funranium: (Aces)
Nick Johnson has committed suicide:

He really wanted to go back to the happy tranquility of Antarctica after Afghanistan. A lot. The letter from Lockheed-Martin Antarctic Support was...not kind. "Hey, that thing you did about the place you love? Fuck you very much." The fact that there were two job offers, and then a last-minute rescinding of them, means that the background checks were good, he passed the physical & psych qualifications, but someone had a grudge and yanked it. I can only assume that was the last straw.

Big Dead Place, both the book and the website, are the most honest, and often hilarious, picture of Antarctica and the trying labor situation working there. Of the beauty of the continent, the bizarre but wonderful people that choose to go, and the absolutely insane attempt to impose corporate culture on the Ice by various US gov't contractors.

I let you know because you are all fans of the bizarre, the beautiful, and enjoy taking a chainsaw to the needlessly cruel corporate. I encourage you all to have a dig through his website and, in your copious free time, his book.

I will miss his insight into a continent I left a decade ago. His insight into blundering organizations is, sadly, evergreen.
funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)

Cross-posted from Funranium Labs

My old wonderful curmudgeon of a boss from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the man who gave me a not so gentle kick and made it possible to be a health physicist, has just moved into hospice care. He said, and I quote, “You’re too damn smart to spend the rest of your life swinging a meter. Get your degree and start telling guys like me what to do.” As if I’d dare tell him what to do without asking his opinion first; it’s a damn fool of an officer that doesn’t listen to the sergeant. Bill is similarly too damn smart to have spent his life swinging a meter but found his joy in being a cantankerous smartass, which is part of why he was made my boss (quote: “He’s an ass who drives people crazy, but he’s a smart ass. You two should get along perfectly.”)

We spent an awful lot of his smoke breaks listening to his stories of the Navy and decades gone by at LLNL. I did my best to absorb them all and I became a font of institutional knowledge that convinced people that I’d been working there longer than I’d been alive. It is time to share my favorite of his stories, “The Tale of the Dolphins", to honor Mr. Shea. This is a story of Navy traditions, drinking, and attempted drowning in Hawaii. Admittedly, saying "Navy traditions", "drinking", and "attempted drowning" in the same sentence is thrice redundant.

Bill was a submariner in the 70s, at the height of the prison inmate enlisted men/frat house officer Navy at the same time that Admiral Rickover’s Nuclear Navy was really coming into its own. He arrived in Pearl Harbor, fresh from Nuclear Power School to be assigned to his boat. As he approached his boat there was a large group of men punching one solitary seaman in the chest, right up until the moment one man picked him up and threw him overboard into the harbor. When Bill saw this he not-quite-quietly said, "Aww man, why did you go and do that?"

The EXTREMEMLY LARGE Chief of the Boat, the man that did the tossing, says "And why shouldn't I?" in an EXTREMELY LARGE manner to Bill.

Bill shook his head in disappointment, "You tossed him in the harbor. He's gonna leave a fucking ring around the boat we'll have to clean off before we leave." It is important to remember that the Navy area of Pearl Harbor was a goddamn toxic cesspit with untreated sewage at this time. If you’ve been to Pearl recently and think it’s still a goddamn toxic cesspit, just know that it’s much better now. To suggest that the seaman was filthier than Pearl Habor itself...

The COB squints at Bill's nametag. "Shea. I'm gonna remember you, Shea."

Old Style Enlisted Submariner Badge (courtesy of the US Navy)

Bill had walked aboard in the middle of a "dolphin" ceremony where a newly minted submariner is granted their pin with the dolphins on it that denotes that they have successfully completed their training on all the major functional areas of the submarine and, therefore, more useful than mere ballast. When Bill got his dolphins several months later, they threw him overboard twice. Oh yes, the Chief remembered him.

Oh, I forgot. The punching? That was the lucky new submariner's team punching his pin into his chest without postbacks. For Bill, when the pin was first presented, it was at a bar. It was shown to the recipient, but then quickly taken away. A water pitcher was found. Everyone in the bar poured what was left of their drinks into it. The barmat was wrung out to fill the pitcher. The dolphin pin was then dropped in and Bill was told to chug and come up with the dolphins in his teeth. Immediate vomiting would have been considered unlucky, so Bill had to make it at least through the next game of darts before a strategic chunder was approved.

