat currency vs. bullion based is older than the country itself. 

But what about the other British colonies? Did they get screwed with as badly as the backwater of America? What did America do when it had colonies of its own? FIND OUT NEXT TIME ON PHIL’S MONEY RANTS!


* there is no internet helldive deeper into the truly disgusting depths of the American psyche than Precious Metals social media and forums. There isn’t enough whiskey in the world for me to take the Journey to the Goldbug’s Lair again and it has some worrying overlaps with the cryptocurrency communities. When you see XAU to BTC price quotes at the top of a website, run. Don’t look back. Never look back. Just run.

The Last Minute, 2017 Edition

Apologies if you came here looking for some information on the blog side of the house here at Funranium Labs this week; there was a bit of a server crisis and had to spend a while reconstructing things. Still putting some older stuff back together, but I’ve got most of my bullshitting back up again. Double apologies for those that have been anxiously awaiting the upcoming money rant (all three of you) because the crash seems to have eaten the draft.

But on to the information, you actually want…

The number of remaining Steins of Science dwindles away quickly. Still, don’t have a good replacement supplier to keep prices down for the future, so enjoy the “low” prices while they last.

All the order slots for the BBotE production window that closes on the 16th are gone. I’ve opened a short BBotE production window which ends on December 23rd and will crank out as much as I possibly can as fast as I can next week to get things to people in time for Christmas but we’re now at the whim of the United States Postal Service. That said, if you place your order on the 21st you better order express mail if you expect to see it before the 25th. For international orders, you’re probably out of luck at this point to get it in time for Christmas unless you’re lucky enough to live in Perth or Melbourne in Australia as the BBotE Ambassadors there have been recently resupplied.

Worse come to worse, you can always give a gift certificate to folks and let them order the BBotE they’d like. You’ve got options. (I apologize in advance for the different themes, haven’t quite figured out how to change those in the module. I’m working on that.)

HINT HINT HINT
When you are insane with genius, time management skills are the first thing to go. (Dr. Dinosaur courtesy of Scott Wegener & Brian Clevinger)

 

After Xmas, the next normal two-week production window will run until January 6th before I head to the Consumer Electronics Show for ridiculousness in Las Vegas. I look forward to mixing many fine cocktails, learning the dumbest new tech for 2018, and yelling at people for illegal lasers & physically impossible snake oil “prototypes”.

The Decembering 2017 Update

Okay, the BBotE pre-order slots for the window ending December 2nd are now up and it’s time to roll out the PROTIPS for holiday shopping. As a bonus, not only is it that time again but I have excellent news for you: Ipsento Panama Natural is back in the line up and you should see it as a selection in all the BBotE listings on the store! Enjoy all that blueberry light roast goodness. To the people that are very proactive and organized in their holiday shopping, 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 now (which is what most people want).

It was only -38F that day. It's a dry cold.
My Ceremonial South Pole Hero Shot & Xmas Card 2002

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 doom that may or may not happen since no one has given me control of the Illuminati Weather Satellite Network, but a week is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination. I will put another pre-order window up after the 16th, but I make absolutely no guarantees about shipments in that window arriving before Xmas. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Yes, I will probably add a extra more slots as I get a handle on how much I can make at the last minute but shipping gets dicey in those last days before Christmas.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 shipment 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 #6.
  9. Steins of Science Have Lead Time Too: The steins are built to order and it sometimes takes a while to get parts in.  Generally, things move much faster and ship within a week but you have now been warned of the possibility of delays.  For some insight into which stein is the best fit for you, I rambled on that a while back. Dewars that are on hand for me to build steins with RIGHT NOW can be found here.
  10. 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.
  11. There’s 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 who’d probably be willing to bless BBotE, that’s still not helpful. Sorry.
  12. REALLY, I’m not kidding and never have been, the 4300mL Stein of Science is Ridiculously Large: Seriously, BIG.  It will should take an entire pre-game, Super Bowl, and the post-game wrap up to go through this much beer.  Or maybe one cricket match. You may think you are a super drankin’ badass, but consider that you may want to drink more often than once a year, so think about a smaller size. Far be it from me to dissuade you from giving me money, but I’m just saying, dude, it’s big. I don’t actually keep any of these on hand, so if you really want one of these order early so I can get it in process.

For those of you who read this far, I congratulate you. In the near future, I hope to get another Money Rant to discuss gold up.

Production & Extra Life Announcements

As the denizens of this blog know, Dia de los Muertos is my birthday and, in my family, one’s birthday is a high holy day. It is to be honored and you should enjoy the hell out of that day. While I will be going to visit some of the graves of members of the Donner family of Donner Party cannibalism fame on the actual day, I will be deferring a lot of that fun until the weekend and the following week.

Thomas & Phil, displaying typical behavior, at Flying Frog Production’s DICEFEST.
Some of the nice friends we’ll meet in the mines of Shadows of Brimstone!

