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Two stories, two men who become gods…two very different outcomes.

The law of conservation of happiness states that the amount of happiness in the world cannot be increased or decreased. It can only be shifted around. What if you had the power to decide where that happiness would go? What if you had to decide who lived — and who died?

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“A Life-Changing Story”

I was just pointed to this very cool article talking about 5 Sci-Fi Stories that Changed my Life by Jason Amunwa. A great write-up about five fics that really impacted the writer, and you know I’m linking it here because our very own localroger’s The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect is high on the list. I even realized I’m the last person standing who hasn’t yet read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, so I have it on order & intend to fix that oversight in the coming New Year.

If any of you write or read any great discussions like this, don’t hesitate to let me know so I can add them to the fan site for everyone to find. Love this quote: “This book will make you question everything you thought you knew about relationships, morality, and technology…”

Heh.

As usual, everything moves at the speed of snail around here. I do have a studio set up. and I do plan to start recording podcasts and/or audio books of Roger’s fiction in 2017. Roger has some Works in Progress, but we’re looking at how we’re going to be able to get them out there to you in the ever-changing publishing environment. Stay tuned…

Classic Roger # 8: Pilgrimage to Trinity

Note: Originally Published Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 08:07:20 PM EST courtesy kuro5hin.org. Because of the age of this article, it is likely that many links are broken.


Here and there upon the Earth are places so unique and important that many of us come to regard them as holy. Some of these places are shaped by natural forces, like the Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, the Valleys of the Vapors, or the frozen desert of Antarctica. Some attain their status because of the great or important humans who were born there, and some by the great or important humans whose lives ended nearby.

Some places become sacred because of a great or momentous event. One of the shortest but most important of those events occurred at 5:29:45 AM on the morning of July 16, 1945, when the work of a few millionths of a second brought forth a new thing in the experience of humans, of the Earth, and very possibly of the entire Universe.

Sacred places inspire pilgrimage, and on November 20, 2004, I realized an old dream of mine. I made the pilgrimage to the Trinity site, at the north end of the White Sands Test Range in central New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was exploded.


1.

“And then…” (choking up) “…the whole sky lit up. It was just like daylight. It was awesome. And down by the gas pumps the Army guys were jumping up and down and slapping each other on the back, and I heard one of them say ‘We’ve got the world by the tail now!'”

Bucky Gilmore, who saw the Trinity test at age 12, to our tour group

2.

As sacred places go, Trinity is unusually uninspiring. It is hard to get a feel for what happened there in 1945. But that is largely because of the ambivalence, and to a certain extent the profanity, of its keepers.

At Trinity there are big signs warning you that the place is a national treasure and that, in particular, removing Trinitite is a crime. Yet the site’s biggest vandal in the last 59 years has been the Army itself.

In 1947 the embarrassingly expensive and unused Jumbo was “tested” to semi-destruction; an off-center detonation blew the ends off but left the 180 ton central cylinder intact. In the early 1950’s the Army scraped up and buried much of the Trinitite crust and filled in the central depression. Through the years they also allowed the historic George McDonald ranch house which survived the blast to deteriorate as it lay abandoned.

Only in 1965 did the White Sands Test Range officials decide to mark Ground Zero with the lava rock obelisk that still stands there, and only in 1975 did the Park Service designate the place a National Historic Landmark. Only in 1982 were efforts started to preserve and restore the McDonald ranch house.

Without the marker and fencing or a radiation detector, you could pass the site a hundred times without realizing its significance. The desert ecosystem has claimed the new soil that was added in the early 1950’s, so that you must step over desert scrub and jackrabbit droppings to hunt for the remaining small bits of Trinitite, which in turn are unnoticeable unless you know to look for them by their signature green color. A low, anonymous, windowless building covers a few hundred square feet of the crater to preserve the original surface for future archaeologists.

Near the marker, the largest surviving tower footing is protected by a little guard made of welded rebar. A second footing survives only as a bare patch of bald concrete almost level with the desert sand. The presence of a third footing is revealed by a single piece of half-inch rebar, perhaps two inches long, sticking out of the sand. Of the fourth footing there is no evidence at all. Scattered around the site are hundreds of fist-sized chunky bits of metal which are probably bits of Jumbo’s blown-off ends.

Away from the fenced-in central crater rows of cedar posts survive to mark the cable runs to some of the remote instrumentation bunkers. Only one of those bunkers, West 800, still exists; and it was only recently restored and marked. All of the rest of the infrastructure — the instruments and cameras, the bunkers with their concrete slab roofs supported by massive oak beams, the controls and cables spanning twenty kilometers of desert — is gone, removed and discarded soon after the test.

3.

Events of mythic proportion inspire mythic tales. The popular understanding of atomic history is riddled with falsehoods that range from understandable simplifications to poor justifications to outright lies spread to maintain the secrecy of design elements.

Probably the biggest myth to emerge in the years since 1945 is that Fat Man and Little Boy ended the war. It’s even printed right there in black and white in the brochure that White Sands passes out to visitors. It’s the kind of simple story that makes perfect sense, is easy to believe, and makes us feel better about the awful way the world’s second and third atomic explosions were used.

The only problem is, it isn’t true.

By July of 1945, the Japanese Empire was on the ropes. Secretary of War Henry Stimson summed it up for President Truman on July 2 thusly:

  • Japan has no allies.
  • Her navy is nearly destroyed and she is vulnerable to a surface and underwater blockade which can deprive her of sufficient food and supplies for her population.
  • She is terribly vulnerable to our concentrated air attack upon her crowded cities, industrial and food resources.
  • She has against her not only the Anglo-American forces but the rising forces of China and the ominous threat of Russia.
  • We have inexhausible and untouched industrial resources to bring to bear against her diminishing potential.
  • We have great moral superiority through being the victim of her first sneak attack.

On the other hand Stimson went on to warn that an invasion would be horribly costly to us, and that he thought the Japanese would be amenable to an appropriately worded demand for surrender. He even recommended that…

“if we do not exclude a constitutional monarchy under her present dynasty, it would substantially add to the chances of acceptance.”

Was Stimson right? By July of 1945 we had cracked Japan’s military codes, and on July 10 and 11 we intercepted top-secret cables indicating that the High Command was seriously considering surrender. There was just one caveat:

“It is his Majesty’s heart’s desire to see the swift termination of the war … however, as long as America and England insist on unconditional surrender our country has no alternative but to see it through in an all-out effort for the sake of survival and the honor of the homeland.”

So we basically knew that the Japanese were ready to surrender and what approximate terms they would accept. On July 2 Stimson recommended that we offer them such terms. But on July 16 Trinity lit up the sky over New Mexico, and when the Potsdam Declaration was announced — having been delayed until after the test — it contained the very language we knew Japan would never accept.

How important was our demand for unconditional surrender, a demand we made knowing it would cause the war to go on when it might be stopped? It couldn’t have been very important, because after the atomic bombings and after the Japanese were forced to lick our boot heels, we ended up giving them what they wanted anyway. The Emperor was in fact allowed to retained his always largely symbolic throne, and the Japanese nation retained its polity.

So what we got for prolonging the war for several weeks and killing several hundred thousand people was almost exactly nothing.

4.

I could not justify travelling to New Mexico just to tour Trinity. Our “real” reason for going there was the Festival of the Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. One of the earliest and most successful species and habitat preservation projects, the Bosque provides magnificent opportunities for birding; but as Fate would have it, it’s also close to some high geek tourist spots such as the Very Large Array, just 50 miles away, and even closer at 20 miles the Trinity test site. Wanting to give us every possible reason to come visit, the Friends of the Bosque put tours to both places on the Festival schedule.

During one bus tour of the Bosque our guide rightly bragged that the refuge had allowed a vanishing population of only 17 wintering Sandhill Cranes in 1939 to become over 11,000 today, through their deliberate efforts to mimic the shallow wetlands which once flanked the now dammed and channeled Rio Grande. “We have fossils which show that these cranes have been coming here for nine million years,” she added. “They’ve survived volcanoes and mountain uplifts, and hopefully we’ll just be another blip for them too.”

She then turned beet red as she realized what she had just said, but not one person in that bus full of humans spoke up to suggest that our own species might have a future as impressive as the Sandhill Crane’s past.

5.

The atomic explosion wasn’t just a New Thing for human beings. We can be reasonably sure it was a New Thing in the entire history of our planet. And absent the meddling of another intelligent life form like ourselves, it may have been a New Thing in the entire 13.6 billion year history of the Universe.

There are more energetic spectacles to be found out in the depths of space, but in the microseconds after the fission reaction runs its course the heart of an atomic bomb is one of the most extreme environments anywhere — even compared to the heart of a star, even compared to a supernova. And we know of no mechanism that could create such extremes of temperature and particle flux without also involving extremes of gravity and mass that tend to keep one away from the action. We know of no natural situation that could create such conditions and loose them upon the surface of an otherwise inhabitable world, before the eyes of witnesses who might survive.

Everything about an atomic bomb is spectacular. The separation of pure isotopes, whether U235 or Pu239, is a difficult and unnatural thing to arrange. They must start out in a subcritical arrangement, then be very quickly assembled into a critical mass; Little Boy performed this operation by firing a gun, Fat Man by implosion. And then, in the brief moment when the assembly is critical — because forces strong enough to assemble it fast enough will also blow it apart if the nuclear reaction doesn’t materialize — you have to introduce seed neutrons to make sure the reaction starts. Again, this must be done very quickly. The device that does this in an atomic bomb is called the initiator, and in some ways it’s even more unnatural and difficult to engineer than the rest of the bomb.

6.

We are a nation of savages. That is what we decided last night. We belong to the “most advanced” society in the history of the world, and we decided that we would rather be barbarians, hunched over fire pits, ripping meat off the bones of our enemies, raping our women, howling out at the gods for peace in the afterlife.

–The Rude Pundit, on November 3, 2004

Although the Rude One was writing of something much more mundane, he goes on to correctly observe that we have been a nation of savages since long before this year’s ugly election cycle. In addition to the genocidal way we dealt with the original inhabitants of our country, there is that little dust-up back in the 1860’s when we proved we are equal-opportunity savages, quite willing to turn our savagery inward upon ourselves under the right conditions. And a consistent history of not being able to go more than a few years without some kind of war to keep us entertained shows that we haven’t really changed.

My wife hates it when I say things like this. She likes to say “there is no ‘We.'” She doesn’t like being grouped with people she thinks of as Neanderthals (and that might even be an insult to our extinct cousins) because of the accident of her place of birth and inherited citizenship.

To a certain extent she has a point, but I think it would be a hard point to explain to one of the many, many, many, many people brutally murdered in our many, many quasi-legal “adventures” in places like Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, or Iraq. Our tax money pays for the bombs and death squads whether or not we personally fly the planes or train the goons.

What is really true, I think, is that we are two nations commingled in uneasy detente. The nation of savages certainly is there and has always been part of us; as Plato observed it will be a part of any democratically run state. But there is also within us a nation of civilized, noble people who actually believe in the words and the philosophy behind them on the documents produced by the people who founded our nation.

Sometimes the savages are ascendant and we have things like the Civil War and Vietnam and our current adventure in Iraq. Sometimes they are in eclipse, but being savages they still slink around doing savage things like Iran/Contra, and on a smaller scale generally making the lives of our neighbors miserable when they can, whether by gay-bashing the local fags or making sure every source of pleasure carries with it the risk of making the rest of your life a living hell.

The striking thing about the Manhattan Project is the number of civilized, noble people who played indispensable roles, knowing what it was they were trying to create. For various noble-sounding reasons that made sense at the time, they helped to create the ultimate tool of savagery — and handed it to the savages to use as they pleased.

7.

The second biggest myth of the atomic era is the idea that we had to build atomic bombs on the chance Germany might build them first. And in the early years of the war that was a valid concern.

But the German atomic program was beset by several factors that doomed it. Foremost was Hitler’s suspicion of “Jewish science,” which forced many of his brightest physicists to come work for us. Second, the engineering enterprises we built to realize our bomb such as the Y-12 isotope separation plant and the Hanford reactors were probably beyond the Reich’s means. (If Hitler hadn’t bungled Operation Barbarossa and gotten stuck in Russia, that situation might have been different.)

The Germans might have taken the isotope-separation route to build a U235 bomb, but they had the resources to pursue only one avenue. They tried thermal diffusion, since its inventor Klaus Clusius was on their side. But it turns out as Otto Frisch learned in 1941 that the Clusius method doesn’t work for Uranium Hexaflouride. We went on to successfully explore gaseous barrier diffusion and electromagnetic separation, but the Germans abandoned the whole idea.

And Germany’s ability to follow the Plutonium path was mostly blown by a single mistaken measurement. When Walther Bothe measured the neutron absorption cross-section of carbon in January 1940, he came up with a value high enough to rule it out as a moderator for nuclear reactors. Bothe didn’t know that, like Von Halban and Kowarski on our side, he probably had graphite contaminated with boron; but the Germans could not cross-check their result with Enrico Fermi, whose different methodology gave a much more promising number. That mistake denied them carbon as a moderator for the reactors that would be needed to breed Plutonium. Their only other option was heavy water, and when we bombed the Norsk Hydro heavy water plant in Vermork and British commandoes sunk the ferry carrying the train with the last of its output, the German atomic program became irrelevant.

Did we know any of this at the time, though? In 1943 Leslie Groves created the Alsos intelligence unit (Alsos is greek for “grove,” get it?) charged with locating German nuclear assets as the Normandy invasion rolled inland. By April 1944 Alsos had located all of the uranium ore known to be in Nazi hands and all of their scientists, and we knew that they had never had a chance at a bomb, had built only one reactor, and that their one reactor had never sustained a chain reaction.

Groves’ reaction to this happy news was to clamp it under a tight lid of secrecy. Too many of the Manhattan Project physicists were working on the project only because of the German threat, and he knew that they would not be as eager to unleash such technology against the more primitively armed Japanese.

8.

If Trinity had not happened, what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki might be forgivable. It was widely believed that an atomic bomb would not be as effective as conventional bombs delivering equivalent energy, because the bomb’s output would not be spread out over the target. Before Trinity nobody had any idea what such a blast would look like or what it would do to the landscape.

And in some respects, the Trinity test was almost defiantly arranged to prevent such knowledge from being acquired; with so much at stake you’d think they would have put some test structures around Ground Zero to see how well they survived. But one of the fairy tales told early on about Trinity is that it was more of a pure science experiment than a weapons test, even though they were using the opportunity to test tool kits and procedures necessary for assembling and dropping the bomb in the field.

When the shot worked and we had hard data about the yield and pressure wave and temperatures it created, we had no idea how such extremes would affect real buildings.

But we did have a plan to find out.

By April of 1945, when serious consideration began to be given to where to drop something like an atomic bomb, Curtis LeMay had already bombed and burned out most of Japan’s larger cities. This is why Tokyo wasn’t atomic-bombed; it was already mostly bombed out already. Hiroshima rose to the top of the Target Committee’s list mainly because it was the biggest city LeMay’s bombers hadn’t gotten to yet, and on their advice LeMay continued to spare it, so that we might accurately assess how much damage was done by the atomic bomb without the confusion of other damage to cloud the data.

And even after the Enola Gay bombed Hiroshima on August 6 we didn’t really know just how much damage it had done; we had aerial photos but no hard information from the ground. We were shocked that Japan didn’t immediately surrender. Didn’t they understand what they were up against? What we didn’t realize was that Little Boy had destroyed Hiroshima so thoroughly that reports of the devastation took time to get out, and those reports were so astonishing they were hard to believe.

So, on a schedule set even before the Trinity test, we dropped Fat Man on August 9. This mission was beset by glitches; a malfunctioning fuel selector limited the B-29’s range and weather obscured the primary target at Kokura. Bock’s Car was able to make Nagasaki, a city added to the Target Committee’s list only at the last minute. One fortuitous hole opened up in the clouds and Fat Man was set loose.