There you go, The Tale of the Dolphins. If you have a tale of your time in the nuclear Navy you’d like me share with him when I go visit in the next couple weeks, I’m always happy to learn a new story. And I know he enjoys when I spin him a fine yarn.

funranium: (Book Learnin')

My friend Ed is getting married soon and has been completely bamboozled and befuddle by all the traditions and customs coming out of the woodwork. You see, he is both Jewish and English...and not terribly observant on either account. I tried to give reassurances that I knew *ALL* the customs and could try to sort them out for him. What followed was one of my better lines of stream of consciousness absolute and complete bullshit that left Ed unable to separate reality from the lies that offered a more beautiful and rich world. I am now pleased to share them with you.

First off, the English customs:

Cooks must prepare a lifesize marzipan Queen Elizabeth II, singing "Eat Britannia" the entire time. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES MAY THE COOKS LOOK AT THE QUEEN MARZIPAN'S CROTCH

The groom must ritually urinate toward France every hour on the hour for the first three days the Weddingetide, as has been the custom since Agincourt.

The bride must tighten every bolt on a '62 Jaguar or be rendered infertile by the Lady of the Lake (currently in the form of Jeremy Clarkson).

After pushing the “sexy barge” the length of the Western Canal, the wedding party must lift a mule and rotate it thrice widdershins before putting it down and wondering why they just did that, as is the custom.

During the ceremony, the officiant will pause and solemnly intone “Scotland”. The congregation will nod and hum disapprovingly. This is required to bind the spirits of the Great Britain together. Second moment will be taken to ignore Wales and Northern Ireland, though no particular thought will be given to this.

Now, onto the Jewish customs:

At the reception, the bride and groom will be seated at the receiving line. Guests will shake the bride's hand, kiss her on each cheek for pity, and then slap her thrice for foolishness. For the groom, guest will all bend over and fart in his face. If one of the older guests is incontinent on the groom, this is a judgment from YHWH. In accordance with the 8th Synod of Long Island, the bride's dress must be treated with kosher scotchgard to minimize splatter during the receiving line. The groom will be thoroughly inspected by the Rabbi-MD for charcoal inserts, perfumes or other nasal filtration devices. A fart that goes unsmelt shall annul the marriage promptly and the eldest brother takes immediate possession of the forfeit bride. Forfeit brides must be reassessed for cut, clarity, and bra size by the nearest Bedouin. If a Bedouin is not available within 33 leagues, any free and acknowledged Mason of the 69th degree (Freemasonry’s sexiest degree) will suffice.

As is customary, the bride’s father will be required to perform public sex acts, EXCLUDING FAUX-LLATIO, with the 2nd tier of the wedding cake. The top tier of the cake is customarily baked with 200mg/serving of Viagra to help in this effort.

For luck, each member of the wedding party must do a body shot off each attending grandparent. Should neither couple have attending nor remaining grandparents, the eldest homeless person in a 5 mile radius will suffice, but the luck is diminished significantly. The grandparent/homeless person is not strictly required to be dancing naked with nipple tassels on, but YHWH is known to approve of them.

When a Jewish wedding announcement is placed in the newspaper, the parents of bride & groom must scour the entire paper for declarations of blood libel. This especially includes a thorough inspection of the stock market pages using the Cipher of St. Cyril to look for coded papist messages. If any blood libels are discovered, the parents are required to double the amount of wine purchased for the wedding to simulate the blood wrung from slain Christian babies.

It is, of course, still customary for the married couple to crush a cloth wrapped glass underfoot for luck. Crushing the head of a live baby goat, while less common, is still acceptable in some communities. More traditional families may actually require goats to be tethered to all the guests’ chairs for the duration of ceremonies. The goat droppings will be collected throughout and presented to the couple for use on their honeymoon.


Dec. 2nd, 2011 06:38 pm
funranium: (Default)
It is time for the 2009 Deschutes Brewing Abyss of Freedom. I promised myself I wouldn't drink it until I was debt-free and it is time to crack that puppy open.
funranium: (Default)
Fallout Shelter No. 9 1/2
Fallout Shelter No. 9 1/2 - the kind of wonderful things you find while Urban Exploring

Cross-posted from Funranium Labs

At last, the long promised "Bathrooms of Antarctica" post.