This Saturday, I will be joining Test Subject Not-A-Whale Biologist (AKA Thomas White), Test Subject THE WORLD, my Lovely Assistant and Cap’n Seafood Watch for a 24 marathon of my favorite board game, Shadows of Brimstone. Much like when joined in the fun for the Tested.com Oktobercast, I will be joining in for a supporting role for Thomas’s ExtraLife campaign supporting Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital. We will be playing this wonderful day of Cowboys & Cthulhus all day with the a whole lot of BBotE and impromptu dance parties to keep us going. Please join us for being very, very silly and help some sick kids because that’s what I want to do with my birthday. 

Speaking of BBotE, the next production window will open up on Saturday but it will be somewhat short stocked as I have some travel scheduled around Veteran’s Day for a long weekend to Baltimore. I’ll ship out as much as I can before I leave next week and fire up the coffee engines again on my return, but obviously none can go out when I’m not in town. Every time I visit DC, I usually remember all the museums near Baltimore that I’ve failed to visit yet again so we’re fixing that this time. I’m pretty excited to make My Lovely Assistant as tired of 12 Monkeys references in Baltimore as she was of Fallout 3 in Washington, DC.

There’s another Idiot’s Holiday coming up too. I, apparently, didn’t learn my lesson from last year’s adventure.

Lastly, THE DECEMBERING will soon be at hand again. If you’re planning your holidays that far out, I kinda envy your preparedness, but start thinking.

 

The Tale of the Schrempeltraps

Once upon a time, I worked at a company where the lead scientist/CTO for one of the divisions had some compulsive behaviors. He was a German PhD electrical engineer of the small, wizened tinker gnome persuasion. Whatever Grimm’s fairy tale mental picture you have of a watch/clockmaker is pretty much spot on, though put him in some North Face gear and wearing Birkenstocks. His name was Schrempel and this is the cautionary Tale of the Schrempeltraps.

Before he had come to work at my company, he’d been a scientist at CERN and before that at the Max Planck Institute. While Schrempel was a brilliant, wonderfully funny and charming guy, he was absolutely loathed in the laboratory because he was an inveterate button pusher, switch flipper, knob turner and lever puller. More than a few times he had caused experiments to be rebuilt or rerun because he couldn’t resist reaching out to flip a switch on a console. His students took to covering their benches and equipment racks with shrouds and putting up signs that said “DO NOT TOUCH. ESPECIALLY YOU SCHREMPEL. GO AWAY.” in each of the languages he spoke to make sure he got the point.

It never worked. He couldn’t resist.

After weighing the options of killing him vs. giving up on ever completing a project, one of the other scientists suggested that behavioral modification might work on Schrempel. That perhaps, like B.F. Skinner’s experiments, Schrempel could be conditioned to not touch shit. So, they came up with a plan: they would add a bunch of extra buttons and toggles to their equipment consoles that weren’t connected to anything on the bench, but were connected to a low voltage power supply. The hope was that if Schrempel got shocked enough times he would learn and would stop touching things. Basically, they wanted to do this:


Sadly, that didn’t work either.

They then hoped that perhaps shame would work, but it had to be a very particular shame. External shame from angry co-workers hadn’t worked. No, it need to be his own shame, disappointment in himself. After brainstorming how to do this, a student came up with a simple low cost solution. They took a Stanley tape measure, pulled it out 30cm, set the lock on it, placed it on a table in the break room with the end of the tape at the table edge and the body of it in the center of the table. They then took a screwdriver and removed the stay from the end of the tape. They placed the stay, the small screws, and screwdriver next along side the tape in perfectly clear view. They then put a large sign suspended from the ceiling above it that said “SCHREMPELTRAP” on it.

They then walked away and waited for Schrempel to find it. He walked into the break room, saw the tape measure on the table, picked it up, immediately released the lock and the tape retracted all the way into the body of the tape measure as there was no stay. He blinked a few times, looked at the tape measure in his hand, read the sign, looked at the tape measure again, looked at the screwdriver and parts, looked at the sign again and gave a deep sigh. He then sat down with the screwdriver to open the tapemeasure up to fix it by reattaching the stay.

That is what got him. That got him to stop and think before touching things.

Puerto Rican BBotE Update

I just wanted to take a moment to field a question I’ve gotten from a few folks about the BBotE I do made with beans from Puerto Rico. So the quick blurbs are:

GOOD NEWS: I laid in a decent supply of the beans from my roaster of choice in Puerto Rico so I have a supply to work with for a while yet. Order away.

BAD NEWS: As the astute observer might have noticed, Puerto Rico is a bit fucked up right now. That’s a technical term from the emergency response community. There’s some priorities to get up and running again, like basic utilities, to make it a functioning 21st century territory once more. “Processing coffee” is quite a long way down the disaster recovery list.