By now the news was getting around about what had happened in Hiroshima, and the Japanese government began to frantically assess the situation even as preparations were made to deliver a third bomb. That bomb wouldn’t be coming; Truman had ordered a stop to the atomic bombing. Henry Wallace recorded in his diary that Truman “didn’t like the idea of killing all those kids.”

9.

“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

–Robert Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer, the single most important man in the Manhattan Project, studied Sanskrit and read the Hindu holy text the Bhagavad-Gita as a hobby.

The juxtaposition of a scientific peacenik like Oppenheimer and congenital war hawk Leslie Groves is enough to make one’s head explode. One can understand how Groves was able to deal with Oppenheimer; he was simply ruthless about it. Oppenenheimer was on the short list of people who could get the job done, and he agreed to try. Then Groves put every invasive apparattus at his disposal into the 24/7 task of following and spying on Oppenheimer to make sure he wasn’t slacking or spilling secrets to his many card-carrying Communist friends.

But what motivated Oppenheimer to enter such an obviously Faustian deal?

Historians find Oppenheimer “complicated” and “interesting.” But I personally think most people are ultimately motivated by simple things. Like most of us Oppenheimer had fealty to several interests which were not always congruent. He had his sympathies with the working man and his hopes for the ennoblement of humanity, and he had his worries and warnings encoded in the holy texts he liked to read. But he was also a scientist, and to offer a scientist the resources Groves offered to study a problem of such laser-like clarity and pinnacle importance is like offering a 15 year old boy the chance to fuck Paris Hilton. I think he saw that if he declined the opportunity he’d spend the rest of his life getting drunk and kicking himself. It probably wasn’t even a very hard decision for him to make.

Oppenheimer’s decision is interesting to me, though, for another reason. Oppenheimer was more interested and better versed in human concerns like poverty and power and transcendence than most of us are today; yet when his scientific interest came into conflict with his human interest, it was the scientific interest that prevailed. Which might be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing depending on how you look at it, but it undeniably was a Thing that was Used to turn a contemplative, introspective person into a tool which would ultimately turn against everything he ever held dear.

10.

One of the myths of the atomic era is that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg sold the secret of the atomic bomb to the Russians, and that’s why Russia was able to acquire its own nuclear arsenal. It’s most likely true that Julius at least passed on important details of Fat Man’s design. But that wasn’t the secret that made it possible for other countries to acquire their own atomic bombs.

The secret of the atomic bomb is that it is possible to build them at all.

Leo Szilard understood this and warned James Byrnes that to use the bomb against Japan and possibly even to test it would be tantamount to giving it to the Russians; but Szilard, who had pretty much gotten the whole affair rolling by conceiving of the basic idea of the nuclear chain reaction back in 1933, was widely regarded as a peacenik troublemaker and the Powers that Be ignored him.

The problem is that atomic bombs require an enormous industrial effort, but they are not really all that complicated. If you don’t know whether a bomb is possible it is very hard to justify the cost necessary to refine enough fissionable material to find out. In 1939 Neils Bohr had insisted it would be necessary to turn the whole country into factory to pursue isotope separation, and when he came to America and saw the scale of Manhattan Project constructions, he said to Ed Teller, “and you have done just that.”

But we had turned the whole country into a factory anyway to face the war, and we could afford the distraction of the possibly unworkable but oh so tantalizing atomic explosive. Few other countries could, and outside the context of World War II it’s unlikely we would have put in such a grand effort either.

It’s a dead certainty the Soviets wouldn’t have; in their years of rebuilding they “borrowed” many industrial secrets from us but Stalin instructed his spies to concentrate on proven technologies. As Harry Gold related,

“…I was told that the Soviet Union was so desperately in need of chemical processes that they could afford to take no chances on one which might not work.”

Of course, once you know atomic bombs are possible and especially that your neighbor has them the equation reverses. The only possible defense against atomic attack is the ability to mount an atomic retribution; having bombs of your own becomes a survival imperative worth whatever it costs.

And history shows that once you make that commitment, you’ll probably get the same results we got; as Richard Rhodes points out, every country that has ever set out to create an atomic weapon has succeeded on the first try.

11.

Another myth is that we developed the bomb to use against Germany and Japan. That’s certainly what our leaders told us back in 1945, but as early as 1943 it was no longer really true. And this gets back to the question of why the Japanese were goaded into continuing to fight by the unacceptable wording of the Potsdam Declaration, and why the bombs were used at all when Japan was more than ready to throw in the towel to our satisfaction.

Once we had the Battle of the Atlantic in hand and Russia ostensibly on our side, and once it was clear there would be no surprising new technologies on the Nazi side, Allied victory was only a matter of time. Hitler may not have seen it but both the Americans and Russians did, and both nations began laying plans for after the war, when it seemed inevitable that without a mutual enemy to force us into alignment we would turn on one another.

A major part of our strategy in this regard was the atomic bomb.

What the atomic bomb got us was nothing Japan could have offered; it showed the world in general and the Russians in particular what would happen to them next if they annoyed us. By actually using the bomb against a real target we showed that we were willing to use it. This is why the Potsdam Declaration was delayed until after the successful Trinity test. Although we were pretty sure Little Boy would work without testing, it was a harder bomb to build; our hopes for near-term mass manufacture rested with Fat Man. Little Boy was an ace that could be played once and perhaps occasionally, but Fat Man was a whole pocket full of aces and it allowed us to adopt a more aggressive strategy.

This attitude is reflected in the recorded comments of many people, from Leslie Groves to Henry Stimson to the nameless Army guys overheard by Bucky Gilmore on the morning of the Trinity test.

Of course the project itself also had the kind of inhuman momentum that builds up when enough money and effort is spent on anything; as James Byrnes lectured to Leo Szilard,

“How would you get Congress to appropriate money for atomic energy research if you do not show results for the money which has been spent already?”

Or as Stimson remarked upon hearing of the successful Trinity test,

“I have been responsible for spending some two billions of dollars on this atomic venture. Now that it is successful I shall not be sent to prison in Fort Leavenworth.”

But for two billion dollars, in an era when gasoline only cost 15 cents a gallon, lighting up the Jornada del Muerto may not have been enough. Knowing that as the war wound down the secrecy would lift and Congress would have time to start looking into exactly where all the money went, they may have felt only flat enemy cities could justify their actions.

It is interesting to wonder how things might have happened if President Roosevelt had not died on April 12, 1945, leaving Truman to decide the fate of a huge secret that was new and unfamiliar to him. With more experience and confidence might Roosevelt have made the decision after Trinity that Truman made only after Nagasaki? Or would he, too, have gone along with the idea that we had to impress the Russians? Some things history denies to us entirely. All we know is that it took Truman two atomic bombings before, as the most powerful human being on Earth, he stood up and acted like a human being and put a stop to something he saw was awful.

12.

Perhaps the biggest myth of the American national character is that we are the Good Guys.

Whenever this atomic subject comes up and my views come out I often get some pretty hostile responses. A lot of that is just the savages venting, but some of it comes from people who should be a bit smarter about things. A lot of it comes from people who are just like I was, before I happened to see Plate 42. And I think it’s because it’s hard, it takes a real shock to the system, to admit to yourself that your country didn’t just needlessly and horribly kill a few hundred thousand people; your country does shit like that all the time. To recognize the magnitude of the problem is to realize that we are not, in fact, the Good Guys. And that’s a very traumatic thing to have to accept.

From America’s beginning we have been a nation of high ideals but low values. We’re the kind of nation that can accept the 3/5 compromise on slavery right after ratifying a document that says “all men are created equal.” We can hear something like the Dred Scott decision and most of us are fully capable of saying “sure, that makes perfect sense.” Then we can have a big old knock-down drag-out civil war on the issue that kills a few million people, as we trip over ourselves finding ever newer and cleverer ways to kill each other. Then we can pick silly fights like the Spanish-American war just because we don’t have anything else to do.

In a sense it was an accident that we came out of WWII looking like the Good Guys; it helped that we were sneak-attacked and that the Germans really went out of their way to make us look good by comparison. Under other circumstances the atomic bombings of two inhabited cities would have been roundly and widely criticized. But it seems that Teflon, which was invented for sealing surfaces at the Y-12 diffusion plant (not as popularly believed for the Apollo space program) kept the dirt of our misdeeds from sticking even before we started to apply it to cookware.

We went on after WWII to do a lot of Not Very Good Guy things, from the Cold War missile buildup to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam to Iran/Contra to Iraq. Now there’s a typically American approach to something we don’t understand very well; befriend both sides in a nasty long-standing conflict and then screw them both over! How to win friends and influence people, American style. When you’ve got the world by the tail you can do whatever you want.

I have some familiarity with godlike fictional characters, and one of my favorites is the Gaia being in John Varley’s wonderful Titan trilogy. Gaia is introduced to human culture by television a hundred years before humans come calling on her, and she is finely attuned to the human sense of drama. As the heroine Cirocco Jones notes in the run-up to the big battle in the last book, Demon, Gaia has decided to be a movie character (in fact incarnating herself as a 50-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe), but “she knows she isn’t the good guy.” And the reason she isn’t the good guy is simple; the really interesting character in any drama is the bad guy.

Now as interesting things go, building the atomic bomb is one of the most interesting things ever to happen, and the fact that we still argue about it sixty years later is a testament to just how interesting it is. But it also, when you get down where the short hairs grow, isn’t a very Good Guy thing to have done. And America tends to be cool with things like that, even if we saw too many John Ford movies to admit we’re wearing the black hats in this show.

13.

My father was a nuclear physicist. As a child I helped him in the lab, learned to do all his student experiments, and learned to irradiate samples with a carefully shielded Californium neutron source so that a liquid nitrogen cooled gamma ray detector could read the energies of induced radioactivity, revealing the elements that were present. Dad taught me to be careful with radioactive samples but not to fear them, and I used X-ray and gamma-ray sources from his lab in my senior science fair project.

In all of my childhood I never really connected what my father did with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. It’s the kind of thing you didn’t think about much unless you wanted to go crazy; the idea that you could be minding your business, and that at any random moment your whole world could explode in a searing fireball that would consume everything you ever cared about, is not really compatible with doing anything useful.

But around 1989 I happened to be surfing the remainder bin at a local Walden Books when an oversized trade paperback caught my eye. It was At Work in the Fields of the Bomb, a photo essay by Robert Del Tredici. It was priced to go at one dollar. I flipped through it, thought I might find it interesting, and bought it.

Later I took time to examine the images in order. I appreciated the effort that had been required on Del Tredici’s part to get some of them; he had rented airplanes and travelled all over the world to build the “big picture” of how nuclear weapons come to exist. Some of the images were familiar; I’d seen some of the very exhibits at the National Atomic Museum he photographed. Some revealed the mundane details that exist in any industry, which few outsiders ever get to see. And some were tragic; but I kept a skeptical awareness that this had obviously been assembled by someone with an agenda.

Then I came to image 41, the parents of Sadako Sasaki. At that point I had never heard of Sadako, but from the caption I understood why her parents might be making an appearance in the book; she had died at age 12 of “atomic bomb disease,” a.k.a. leukemia. Very tragic. I flipped the page.

42. Sadako’s Paper Cranes

These are the handwork of Sadako Sasaki. When she was 12 years old Sadako contracted leukemia from earlier exposure to the atomic bomb. She did not wish to die. She refused all painkilling medication and took literally a Japanese proverb that says, “if you fold 1,000 cranes, you will get whatever you wish.” She folded 645 of the tiny birds before she died. Kasuga City, Fukuoka, Japan. October 14, 1984.

I tried to flip to the next picture but my hands were shaking, and my eyes were welling up with tears. To this day it is hard for me to express what I felt when I learned of Sadako. There is something about her that simultaneously shames me and makes me proud of what it can be to be human, but there is also the ominous question of which would be worse: That she was discouraged and denied paper and therefore failed to fold the thousand cranes before she died, or had she been allowed to finish her project only to find that it didn’t save her?

I’m not the only person to be awe-inspired by Sadako Sasaki. Today there is a statue of her at the Hiroshima Peace Park, and every year children all over the world fold cranes and send them to Hiroshima, where they are strung in garlands of 1,000 in her honor.

The next day I regained my composure and completed Del Tredici’s photo essay. Then I started in on the notes, which comprise more than half the book (and alas don’t seem to be available online). Then I proceeded to read everything else I could find about the nuclear industry. It became harder and harder for me to see the technology as value-neutral, especially the technology of making prompt fission triggered weapons. Despite years of testing no atomic explosion has ever benefited humanity, despite several serious (one might even say desperate) attempts to find positive uses.

Sedan Crater was a test of thermonuclear earthmoving; the device that dug this 380 foot deep hole in the ground was 17 inches in diameter, 38 inches long, and weighed 470 lb. It released far more radioactivity into the environment than its designers expected, and no further such tests were attempted.

And thanks to the whole nuclear enterprise we are stuck with huge amounts of toxic waste, legions of people who claim to have been harmed by exposure to these toxins or radiation, atomic “secrets” easily penetrated by C students and untrained journalists like Howard Morland, and a vast expenditure dwarfing even the original Manhattan Project for which we have little positive to show.

Nuclear energy has certainly been useful at times, especially for space travel, but it never required the vast expenditure for isotope separation and plutonium production that the Manhattan Project required. Nearly all of the pure science that was done for the bomb project would have eventually been done anyway. The techniques of nuclear medicine could have been developed with a reactor technology geared more to energy production, and developed at a slower pace so as to minimize the risk and let us get a more sensible grip on how to deal with the control and waste issues.

Instead, it seems that nuclear matters of all sorts were rushed into production precisely because the Manhattan Project needed to be legitimized.

I tend to think there is a way to use nuclear energy that is not insane, but we haven’t found that way; and today when relatively sane proposals (like pebble-bed reactors) are put forth, people are rightly skeptical that things will be different than they were when we were rushing anything that looked like it might half-way work into overproduction. The waste problem still isn’t addressed, and the solution that looks best to me, of burying it in deep-ocean subduction zones, is being ignored because it would be so much easier to just bury the stuff in Nevada and hope for the best.

14.

So there I was at Trinity, the place where the world changed in a few millionths of a second on the morning of July 16, 1945, trying to get a feel for it. But there isn’t much to feel about the fireball of an atomic explosion; one moment you’re standing there, there’s a hundred foot tall tower and a bunch of roads and cables and cameras and instruments and crap, and the next moment poof, you’re very very dead. You wouldn’t even have time to feel pain or even to hear the sound of your own annihilation.

Sixty years later there are a few chunks of concrete where the tower once perched, a monument, and a bunch of scrub and jackrabbit droppings and tourists quietly pocketing little bits of green glass.

If Trinity had not happened, if we had sat on our knowledge, then two whole generations might have been spared the fear that it could all end without warning, an unprecedented state of terror that has never existed before in human history.

If Trinity had not happened and we had bombed Japan anyway then we might look back at Hiroshima and Nagasaki differently, for we could not have known what would happen when such bombs are dropped on cities. We could say “We didn’t know, and we stopped as soon as we realized just what we were doing.”

But Trinity did happen, so the world learned that the bombs could be made and it learned that we were willing to drop them on mostly civilian population centers. And then we spent the next twenty years figuring out how to do the same thing even more thoroughly and more easily with even less warning for the victims, so that one wouldn’t even see the B-29 flying high overhead before the world was ripped asunder.

And so the Soviets and the British and the French and the South Africans (!) all went out and got bombs of their own, and now India and Pakistan glare at each other across an uneasy border and the tips of their nuclear missiles, and we wonder where all the damn radioactive waste will finally end up.

15.