Once upon a time, in the dawn of the new millennium when Geocities and Angelfire sites still littered the internet, I came across a brilliant website, now lost to the ages, entirely dedicated to one man's exploration of the world via it's bathrooms. Now, you might not be terribly impressed by a series of pictures of porcelain from exotic locales (especially since the view doesn't change all that much in bathrooms) but I took away a valuable lesson that complimented my interest in Urban Exploring. If you want an excuse to go visit any given place, it doesn't get better than "I need to pee". This is how I came up with a new rule for myself: every day, use at least one toilet you've never used before. I have some friends with shy bladders or crippling cleanliness-focused OCD to whom this sounds like absolute torture, but it has served me well. Following this rule, I managed to learn the UC Berkeley exterior and interior within a matter of weeks. By the time a year had passed, I shocked employees that had been at Cal for decades with the ease that I traced the fastest/easiest path in three dimensional space between destinations. Just call me the Human Hamiltonian.

I've used urinals that were barely more than a funnel soldered into a joint on a drainpipe in mechanical chases. I've stepped into heavy oak paneled and door stalls with massive works of porcelain that are best described as "eliminatory edifices", not toilets. I'm impressed with the utilitarian simplicity that is the New Zealand bog, where you're standing on grating from the time you enter the bathroom and the entire floor below you is the drain. So, pick a wall and the they only thing you really need to manage is not urinating on your fellow patrons. For some folks this easier said than done, so it pays to be alert.

Where it gets interesting is when you discover a toilet you didn't expect, such as the one in the middle of the old power plant for South Pole Station so the person on watch who can't leave can still take care of business (the aforementioned funnel attached to a drain line). Would you recognize such a convenience if you saw it? I heard numerous tales of westerners who achieved extreme discomfort before realizing the hole in the floor was the toilet when visiting Southeast Asia, not a place where the toilet was stolen from. When water is precious, you don't waste it on such things as flushing. Of course, at South Pole Station, water is a luxury because it has to be melted using precious fuel. Every time you flush the toilet, you've effectively sent your business down the drain with JP-8 jet propulsion fuel. For this reason, the new elevated station has .5L per flush toilets and the waterless urinals that seem to be increasingly popular in California in years since I returned in 2003. But what about the previous iterations of the station and what of the remote buildings?

The Poopcicle
The Poopcicle - sewage pipe flange leaks are forever at the South Pole. Note that there's another one at the next flange.

The first thing to know is that running water only happens if you have liquid water and pipes sufficiently insulated to bring it to you...and take sewage away. This is a problem in the Dakotas, much less Antarctica. In McMurdo, they get away with elevated insulated pipes but South Pole has to put all their pipes will under the ice for extra insulation; the constant -80F of 20' below the surface is preferable to the variable -8 to -108F of the surface, plus they'd get buried by blowing snow anyway. You've seen wrapped pipes before I'm sure, but please look at the sewage line for South Pole Station. That is a 4" line with 10" thick of insulation and then the corrugated pipe. It was just barely enough to keep liquid water flowing in and out of the buildings of the central station, from the meltwater pumping well to the previous played out melt well that now serves as sewage bulb. What I'm getting at here is that flush toilets are a luxury at the South Pole and always have been because Fuel Is Life and how much of that do you want to spend on water you don't absolutely need to survive?

South Pole Solar Outhouse (Note the freezer door style entry)
South Pole Solar Outhouse (Note the freezer door style entry)

The answer is to take advantage of the environment. During the summer, there are portable solar toilets that are transported around the station on skids and planted near the worksites they're needed most. 24hrs of low angle sunlight means that you can blacken the all the walls and be guaranteed that some part of the outhouse is getting enough sun to keep things melted. And let me tell you, as a toilet seat, 2" thick heavy foam insulation is damn comfy. They work particularly well at Pole as there are no storms that to obscure the sunlight; at McMurdo one good hurricane-blizzard (AKA Herbies) and they'll freeze solid without the sun, probably get buried under snow for good measure. For the remote camps, where you're just living in a tent for a couple weeks in the summer, you still have to have a toilet. The solution here isn't much different than a Coleman camp toilet. The good news is that smell quickly stops being an issue as everything freezes. For men, we have the added benefit of the makeshift urinal made from a 55gal drum and a funnel. During the winter, we used the same approach at the out buildings with the plastic bags placed outside to quickly freeze. NOTE: It's is very important to remember that you did this. Otherwise, someone will receive a very unpleasant surprise when they clear away some snow later on.