Per my folks there, they actually were able to get most of the coffee crop in before Irma & Maria tore through the place. They were running a bit early, so it isn’t as a large a crop as one might hope, but some is better than none. Despite being fairly close to San Juan, the roastery & warehouses survived so that’s good news too. In the near term, what is utterly fucked is the transportation network to get anything off the island. At the moment, the San Juan Airport’s USPS terminal isn’t running at all, with the expectation to open again for mail flights to the mainland next week. Again, an astute observer may have noticed that modern international airports need electricity to run. Especially, their radar systems.

What I am a little worried about is that the lack of power may wipe out unroasted beans in the warehouse that isn’t climate controlled anymore. For the longer term, the real question is how much damage did the hurricanes due to coffee farms themselves. That’ll take a little longer to answer, but it looks like the windward ridges of Yunque National Forest may have taken the brunt, rather than the leeward coffee farms. We’ll have to see.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO YOU, THE BBOTE CUSTOMER: Hopefully, you won’t see any interruption in Puerto Rico Yaucono BBotE availability on my website. If I run out, I run out and it will stop being a selection you can make for a bit. I placed a respectably sized order with my folks down there with the note “I don’t expect to see this any time soon. Take care of what you need to.” When more shows up to me, it will be a joyous day.

Flag of Puerto Rico –
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=433147

As a personal note, if you’re thinking of grabbing a bottle of BBotE, take a moment and find a hurricane relief charity to give that money to instead. While I do like money, I’ll still be here and know how to make BBotE next month. Our fellow citizens (if you’re an American that is) in Puerto Rico need that help right now. Between Molly Crabapple, Test Subject Nimby, and everyone that insisted on trying their “official and only real/correct family coquito” recipe on this Floridian kid, I have a real soft spot for Puerto Rico. Thank you.

Laser Products I Hate

I’m going to ask you all to bear with me here. I tried to find a way to divide this into a couple of posts but, well, it’s so intertwined and problematic that I couldn’t figure out a way to do it. This is gonna be a long one, but I hope educational.

TL;DR version: Don’t waste your money on Cubiio. You’re never going to see it. If you somehow get it, you’ll be breaking the law by using it.

Let’s start here by discussing my day job. While you might think that the production of ultracoffee would afford me zillions, health benefits and a life of luxury most people couldn’t even dream of, that isn’t the case. I am a radiation safety professional, AKA health physicist, who is tasked with wrangling the radiation producing machines (x-ray units, electron microscopes, particle accelerators, etc.), maintaining all the radiation detection instrumentation (Geiger counters and such) and, unofficially, The Weird Shit (when you open up a closet that’s been nailed shut for four decades for some reason and there’s an unmarked box that sets off the Geiger counter, you call Phil). But due to long familiarity with the field and experience building high powered industrial/scientific lasers, I am also the deputy laser safety officer for the campus. The day before I flew off to South Pole Station, I sat for the Certified Laser Safety Officer exam and was issued certificate G006. Certificates G001-005 went to the members of the certification board. So, yeah, I’m not just RADIATION DUDE, as is often yelled at me from the facilities & trades trucks driving by, but I am also LASER DUDE.

Phil has standard eye protection from the harsh glare from Ra’s Eye Above.
Moderate Eye Protection: Ready for sunny outdoor chemistry
MAXIMUM EYE PROTECTION PHIL!!!111!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What this means is that everyone’s very prone to seeing things online and thinking “This $RADIATION_OR_LASER_ PRODUCT looks fascinating-bad. I bet Phil would lose his goddamn mind in an entertaining way if I sent it to him.” This has gotten much, much worse in the age of crowdfunding. I have a few dozen bookmarked websites and campaigns that are ALWAYS OPEN at work to look at, just in case I need to replenish the rage that keeps me alive. My Lovely Assistant, because she was clearly worried about my blood pressure getting too low, sent me this gem on Wednesday, which set me off on a goddamn quest. I am going to use this project as an object lesson for several different things that bother me. I’m not even going to comment on how good or bad this thing is at engraving/cutting things because it’ll very likely never legally see the light of day in America or Europe. Let’s start with the operating characteristics of this laser, as best as I have been able to pull together for this system from the project page:

  • Operating Wavelength: 450nm (blue laser, insert Homestar Runner jokes here)
  • Operating Power: 500mW open air, 800mW in enclosure
  • Operating Mode: unclear, appears to be a continuous wave rather than pulsed
  • Laser Type: diode based solid state (likely an OSRAM 1.6W blue diode, with the power dialed down so as to not destroy their steering optics)
  • Emissions Indicator: Not really, but the on button lights up when pressed so that’s cool.
  • Aperture Labeling: No
  • Shutter: No
  • Interlock: None apparent. Really, other than password control for the app (pfft), doesn’t look like there’s interlocks of any kind, much less fail safe ones.
  • Control Software Integrity: unclear, but based on my experience with other “Agile Development” projects, pfffftHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
  • CDRH Labeling: No, but then that would assume the FDA’s Center for Device and Radiologic Health had already approved it. We’ll get back to that later.
  • UL/CE Marked: unclear, but looks like no. If you make it through Underwriters’ Lab testing, you toot that horn.