And the Sandhill Cranes, which have been wintering in lower New Mexico for nine million years, continue to arrive, blissfully unaware of how thoroughly the flightless newcomers are fucking up their world. But they’ve survived volcanoes and mountain uplifts, and if all goes well we’ll just be another blip for them too.

Sources

Although I’ve linked what I could find, most of the forces that have shaped my attitude toward nuclear matters are not online.

One tragedy of my trip to New Mexico is that I missed the chance to meet Richard Rhodes, who was visiting Louisiana to promote his new book about John James Audubon while I was away. Many of the events I mention can be quickly found by Amazon’s search-inside function (though you’ll need an actual copy of the book to use the results):

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb

This more obscure book also made a big impression on me; the authors make a strong case that like the Nazi doctors who perpetrated atrocities for the Reich, the scientists who build nuclear weapons use a “doubling” mechanism by which the person at work has a different set of ethics and core beliefs than the person who goes home each evening to a loving family:

The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat

Here is a meticulously laid out case against the bombings and the subsequent abuse of “downwinders” who were victimized by unnecessary atomic testing; the author was Secretary of the Interior under JFK and LBJ and a congressman from Arizona:

The Myths of August

P.S. I have only now realized, after all these years, that the photo of Sadako’s cranes which changed my life was numbered Plate 42. As anyone conversant with the landscape of science fiction knows 42 is not just a random number; in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide it’s literally the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. I made a similar joke in my own novel. Except that in At Work in the Fields of the Bomb it’s not so much a joke as a surprisingly profound statement.



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Classic Roger #7: A Casino Odyssey

A Casino Odyssey: Part One was originally published to kuro5hin.org Thu Jul 19, 2001 [about events taking place in the 90s through the early 00s. Do not assume you can achieve these results today in an industry that has now over-expanded, collapsed, and moved offshore to Macau. There is very little loose money left to get.]

Length: Around 8,000 words


In 1990, our neighboring state of Mississippi legalized gambling. Two years later, for the first time in my life I walked into a casino. This was the beginning of an odyssey which would, more through faith in math and hard work than luck, and against all normal expectation, turn my debt into a healthy savings. It would see me develop an appreciation for 60-year-old Scotch and and US$50 steaks [Editor’s Note: in early 90s dollars, folks!.] It would show me a great deal of the excitement and drama people go to casinos for. And in the end it would leave me and my friends with a deep, abiding hatred of these places and a terrible understanding of how they affect most of their clientele.


A Fateful Decision

In late 1991 friend Y and I decided, on a lark, to see what all the fuss was about. We visited the Grand Casino in Gulfport, MS, back when the parking lot only had two levels, there was no “entertainment barge” and the hotel was a distant dream. We were confronted with a bewildering array of lights, sounds, signs, and people frantically doing incomprehensible shit. We watched the Roulette wheel and sat in on a Blackjack game and put a few quarters into slot machines. And we finally left, wondering how anybody figured out what to bet on.

So we did what educated people did back before the Internet: We bought a book.
Guerrilla Gambling by Frank Sclobete is a bit dated and has some factual errors, but it’s still a good introductory guide. Reading GG is much better than going into a casino with no clue at all. We quickly learned to separate the smart from the stupid moves. You generally can’t win, we figured, but by figuring in the comped food and entertainment value we might reduce our entertainment expenses and come out ahead of where we would have been staying home. We formed up a little budget and kept perfect records of our visits, so that we could deduct our losses against our wins if we ended up ahead.

Our friend X had much more ambitious plans. Even before the casinos came, he planned to become a professional gambler. He studied and drilled card counting techniques. He regarded the coming of the casinos as a sign of his personal fate, sent by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. While X was a nice guy who started sharing gas money to go out to the Coast with us, none of us took his plans seriously. For one thing, it was very clear he had a serious impulse-control problem and was a hard-core gambling addict.

A Lesson in Reality

That record of our wins and losses got a bit monotonous in my case. I studied the strategies, I played smart, and I lost my ass. I couldn’t win a bet on what time of day it was. Meanwhile, X and Y fluttered along more normally, enjoying some winning sessions to offset their losses. X began a binge-and-recover cycle which would last five years, as he worked until he had a few thousand dollars, quit his job, moved into the casino, and gambled until he was wiped out by an unfortunate streak. He was playing smart, but not quite smart enough. I was learning just how bad bad luck can be — which is much worse than you think.

After a few months, I had racked up fifteen losing visits in a row. I had lost early and lost big (at least based on my US$50 visit allowance) every single visit. I wasn’t playing any different from Y, who had by now accumulated a bankroll of several hundred dollars. Typically I’d play for an hour at most and bust out, then watch Y and try to score free drinks while Y played into the night. I added up all the money I was losing and decided enough was enough. I had lost enough to buy the new computer I was longing for. I started staying home and let X and Y ply the tables. And I swore I’d never go back.

I Am Dragged Back

It turned out there were these things called tournaments, where all the players chip in to a prize pool and play the game with play money (“non-negotiable cheques”). At the time most of these were zero-sum, no-house-edge affairs or even offered with a bonus payout to get customers in the door. And since you were playing against other customers instead of the house, nobody cared if you played smart to get an edge against them. Remembering the sting of consistent losing, I refused to be seduced by these promotions; but I couldn’t refuse to play in the $10,000 top-prize free tournament that was offered twice by Lady Luck Casino Biloxi.

Imagine my shock when I won the $10,000.

We were staying at a campground, it was near midnight, and hundreds of people watched the casino present me with 95 $100 bills. I had never seen so much money in one place in my life, and hot-damn it was mine! We deposited the cash with the cage (cashier) and asked them to write me a check so it would stay that way.

This incident broke my losing streak, and I suddenly found myself able to walk away from table games with modest wins often enough to make occasional play possible. At the time this change in the weather was simply bewildering. Later I would take it as a second important lesson.

For the next few years my personal life would be scheduled around Gulf Coast casino tournaments. I was working a reduced schedule with flex time so it was very practical to make sure the days I had off made room for the free Craps tournament at Bayou Caddy’s Jubilee (back when it was still docked on Bayou Caddy, in Lakeshore MS). Or the free Craps tournament at Casino Magic, Biloxi. Or the zero-sum buy-in Blackjack tournament at Casino Magic, Bay St. Louis. Or the one at the Isle of Capri Biloxi. Or the one at the President, or the one at the Copa… well, you get the idea.

We became masters of the tournament strategy, learning to count chips like lightning to determine our position in the critical closing hands of a tournament round. Since tournaments are high-variance affairs where you bet a little often to win a lot of money infrequently we had a typical tournament split agreement. If one player made the final round, he got 80% with the other two splitting 20%. If two players made the final they would split 80% while the odd one out got 20%. We learned that there is something of a gambler’s code. While he owed other people tens of thousands of dollars, X would never renege on a gambling agreement. There is a certain amount of trust involved, but the three of us learned through experience that we would be paid when one of our ships came in.

That would be important, later.

Gambling Becomes a Social Event

Besides X and Y and myself, there were dozens of “regulars” who you’d meet at every tournament. Tournaments were entertaining, festive affairs. These were people who, if not rocket scientists, were at least attracted by the idea of being able to play these games at a level they could not normally afford, with their losses limited to the entry fee. There were very few sad stories.

Mrs. J was the wife of a prominent Biloxi businessman, and soon after we hit the tournament circuit she won a $300,000 jackpot. Soon she was playing green chips instead of red. (Translation: $25 minimum bets instead of $5) Within a couple of years the $300,000 was gone. So was the husband. J was working as a Blackjack dealer to support herself.

We might have noticed this if we weren’t having so much fun pigging out on the free buffets and taking home the occasional nice win. We joined all the player’s clubs and signed up for every free drawing. Before The Frugal Gambler was published we had stumbled onto many of the techniques it reveals for boosting our EV (Expected Value, the theoretical return on an investment or bet). On a typical Coast visit our combined coupons, mailers, free or bonus tournament entries, and whatnot added up to twenty or thirty bucks apiece. Since we were going out twice a week or more we quickly “got in the long run” and “realized our EV” (that is, our win/loss record reflected our mathematical edge over the situation, not the random swing of whether we actually won or lost a particular match-play coupon.)

We developed the trick of making sure we always had enough comp points at the Grand Gulfport for a free buffet on holidays like Easter and Christmas. The whole state gets the idea to eat there on those days, but the point of the comp isn’t just that the food is free; what becomes much more important is that you go to the head of the line. So while the Normals are lined up back to the non-smoking slots looking at a two-hour wait, we sail up to the VIP line and get seated in 15 minutes. Y and I were making several thousand dollars apiece per year, not enough to live on but a small income that completely displaced a similar amount we used to spend on eating out and entertainment. Our bills were dwindling and I was fond of telling people that the casino industry was the best thing since sliced bread.

I mean, we were getting paid to have fun! What more could anyone want?

A Casino Odyssey: Part Two

was originally published to kuro5hin.org Fri Jul 20, 2001


My life was scheduled around casino tournaments. I had gotten the equivalent of almost a $10,000 raise by turning entertainment expenses into a small income using techniques similar to those revealed in Jean Scott’s The Frugal Gambler. I had dozens of new, interesting friends. I could look at a rack of casino chips from five feet away and nail its total value within five bucks in seconds. I knew every single bet and payout on the Craps table. And my friend X was about to make my life really interesting.


One thing about being a smart gambler is that you quickly find out you are rara avis.

Inoculated against the ravages of gambling addiction by my early instructive losing streak, I was mystified when Y pumped a nice $500 win into a $25 slot machine because “my luck has been so good recently.” This is someone who has an advanced degree in physics! And X, who had studied the math (not really complicated stuff, it’s all basic algebra and statistics) until he could bore you for hours with the effects of a rule change or strategy variation on your Expected Value (EV), couldn’t seem to avoid getting wiped out in tragic negative swings. Back to work, at least for a couple of months, back to the tables, oopsie, back to work…

I proselytized. Many of my friends and coworkers gambled, and they found my success interesting. I made no secret of how to get the best edge, work the comp system, and parlay the tournaments into a win.

The most common response was: “Well, I really like to play the slots.”

I can readily tell you the number of Normals who saw what my friends and I accomplished and took even a tentative step toward duplicating it. Not succeeded, but tried. It was zero, out of hundreds.

And then there were the folks we played against in the tournaments. Nice people, generally intelligent people, but prone to do the most amazingly ill-thought-out things in situations that were worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. We laughed and joked and of course much of the thousands of dollars a year I was taking home were coming out of their pockets. At times I got a bit weirded out by that.

Basic Strategies

Every casino game of skill has an optimal strategy which can be determined mathematically or by computer analysis. You always lose the least in the long run by playing this “Basic Strategy,” no matter what might happen to happen on an individual hand. Thus, you always hit 16 against a dealer 10 at Blackjack. Yes, you’ll probably lose; in a statistical sense you’ve probably lost the hand already. But computer analysis shows you will lose less if you take the hit and risk busting.

If you’re playing correctly there really are no decisions to make, but almost nobody plays correctly. The theoretical house edge at most casino Blackjack games ranges from 0.1 to 1.5 percent or so depending on the rules. But the actual take is typically 2 to 5 percent. This reliable gap is entirely the result of incorrect play. (This EV is in terms of “action,” the sum total of all bets made. The “hold,” loss figured against only the “drop” gamblers buy-in for, is another matter entirely.)

Occasionally this preponderance of poor play encourages a casino to do something really stupid. One promotional idea which emerges infrequently is the “2 to 1 Blackjack” game where natural 21 pays 2:1 instead of 3:2. Most players still face a loss, but the perfect Basic Strategist sees the edge the casino usually expects to see, about one percent — without counting cards.

The Boomtown Belle, one of the “me, too” riverboat casinos legalized in Louisiana, was desperate to get people on their boat during the legally required 1.5 hour cruises. In September of 1995 they decided the solution was 2:1 Blackjack, up to two hands of $25. X and Y literally scraped together all the money they could lay hands on and showed up. (I was now working full-time, and was unable to go with them.)

At first they nearly lost their stake of $1,200 because they were really betting too much and had early bad luck. But then they won $14,000 over the next 9 days in about 30 hours of play. At which time the casino became tired of their action and invited them to leave.

Card Counting Finally Succeeds

X was pretty much an expert on the mechanics of card counting. It doesn’t work like the scene in Rain Man.

It’s all in the FAQ.

X played smart. I watched him play and I knew exactly what he was doing wrong. Hell, he even knew what he was doing wrong on an intellectual level but he didn’t really believe it.

When you are playing with an advantage, there is a calculation called “risk-of-ruin”. It tells you that if you have such bankroll and bet at so level, you will have hmmmm chance of losing all your money before you double it. Card counting is high-variance; you are literally waiting for opportunities to bet (high counts). You can still lose those high-count bets. As a very vague rule of thumb you need about 100 big bets in your bankroll to count cards. X was playing with more like 20 big bets, if that. His advantage couldn’t overcome his risk of ruin.

X lost his share of the Boomtown Belle $14K and went back to another work, quit, lose-stake cycle. In May of 1997 the Jubilee (now relocated in Greenville, MS) decided a 2:1 promotion was the way to lure monied gamblers to a dumpy burg located at the most inconvenient possible point between Jackson, MS and Memphis, TN. Most of the monied gamblers who showed up knew how to beat the promotion and it only lasted a few days, but X and Y made off with almost $10,000. Not long afterward the Lighthouse Point, also in Greenville, got the same bonehead idea and yielded several thousand dollars more.

Time to quit the job again, time to…

…call me, as it turned out.

I spent the next few weeks fielding calls from X. He was actually going over the risk-of-ruin calculations to convince himself they weren’t bullshit. After some algebra refreshers and a quick course on QBasic, he built some simulations and did some figuring and convinced himself. He dutifully went to the soon-to-close Flamingo Hilton and started playing a modest $5-$25 bet spread. It was a fortunate choice, because a bureaucatic screw-up of titanic proportion had lost them their gaming license, and the lackluster staff at this doomed boat were in no mood to protect Hilton’s already-lost investment against X’s faint probing.

When counting cards, you make the money by betting small when they have the edge and high when you do. The count tells you this; each card has a point value, negative or positive. When the count is positive the deck is rich in tens and the odds favor you; you bet more. When it’s negative the deck is rich in fives and sixes. The dealer is less likely to bust, you’re less likely to get dealt good natural hands. You reduce your bet or go to the bathroom.

The gap between your smallest and largest bets is your “spread.” It’s also how you get caught. While the count does tell you to play some hands contrary to Basic Strategy (you stand on 16 against 10 in high counts, for example) this strategy variation isn’t enough to beat the game. You have to spread your bets, and the more you spread the more you win. And the more noticeable your play is.

In February 1994, when he had been playing with red chips and losing anyway, X had been “backroomed” by [censored]. Security guards literally dragged X into a back room, took his picture, and read him the Trespass Act. But the lackluster staff at the Flamingo gave him an excellent game and once he’d built up his bankroll he found himself still able to play at some other properties.

As 1997 rolled over into 1998 he parlayed his modest stake into $80,000. But in that course he was kicked out of every casino on the Gulf Coast. His big bets were now in the $100 black chip range, and everybody knew he was a counter from his losing days. Once he began to win, he was shown the door, although usually with more politeness than [censored] had shown.

“Ah, Mr. X. We must contratulate you on your really excellent play. Yes, we have noticed that you are very, very good. In fact, you’re really too good for us. You’re welcome to play any of our other games, but we really can’t offer you a Blackjack game any more.”

X now had a bankroll but couldn’t play. We could play, but had no bankroll. X knew we could be trusted to play by the agreed strategy (as we had in so many tournaments) and to account properly for the money (as we had in so many tournaments and as Y had in the 2:1 promos.) He called and offered a deal: If we played for him we could keep half the profit. I didn’t have the time, but Y weighed half the win against none of the risk and decided it was a no-brainer.