The "Old Pole" Heads - I imagine the hinge & splinters would get a bit uncomfortable
The "Old Pole" Heads - I imagine the hinge & splinters would get a bit uncomfortable

It is worth noting that the first two iterations of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (the IGY '57 station, AKA Old Pole, and "The Dome" in 1975) were built by the Navy. As such, they were able to take certain liberties with the comfort of the station crew. When you take into account that the no women wintered over at Pole until 1979 and none even visited prior to 1969, no segregate bathroom facilities were needed and even the main station were spartan. Interestingly, in terms of design, they're not all that different from Roman latrines. There's not all that much photo evidence of handy of life when Old Pole was active, but the base is still there, 80' under the snow and ice for people brave enough to go in and ignore the US Antarctic Program/Raytheon edict strictly forbidding entrance on pain of removal from the continent, forfeiture of pay & bonus, and ban from future return. So, let us just say that these photos came into my possession. Let's not discuss how I got them. Old Pole was abandoned because the weight of ice & snow overhead splintered a central support 8x8 timber. It takes a lot to break those. I'm to understand that when it buckled with a bang, the whole station heard and it sent out wooden shrapnel in manner that would have staked a whole platoon of vampires as an area effect weapon. That was 30+ years ago and the weight overhead has only increased, so enter at your peril.

The point I'm getting at here is that everybody, all of humanity, every day, poops. There isn't a society anywhere on Earth that doesn't have to deal with the repercussions of this, from the most remote tribe of the Amazon, to the financial house of the City of London, to the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Any place you go, you have a chance to learn how someone else goes. And, on a practical level, it is a chance to learn the place you're in great detail.


Jul. 8th, 2011 10:29 am
funranium: (Default)
A cattleprod strike to the stomach for all incoming students & visitors who have watched a bit too much anime should be mandatory to help communicate the unpleasantness of rabies and encourage them to not try to pet the squirrels. Also, a sharp poke in the eye with a precision calibrated stick as "crow simulator" might also be in order.
funranium: (Default)

Relative radio silence due to ridiculous amounts of work us being broken. Know that every other day I go to visit the giant orang doors from TRON (AKA the backstops for RTNS II) but I do not hug them due to contamination.

Extra money is wonderful, but the fact that this will all stop at the end of September and I get my life and rest back makes it possible. The candle can only be burnt in three places at once for so long.

Posted via

funranium: (Pyscho)

Cross-Posted From Funranium Labs

A while back, one Mr. Kristobek presented me with the simple challenge to see how Death Wish Coffee worked out as BBotE, on the principle that one ridiculous thing taken to the power of extreme must, by definition, be More Awesome. I can't fault this logic and it is the principle to which Funranium Labs is dedicated.

More to the point the folks at Death Wish have pursued a line of questioning that has been nagging at me since the dawn of BBotE: why don't we have tastier robusta coffees? We know that the robusta beans can be 2 to 5 times the caffeine content of their arabica cousins and that they will happily grow in climates that arabica would never sprout. If the childhood memory of Li'l Herr Direktor Funranium serves, we actually had some robusta growing in the wild hammock of the Erna Nixon Park in Melbourne, FL. One of the wonderful things about robusta coffee plants is that they are rather friendly, cultivation-wise, as they're low impact farming. They're practically weeds they're so hardy.The problem is that robusta beans are regarded as tasting almost uniformly awful. Part of the reason that many mass production store bought coffees are cheap (and regarded as crap) is that their arabica beans have been cut with robusta to help bulk out the can. Yes, that sounded like I was discussing selling crack to me too.But I always wondered, there must be some robusta that isn't as awful. There must be something that can be done to breed for improved flavor while preserving the higher caffeine content. This is precisely what the folks at Death Wish did. Where I went searching for a process to improve coffee to make it more drinkable for me, they went searching for the highest possible caffeine levels they could find and then making a delicious coffee from that.Some caveats for my rather biased tasting:
  1. I am fond of light roasts, not dark. Even the choicest picked beans taken to a dark roast loses a great deal of flavor as far as I'm concerned.\