Before delving too deep into the problems of this product, lets take a moment to review the laser classifications and how they relate to the hazards they present. For laser safety classification, we have a slightly complicated system that runs like this:

  • Class 1: no accessible laser hazard during normal operation. There may be powerful lasers embedded in there but you can’t get at them. (e.g. laser printer)
  • Class 2/2M: not a viewing hazard under normal conditions, less than 1mW average power, usually with highly divergent or rapidly scanning beams such that the blink reflex saves you. Just…don’t stop the scanning head or add focusing optics, okay? (e.g. bluray player, supermarket checkout)
  • Class 3R: less than 5mW average power, visible wavelengths only, safe under normal normal viewing conditions without magnification (e.g. your typical red laser pointer)
  • Class 3B: 5mw-500mW average power, direct/reflected beam presents both an eye and fire hazard, diffuse reflections of the beam are theoretically safe but the higher the power the less okay it gets. (e.g. your bullshit illegally imported green laser pointer you bought online, most laboratory lasers for analysis of delicate molecules)
  • Class 4: >500mW average power, direct beam and diffuse reflections presents an eye, skin, and fire hazard. We’re talking blinding, burns, and fire alarms if used improperly. (e.g. any cutting laser, most laser light show systems, the Death Star, your EXTREMELY BULLSHIT “laser pointer” you bought online)

NOTEIf you have a Wicked Lasers product anywhere that I have authority and you don’t have a very convincing research purpose for having it, I will confiscate & destroy it promptly. They aren’t worth the trouble, their QA is terrible, and are nothing better than Geneva Convention blinding weapons. Yes, I know they look like lightsabers from Star Wars; they did this on purpose which is why Lucasfilms sued them. REGARDLESS, THEY ARE STILL ILLEGAL TO IMPORT AND USE IN AMERICA.

So this system would qualify, at a minimum, as a Class 3B visible wavelength laser which means it presents a retinal injury hazard, probably even with its scattered beams. Assuming the optional enclosure is worth a crap with interlocks that actually prevent the laser from turning on until it’s closed, it could then be a Class 1 with an embedded Class 4 system. There is a reason why all the laser cutters/engravers other than Cubiio are inside of enclosures, because you get the benefit of not needing protective eyewear or needing to restrict access to the entire work area to use it; the laser hazard is completely contained within the enclosure. Of course, the laser hazard isn’t the only problem because whatever you’re engraving with this laser is going to turn into a fine nanoscale particulates. Do that to a pancake and you make pancake smells; do that to a phenolic resin integrated circuit board and you get much more fascinating airborne particulates. The acronym for these are LGAC, Laser Generated Airborne Contaminants, which can go straight through most HEPA filters because they’re so small. The zeolite & activated charcoal indicated in their enclosure design are great for airborne organic volatile chemicals…for a few weeks at best the activated charcoal is useless after from exposure to air and they’re more or less useless against particulates this small. But at that point we’re talking industrial chemical safety and airborne release considerations, not laser safety.

Let’s be clear, my main objection to this entire project is the “open air use in public” aspect. Pretty much everything else can be fixed except, if you watch their video, this is their goddamn selling point. In the open air use, you are just asking to scatter that beam off of something and lase a bystander in your vicinity. Do that outside, lase toward the sky and hit a plane? You just made friends with the FAA and a terrorism charge which carries a $500k fine and federal prison time. When you do public use of a Class 3B or 4 laser you’re required to submit to the FDA-CDRH, in some detail, exactly how you’re going to set up and prevent people from getting burned by your operation. Assuming you’re approved, you are granted what is called a variance (as in, what you’re doing varies from the enclosed and safe operations CDRH really approves of) to use your laser as described. Laser light show operators may get general variances that let them do their operations in a variety of different venues, but still answering the same question “How are you going to keep the general public from hurting themselves with these?” Please note that all this work is on you, the laser operator, to do go through the CDRH variance process, not the laser manufacturer. 

(If you’re doing laser fun that involves shooting up into the sky, you have to give times, directions and power to the FAA so they can divert air traffic as needed. They will never say “OKAY, SUPER, SHOOT THAT BAD DOG ON UP HERE!” Instead, the FAA sends letters of non-objection to let you do your laser light show, which is as positive as they’re ever gonna get. I don’t know about you, but this might explain why you don’t see lasers at concerts so much anymore.)