Y was no card-counter; we knew the theory but with no bankroll had had no reason to drill the ability to actually maintain the count. There is a large gap between knowing that tens are -1 and sixes are +1 and being able to count up and down as cards are dealt in a live game. Y drilled with the computer for about a month, an hour or two a day, then after favorable testing by X entered a casino with several thousand dollars of his money. Y was nervous but X pronounced the results acceptable and Y continued to play. Known as the cheapskates that we were, we covered the story of our newfound “wealth” with a white lie about an inheritance. Since I didn’t have the time to do the drills or play enough to make it worthwhile, when I accompanied Y we covered my own continued cheapness with vague hints that I was worried about Y’s incipient gambling addiction.

It worked like a charm, and before long we were being wined and dined like royalty. At least, until our hosts figured out what we were doing…

A Casino Odyssey: Part Three

was Originally Published
Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 06:11:03 PM EST


Our personal lives no longer revolved around tournament schedules, five-dollar match-play coupons, and free buffets. We were eating at the a la carte restaurants, drinking expensive Scotch, and staying in multi-room hotel suites with Jacuzzi baths — all for free, while my friends won hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At least, at the properties that hadn’t figured out what we were doing yet.


While Y gradually sharpened her card-counting skills and conquered the Gulf Coast, X realized that if he stayed away long enough, he could return to properties where he’d been banned. But the Coast was no longer big enough to accommodate his bankroll. He and Y were now “black chippers,” players who bet more than $100 a hand, and their play attracted the attention of casino staff — much of it fawning, some of it hostile.

We had already visited Las Vegas as a low-roller vacation back in our low-roller cheap days. Now it was time to return on business. X and Y made a modest entrance and found playable games run by people who didn’t know who they were all over town.

Back home, I didn’t play in many tournaments any more. Our visits to Mississippi were scheduled around countable Blackjack games, and I occupied myself playing low-stakes Craps while Y “went nuts” with “my” money across the pit.

Yes? Oh, how’s it going Y?

Oh, I’ll be playing later but I’m hungry now. Can we have two for [insert $50-a-plate restaurant]?

[Editor’s note: Again, if these prices seem low, keep in mind that we’re talking about the 1990s at a time when casino destinations like Vegas was popular for their low prices. Now that gambling income has collapsed, the New York restaurant price has come to a casino near you…]

Of course. Will you be needing a room?

Of course, Y got invited to leave plenty of times; but we didn’t have X’s history of low-stakes card counting. (Hint to wannabe counters: do not play in real casinos at low stakes. A lot of places will let you do that, but then bar you when your action turns green.) And casinos do not hire, ahem, the best and the brightest. The surest way to spot a card counter is to be able to count cards yourself. Then you can tell that a player is spreading his bets according to the count. Needless to say, a lot of players vary their bets according to whim or superstitious bullshit. Few casino personnel are equipped to tell the difference. I was sitting next to Y at the Horseshoe in Tunica, MS once when the genius pitboss barred a bona fide loser while Y calmly spread a ridiculous 20:1 right beside him.

Many casinos actually discourage their employees from learning about card counting. One fellow who had gone to a great deal of trouble to educate himself became so disgruntled that he supplied X with his and Y’s pages from the infamous Griffin book.

You’d think it would be a big deal to be listed in Griffin, but it isn’t. X and Y got nailed thanks to some bonehead moves by another player X had recruited — he was now up to four in addition to himself and Y, and the rules of dividend disbursement were taking on a Kafkaesque level of complexity as he tried to reward both hours of play and productivity. The Griffin listing slowed them down for a little while at a couple of properties, then they sank into the sea of 50,000+ faces listed in that book.

The Griffin book is worthless. People don’t get nailed because they are in Griffin; they get nailed because the casino has noticed what they are doing. It’s the same with play-tracking systems that had their day and the facial-recognition systems that are all the rage now. They can’t be applied until the casino has noticed you and pointed the Eye in the Sky in your direction.

But once the casino has noticed what you are doing you are pretty much SOL anyway; Griffin and these high-tech toys just provide confirmation. This is true whether you are illegally plying slot machines with doodads that bollix up their coin returns or legally counting cards. At least when you are card-counting, there isn’t much they can legally do to you other than show you the door.

One of the things that makes it possible for X and his minions to play is that casinos are departmentalized. These are at a minimum Slots, Table games, and Promotions, and they don’t talk to one another. It has often happened that we were barred by a table game pitboss only to receive a mailer from Promotions inviting us back weeks later. It has been established in Nevada that this invalidates the recital you were given of the Trespass Act; they can’t have you arrested for showing up where they have invited you. We have also gotten wildly different receptions from the three casino shifts, which also don’t communicate much. Sure, it’s in the computer, but nobody gets it out of the computer until they notice there might be something worth looking up.

By 1999, X’s team had won half a million dollars and he had eight people playing for him.

Through the Looking Glass

In the real world, when you look at the menu for an expensive restaurant you think

boy that lobster sounds good but what does “market price” mean?

In casino looking-glass land, it goes more like this:

damn he wrote the comp for two hundred bucks how are we gonna burn all that up? hey let’s start with the lobster!

X, Y, and several other letters of the alphabet were criscrossing the country by 1998. New gaming jurisdictions were busting out all over the map and they were filled with clueless pit personnel who were blinded by the size of their action. Y took me along on some of these trips where we ate rich food and drank expensive booze. X and Y went on many others, driving to such improbable locales as Chicago and Cherokee, NC.

The Cherokee casino, run by Harrah’s, was a source of particular strangeness; with no hotel, located in a dry county, it offered no possible way to cash in several thousand dollars a day worth of comp points. So X and Y and several other letters came back laden with cans of peanuts, chocolates, Native American artifacts, leather jackets, and even pants specially ordered for them by the gift shop. The gift shop stopped accepting comp points shortly before the countable Blackjack machines were reprogrammed to be un-countable.

Overenthusiastic guards pursued X from a Bossier City, Louisiana casino, presumably in an attempt to find out where he was staying. The resulting car chase ended undramatically when X lost his followers; he was in a sedan and they were in a marked casino van. It was an unusual version of a ritual which was usually accomplished with a backhanded compliment.

For the most part I didn’t get to experience the thrill of being pursued by overzealous guards. I did one time get to cash out seven thousand dollars worth of cheques while Y made for the door. We could hear the pit personnel arguing about us and knew the game was up. Casinos have dangerously high noise levels; in my real job I take training on this and have been taught that noise pressure levels between 80 and 100 decibels are not painful, but still result in progressive hearing loss. Many casino personnel are deaf as stones from too much time around the clanging slot machines, and when they think they’re whispering you can hear them from across the pit.

Throughout all of this we came to perceive that most people didn’t have a clue what goes on at the high end of casino life. It’s not like what you see on the TV special about “whales” (except maybe for the few hundred such people [Editor’s Note: and who now go to Macau instead.]. It’s not like a Mario Puzo novel (except maybe for Fools Die, and then only a little). The most striking thing, once you get to the green chip level, is how few winners there are. We made no friends at the tables where X and Y were eventually betting $1,000 a hand; the whole proceeding had a marked air of desperation. The casino personnel were desperate for our action; the other players at our level were desperate to recover losses which they wouldn’t ever recover. Everyone was lying about everything; we were lying about who we were and what we were doing, the other players were lying to their spouses, shareholders, partners, and accountants about where the money was; and the casino folks were grinning and pumping out the fairy tales they hoped would bring us back to lose what we had just won where we had just won it.

Stand at the corner of Tropicana and Las Vegas boulevards, and you can turn 360 degrees and see Sagans of dollars worth of investment — a giant MGM lion, a pyramid, a life-sized King Arthur’s castle and one-third size New York skyline, with the more distant towers of other properties providing a backdrop. The money to build those monuments to tackiness does not come from people who are playing $5 a hand Blackjack to get free drinks. It comes from the green and black chip players, usually businessmen, who can afford to bet at these levels at least for a while. There are very few “regulars” at this level the way there were at the tournaments.

As I found out when I began gambling, it is perfectly possible for a five-dollar player to lose $1,000 without ever seeing a winning session. But a regular person with a job and a mortgage can afford that. Your expectation, superimposed on the swings of outrageous fortune, is to lose ten to twenty bucks an hour. (You will probably play 60 to 100 hands an hour; this generates several hundred dollars in action. The casino expects to keep two to five percent of this total.) Joe Sixpack can usually afford this too, though he might not realize just how high the tax is.

At the green chip ($25 minimum) level, Joe Sixpack will get wiped out. Swings of $5,000 are common, and the vig is more like $100 an hour. Some ordinary people can sustain this play for the annual Las Vegas vacation, but not if they are driving to the local casino every week. Some professionals with high incomes can sustain this play, but they are unusual. The story of Mrs. J, who managed to lose a $300,000 windfall along with her husband is much more typical.

At the black chip ($100 minimum) level, the air gets very thin. You can lose the ranch in a single session, and many of the occupations which can keep you funded against the vig are illegal. There are people who play a lot at this level, but few of them play for very long. Those that can don’t want to make your acquaintance. They’re either dodging autograph seekers or the law.

One of the most suspicious things about our own play as the 1999 rolled over into 2000 was not the card-counting bet spread. It was the fact that we were playing at levels up to $1,000 a hand, and we kept coming back even though we obviously weren’t rock stars, athletes, or mafiosos.

A Casino Odyssey: Part Four

was Originally Published
Sun Jul 22, 2001 at 12:41:37 PM EST


We were living a life many people dream of, jet-setting to exotic locations, staying in huge hotel suites, eating like royalty, watching prizefights and concerts and dazzling shows from seats so exclusive you couldn’t buy tickets if you wanted to, and handling tens of thousands of dollars in cash as if it were pocket change.

And it was all starting to feel very, very wrong.


We begin to realize what we’ve stepped in

The casino fairy-tale jumped the shark for me in mid 1999 at the New Palace casino in Biloxi. The Old Palace had gone bankrupt and the New owners were offering a pretty good game to lure people in. Y was playing aggressively, figuring to get in as much play as possible before getting the inevitable boot. The count was going up and the dealer could do no wrong.

Across the table was a guy in his mid-50’s. He was overweight, and nursing both a beer and a cigar. I wasn’t betting, and neither was the guy’s wife. I was doing the act I usually do while watching Y lose big. “I’ve seen this movie before. Hey, could you get me a waitress? Now I really need a drink.” Across the table the guy with the beer and cigar was betting several hundred bucks a hand and losing almost as quickly as Y. After a disastrous hand in which both players lost multiple splits and doubles, the wife met my gaze, shook her head just a bit, and rolled her eyes.

There was just one problem with this moment of shared suffering; I was an imposter. The $20,000 Y lost on this shoe was meaningless, because it would be offset by $22,000 won somewhere else in short order. But the guy with the cigar and the beer and the sunken features was cruising toward destruction. He might already be playing with money he couldn’t afford to lose; and if he wasn’t, he would be eventually. That’s the real movie I’d seen before, too many times.

Y likes to make the point that gambling is the worst form of addiction, because there is a limit to how much coke or heroin you can put into yourself but there is no limit to how much money you can piss away in a casino. The same place that takes your money on average ten cents a hand at the $5 table will happily arrange to take it $100 a hand at a private, ten thousand dollar minimum table opened just for you.

Casinos “work” (in the sense that they are effective tools for separating customers from their money) by exploiting two universal human misperceptions. The first of these is a tendency to perceive patterns in randomness. The cruel losing streak with which I began my gambling career was no deliberate taunt by god or evidence of crooked games; it was a perfectly ordinary run of random numbers. As Knuth wrote with regard to random number generators, if your RNG can’t pump out a string of 20 zeroes then it really isn’t random. That is a perfectly valid result which must happen just as often as any other arbitrary string of 20 results. But when it happens, we don’t think “hmmm, that is a perfectly valid if unusual result.” We think the game is fixed or biased, and if we’re gambling we might smirk and place a bet.

The second misperception has to do with the house edge. It seems so reasonable, just a few percent tax to pay the dealer and build the casino. But most of us think of that percentage with regard to the drop rather than action. The typical 25-cent slot or $5 blackjack player thinks of the $100 he’s bought in for, not of the thousands upon thousands of dollars in individual bets he can make before losing that stake. The exponential nature of the math turns that tiny percentage into an all-devouring black hole, which can eat the world a nibble at a time.

The people who run casinos know this. This is why they are so paranoid about card counters. The truth is that most card counters lose. They either don’t play perfectly, they piss their winnings away at other games like Craps where they don’t have an edge, or they are underfunded. Casinos spend far more in detection, tracking, and harrassment than they would ever lose if they just let counters play. But card counters take away their sacred edge, faith in which is the backbone of the entire industry.

If we have noticed the depressing tendency of green and black chippers to suddenly stop coming around, it’s hard to imagine that the casino personnel who track their play are unaware of it. When you are a low roller, the fellow who shakes your hand and remembers your preference in beer and writes you the occasional buffet comp seems like any other service employee. When you are a high roller he seems like a source of redemption, offsetting your losses with a nice dinner and tickets to the fight. When you are outside the system and as familiar with it as we are, you realize he is the worst sort of vampire. Behind the glitz and the chance to win is a snaggle-fanged monster ready to cast you aside as soon as it has sucked you dry.

Newbies are often amazed at the hypocrisy of casinos vis-a-vis their treatment of card counters. “You mean they kick you out just because you used your BRAIN?” Yes, they do. Because when you reach into their game and seize their edge, you become the monster with all its mighty stealth and power. The local swings of variance become your ally, masking the slow steady trickle of their wealth into your hands. They know exactly what the edge does, exactly how variance masks its effect until it’s too late, and it puts the fear of God into them to find you have it instead of them.

We began to wonder about the gladhanding suits who congratulated us on our wins and sympathized with our losses and plied us with food and free airfare and jacuzzi suites. How do they sleep at night? As they shake your hand and check your action in the computer they are sizing you up, wondering what it will take to bring you back. No doubt wondering how long you’ll last. They are more likely than anyone to be able to foresee the broken family, the busted business, the jail time, the suicide that might be in your future. There is only one word to describe the kind of person that can shake your hand and smile in the face of such understanding, and that word is evil.

Flatness of Aspect

None of us gambles any more recreationally. In 1999 I had my first official losing year; we were scheduling our visits to casinoland around Y’s card counting, instead of opportunities for me to get low-level advantage play. And as X’s aggregate win crept toward the million dollar mark, regular play lost its appeal. We could see with great clarity how meaningless a fifty-thousand dollar swing was in the face of a percentage edge. It no longer felt like a fun thing to let the casino do that to us, even for chump change.

X doesn’t even play much Blackjack any more, and claims he has been cured of his gambling addiction. The action is no longer exciting; the short-term wins elicit no feeling of triumph, the short-term losses no sense of doom. Counting itself is simple and unchallenging; X and Y can both walk past a table full of dealt cards and mutter “plus six” without even thinking about it. It’s just practice.

The logistical problems of running his team and managing the bankroll have taken up much of his time. The exciting game of cat-and-mouse has turned into a job, with the unusual caveat that you get fired for doing it too well.

Y has vowed to play as long as possible despite increasing difficulties. “I’m gonna get everything from those vampires I can.” Most of X’s other players have expressed similar sentiments.

The greatest obstacles to continued play ironically don’t involve the great expense put by casinos into surveillance and detection; they have been erected by the Government. Anti-money-laundering laws require the casino to fill out paperwork whenever more than $10,000 in cash changes hands; and while it’s legal to lie to a casino about who you are it’s not legal to put false information on a CTR. At the level X plays $10,000 can change hands very quickly, and X and his players are sensibly unwilling to commit felonies to keep playing. This makes it entirely too easy for the casino to cross-reference your information and learn that you’re the guy who was barred on swing shift two weeks ago.