  2. The original reasons I made BBotE in the first place was because of the bitterness of arabica coffees without heavy cream & sugar masking and diabetes had made that impossible for me anymore. Thus, the average robusta is a no go. The hot perc coffee I made with the Death Wish was undrinkable to me, though others were quite fond.
In flavor, both straight and with 1 part straight vodka to 3 part BBotE addition there was an wild green grape metallic-like (go eat one sometime and and see what I mean) & licorice flavor. And then there was a very long, though muted, bitter pinch on the front sides of the tongue. The robusta bad qualities were showing in the long palate, though not cripplingly so.

When diluted with 3:1 with hot water, the grape-metallic flavor and long palate bitterness disappeared, leaving a good strong, dark coffee that finished with long feeling of menthol cool on the tongue. I think it may have made the best pairing with absinthe yet as it pulled a strong root beer flavor.

For all of these tastes, I can most definitely testify that it had more than the normal amount of caffeinated zing. I felt eyelids go a bit wider after a few minutes after my testing sips. ADDENDUM: did not comfortably get to sleep until roughly 2:30am after a half shot. Wow, and this is my caffeine tolerance talking.

funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)
Cross-posted from Funranium Labs

There's nothing quite like the end of the month, which is always paperwork crunch time, for new and interesting opportunities to crop up. Despite knowing the certain long hours they will demand in make up time, you just can' Two of those happened this week, I got to enter into UC Berkeley's Lawson Adit (definition: an adit is the entrance to nearly horizontal mine) and I got to give a crash course in radiation detection using bomb squad robots to the local police departments.

Lawson Adit Gate
Figure1: The Lawson Adit Gate

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

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

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

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

Lawson Adi Spike
Figure 2: Lawson Adit - This Is Why You Wear Hardhats

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

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

Baby Stalactites - Aww, Aren't They Precious?
Figure 3: Baby Stalactites - Aww, Aren't They Precious?

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

Are You Sure Building A Tunnel Through A Fault Is A Good Idea?
Figure 4: Lawson Adit - Are You Sure Building A Tunnel Through A Fault Is A Good Idea?

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

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

Next time: Herr Direktor Funranium puts the UC and Berkeley PD bomb squads, and their robots, through their paces.
funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)
I have been accused of being an albino Jamaican as I have picked up job #3, in addition to fun with Funranium Labs. So I will be doing the following things all at once:
  1. Radiation Safety Dude at UC Berkeley (for the foreseeable future)
  2. Adjunct Professor of radiation safety at Las Positas College (through the end of May)
  3. LLNL health physics/training contractor (through the end of August)
  4. Those of you who remember Phil during the Two Quarters Of No Sleep, I am going to do my best to not return to that state (especially since I have as much BBotE as I can make at my disposal). I am trading the sanity that comes from rest and relaxation for the sanity that comes with a drastically reduced debt load.

So, see you in September.
funranium: (Default)
Cross-posted from Funranium Labs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep down, this entire post is an excuse just to get you to listen to this song.
funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)
Instead of several reactors venting steam/smoke, I would instead like you to imagine this area in Sendai covered with a grove of trees in area comparable to the nuclear power plants.

I would now like you to light it up, all the trees on fire. Look at the smoke. Now, go to your mapping software of choice and look at your position on Planet Earth relative to Sendai.

If you don't think you would see the smoke from a fire of this size (rather small) at your current location, then you no have reason to be concerned about the fallout because the atmospheric transport mechanisms are exactly the same. In fact, fallout of the radioactive materials of concern are a bit less of a worry because the elements and isotopes of highest concern tend to be rather dense and not travel well. To move it around the world by getting material to the high winds of the stratosphere, you have to have a very large and/or very energetic fire.

Of course, moving material to that height in the air column also means global dilution as you spread it everywhere. Other than the immediate reactor vicinity, no one place gets particularly crapped up.
So, think of your last wildfire, think how large it was and how far away, think how the winds blew and what you saw. Now, compare that with the size of the reactor complex.
With that, please go back to contemplating the horror of the two disasters that actually happened to Japan rather than the one people are working hard to prevent. The reason the reactors are such a pain in the butt to get under control right now is because it is taking Japan...JAPAN, people!!!...nearly a week to get emergency power supplied to the pumps for these reactors. That is how badly the earthquake and tsunami have fucked up the basic infrastructure of the area.