The missing interlocks, labeling and indicators I can chalk up to a bad case of modernist Apple Design Disease, where if your product doesn’t look like it might be made by Apple then you clearly have too many “things” on it. You fix that by realizing you aren’t making an iPhone; this is a high powered laser…which you can control with an iPhone. Actually, that’s a problem too. Generally, we in the safety and industrial design gig aren’t big fans of hazardous equipment that you can operate remotely. We like it when you have to be there with direct line-of-sight when you’re operating equipment with high powered lasers, swinging robot arms, etc. to prevent you from turning on the band saw remotely from the toilet and causing a surprise amputation for a coworker. OSHA takes a very dim view of this. Contrast this with the bluetooth enabled, wireless, Internet-of-Shit, phone as magic wand future our consumer product producers are taking us toward. I’ve gone to Consumer Electronics Show (well, bartended at a safe distance) for the last three years and seen what they’d like to give us. When you start trying to turn industrial tools, like laser cutting units, into consumer products with consumer expectations of what a modern wireless smartProduct should be like, you’re going to have problems. OtherMachine did well at this; this project not so much.

Makers vs. Manufacturers

I have some misgivings about maker culture despite, well, being one. I’ve lost count of the number of times someone brings me a neat concept where I rain on their parade by pointing out that their new innovative features and convenient operation are really just removing all the safety controls that a properly designed consumer product should have. The key words here are “consumer product”. If you want to tear apart a laser printer to get at the Class 4 laser within to build a novelty laser that will burn funny pictures on your steak, go for it. As a private citizen in the United States, it is your right to tear whatever you own apart and tinker as part of your 1st Amendment freedom of expression. But much like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ saying “The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins”, your right to tinker similarly ends when your laser beam hits someone else or you try to sell your creation. The don’t hurt other people bit is relatively straightforward, so lets go to the part that isn’t: selling laser products.

You may argue that one of the problems is that technology has advanced and that these regulations are antiquated, that they no longer apply to the world as it now is. Since laser diodes first hit the market, laser systems have gotten smaller, cheaper, and more powerful every year. Once upon a time, not very long ago, you could rely on the fact that a 40W laser with good beam quality would be a serious capital investment in the five to six figure range, you were gonna need some serious utilities to plug it into, a chilled water system to keep it all from overheating, which means you’re talking a laser bench and maybe a dedicated room. Now you can buy all that as a single diode module you can hold in your hand for a couple hundred bucks and can run it off of wall power or even just batteries. If you’re creative and not as picky about QA,  you can get it at higher powers, any color you like, for cheaper than that. For a lower power but still potentially blinding laser, like a 1.6W blue laser diode module for example, you can find them as small as a pencil eraser for $12. You can buy them in bulk with a discount if needed.

Makers, when you slap a laser on your project, congratulations, you just became a laser manufacturer. Now if you’ve made this with the expectation that it would be attached to something more complete, you’re a laser Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) instead. GOOD NEWS: the CDRH rules don’t apply to you. For every maker and researcher that has gone apeshit at me for saying the laser diodes are dangerous as hell and that they should be allowed to buy anything because lasers don’t blind people, people do [VIGOROUSLY HUMPS LARGE COLLECTION OF AR15s], well, you win this one. You are allowed to buy and build absolutely anything you want, your research will not be stifled. In the confines of your own home or laboratory, you can do whatever you like with your lasers.

But heaven help you if injure somebody with your uncertified laser.

(This is not me in this video, but I sure have been sent it a lot times. This guy is terrifying.)

OEM products, again like a 1.6W blue laser diode module for example, aren’t supposed to be selling to the consumer market because they aren’t selling finished products. They’re selling parts. What stops you from buying these parts? Nothing, for the internet provides. Is this a problem? Depends, how much FREEDOM!!! you like in your life? The reality for this kind of shit is that it’s always been the Wild West, heading toward Mad Max these days, in terms of regulation. The only thing that used to be a restraint was cost and a limited number of manufacturers that gave the CDRH a chance to keep pace. My laser experiences have made me very aggressive with x-ray devices on the grounds of “OH, I KNOW WHERE THIS LEADS. NO! [shakes squirt bottle]” but no x-ray diodes have appeared yet, but plenty of juuuuust this side of OEM equipment crap has.

I would argue that goal of the regulations, NOT BLINDING EVERYONE AND SETTING THE WORLD AFLAME WITH DEATH RAYS, still stands (this isn’t the official mission statement of the CDRH, but I will suggest it at the next laser safety conference in 2018). You don’t throw up your hands in frustration, close all the agencies, and put your regulatory money into new Subdivisions, rather than mere Houses, For The Blind instead. Fundamentally, all of these regulations and standards exist because, at some point, we hurt someone. We will never get accidents to zero because humans continue to exist and we are nothing if not creative in how we injure and kill ourselves (SEE ALSO: all the Darwin Awards). This doesn’t mean we’re incapable of learning and trying to make it a little bit harder to hurt yourself by accident next time. But the ability to control what makes it to market has gotten much harder as time has marched on.