Card counters have to deal in cash because you can’t use the casino credit system without revealing your true identity either. But draconian forfeiture laws make it dangerous to carry around large amounts of cash. At the airport and at the traffic stop it makes you a drug dealer until proven otherwise. Ex-team member B had $24,000 stolen from him by a local police department in North Carolina. Try proving that you won your money at the casino sometime.

The Company We Keep

You’d think the casinos would welcome the push to marginalize cash and help identify their patrons, but they’ve accommodated the CTR requirements as late and grudgingly as possible. The reason is that a lot of their patrons are drug dealers. And organized criminals. And embezzlers. The casino really doesn’t want to know where the money came from, any more than they want to know what happens to you once they’ve extracted it from you.

We spent a few hours in Caesar’s Palace on New Year’s Eve 1999. Many of the tables required minimum bets of five hundred dollars, and minimums of less than $100 were not to be found. And the place was packed. There were lots of Italian gentlemen, some of whom spoke little or no English. There were lots of Japanese and Chinese gentlemen, ditto. They were throwing orange ($1,000) chips around like Mardi Gras doubloons and having a grand old time. And the usual opening questions of casual casino table conversation, “Where are you from” and “What do you do” were not to be heard.

(Y did make the mistake of asking one Chinese gentlman who was betting about our level where he was from. After several seconds of hard thought, he answered “carriphonia,” or something like that.)

There was some worry that terrorists would strike Las Vegas on that evening. If they had blown up Caesar’s, they would have solved the international organized crime problem in one swell foop.

This has all worked in our favor. The fact that we keep returning and playing at these levels after more than three years is highly suspicious. The casinos know we are lying about the money coming from “my business,” but they let us play because they don’t care that the money might be stolen or earned selling smack to kids. They only start caring who we are when they begin to suspect we won the money from them.

Through the Looking Glass, Backward

We have a lot of photographs of ourselves in suites most people only see in movies, dining on five-star meals amongst the Picassos and Renoirs, and holding big fake checks. We have a lot more money. And we have seen the darkest side of human nature. We have seen men smile and feign friendship even as they are sharpening knives for the slaughter. We have become familiar with the faintly bewildered expression of the busted-out loser as he staggers back to the real world. We have looked into his eyes and turned away, because it takes too long to explain, it’s too late, and he wouldn’t believe us anyway.

This is the story I want to tell my other friends, the people I work with, and the random folks I see entering casinos. It’s not what it looks like, I want to tell them. But it’s like trying to describe nausea. It’s like describing the feeling when you stick your hand into a dark space and find some rotting maggot-ridden dead thing. We actually went there. We overcame obstacles whose height we never realized, and we didn’t understand how rare a thing that was. For years we won and I thought the casinos were just wonderful and I told so many hundreds of people that they were. And all the time I had no idea.

When the long-suffering wife shot me a sympathetic glance, and I responded in kind, for one brief awful moment I was the gladhanding sack of shit. In that moment I knew. But how do you put such an awful feeling into words?

Sometimes, foolishly, I do try to tell them.

But not often. Because

I had such great luck the other night, I hit four hundred quarters, I split tens and drew two aces and I just KNEW the dealer was going to bust and you know the seven is coming when the dice go off the table and I never start with full coin, you have to see how a machine is going before you commit, it’s not gambling when you count, I’m down twelve, how do you remember all those cards, that shooter was so hot the dice were on fire and we cleaned the table out of green chips and the machine never hits if you use the buttons to spin the reels and wow that’s wonderful how you’ve won so much. But I really just like to play the slots.


The following was originally posted as the first comment to the thread beneath the story.

Where Are They Now Dept. [Editor’s Note: As of July 2001]

Since 1997, X and his team have won about 1.5 million dollars. X has paid about half of this to his players; much of the rest is invested, and about $200,000 is kept liquid as the team bankroll. Risk-of-ruin calculations indicate that this bankroll is all but unbustable; he cannot play at levels which really risk it because of the CTR mess.

We are aware of three other teams which have won similar amounts in the same timeframe. Since Ed Thorpe published Beat the Dealer we figure less than a hundred people have ever managed to do this. And nearly all of them started with investment comparable to their eventual win. We aren’t aware of anyone who ever started out playing red chips, as X did, and won a million dollars.

A lot more people have tried and failed. (You will find a lot of these in Blackjack forums on the Internet.) As X found out, if you don’t do everything perfectly, you join the ranks of the losers.

Meanwhile, in 1998 alone the casino industry won 50 billion dollars.

Countermeasures and cover have eaten more and more time as X and his players seek beatable games they are allowed to play. I figure it has cost between ten and fifteen man-years of full-time effort for the team to realize its win. That isn’t so impressive when you break it down. Most of X’s players have earned less than $100,000 a year.

It took X almost a decade to hit on the formula that worked. During that time he abandoned job after job to pursue his dream of beating the system. He was able to get those jobs because, when he applies himself, he is a gifted and highly successful salesman. Had he simply stuck with one of the many opportunities he had to enter a career, he would likely have been making $100,000 or more per year since the early 1990’s.

As it stands, he is in his early 40’s and all but unemployable. (Would you hire someone whose last job was “professional gambler?”) His team is still playing and earning money but he is being squeezed by increasingly paranoid countermeasures. An additional problem is that many people in the industry are now too young to remember the lawsuits and judgements which resulted when card counters were beaten up by casino staff in the early 1980’s. This year there have been several incidents of assault on counters (including X himself) by casino staff. We are worried that one day soon somebody is going to end up in the hospital. This was totally unheard-of in the 90’s, when the corporate line was more like “we aren’t run by organized crime any more and we don’t risk our shareholders’ money by doing things like that.”

Y’s identity has been burned out nearly everywhere. Y is currently taking a break. We don’t know how long this break will be; “indefinite” is a possibility.

I have had a standing offer to join the team myself ever since X formed it, but I think you’ve guessed by now that I’ll never take him up on it. It’s fantastically difficult for him to find players who will both play correctly and account honestly for the money. (No, I’m not going to put you in touch with him.)

My coworkers still think of me as the local gambling expert, and ply me with stories about their latest adventures. Nobody has noticed how uncomfortable this makes me lately. They also still ask for advice, which (as always) they promptly ignore when I make the mistake of giving it.

It has been almost a year since I even entered a casino, and almost two since I actually placed a bet.


[Editor’s Note: Thanks to industry consolidation which means that most of the casino industry is now owned by a very few corporations, the opportunities for comps and cash discussed in this article are gone. Where the customer has no choice, the industry will offer no incentives — and this proved as true of the gambling industry as for any other. We had a good ride, but the money’s long gone, so don’t be afraid to hit the tip jar on the way out if you enjoyed this story. None of it is going to find its way back to Harrah’s Entertainment.]


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Classic Roger #6: Bearly Gods– A Review of Grizzly Man

Bearly Gods: A Review of Grizzly Man was originally published to kuro5hin.org Sat Feb 18, 2006.


For thirteen seasons Timothy Treadwell lived among the brown grizzly bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park. And at the end of his thirteenth season, one of the bears ate him. It was ironic and gruesome, more gruesome because the bear also got his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, most gruesome because his ever-present video camera was there to record the audio as its owners were killed.

Treadwell had collected hundreds of hours of video in his quest to protect the grizzlies by raising public awareness of them. Two years after his death it fell to film director Werner Herzog to assemble Treadwell’s last footage, not into the story of bears that Treadwell intended, but into the story of Treadwell himself: Grizzly Man.

It is one of the most powerful and fascinating movies I have ever seen.


Grizzly Man opens on a shot of Timothy Treadwell delivering a long, rambling, loony narrative about being a “gentle warrior” as a grizzly bear snuffles in the background. This is typical of Herzog’s technique; although he forthrightly disagrees with Treadwell’s philosophy, he allows Treadwell himself to form the worst impressions of his own personality.

Over and over, from the opening monologue to the footage shot only hours before his death, Treadwell emphasizes and even seems to relish the danger of what he is doing. “If you slip up you’ll get eaten,” he warns us, “Yep, down the gullet you’ll go.” He warns us that he is breaking the rules; “You should camp in the open; my camp is hidden. This is the most dangerous kind of camping there is.” Elsewhere he asserts, somewhat hyperbolically, that he is in more danger than anyone on the planet.

Treadwell made a reputation for himself by bringing his infectious enthusiasm to classrooms and auditoriums, and later to talk shows. He famously told David Letterman that grizzlies were “just big party animals.” For the last five of his thirteen seasons he brought the video camera, and this is what attracted the attention of Werner Herzog. For whatever his failings might have been as a human being or bear expert, Treadwell captured video of astonishing power and beauty. Treadwell may be dead, but these images are his enduring legacy.

Leaving the World

Herzog goes into Treadwell’s past, interviewing his parents and old friends, but until he met the bears he was maddeningly normal; there is nothing to indicate where this obsession might have arisen or why it had such power over him. He was a failed actor turned, by his own admission, to drink and drugs. Had things turned out a little differently the story of his life might have been another movie. But somehow he made his way to Katmai, found the bears, and determined that they needed a protector who wasn’t “a messed-up person.”

Whether the bears needed a protector is an open question; the park service says poaching is a minor problem at most and that the population is stable. Treadwell’s supporters and the organization he founded, Grizzly People, disagree. But in his one encounter with actual human interlopers, Treadwell cowers in the bushes afraid to reveal himself. These humans are no hunters, but even as they throw rocks at one of his beloved bears to provoke it for their cameras Treadwell frets and videotapes but does not intervene. It seems that the protection Treadwell hopes to offer is more spiritual than physical. By blurring the line between the bear and human worlds Treadwell seems to hope that humans will, overall, be forced to pay more attention and take better care of the bears and their habitat.

But as he insinuated himself more and more into the world of the Katmai bears, Treadwell seemed to lose touch with the world of humans. At times Treadwell uses his camera the way some people use blogs, venting his feelings with a candor he would certainly have edited away if he had lived.

In one rambling monologue he frets about his love life. “And I’m pretty good, well, you’re not supposed to talk about that but I think I am,” he sort of brags about his sexual prowess. “So why do I have such trouble with women?” (Uh, dude, do you think it might be the obsession with bears?)

Elsewhere he delivers a blistering condemnation of the Park Service, and the individual employees that have worked with him over the years. Most eerily, although he is with his girlfriend he elaborately maintains the illusion that he is completely alone, even troubling to explain how it “hits you” as the plane flies off.

Gods Upon the Earth

Early in the movie a succession of interviewees opine that Treadwell’s obsession with the bears was a form of religion. This certainly makes more sense than any other theory. Treadwell’s mental model of the bear certainly doesn’t have much to do with, well, bears. And this is where Herzog draws his sharpest and most poignant observations.

After showing us Treadwell’s descent into the world of the bears — one interviewee says “he would woof at you” — Herzog tells us, “I have seen this madness on the studio set.” This is a powerful understatement; if you happen to know that Herzog made Fitzcarraldo, you would understand that Herzog has not just seen this madness, he has been possessed by it himself. In fact, his own obsession was documented just as he documents Treadwell’s. So he is no stranger to this phenomenon, our director and narrator.

Treadwell says of the bears, “everything about them is perfect.” But this image of perfection doesn’t seem to include some perfectly common aspects of bear behavior, such as males killing the cubs to bring females back into estrous, or females cannibalizing their own cubs in lean times. Treadwell’s view of nature in harmonious balance does not include fox cubs being preyed upon by wolves.

Ever a ray of sunshine, Werner contrasts Timothy’s worldview with his own: “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.” Days before his death, Treadwell films what may be the very bear that killed him, and Werner says: “I look into this blank stare and see only a half-bored interest in possible food; Treadwell saw in the same gaze a friend, even salvation.”

The Wikipedia page says that Treadwell was in the park late in the season 2003 because of a “special circumstance.” In Grizzly Man it is suggested that he was preparing to return to civilization when there was a dispute about the validity of his airline ticket. Rather than deal with this annoyance, typical as it was of everything he hated about the human world, he decided to return to his beloved bears. But now, late in the season, “his” bears were mostly in hibernation. The bears who met him were, as Herzog puts it, “new, scary bears from the interior.” These bears were insufficiently prepared for the winter and desperate. They were, to put it bluntly, hungry.

Although he does say to the ever-present bloglike camera at one time, “Please don’t let me get eaten by a bear,” one is left with the impression that Treadwell may not have been all that disappointed in his manner of departure from this mortal coil. Indeed, this brings us back to a topic which isn’t covered in the movie at all: Given that he was a drug and booze-addled failed actor looking for salvation, what in the hell dragged him to Alaska to find his calling with the bears?

In his monologues Timothy makes it clear that he cleaned himself up after discovering the majesty of the bears, because they needed a “protector” who was not “messed up.” How, then, did the messed-up person end up in Katmai National Park?

Did he originally go to Alaska to die? In all of his video monologues Treadwell shows a remarkable shallowness of observation, particularly in regard to matters of life and death. He is fascinated by and dwells on the potential for getting eaten by a bear. In my own mind I see Treadwell making his way to Alaska with the thought of not coming back half-formed, making his way to Katmai with the thought half-formed, recklessly approaching the bear as all the guide books tell you to never do, the bear rearing up like some god out of a comic book and then ambling off, Treadwell not being worth the bother when the salmon are running. And the drug and booze-addled failed actor drawing the conclusion so many others have drawn over the centuries: I must have been spared for a reason.

This is of course pure conjecture, but if it were true it would explain much.

The Cipher

The helicopter pilot who brought Treadwell back in a plastic bag says on film: “Treadwell got what he deserved. The tragedy was that he brought the girl along.”

In all of Treadwell’s footage there were only two blurry shots of Amie Huguenard. Amie’s family did not cooperate with Herzog’s venture, leaving him with a maddening absence of visuals about this person whose death was so intimately tied to Treadwell’s, yet not nearly so ironic. Late in the movie Herzog shows us a third shot, given to him at the last moment in editing perhaps because it was being kept in evidence; it shows Amie ducking out of the shot as Timothy films a bear looming behind her. “Timothy’s diary reveals that Amie was afraid of the bears,” Herzog tells us as he freezes the frame, revealing her face for one brief instant in all of Timothy’s hundreds of hours of film.

Herzog does not play the death tape for us. Instead, he lets the coroner describe it: Treadwell is yelling for help. Amie screams. Treadwell screams. You can hear Amie striking the bear with a frying pan. Finally, Treadwell says “Run. Amie, Run!” Perhaps realizing that he is really going to die he tells Amie to save herself. But Amie stays and continues to fight. The bear wanders off for a moment and Amie tries to tend to Treadwell’s wounds. But then the bear returns, and kills Amie too.

Herzog seems to find Amie’s behavior mysterious; Treadwell’s diary and film make it clear that Amie was getting disillusioned and was likely to leave Treadwell soon. Why did she stay? I think this is a point where Herzog’s usually clear vision failed him; it’s very simple. There was nowhere for Amie to run to. She was all alone hundreds of miles from civilization, her camp invaded by a murderous bear, her protector dead, the spell that had kept him safe for thirteen years obviously gone if it had ever existed at all.

The Legacy

Timothy Treadwell’s organization, Grizzly People, still exists. Treadwell’s old girlfriend Jewel Palovak still runs it [at the time of writing in 2006]. When Jewel and Timothy met, as she relates on film, they were both working at a SCA-theme restaurant called Gulliver’s. Jewel is just one of many people lifed from obscurity and inspired by Timothy’s enthusiasm and his work.

Timothy’s videos exist, and beyond Timothy’s goofy Peter-Pan enthusiasm they remain powerfully beautiful.

And of course there is the one tape, recorded with the lens cap in place but the microphone open, full of the sounds of death which Timothy Treadwell never did understand were also a fundamental component of the natural world. Werner does not play the tape but he does listen to it, as Jewel holds the camera. After a few moments Werner looks at her. “You must never listen to this,” he tells her, and she nods almost hysterically. “My advice is to get rid of it. Destroy it. If you keep this it will be the white elephant in the room for the rest of your life.”