I'm pretty tired of explaining things to people that seem to want this to be catastrophic nuclear doom for the world. I do not understand why this narrative is appealing and makes intuitive sense to people. Wait, yes I do; Doom By Man's Hubris is a classical theme. Damn my GM storytelling experience.
funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)
***Cross-posted from Funranium Labs***

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

First, I am not a nuclear engineer, contrary to how more than a few people have referred to me; I am a health physicist. It is the purpose of my field to keep radiation doses as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA, as the acronym goes) for radiation workers and the public. More often than not, this means protecting the radiation sources from people as humans are rather dangerous when we ignorantly play with fire. So, I cannot definitively speak to the quality of the reactor’s construction or it’s current post-earthquake condition, though I’m pretty sure no one builds reactors with a M9.0 quake in mind (certainly not the outbuildings that held the cooling & filtration systems that have been damaged). The job of a health physicist is now to protect the public from an accident that has gone beyond the confines of the reactor. For that, I can say things:
  1. If you do not live in northern Honshu, you do not have cause for panic. The radiation release from the reactor has been localized to the immediate vicinity. A downwind plume exposure pathway emergency planning zone (~10mi radius) as already been evacuated. A wider 50 mile radius will be drawn for confiscation of foodstuffs to minimize any potential ingestion of radioactive iodine & cesium.
  2. Please be understanding of the fact that thousands are dead from a tsunami and earthquake with associated services badly disrupted. Terrifying as a nuclear reactor having trouble may seem to you via television report, there are much more lethal and immediate problems than the reactor to the people who are still in the middle of this. Just getting there to help is a logistical nightmare. Contamination can be cleaned up, but people can’t be unkilled. Life saving takes precedence over property & environment.
  3. Normal operations of a nuclear reactor involves the operation of air and water monitoring stations in the facility itself and area environmental monitors for many miles around. A tsunami is likely to have broken more than few of those, but many more mobile units were rushed to the scene. This is how we are keeping track of what has been/is being released to the surrounding area from the reactor.
  4. Radioactive materials are being released to the air in the form of radioactive steam and water. Dissolved metals in the water and small particulates are particularly prone to becoming activated and thus radioactive, especially without a functional cooling and filtration loop to clean the water up. The radioactivity is very short lived, in general on the order of minutes to about a week, but rather nasty while it is present.
  5. Reports have indicated the presence of small quantities radioiodine and radiocesium in monitoring. This indicates that some of the nuclear fuel cladding has been damaged due to overheating.
  6. Unless ordered by a medical professional, DO NOT self-administer prophylactic iodine or Prussian blue treatments to protect against radioiodine & radiocesium uptake. These treatments carry some significant metabolic risks at the body saturating doses necessary to offer protection.
  7. Please don’t mob the health professionals. They are badly outnumbered and doing their best. People with burns and crush injuries take precedence over potential radioactive materials uptake every time. Your latency for cancer is 40 years; their latency for a crushed arm may only be minutes. Do not be upset when they press-gang you for assistance at the triage station rather than treat you like victim, because you are still ambulatory and capable.
  8. The symptoms of acute radiation sickness (ARS) begin with vomiting. There’s an awful lot of things that may cause vomiting in a disaster situation like this, not the least of which is stress and psychosomatic response. At this point we will segregate you and watch for further advancement of symptoms. At present, only one person who has presented with symptoms that has had an actual radioactive materials uptake; his dose was less the 1/10th the what is normally associated with associated with ARS.
If you want to help with all of this, please, instead of buying a Stein of Science or Black Blood of the Earth go donate to the Red Cross. You will do far more good than staring at the TV with growing panic. Several colleagues I rather respect are already on their way to Japan to help with the reactor problems and I wish them the best. As endless a supply of caffeine as I can make is going with them.

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

This is the face of a man tired of watching CNN clips.