The Responsible Agency: FDA-CDRH

Unlike the control of radioactive materials, which have a small mountain of regulation regarding their manufacture, transport, possession, use, and disposal to prevent things from going wrong every step of the way, lasers have comparatively little control. You have one agency, the CDRH, who approves the introduction of a finished consumer laser product into commerce in the United States (NOTE: this is very specific wording) and then you have whatever your local flavor of OSHA is to tear you a new one when you blind someone. The regulations and agencies with a finger in the pie regarding lasers may be safely described as “reactive” rather than “preventive”.  In this case, commerce has a very particular definition which may be interpreted as “giving a laser you built to someone else or using it somewhere other than where it was originally built”. This may seem like an odd distinction, but it covers the fact that sometimes we don’t demand money in exchange for a laser and that the hazards of your laser may not be quite the same in one place as another. The reason why this matters is that if you are the person who originally built the laser, you have intimate hands on knowledge of the system you built and, as the creator, you theoretically know what and where the hazards you introduced to the world are and can protect yourself.

If you are going to let anyone else use this laser you have, from a regulatory point of view, you put this laser into commerce and now must comply with all the device performance standards from the CDRH. The very first performance standard requirement in the CDRH Laser Compliance Guide is:

The protective housing must prevent human access to laser radiation in excess of the limits of Class 1 (and collateral radiation in excess of the collateral radiation limits) at all places and times where and when such human access is not necessary in order for the product to accomplish its intended function.

Cubiio seems to fail right off the bat. Human access is, generally, not necessary for a cutter/engraver to perform it’s function. If you were able to convince CDRH that this product must operate without an enclosure, the regulations do allow for variances and exemptions for products from part or all of the Laser Compliance Guide, but it requires the director’s sign off. Good luck with that.

When you submit your product for approval for release into commerce, the CDRH accepts your packet and starts checking it out. In the best case scenario, where you have all your ducks in a row and have built a laser system which actually meets the product performance standards, the time from submission to granting of an accession number is in the year or so range. If there’s questions about your product, that clock can run much longer. After all, once you’re on the market, what happens with your laser is almost completely out of the CDRH’s hands so they want to make sure what they approve is solid. I say almost, because you are required to keep a log of recalls and retrofits you do of your approved product and you are supposed to notify them when an injury happens involving your CDRH approved laser. Hurt enough people and they will yank your accession number, which means you can’t legally sell that product anymore.

You are also required to put all kinds of helpful labels on your laser product, but must importantly the two that say where the laser beam is coming out of (the aperture label) and the hazard class of the laser beam being emitted. Yes, even your laser pointer has this sticker, and it probably says “CAUTION” and “Class 3R or Class IIIa” on it. Even the illegal shit from Wicked Lasers has these labels, since they’re at least pretending at legality. Because of Apple Design Disease, Cubiio lacks those.

Generally, you need to send your product for certification through Underwriters’ Lab too. This doesn’t even touch the getting a CE mark or getting through IEC certification to sell in Europe. CDRH approval is not transferable to other countries, but it’s a good sign you’re gonna make it through their process too…once you do it.

Cubiio claims to be “undergoing the certification process” for both the CDRH and IEC60825-1. Folks, if you didn’t already have this certification in hand when you started this Kickstarter, there is no way in hell this is shipping in November. Also according to their project page, they already have them built. This is a shame, because they cannot legally ship to America or Europe yet, and if any changes are demanded (and I can think of a few) they’ll have to rework them, which also means there is no way in hell this is shipping in November.

WHAT THE FUCK SHOULD WE DO ABOUT THIS?!?

I got nothing. Give me unlimited power and funding and we’ll see what I can do. (really, don’t do that, no one would like living under my Most Perfect Imperium)

The CDRH, like most regulatory agencies, is understaffed and underfunded but doing their damnedest to cover everything that comes their way. The United States Postal Service Inspectorate are the real forefront of customs enforcement for America with the wave of WTF sloshing around in our postal system, but they’ve got more or less the same problem. It’s easy to recognize illicit alcohol, firearms, and explosives traveling through the postal system yet hard to stop them compared with the sheer volume. By comparison, a small laser like this just looks like more odd electronics among a sea of such things coming from Amazon. Now add the the fact there is also UPS, Fedex, OnTrac, Amazon’s whatever, DHL…you have to depend on them to successfully interdict shit as well.

The proliferation of laser LEDs powerful enough to do retinal injury available in quantities and at prices such that you can buy them by the pound, means we’ve got a future with steady employment for ophthalmologists. The international marketplace which Amazon, Alibaba, and eBay bring to your door means that even if a product wasn’t certified in the United States, you can still buy one from overseas (China usually) and take a gamble with the postal service.

The 1st Amendment issues of freedom of expression mean that you have the right to build whatever you want with these increasingly powerful, small, and cheap lasers. Eventually, they get powerful enough we need to start considering the 2nd Amendment issues with these things and we all know how well that’s gone with conventional firearms.

But most importantly, don’t waste your money on this Kickstarter.

The 2017 Atomic Heritage Roadtrip, Part 3: Trinity & Titan

As it is July 16th, the anniversary of the dawn of the Atomic Age, I suppose it’s time to get to the third and final part of the Atomic Holiday.