I wonder if she was able to follow his advice.



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Classic Roger #5: The Fifth Gift, An SF Story

The Fifth Gift

was originally published to kuro5hin.org Sat Aug 20, 2005.

[Editor’s Note: If you enjoy localroger’s fiction, don’t miss The Mortal Passage Trilogy complete package which includes all three stories in the original trilogy, as well as a fourth bonus story set in the same universe.]


Making a new tunic reminded me of how far I had to go. I was using a lock-stitching awl, which was a manufactured artifact, and waxed cotton thread which was not of my own making. The leather was mine; I had killed the pig, skinned it, and tanned its hide myself. I had colored it with soot and vegetable dyes. But I had used a razor knife to cut it, more technology. One day I would have to take up flintknapping.

I wanted nothing to do with the world of other humans or their tools, but my childhood was spent working toward the Ph.D. I would eventually receive in Physics, not learning the survival arts any hunter-gatherer would take for granted. Still, I had made much progress. I sowed and I planted, I kept my own seasonal calendar, I hunted and I preserved and prepared my own food. I built and thatched my own small cabin. I did not use electricity or refined fuel. It was a calming way to live, and I was more physically fit than I had ever been. It was almost possible, sometimes, to forget that I was never really alone.

But while I was making my new tunic, the phone rang.


The Iridium satellite phone spends its days connected to a little solar panel that keeps it charged. It is the one bit of high technology I cannot get rid of. If it were ever to ring and I were to fail to answer it, I would not be the only one to die.

“I’m here,” I said irritably.”

“The helicopter is on its way. Be ready.”

An hour later I was flying, an old dream of men we have managed to turn into a terrifying bore. The pilot and guards didn’t know who I was or why I had been summoned; they had only been told to kill me if I offered any resistance.

“Well if it isn’t Daniel Boone,” Agent Smith said mockingly as I jumped out. I waited for the chopper to be gone before answering.

“I take it there’s another one.”

“Of course. Why else would we annoy ourselves with your troublesome presence?”

The First Gift

The first time I had met Smith and Jones I was still young enough to be idealistic and patriotic, and their offer to let me help my country seemed like a wonderful opportunity.

After I signed all the forms and passed the tests, I was taken to this remote and nearly empty facility in Idaho where I became the ninth person in the entire world to learn of the Gift. It had been left outside the door of a farmer who lived near Indianola, Mississippi. It was an artifact, a solid cubic box about twenty centimeters on a side and with a small array of pure copper posts sticking out of one face. It came with a small booklet written in a dense and confusing mix of technical jargon, maths, and attempted explanations in several human languages. None of the other eight people who knew about it could make sense of this instruction manual, but I found that it made a certain kind of weird sense to me.

I had been working on the problem for a week when I learned that the family who had received it were all dead. It wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to know, but it impressed on me the seriousness of what I was doing.

The aliens called the box a “matter generator,” but we’d be more inclined to call it a matter duplicator. By connecting switches and potentiometers between the copper posts it was possible to make the box mark off two cubic rectangular areas of volume. Make a certain contact, and these areas would be isolated within perfectly reflective fields. They could be expanded or contracted by altering resistances between other posts. As I worked out the user interface I built a little control panel for the device. It was actually a clever way for the aliens to do things; instead of trying to build controls we could use, they built us an interface we could attach to controls that made sense to us. It could also be automated.

Once you had made the contact that established the shielded volumes, if you made another certain contact the contents of the first volume were copied to the second. The machine copied metal, plastic, steel, and diamond with equal ease. Copies of copies of copies of copies were indistinguishable from the originals at any magnification, even using techniques like X-ray crystallography.

The machine would also make copies of itself. The copies worked exactly the same way the original did.

Smith and Jones wanted to know where the copies came from. The instructions were quite clear on that, once you penetrated the alien jargon; they were created whole. The matter was not taken from some other place in the universe. It was made by the “matter generator.” The generators also didn’t seem to require a power source; they were powered by whatever first principle generated the copies. Nor was there any obvious limit on their use. A single such device could yield an endless stream of oil, fresh water, cool air, or any other commodity of interest. Not to mention an endless stream of perfect manufactured goods based on a single carefully built prototype.

It did have limitations. It wouldn’t copy living things, although it would copy dead things and food. It wouldn’t copy certain intensely radioactive elements, and it would copy any radionuclide to its most stable and common isotope. Copies of bits of wood emerged containing no carbon-14 at all; copies of an old radium dial wristwatch did not glow. Copies of chemical high explosive did, however, explode quite normally.

The matter generator itself seemed to be made of ordinary enough matter, which was presumably why it was able to copy itself. Chemically it was a hard semiconductive ceramic material. If you drilled into one more than a couple of millimeters it would stop working, but no matter how we destroyed them there was no indication of dangerous energies stored within. The electron microscope revealed a very detailed but wholly mysterious structure at nanometer scale.

When I had learned all that I could, Smith and Jones locked up all the matter generators and their copies and all the copies of things we had made and warned me that if I told anyone about this they would die. I protested that it was an awesome opportunity we were throwing away; with this technology we could remake and clean up our entire world. And Smith had smiled and warned me that my enthusiasm made them suspicious, and any friends of mine who might have been told of my work might have to be eliminated on principle.

“What sane reason could there be for locking this thing up instead of using it?” I demanded.

“Suppose we do remake our world with these things. Then suppose one day they all stop working. Can we risk that? You tell me we have no way to even begin to know how they work. Can we know that they aren’t booby trapped in some way? Unless we do know that, we have to make sure nobody even learns that they exist. Because this is too seductive. It really is too good to be true.”

It was a good point, which I’d eventually take to heart.

— — — — —

“This one has two terminals,” Jones said. “The instructions are even more opaque than usual.”

“I’ll handle that,” I said, and they looked at me sharply. It irritated them to need me.

“This one was found in the central square of a village west of Veracruz, Mexico.”

“A village square, eh? That must have been awkward.”

“It’s too bad you don’t take the news. You might have heard about the terrible industrial accident they had down there. It sent a cloud of poison gas…”

“There’s a reason I don’t take the news,” I snapped, and Jones smiled wickedly.

The Second Gift

When the second Gift was found I had already made myself alone. I had found a reason to break up with Jennifer and had distanced myself from all my old university friends. Somewhere there was a Swiss bank account with a large amount of money that was allegedly mine, but I had also inherited my parents’ modest estate and I was living on that, in an apartment near Spokane Washington. I found the mountain view refreshing.

This Gift had two very large fat terminals on opposite sides of the cubic box, and a small terminal central to them on a third face. I gleaned from the documentation that if I applied a voltage between either large terminal and the small one, the same voltage would appear between the two large terminals. Up to seven hundred and twenty volts at five hundred fifteen amperes.

This was a much simpler Gift than the first Gift, but the first Gift was central to its utility; for the matter generator could generate copies of the energy generator, and they could be ganged in series and parallel. Using ten of them in parallel I made a piece of rebar glow like the filament of a light bulb, flashing incandescent white before it melted. Using them in series I made lightning play across the shop parking lot. Using three of them, since the building has three-phase power, I used a little battery powered transistor oscillator to tickle them into powering our entire facility. This was just a parlor trick; I explained to Smith and Jones that with enough of these you could easily replace every power plant in the world. Because they could be distributed where they were needed, you could also get rid of the ugly and expensive distribution grid we used to move electricity around. One of these boxes would power an entire city block. A couple of dozen of them would power even the hungriest industrial processes.

But again I got the lecture about becoming too dependent on something we didn’t understand. When I allowed as to how it might be too important to keep to ourselves Smith told me, very gently, that they had grave doubts about my dedication to the secrecy clause in my contract. In particular they worried that I might have let Jennifer know too much. If they got too worried, Jennifer would have to die.

I took the hint. But I also took another lesson. It wasn’t just alien Gifts I decided might not be trustworthy, and I started looking for a place where I could be alone.

— — — — —

The Gift with two terminals sat on a lab table. The lab was exactly as I had left it two years before; nobody else ever went there. The other Gifts, the copies made by the matter generators, and so on were stored in glass cabinets at the far end of the room.

I started reading, or rather scanning, the booklet. The aliens didn’t seem to understand our culture very well, which was one of the more worrisome things about their Gifts. How could they know that these powerful things would not harm us? Their poor understanding of our own communication methods was not encouraging. After some brainstorming I realized that this was some kind of field generator. Short out the terminals, and the field would be established. I wasn’t too clear on what the field was supposed to do, but one thing was very clear. It would encompass the entire planet, and probably our Moon as well.

When I told Smith and Jones this they became very dour. “I’m not sure we can risk testing it then,” Smith said. “I’ll have to check upstairs.” “Upstairs” would mean one of the other six people who knew about all this shit.

“Well, if they wanted to destroy us they could have made the very first box do that. Do you want me to keep working on the purpose of this field?”

“Oh, absolutely. But under no conditions try to test it. This could very well be the thing we fear most.”

“I understand.”

The Third Gift

By the time the third Gift was found I was living high in the mountains of Washington State, far from the nearest road. I was still pretty dependent on technology; I cheated a bit and used a chain saw to build my cabin. But I had gotten books and I was practicing the skills I’d need to survive on my own. While I was working on my cabin, though, Smith arrived by helicopter with a Gift of his own. It was the Iridium phone with its solar charger. He allowed as to how a bit of solitude might help my demeanor. He elaborated that a reliable communication link would help me and my old friends to live to a nice old age.

The third Gift was called a “force generator.” It had a pair of terminals on each face. Establishing a low resistance path between the terminals would cause the box to generate a force pushing away from that face. The maximum force, corresponding to a dead short between the terminals, would be nearly ten thousand pounds. Just bridging a pair of terminals with your fingers would make it slide away across a desktop.

I sent Jones out to find an old car, and we spent an afternoon gutting the engine compartment and mounting a copy of the original force generator to the frame. With an old game controller replacing the accelerator the car would silently do zero to sixty in less than three seconds. Since the maximum force was greater than the weight of the car it would easily pull itself out of gullies and mud. The maximum speed was limited only by the tires and suspension; I pegged the speedometer at 120 MPH several times. Like the other Gifts it didn’t seem to require fuel or maintenance.

I spent some time with the force generator trying to figure out how it sensed the control resistance. I couldn’t detect any sense voltage across the terminals, or any current flow when they were shorted, even with my most sensitive instruments. But then a technology that can create matter, energy, and force out of thin air might not need the usual methods to measure electrical resistance.

When Smith and Jones were satisfied that I had learned all I could, I went back to my cabin without complaining about the benefits such a device could have for humanity. Humanity had already betrayed my expectations far more effectively than any aliens might hope to, and I didn’t really care any more.

— — — — —

“This is the key passage,” I said as Smith and Jones looked on stonily. “‘Within the field established by this device the functioning of any self-directed goal-seeking information processing system is optimized.’ Then there’s a lot of math, which would probably be of a lot of interest to anybody doing AI research.”

“Self-directed goal-seeking what?” Smith said. “What are they talking about, our computers?”

“No,” I said. “I think they’re talking about us.”

The Fourth Gift

The fourth Gift was different. It was small, a personal thing not meant to be industrialized. It was the size of a stopwatch, flat and round, with a big flat contact on one side. The working was simple but vague; it claimed to generate a zone of safety around any person whose skin was in contact with its single electrode.

“Safety from what?” Jones asked sensibly.

“There are a lot of suggestions. High velocity impactors. Bullets? Fists? I’m not sure. Also a lot about the atmosphere. Apparently it keeps the air pure. And excludes harmful radiation.”

“Electromagnetic or nuclear radiation?”

“Might be both.”

“Testing it will be risky.”

“If we get test subjects, you’ll kill them after the tests, won’t you?”

Smith and Jones looked at one another. “There isn’t much choice.”

“Then I’ll test it.”

“We need your skills.”

“Not so much that you wouldn’t kill me if I didn’t answer the phone.”

Smith shrugged. “It’s a bad situation. Test it yourself then, but try to be careful.”

“Your voice just drips with concern for my welfare.”

But I was careful. It did indeed repel kinetic attacks; anything that would be likely to form a bruise was repelled. I worked my way up from the thwack of a ruler to more robust weapons, finally asking Smith to shoot me. I think he enjoyed that test a little too much. The bullet stopped dead about half an inch from my skin and fell to the floor. There was no force pushing me back, and it didn’t bounce.

Yet the amulet did not seem to interfere with normal activities like touching and manipulating things, or eating.

“I’m going to give this thing a real test,” I announced after a couple of weeks. “I don’t expect you to like this, but I’m going to do it.” They watched warily as I pulled an large old pallet board out of the shipping bay, and bolted three force generator copies to it. I pulled the passenger seat out of the force generator powered car and bolted it to the center of the pallet. And I bolted a couple of large boxes to the front corners flanking the front force generator.

I needed controls for what I planned to do, and thinking of where I was going to be going I used my TI-83 graphing calculator. I told Smith and Jones that I wanted certain gauges and the next morning a large box arrived packed with the things I’d asked for. By the second evening after I had my idea I was ready to try it.

“A flying car,” Smith said dryly. “I’d never have thought of that.”

“It might be more than that,” I said, making sure the safety generator was solidly taped to my thigh. “Maybe a lot more.” I tapped keys and the pallet board lifted off, slowly at first. I tapped more keys and it swivelled, dipped, swooped. I found a bug and landed, made some code changes, took off again. This time it performed as I had hoped and I nudged it smartly upward.

At first there was a stiff breeze from my acceleration but it soon thinned. At the front corner of the pallet, the air pressure was dropping perilously; it was down to two tenths of a bar, and dropping. But the gauge on my wrist was pegged at seven tenths of a bar, and I was breathing easily. A little later the gauge on the pallet had dropped to zero and the sky had turned black, but my wrist still said seven tenths of an atmosphere.

I was in outer space and the fucking thing was keeping me alive.

The Moon was up, big and tempting, and I pointed my little craft toward it and hauled ass. I accelerated at about half a gravity for three hours and then reversed thrust. At turnaround I figure I was going about forty kilometers a second. I could have gone a lot faster, but it wouldn’t have been good if the chair or one of the force generators had loosened itself from the pallet board.

As the Moon became a world hovering above me I aimed near the edge in case I’d miscalculated the deceleration; then I floated out over the far side.

I found a crater and set my craft down. I don’t know much lunar geography so I can’t really give you a very good idea where it was. I loaded up the front boxes with rocks and walked around, the thirteenth person of my species to do so. Lucky thirteen! The naked Sun was brutal, but my skin was cool and I was comfortable. I didn’t seem to be getting sunburned. I took deep breaths and the air was cool and clean and dry and there was no indication at all of where it was coming from or where it went when I exhaled. I looked directly at the Sun, and its brightness some how dialed down to a range that made it observable.

It occurred to me that I had finally attained a measure of solitude that few humans ever experienced. All I had to do was rip the tape from my thigh, separate myself from the safety generator, and I could die on my own terms.

But if I didn’t return, all of my friends would also die. I no longer cared whether I continued to live, but I wasn’t yet at the point where I could accept responsibility for that.

So I got back on the seat, strapped myself in, and floated up into the infinite blackness. From here I could go to Mars or Jupiter or even some distant star; and with very little effort one could use a gang of these force generators to outfit a properly equipped craft that might actually return home from such a journey. But instead I went back, with more difficulty than I expected found the installation in Idaho, and delivered my load of Moon rocks to a pair of rather dumbfounded agents.

They made me take a physical, which showed no ill effects from my day trip in space. Clearly, the “safety generator” was as much space suit as it was mugger repellant. With such devices it would be a trivial matter for humans to colonize all of the solid worlds of our solar system. But then again, what would happen if they just stopped working one day? I had my trip in space, and I took one rock with me as a souvenir when I went home.