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funranium: (Default)

I am somewhat biting my tongue at the moment as this all us still in progress and we are already suffering far, far too much bad reporting out of the 24hr news cycle that must be talking AT ALL TIMES. But I'll give my professional opinions:

1) Bad, no good, awful. No matter how this turns out, at ~40yrs old this reactor is done for.
2) This is no Chernobyl. It may end worse than Three Mile Island. At TMI at least all the safety systems worked and the building hadn't been hit by a massive earthquake.
3) No one EVER builds the outbuildings as well as the reactor is. Once again, a vulnerable subsystem in an outbuilding threatens to bring a reactor down.
4) It is going to suck to be a local for some time. Yes, there is going to be some local radioactive material releases.
5) Seriously, I want to stab people at several media outlets. You are not making this already bad problem better.

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funranium: (Default)
 As of last night, I am now the owner of a pair of Vibram Fivefingers shoes. After a week and change of befuddled complaining about an index toe that felt bruised as if I'd kicked something, but on both feet, I finally figured out that it was due to continuous curling from a foot panicky about losing a shoe it was sliding in.

Reading the literature, they were very emphatic about easing in to them by only wearing them a few hours a day at first as your stride changes to fit this shoe style. Putting them on felt remarkably comfortable as does walking in them. My stride doesn't need to change; wearing normal shoes is what is strange for me, not being barefoot. When at all possible, I tend to wear sandals of go barefoot and I've been doing that for as long as I can remember. My mother hoped moving to much colder California from Florida would break me off the habit when I was little but it didn't.

While I would still like a pair of dress shoes or boots made specifically for my feet, though I do not have the several thousand dollars to spend on this at the moment, these will do me fine as closed toed shoes at work for the time being.

My barefoot/sandal accustomed stride also helps explain the "rolling step" heavy wear pattern my shoes have always had. Trying to walk like I was barefoot in normal shoes also explains why my feet hurt so often.
funranium: (Default)
So, last night we were discussing bioassay techniques in my radiation safety class.

My fellow teacher, after explaining fecal dosimetry techniques, declared that no one, not the subject providing the sample, not the dosimetrist who has to process it, certainly not the rest of the lab staff, nor even the building neighbors like it when you have to do fecal samples.
I begged to disagree. I clearly remember an occasion that a world renowned health physicist loudly declared in my presence "I LOVE FECAL SAMPLES!"
There was then a three beat pause...
And he corrected himself, declaring somewhat less loudly, "I love the numbers I get from fecal samples."

Once again, I love making sure lessons hit home and stick for life with memorable vignettes like this to hang the information on. I'm just sad no one took video of my Rubbin' My Ass On Uranium dance to demonstrate proper dosimeter badge usage.
funranium: (Default)
Cross-posted from Funranium Labs

This tale is prompted by hearing a familiar voice on the radio speaking to some elementary school students. One I hadn't heard in eight years since a rather grim alcohol soaked day at McMurdo Station, Ms. Cady Coleman, Astronaut. She is currently serving aboard the International Space Station.

As previously discussed, I spent a year in Antarctica at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. We winterovers were entitled to some R&R during the summer before the full "The Shining"-grade lockdown for 9 months set in at Pole. But did they send us to Tahiti to enjoy warmth, greenery, and mai tais? Noooooo...they used to send folks to New Zealand but there was a bad spate of people skipping on their contracts now that they'd already endured three months of The Ice. By the time my year hit, people at Pole got sent for a week in beautiful, comparatively tropical, McMurdo Base. I got stuck there an additional two weeks waiting for a supply ship to offload.

Too much happened in this total of three weeks and much of it was spent drunk or short of sleep for me to hope to get all in one go. For the time being, let us discuss Room 129 in Building 155. Eleven of us went on R&R at the same time in mid-January 2003. Six of us were in Room 105, where I was put, and the rest were in 129. Sadly, the occupants of my room were focussed on sleeping and reading. The other room had a strict schedule that went something like this:

1100 - Wake up.
1101 - Pour yesterday's burnt coffee into trash can, or other room occupant's boots as the muse demands.
1102 - Turn on coffee pot. (coffee pots in rooms are against the McMurdo rules)
1107 - Pour coffee. Add Irish Creme and whiskey to greet the McMurdo morning properly. Repeat as necessary.
1130 - Stack previous night's beer cans and liquor bottles onto the growing pyramid.
1200 - Lunch. Offend sensitive McMurdans.
1300 - Day Bar at Southern Exposure*.
1730 - Dinner. Offend sensitive McMurdans.
1830 - Night Bar at Southern Exposure*.
0030 - Midrats ("midnight rations", McMurdo had a specific list of people allowed to eat at this time which we ignored). Assemble bar on the dining room table. Offend sensitive McMurdans
0130 - Room party or lounge shenannigans.
0400 to 0700 - Go to sleep, maybe.