The whole genesis of this trip was the fact that we could go visit the Trinity Test Site on April Fools Day, along with all the other doofuses like us that thought going to walk around at ground zero was a pretty neat idea. To do that means you to actually have to get there first. As the open house website says, the Stallion Gate checkpoint to White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) opens at 8am and there will be people lined up waiting for that. If, like us, you began your journey in Albuquerque, that means you have a roughly two hour drive ahead of you before you even hit the Stallion Gate Rd. turn off from US380. Depending on when you’re get there, it may be another two hours before you make it from the turn off to the checkpoint. I recommend stopping in San Antonio to use the bathroom and stock up on water & snacks, which I DOUBLE RECOMMEND not consuming until you get to the Trinity Site parking lot. Don’t have more regrets than necessary in that long traffic line.

The remains of the old Jumbo containment vessel for Gadget, which they decided not to use.

FAIR WARNING: the turn on to Stallion Gate Road from US380 isn’t well marked, but the steady parade of cars and the protesters should give you a good hint that you’re in the right place. Also, pretty much the moment we hit the turn off, our cell signal dropped to zero for our entire time on WSMR. If you’re trying to rendezvous with folks, you better set up your meeting place & time in advance because you may not be able to get in touch with each other once you get there. May I recommend the Jumbo vessel as an excellent landmark for this.

Ah, yes, the protesters. A life spent growing up around Santa Cruz and the SF Bay Area, and then working at LLNL & UC Berkeley, has left me with a jaundiced outlook toward protesters, mainly because they usually lose their message to useless incoherence the more of them that are there. One of the games I like to play when approaching a protest is to look for a lonely “FREE LEONARD” sign in the crowd; that’s my signal that a protest has gotten sufficiently large that it collectively doesn’t know why it’s here anymore. I try to count the number of people present and guess what the magic number was when sign appeared. I refer to this number as the Peltier Limit. (Exception: a FREE LEONARD sign is always relevant at Native American rights protest)

This was not one of those protests. Their complaint was crystal clear and unified in a way I’ve rarely encountered.

Rather than go in to detail about the grievances of the denizens of Tularosa, I’ll sum it up with this: it is rude to set off an atomic weapon in the vicinity of people and then not do follow up. “We’d never done this before and didn’t know what would happen” isn’t a great excuse for not doing much of anything for the next 70 years. If you’d like more thorough reporting on the topic, Kelsey Atherton did a damn fine write up on it. I have gone through the Tularosa Basin Downwinders’ and the CDC study proposal’s papers and I come down strongly on the side of “Do what science you can this far after the fact.” From a health physicist point of view, this population constitutes a study cohort…if you take the time to actually study them. Considering we’ve already nuked them once without really asking, it would be considerate to at least involve them in the study at this stage, if only for very self-interested reason that it is much easier to study a cooperative population.

Trinity Test Monument – Me & the Obelisk, April Fool’s Day 2017

Once you get through Stallion Gate, you have a helpful marked route out to the parking lot outside the fenced of Trinity Test Site itself. If you really, really need to pee after that long wait in traffic, there is a bathroom halfway along the WSMR drive to ground zero (the walk from wherever you get to park in the Trinity parking to the outhouses may be more than you can take, depending on desperation level). President Eisenhower opened up the site in 1953 (after the Atomic Energy Commission decon’d it) with the surface level noble principle that the American people spent two billion 1940s yanquibuxx and should be able to see what they got for it. The deeper, less noble principle was a demonstration that you could set off an atomic weapon and, soon enough, it was safe to visit ground zero. That we had this shit under control. While the original open houses through the 1970s happened in July for the test anniversary, they moved to April & October later on because July is a fucking miserable time to be out there. There’s a reason the non-gypsum dune part of that area is also known as Jornada del Muerto (rough translation from my terrible high school Spanish, “Trail of Death”). It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975 and incorporated into the White Sands National Monument.

The open house was a surprisingly well attended even with the level of security, and even shuttles, which I assume the Army isn’t entirely thrilled about having to provide. While the White Sands National Monument (WSNM) has a nice continuous chunk of land south of the missile range, the Trinity Test Site is smack in the middle of the northwestern chunk of Army territory. Because it is designated as public land, the general public must be granted access to it at least one day a year. This means you can’t shoot missiles at this general area during the open house, which I assume is a real bummer in the WSMR planning office. It is, however, an absolutely gold star event for the WSMR PR folks to put a good face on “we blow the shit out of some of the most beautiful parts of New Mexico including, once upon a time, with Gadget”.

A new entry for my specialized warning sign collection. It’ll go nicely with my dengue fever one.

This sign greets you before you walk into the fenced off ground zero area. As I said before, the AEC cleaned up most all of the radioactive fused glass from the atomic test, AKA trinitite, before letting the public in but they didn’t get it all. In fact, they missed some fairly large chunks. There’s some unfissioned leftover plutonium in the trinitite and technically speaking all plutonium in the United States belongs to the federal government. If you have some plutonium in your laboratory, you have it on loan from the feds who may take it back anytime they feel like and you are required to inventory & submit reports on it. This is why you aren’t allowed to stuff your pockets full of trinitite, not that there is all that much of it left at the test site.