The Fifth Gift

“We’ve had an idea,” Smith told me.

“That must have hurt,” I said.

“The matter generator creates a perfect shield before the duplication process is triggered. We think you could test the new device within the duplication shield.”

“It’s certainly a better shield than anything we’ve ever built, but the book suggests that this new thing is much more advanced. They seem quite proud of it.”

“Well, the other thing would be to trigger it with a timer. Do you think the field would cut off if the circuit was interrupted?

“Yes, the book is very clear on that.”

“Then let’s test it in the duplicator shield, with a timed cutoff. Upstairs they think this is an acceptable approach.”

“Well who am I to argue with upstairs?”

So we set it up with big alligator clips on the new Gift and on my matter generator panel. I set the matter generator controls to duplicate the test room into another empty room, and wired up a trigger. The trigger would fire one time delay relay that would hold the matter generator’s shield up for ten seconds, and another that would trigger a second relay in two seconds, and that third time delay relay would hold the new device online for five seconds. I figured that would give me time to sample its effects while hopefully isolating the rest of the world.

We made the arrangements, and I entered the test room. The agents watched through a CCTV link which we all knew would go blank while the shield was up. I used a big screwdriver to tighten all the wires and then hit the trigger.

The walls turned mirror; I was within the shield, just like the time we tried to see if the matter generator would duplicate me. It had copied the chair I was sitting on and my clothes and my jewelry and my wallet and even some threads we identified as being the permanent sutures from my hernia repair, but it didn’t copy my body. This time we wouldn’t even be triggering the copy function…

The second relay clicked, and the new device came online. The walls were no longer mirrored. I found myself saying “Shit…” and then…

The Sanity Generator

Five Seconds

The fifth gift simply turned off the matter generator, which was a relatively primitive thing by the standards of our benefactors. As the field established itself it overshot, and for one bright moment it seemed that I was sharing the thoughts of every single human being on the planet. I could sense Jones and Smith outside the door, reeling from the same sense I was. Further afield was a dim murmer, except for people I had some connection with. I could feel the friends I’d abandoned, who were suddenly aware of me as I was of them. In that moment we knew everything about one another, and I knew that if Smith and Jones recovered their wits they’d all be killed, and my friends knew that too, and they forgave me.

And I felt Jennifer. She had been seeing other men, but only because she thought I didn’t care. I had abandoned her without explanation. Now she knew why, and the people I worked for would come to kill her.

Four Seconds

My consciousness reeling I tried to find someone, anyone else to sense who wasn’t going to die soon. Instead I found someone so deep in gambling debt that he was staring down the barrel of a hit man’s gun. The hit man was trying to pull the trigger, and his face was a mask of pain and confusion. “I can’t kill you,” he was screaming. “It’s my fucking job but I can’t kill you, I can’t kill you, and I don’t fucking know why.”

I reeled again, to some military training ground. The cadets who had been marching smartly had halted and were standing at ease, shifting about, suddenly assaulted by doubts about the very nature of what they were doing. And their sergeant, who had moments before been barking orders, was saying that maybe they needed to take a break.

Three Seconds

All violence, the very drumbeat of human existence for more than a hundred thousand years, had come to a halt everywhere on Earth. It was a thing I could feel in my very bones. And more than that, in the marbled halls where policies were set that might doom a generation to poverty, priorities had been suddenly and drastically rearranged. The men in those chambers had barely had time to lift their pens from the contracts they were signing but things were suddenly very different with them.

Somewhere, I don’t know where because the sanity field made distance a bit meaningless, a gang of young men were beating someone in a hidden alley. It was clear in their minds that they had intended to kill their victim, but now suddenly the beating stopped and the leader pulled out a cellular phone and dialed 911 to call an ambulance.

I could still feel Jennifer, and she could feel me. And her reaction was not the hatred I expected and deserved, but delight. Her faith in me had been vindicated. I had only acted to protect her, and under the old rules that had been a sensible thing. But now it wasn’t necessary.

At least for two more seconds.

Two Seconds

Somewhere in the Middle East a man was riding the subway with twelve pounds of explosive strapped to his body and a trigger in his pocket. He had been clutching the trigger, playing with it, steeling himself for his final act in the war between his people and their oppressors. But now he left the trigger alone, and when the doors opened he left the train and returned to the world. Out in the open air of a nearby park he would unwire and take off the explosives.

Deep in a London slum a room was filled with torpid bodies which suddenly, quietly awakened. The heroin was no longer at work in them, but neither were they now addicted. They looked around with dawning expressions of horror and hope as if to ask, “What the hell am I doing here?”

The field was levelling out; I was losing the sense of other peoples’ thoughts and getting more of an idea of what the field was designed to do. And now I knew why the aliens were willing to trust us with the gifts we had thought so dangerous. To them, we were children, and these were the educational toys you’d give a child so that he might develop to the point where first principles could be taught. This fifth and final Gift was the most important of all because, I understood implicitly, our benefactors had developed it first for themselves. This is why we did not have to fear the other Gifts being suddenly denied. We would soon feel the same way toward all of our own, and to do such harm would simply be unthinkable.

One Second

There wasn’t a single human being anywhere on Earth now who wasn’t aware of the Gifts. There wasn’t a single human being anywhere whose urges to violence and self-destruction hadn’t been suddenly and more sensibly redirected.

No wonder the aliens were so proud of the fucking thing.

Except that the timer was about to go off…

— — — — —

Smith and Jones came in with solder and a torch. I was holding the screwdriver across the Sanity Generator’s terminals, and I held it there while they fixed a permanent jumper across it.

“You might as well take copies of the other Gifts with you,” Smith said. “We’ll have to figure out how to distribute them.”

“It shouldn’t be hard. We can duplicate our own panels along with the matter generators, and with them driving the process it should be exponential. Within a few days we’ll have the whole planet covered.”

“It’s hard to see exactly where it will go,” Smith said. “I’m not sure what we’ll do.” He looked at Jones.

“You’ll find something,” I said. “You’ll still be competent, well controlled people. Nobody will resent what you did.”

“No, I guess they won’t,” Jones said.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll take the pallet flyer. I want to find Jennifer.”

“Of course.” They helped me load copies of the Gifts into the boxes. “Don’t forget this,” Jones said. He handed me a second copy of the safety generator. “You might want to take your girl on vacation.”

“Fuck vacation. I might want to take her to live some place where even an Iridium phone won’t reach.”

And that’s exactly what I did.



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Classic Roger #4: Food Plant

Food Plant was originally published to kuro5hin.org Tue Oct 26, 2004


There are two ways into any Food Plant that do not involve eventually getting eaten.

Through the front office, if this is an upscale place like a large processing Plant there will be a nice reception area and access controls. There may even be secretary, though you will always wait for her attention because she has to answer the phone and take will-call orders and such as well as figure out why you’re there. Once your purpose is established and you’re buzzed in you’ll pass the sales and accounting offices, crammed with supplies and inhabited by people trying to do three jobs at a time. Sometimes the computers are circa 1987 and sometimes they’re state of the art, but sometimes the latter are perched atop crates or hastily shop-constructed furniture. Lower echelon Food Plants won’t have the secretary, but instead a sign directing you to roughly constructed offices at the back of the Plant or up narrow stairs, and overworked salesmen will figure out who you are and where you need to be. For reasons I’ll get to soon Food Plants are extremely fine-grained social hierarchies, and little symbols of status are everywhere.

One fundamental bit of status information to always keep in mind: Everyone who works in the Office is higher in status than anyone who works in the Plant. Indeed, mere access to the Office is one of those privileges that separate the upper Plant People from their inferiors.

From the back of the Plant you’ll probably go through the truck loading bay which is one of the few parts of the Plant open to the outside world. If you’re a little higher on the status ladder you might be greeted at the Maintenance shop. Almost every Plant large enough has a special area where Truck Drivers are required to wait as their vehicles are loaded or unloaded; in the pecking order of Food Plants Drivers are about as low as you can get. Though the parsing of status can get finer than my short-time senses are able to distinguish, I’d say Company Drivers (that is, those who work for the Plant itself or its owners) are about on the same plane as clean-up workers. Outside Drivers are esteemed lower still.

The Plant itself will be a series of large, high-ceilinged, smooth-walled, climate-controlled rooms. As at a chemical Plant, but for totally different reasons, there is a dress code; and similarly, the requirements vary widely as well as the level of enforcement of the rules that do exist. On days when the Plant is running, the environment in these rooms will vary from “room-temperature” to Arctic.

Nearly all Food Plants are laid out on a single level. Bare metal staircases are common for climbing up or over machinery, but actual architectural staircases leading to a different building level are very rare. In a small facility the offices might be overhead, or there might be a small upper area housing equipment that feeds a tall packing machine or where cardboard boxes are assembled and dropped into chutes feeding the main floor. But Food is heavy, and in many Plants the processing equipment is frequently rearranged. Any place a forklift can’t go is severely purpose-restricted.

There is one exception to this. Sufficiently well-to-do Plants have drop ceilings made of metal-foam-metal laminated panels. From below, these are simply nice clean ceilings through which electrical, hydraulic, and pneumatic services magically drop where they are needed. The panels are suspended from the real ceiling by wire or all-thread, creating a walk-in space where a jungle of pipe and wiring are kept neatly out of sight. One of the most terrifying experiences I have ever had in my job was walking around in one of these ceiling spaces, knowing that just a couple of pieces of sheet metal and six inches of plastic foam were all that kept me from a nasty fall. Those panels are easy to clean and great insulators but they suck as flooring, because they’re very light and move all the time. And oh yes, rats can eat the insulation out from between the panels, invisibly weakening them.

Back on the ground some Plants have hallways, which always seem to end up constricted with supplies like pallets of boxes and packing material. In other Plants you have to walk through a maze of rooms, around all kinds of other processing equipment, often under or over working production lines just to get to some particular job. Some Plants have spacious open areas, while others are so crammed with processing equipment that moving around them at all is a challenge.

The Nature of the Business

The fundamental difference between Processing and Manufacturing was summed up for me some years ago by a Food Plant Manager. In Manufacturing, he explained, you take in many kinds of raw materials to assemble a lot of identical items for sale. In Processing, you take in a lot of very similar source items and, especially if they are animals, you take them apart to create a variety of items for sale which can vary on a daily basis depending on which machines you decide to use in the taking-apart process.

This has all kinds of subtle implications.

The Manufacturer can lay out specifications for his raw materials; even a mine will sort material to a certain grade before feeding it to processing machinery. As a result, manufacturing machinery tends not to change a lot once it’s installed and working. But the raw input to a Food Plant is a series of variable individuals. Despite the staunchest efforts at controlled breeding and factory farming chicken and catfish and pigs and cows arrive at the Plant with variations. Some are larger than others, some are pecked or bitten or abused, some are diseased, and some are already dead (and these can’t be sold to you for human consumption, thus the absurd-sounding requirement that cows be able to walk into the slaughterhouse).

Even when everything goes right a Plant might get a run from a farmer who grew perfectly sized 6.5 lb chickens, followed on by a truck from another whose chickens consistently attained 7.2 lb. Two different catfish farmers will bring in fish averaging the same weight, but the second will yield less meat because they’re older fish that were fed less. You don’t want to pay these two farmers the same if you can help it.

Vegetables are easier at the Plant level; most of the unpleasantness occurs out in the picking fields. Vegetables themselves don’t tend to get taken apart in grotesque ways by their processors, and they sit still better for automated approaches. Nowadays tomatoes are sorted for ripeness by an optical color scanner. It automatically boots an enormous pile of heartbreakingly bright red fruit into the dumpster because it can tell that they will be rotten by the time they get to market.

But this doesn’t automatically mean vegetarian Food Plants are pleasant places to be. Often the characteristics which make plants attractive to our taste originated as defense mechanisms. Imagine being in a room full of cut-up onions or cayenne peppers and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve been there, and unless you’re acclimated to the irritants in the air it’s not pretty.

As they deal with the variability of their source materials, Food Plants also labor under the requirements of their customers, many of whom are manufacturers wanting an unnatural degree of consistency for their own purposes. Fast Food outlet commissaries are particularly demanding in this regard, because nobody wants customer A to feel cheated because Customer B got a monster chicken nugget while A got only lightweights. In fact, one anonymous retailer of chicken parts in red-and-white buckets is so picky that one anonymous Icelandic vendor of processing equipment whose name begins with “M” flatly refuses to even try to meet their accuracy requirements, and says so up-front in their sales pitches to processors.

Meanwhile, for decades a ubiquitous vendor of hamburgers with a vaguely Irish name refused to put tomatoes on its burgers because it could not guarantee a completely uniform experience for its customers both in and out of tomato season. Although they finally relented under intense competitive pressure from a royally-themed competitor, I don’t know whether this was a total cave-in or if some technological advance was involved.

When animals are the source material, those employees that stay more than a week on the job get used to the rankness of pools of blood and the little bits of intestine and occasional small organs littering the floor of the big smooth-walled rooms. Here there are no euphemisms about “taking the source materials apart.” The place where the source materials go from being live animals to dead meat is almost always called the Kill Floor, and the statistic from which all other statistics flow is the Daily Kill. As in,

Hey buddy, your fuckin lyin machine says we only killed two hunnerd twennny thousand but {some guy} back in Debone says we killed three hunnerd thou easy, can you figger that?

From the floor sweepers to the managers, nobody in the Food Plant thinks ill of the idea of Killing (their source animals at least). They do not Kill indiscriminately; and like any predator, they only Kill so that they (and by extension we their customers) may live. Food Plants are in fact perfect Predators on a scale that teeny little drooly or techno-wonk movie Aliens can only think about in bad dreams. Food Plants kill with a ruthless efficiency that is truly awe-inspiring. It is not unusual for a Food Plant staffed by a few hundred human employees to not only kill several hundred thousand chickens in one day but to also render them into halves, quarters, tenders, breasts, drumsticks, wings, and to selectively bread, freeze, and even cook some of those products before pricing, tray-packing, and then bulk-packing the trays for shipment to your grocer. It is an amazing technical feat, and the tiny little desire each chicken or catfish or cow might have to live on for its own purpose has no bearing on it at all.

The Dress Code, Sanitation, and Hazards

If safety is the holy grail of dress and conduct in a chemical plant, in the Food Plant it’s sanitation. Safety figures in too, and is generally regarded as having the higher priority, but most of the hazards are obvious and avoidable. But sanitation is both a regulatory and public relations hot-button. It’s also hard to maintain. You cannot look at a piece of stainless steel that’s about to be touched by someone’s future dinner, and readily tell that it was just touched by a hand that was recently used to stow a flu-germ-laden handkerchief. Everything must be clean, and when it gets unclean or is even suspected of being unclean you have to be able to clean it in a hurry. This requirement drives both clothing and machinery design.

In the US if you want to visit a processing area you will have to wear a hair net and, if you have a beard, a beard net to contain any stray hairs. You are also required to wash your hands, and in most facilities to wear rubber gloves if you actually touch food. You may also be required to wear rubber boots (especially in places that sell to Russia, where this is a particular requirement for some reason). In places some you must wear a smock over your street clothing. And you will have to wear more elaborate impermeable gear in certain jobs.

Unlike the garb required by chemical plants, like Nomex coveralls, these items aren’t for your protection; they’re for the public who doesn’t want to catch your cold from the catfish nugget you filleted.

Corporate altruism isn’t driving this concern for your health. In the United States it’s the USDA, which got its regulatory teeth because of Upton Sinclair’s early 20th-century muckraking masterpiece The Jungle, a thoroughly disgusting account of Sinclair’s experiences working in the slaughterhouses of Chicago.