You can take you guess as to which group I spent the most time with.

*: For reference, Southern Exposure is also known as The Smoking Bar. Once upon a time it had been the Chief's Bar during the Navy days. There were two other outlets for booze, The Coffeehouse (formerly the Officer's Club, a very old quansit hut), and Gallagher's, AKA The Non-Smoking Bar (formerly the Erebus Club, the enlisted men's club, renamed after the death of CPO Gallagher (ret.) who died on Ice in 1997).

I seem to be digressing. Let's take the story to February 1st, 2003 standing in the main entryway to McMurdo's primary building, Bldg 155, with NASA astronauts Eileen Collins and Cady Coleman. I'd gotten to help them move their remote campsite a few weeks earlier as they were doing meteorite collection on the ice sheet by the Pecora Hills. I have no problem whatsoever being menial labor on the endless frozen expanse when I get to hangout with astronauts. Hell, I moved their bucket toilet with glee and sat there for three hours in the cold waiting for a plane to take me back to safety.

Both Cady & Eileen had been on previous space shuttle flights. Eileen, in fact, had been the first female pilot the shuttle had ever had. There was some concern of damage to the shuttle for reentry. Thus, they were watching the Armed Forces Television monitors with rapt interest and sharing small tales of the awesome of going to space. Being the science nerd and child of Cape Canaveral I am, was hanging on every word.

Then Columbia exploded.

There was a a sharp intake of breath. One of the construction folks screamed "NO!" at the top of her lungs.

I turned to Cady and said, "I have a bar worth of booze in my room if you'd like a drink RIGHT NOW." She and Eileen slowly nodded, looking rather shellshocked. They'd just watched their co-workers die. No, more than that, these are the people you have been studying with, sweating in the gym with, and trapped in a spam can with for years. Being an astronaut is somewhere between army platoon and tightly knit doctoral program group. These were more than co-workers or friends; they were fellow explorers on the frontier.

I would like to state for the record that it is rather hard to drink me under the table. I have survived evenings with naval personnel from several countries, a misadventure with a watch worth of Coasties, hard rock miners, gutter punks and emerged staggering tall (albeit holding The Plunger of Honor one time...long story, don't ask). However, these two women had me holding on to the pool table for support as they kept clearing it with deadeye accuracy and taking more and more shots of gin. Commander Collins is 5'1" and almost didn't get to be an astronaut due to a space program worth of suits designed with the six footer John Glenn in mind. I doubt she said "Fuck you very much, NASA" but she did make sure that a suit was available to fit her by becoming part of the suit design project.

At the end of it all, Cady asked if I'd like to see the video she took on the shuttle. Her personal camera. That may have been the high point of my Antarctic experience.

To Cady and all the astro/cosmo/taikonauts, I wish you the very best as you keep humanity's future in the stars going forward. To the names on the memorial a Kennedy Space Center, and all the others that have lost their lives as we try to escape the gravity well, I raise a glass.
funranium: (Default)
Feel constrained by your introductory college biology series and timetable? Why don't you just teach yourself instead.

Their offerings are focused on the life sciences at the moment, but I can see this easily growing. The next question is how to assess proficiency and scale against conventional college credit systems.

Of course, if you're doing it for love of knowledge all of that is irrelevant. Honestly, I would have killed for this as a kid with all the time I spent reading encyclopedia & journal articles for fun.
funranium: (Default)

Cross-posted from Funranium Labs.

If you are in Las Vegas, go to the Atomic Testing Museum. As much fun as gambling and debauchery are, make the time to head out to UNLV and visit. Getting a chance to visit the Trinity Test Site or one of the rare tours of the Nevada Test Site (NTS) is once in a lifetime event for most non-weapons complex employees, but this museum is there every day. Give yourself at least three hours if you really want to take the time to read everything they've put on display. And if any of the NTS retirees who are now docents are there, sit down and listen. It is as simple as that. Make the time as if you were listening to a WWII vet talking about landing in Normandy or Okinawa.


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