The beautiful piece of trinitite My Lovely Assistant found.

“But Phil,” I hear you ask “What about all the trinitite that got used in paperweights, jewelry, and novelty pens or just straight up chunks that I can buy on the Internets?” For that stuff, the cat is out of the bag and it can be freely traded. As Martin, who guest starred in part one of this adventure, said in the Atlas Obscura article about trinitite “It is the traditional gift of nukewonks.” While wandering around east of the obelisk, My Lovely Assistant found a beautiful half-dollar sized piece which we took a picture of and then put right back down on the ground. Playing happy camper, taking only pictures and leaving only footprints, we made sure that this was there for someone else to discover again in the future. Hopefully, they’ll leave it there too because that was some damn pretty slightly radioactive jade.

McDonald Ranch House – Exterior Door to the Former Gadget Assembly “Clean Room”

Trinity ground zero isn’t the only place you can visit out there. When the historical monument designation was given, they also included one of the instrumentation bunkers and the McDonald ranch house. From the parking lot you can jump one of the Army buses that will take you on the bumpy ride out to the location where the final assembly on Gadget was done. Other than the historical curiosity of what happened here, the ranch house and out buildings are somewhat unremarkable until you stop and consider “They turned a rancher’s living room into a weapons assembly clean room.” Well, a less dirty room perhaps, you take what you can get out here. The chalk marks on the posts and lintel for this door are recreations from the restoration work to stabilize the decaying building, with exquisite care done to recreate what the exterior looked like in the days before July 16, 1945.

Looking out across the desert to the south from the ranch house, there is a low fence and gate. I’m not sure exactly what they were hoping to keep out, but it sure wasn’t the Army. The McDonalds hadn’t wanted to give up their ranch in the first place and the decidedly did not get it back after the war, as they’d been hoping for. Eminent Domain is a bit of a bastard that way.

Commander’s Launch Console, post-key turn. Target 2 is about to have a Very Bad Day.

After Trinity was the long drive Tuscon, with a VERY EDUCATIONAL REST STOP on the way, and the following day the Titan Missile Museum in Sahaurita, AZ.  If you played Fallout New Vegas’s Lonesome Road expansion, you are very familiar with what the nose cone of a Titan II looks like and have detonated many if you were trying for that achievement. Alternatively, if you watched Star Trek First Contact, you’ve seen this specific silo and missile as it was filmed here. As a recommendation, if you are going for a special occasion, saaaaay someone’s birthday, let your guide at the Titan Missile Museum know and you might get to turn the keys on a simulated launch alert. As my Lovely Assistant would prefer I not put her picture up, let me show the console after she turned the launch key, successfully executing her duties as an acting missileer major.

The normal tour here lasts about an hour, though you’re welcome to fart around for as long as you like topside. For those with more time to spend in Tuscon, the Titan Missile Museum is affiliated with the Pima Air & Space Museum with their amazing boneyard of parked/derelict planes. You could do both in the same day, but I’d really recommend giving a full day to the boneyard tour. And, as someone who works with derelict, decades old and hard to repair equipment all the time, I would like to reiterate the Titan Missile Museum’s admonition against touching things or even leaning against walls. This place, and most of the equipment in it, is now unique; if you break something, it’s gone forever. The rest of the Titan II sites were destroyed as part of an arms reduction treaty, with this one kept as a museum. A hole was cut in the skin of the missile to make sure it would never fly again and the silo doors have been permanently locked open with bollards put in place to keep them that way…and thus easily verifiable from orbit.

 

Atomic Liquors of Las Vegas – They have a connected restaurant with a hard to miss large radiation trefoil.

The end of the line for this road trip was Las Vegas and bachelor party I needed to attend. And, as always, if I’m going to Las Vegas, I’m going to take a trip to the National Atomic Testing Museum. And, as per usual, every time I go to the NATM I come away with something new I want to go track down. We decided to end of our atomic history roadtrip by visiting the physical site of some the vestigial Atomiciana of Rat Pack Vegas era in a picture we saw at the museum. Atomic Liquors did not disappoint with their decent booze selection and I strongly recommend reading their history page on the website. When you hold Las Vegas Liquor License #00001, you’ve got some stories to share. Their attached restaurant, The Kitchen at Atomic, was closed when we went there so I can’t tell you how the food was.  It’s design, however, reminded me of some of the research reactor buildings I’ve visited over the years. If they haven’t tried to approximate Cherenkov blue in a cocktail, and stuck that in the name, they’re missing out on a nuke nerd branding opportunity.

In conclusion, let’s try not to add any brand new sites to my southwest atomic history road trip, okay?

Titan II, 571-7, as viewed from above. As always, it is weird seeing the USAF weapon configuration rather than NASA’s Gemini program. You can see the hole in the nose cone made for validation of “NOPE! No nukes in here!”