For your protection you may be required to wear earplugs because the machinery can be ridiculously loud, but most of the danger to you as a worker comes from much more obvious things.

Food Plants are equipped with a lot of equipment designed to slice, crush, and rend flesh; and to do this very quickly in large quantities. There is no way to put a safety interlock on one of these machines that says “oops, human flesh.” Even seemingly benign things like conveyor belts can take a finger or arm if you get caught on them.

The other major safety hazard has to do with electricity. In a place where water gets into everything, it’s bad that “everything” can include electrical plugs and distribution boxes, some carrying 480VAC. If the wet spot happens to reach from a live wire to your body, it can kill you.

The sanitation requirements extend to machinery. After a busy shift of slicing, sorting, crushing, and conveying raw dripping bloody meat, any self-respecting machine needs to be washed. Machines like injectors, deheaders, portioners, and automatic filleters which take animals inside them to do their work must be thoroughly washed both inside and out. This is a fundamental design requirement for any machine in a Food Plant, and every single day machines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are taken apart to a degree you’d usually consider frightening if you owned something worth that much money.

At the same time, if those machines have electronics or motors or power distribution boxes (many operating at 240 or 480 volts) they must be protected from the very water that is necessary to keep the food-contact parts clean. This is an ever-present tension in Food Plant equipment design, for which there are no truly reliable solutions.

The Pecking Order

If you read my previous Chemical Plant piece you may have noticed I didn’t say much about the workers. That’s because chemical plants don’t really have very many workers; the automation lets a relatively small crew run the place, and this in turn allows the company to pay pretty good wages and look for skilled workers for the positions that do exist. There is a hierarchy but it’s barely visible unless you work there an awful lot.

Food Plants are different. From the smallest shrimp processor to the mighty transnational giants, the variability of living things makes automation a problem. So they have a lot of workers, the majority of whom are at the bottom of the hierarchy.

I’ve already mentioned Truck Drivers, who are widely held in contempt for being incapable of finding “better” work. (I don’t share this view, but it’s one I often encounter.) Getting past the Trucker’s Lounge into the plant proper, there are a few guidelines you can keep in mind if you can’t find your Field Guide to Plant Workers:

  1. All office work is higher status than any Plant work.
  2. The more elaborate protective or sanitary gear your job requires you to wear, the lower your status.
  3. Working night is lower in status than working day, and working odd hours (e.g. almost all non-office jobs) is lower in status than working 9 to 5.
  4. A job that leaves you free to move around is higher in status than one that requires you to stand or sit at a station for hours on end.
  5. If you’re free to visit restricted areas of the Plant such as the Maintenance shop, Parts room, or Quality Assurance lab at will, it puts you above those who must stay out.
  6. If you are free to move from the Plant proper to the front Office at will, you are higher in status than someone stuck out in the Plant.
  7. If you have a workspace to call your own where you can hang pictures of your family, it’s juice.
  8. If you have a private office even out in the Plant, you are almost among the Office gods. If you have a private office in the front Office you are probably getting pretty steamed about this article about now.
  9. Making more money is obviously a status enhancer, but significantly it’s not as important as the other factors.

Keeping all this in mind, let’s start at the bottom.

In the middle of the night, after two busy production shifts, quiet rooms wait with machines that are carefully disassembled in some ways, yet buttoned up in others. The cleanup crew arrives, dressed from head to toe in brightly-colored heavy insulated rubber jumpsuits, hoods, and masks. They make two passes. For the first they are armed with guns that fire disinfectant foam, and their mission is to cover every exposed surface. The foam will be allowed to settle, and they will return armed with 600 PSI hot water jets. Their mission is to get rid of the foam, which remember is supposed to cover every exposed surface.

Sanitation crews are the bottom of the hierarchy in a Food Plant, and they know it; in some places they are even outside contractors. You can’t really blame them for occasionally “accidentally” hosing down a contractor like me (bonus points if I’m using a laptop computer!), or using the high pressure hose to very thoroughly test the sealing surfaces on some supposedly watertight electronic gear. Since they are told very seriously that their mission is to reach every nook and cranny and that they’ll be in big trouble if they miss a spot, sanitation guys are known for climbing on everything, blasting everything in sight, and generally causing a hell of a lot of damage.

Later, after the machines are reassembled and repaired if necessary, the Line Operators will arrive. These are the people who stand at a station all day long cutting breast fillets from chickens on a cone line or finishing the incomplete filleting job a Baader machine started at a catfish plant. These are the most numerous employees at most Food Plants. It’s a low-paying job with no security because people like me are always waiting in the wings to replace you with automation. It’s Repetitive Stress Injury hell, and you get major grief from yield-conscious supervisors for even going to the bathroom at the wrong time. (Until recently a lot of places simply forbade you to take unscheduled rest breaks, a practice which the US labor authorities have sensibly judged to be a bit over the top.)

The major difference between Chemical Plant culture and Food Plant culture has to do with the numerical preponderance of Line Operators. If the Starship Enterprise were to beam up a random worker from a Chemical Plant they would probably get a maintenance guy. From a Food Plant they would almost certainly get a Line Operator. They might be low-paid dead-enders, but their sheer numbers guarantee that you can’t ignore these people if you work in their Plant. If you eat in the commissary, you will be surrounded by them. If you work in the Plant while it is running, you will be surrounded by them. Most of them are nice people; often they are trusted with filleting knives that would make wickedly efficient murder weapons. But if your job leaves you free to move around, much less with the promise that next week you won’t be stuck in a Food Plant, they will watch you with a gaze that reminds you all too much of Oliver Twist.

Line Operators who have put in years of dedicated service or displayed more than completely mediocre aptitude will progress to slightly less boring jobs like taking and measuring samples for Quality Assurance and being “lead” operators responsible for the adjustment of critical machines, and for pre-cleanup teardown and post-cleanup reassembly of those machines.

One other thing needs to be noted about Line people. These are of course shit jobs, and they pay shitty wages (US$7 to $9 an hour, which is a very, very hard wage to live on in the US). Although American towns tend to welcome such Plants for the employment they will bring, it’s not unusual for American workers to turn up their noses at the wages and general unpleasantness of the job. So it’s very common for these Plants to go trolling in the Third World for immigrant workers. The job any self- respecting American would reject because you can’t raise a family on $7 an hour will be eagerly grabbed by a Mexican or Marshall Islander (!wtf?) who figures that with only six roommates he can have money to go barhopping on Friday night, plus send a few thousand a year back home.

Food Plants have thus brought large immigrant communities into such unlikely places as Springdale, Arkansas and Enterprise, Alabama, to the extent that Plants have full-time translators on staff and communities that were once fully redneck-compliant have surprisingly good ethnic restaurants and car dealerships that advertise in languages other than English.

How shitty are the wages? One of the shittiest jobs in any Food Plant is Live Hang, where you physically take live chickens out of arriving trucks and hang them by their feet from the overhead moving racks that take them into the Plant. It’s hard physical work, it’s hot, and it stinks to high $DEITY. It’s also one of the most sought-after jobs in the Plant because it pays US$0.50 to US$1.00 an hour more than being a straight Line Operator.

Over the Line up you have Maintenance, which is approximately the level I operate at status-wise when I have to visit one of these places. Plant Maintenance guys have the ultimate freedom of movement, coupled with crushing responsibility. They are the guys who fix things when something goes wrong, and they’re also the ones who do the refiguring and rearranging when changes are made. They dress out for the Plant but in uniforms that aren’t optimized for food contact.

Long-time Maintenance guys may have their own little workspaces, while newer guys have to use shared work areas. In some plants the tools are communal (with elaborate sign-out procedures) and in others you own (and replace) your own as do many auto mechanics. The environment is brutal and problems are constant. Higher-up Maintenance guys get access to the Purchasing system and get small, dingy, crowded offices to call their own.

At a similar level you get the QA (Quality Assurance) people, who would be higher in status if they didn’t spend so much time out in the plant decked out for contact with food. They are almost white-collar and actually visit the front office on a regular basis. In some Plants their main shared office is even up front. They are the people who take samples, conduct tests, and generally ensure that health and quality goals are really being met. They can make decisions about stopping lines and condemning product that can cost the company big bucks. They tend to be pretty well educated, especially with regard to statistics. If you’re one of those immigrant Mexicans or Marshall Islanders brought in to fill the Line Operator ranks, QA is about as high as you can hope to get in the organization after years of hard work and self-improvement.

At about this point you cross the Office door and reach the accounting and sales people, whose positions aren’t much different than they would be in any other business. They are white-collar 9 to 5 people and so they live on a totally different plane from the Plant People who work a 5 to 3 or 4 to midnight shifts (much less Sanitation from 1 to 4 AM).

There are a couple of exceptions.

It’s usual for the Plant Manager to stay dressed out so he can make the rounds, and even to keep odd hours. It can even be hard to spot this high-ranking official in the Plant because he looks a hell of a lot like a Maintenance guy from a distance, even though he makes five times the money and has fifteen times the authority of the Maintenance guy.

Maintenance guys also break the mold in that they can work very weird hours, because a lot of maintenance stuff has to be done in the odd few hours or off days when the Plant isn’t running. This doesn’t ding their status because of their freedom of movement and the massive amounts of overtime pay they often take home.

Line Down!

Although it’s very hard to automate food processing, a lot of automation is used, especially in the chicken and seafood industries. The reason for this automation is to assure profitability while operating under razor-thin margins. Food Plants will readily pay enormous amounts of money for proven technology, which is one reason companies like mine court their business. But at every corner they are also looking to cut costs. The bizarre consequences of these cross purposes often appear at their intersection in the Maintenance shop.

When a line goes down because a machine is broken, the Plant hemorrhages money. The maintenance guys have to be ready to work on an enormous variety of machines, and to quickly repair them while Line Operators stand around staring at them and product sits unprocessed. I’ve seen Plants where these guys have enormous, unbelievably rich stores of spare parts to draw on; and I’ve seen others where parsimony in this department leaves them frantically calling contractors to have parts air-freighted or even hand delivered at enormous expense when a nasty surprise occurs.

In any case there is a strange juxtaposition at work when you pay US$350,000 for a machine, stock $50,000 worth of spare parts, and pay the people who operate it all day $8 an hour. Even the maintenance guys are not as well paid for their skills and responsibility as they would be in other industries. In a Chemical Plant I understand it’s a given that the operators and even forklift drivers probably make more money than I do; they will often even be unionized. In a Food Plant the reverse is almost always true. The end result of this tension between payroll and automation is workers who are overworked, underpaid, and subject to constant, tremendous stress.

In many Food Plants it can also be hard to find anyone willing to make a firm decision because the pressure from above makes ass-covering a wiser move than neck-sticking-out. I have had to go all the way to Plant Managers on numerous occasions to get authorization for ordering parts which were absolutely necessary to the Plant’s return to profitability.

And unfortunately, in some cases that Plant Manager is a control freak who likes this constant demonstration of groveling and fear. In many ways the Food Plant is a third-world country in microcosm, and this extends to the totalitarian decision-making structure.

Greetings, Comrade!

The largest Food Plant empires don’t just market their products to the outside world; within the Plant they market themselves to their own workers.

  1. The company Credit Union is probably your bank.
  2. At lunch, the company cafeteria is often one of the best and cheapest restaurants in town.
  3. The company store offers you even deeper discounts on bulk purchased items than Sam’s Club.
  4. Posters abound reminding you that Safety comes first.
  5. More posters remind you that it’s your duty to follow sanitation procedures, because “everyone deserves healthy food.”
  6. Still more posters remind you what a great place the Company is to work for.
  7. Some Companies offer bulk purchased vacation deals and other perks.
  8. And just to make you feel at home, everything is posted and made available in whatever languages other than English are commonly spoken within the Plant.

Overall, the impression created is that you aren’t just a citizen of Mexico or the Marshall Islands or even the USA any more; you’re a citizen of the much better, benevolent, and ubiquitous Big Food Plant Company.

Naturally the low-paid worker drones find all this propaganda offensive and stupid, but the nature of propaganda is that you don’t have to believe in it for it to be effective. If your whole existence revolves around the Plant it can be very hard to even imagine leaving for something else. And this is a major, very deliberate way they hang onto those workers despite the thoroughly depressing nature of the job.

Aside: One of my favorite Patriotic Plant posters cries out “Not even good enough for a dog!” In the Plant, any food that touches the floor can’t be sold for human consumption. There’s no five-second rule at work either; if it hits the floor, it goes in the INEDIBLE bin. But this contaminated food is sold to pet food processors who aren’t subject to the same restriction. Under the razor-thin margins of chicken plant economics, this secondary product stream can be an important source of revenue. The purpose of the poster, which shows a forlorn-looking dog eying up a bowl full of rusty parts and old gloves, is not to contaminate the contaminated product stream with stuff that’s really inedible.

Maintenance Day!

At many Plants downtime for doing real maintenance is precious; the bottom line demands that those expensive machines be kept humming, and if one is really thoroughly down in the middle of a row of four, you can’t shut down the other three to create a benign environment for fixing the one that’s hosed.

When that’s done, it can be a major event. At some Plants it can be as seldom as one day in a two week period, or even in a month if things are going well.

When it comes, the Maintenance department gets mandatory overtime all around. It’s not unusual for the whole crew to work 48 hours straight — with overtime on Saturday and doubletime on Sunday — and a hard deadline to get it all working by 1:00 AM on Monday when the cleanup guys will arrive.

It’s a little awe-inspiring to watch a bunch of mostly redneck type guys with no firm engineering background set upon a processing line worth $500,000 in the wee hours of Saturday morning and start taking it apart with cutting torches and carbide saws, all to make room for some new machine. It’s the odd flipside of the pervasive cheapness these places exhibit; for new technology that can impact the bottom line, they will spend and risk much.

I was personally involved at one Plant where the processing machines at the heart of twelve Lines — more than eight million dollars worth of equipment — were swapped out and the Lines rebuilt around the replacements during a single long 72-hour weekend. This required refiguring all the conveyors, all the usual installation hassles of brand new machines of that complexity, new electrical connections, some other smaller new systems (including one of mine) put in at the same time with their own handling considerations.

On Maintenance Day the Plant is a different place; the cavernous rooms are empty except for other Maintenance guys, and you can work in shirtsleeves. Indeed, toward Sunday afternoon the place begins to stink a bit as the bacteria in leftover scraps of meat in the drainage channels and odd corners begin to realize the refrigeration is off. Guys are everywhere (usually there are several jobs going on at once, to take maximum advantage of the down time) using saws, drills, welding torches, and paint guns. Nobody takes even the ordinary considerations as to where the inedible crap is flying because, well, it will be Cleanup’s job to deal with that. The stink of fresh welding is the most prominent smell, though solvent fumes can also build up to an amazing degree in closed spaces that are designed for refrigeration.

Somehow, the boys usually manage to put everything back together in a day or two. It helps that most things are stainless steel and so don’t have to be (and aren’t) painted; you just weld, wire-brush, and walk off. Massive “spare” supplies of raw metal stock, bearings, motors, electrical fittings, and conveyor belting also help.

It doesn’t always work, though, when the Food arrives. It’s common on startup after such a project to see Maintenace guys out there with hair nets on, eyes dragging from days without sleep, fixing bits of stainless steel sheet in place with C-clamps and other quick rigs to correct little problems that will be fixed permanently in the hour or so before the Cleanup guys arrive that night. And sometimes you see guys like me out there for days on end, working out the details of more complicated processes that can only be worked out with a steady stream of real food product to test.

Chow Down.

The first Food Plant I ever visited, on the second day of my employment with the company I still work for, was one of the most benign. It had no Kill Floor; it was a reprocessing facility that bought sides of beef and converted them into hamburger patties for a very prominent fast food chain. By Food Plant standards it was clean as a whistle, state of the art, and mostly free of little bloody gibbets of crap on the floor.

It was still a whole month before I could make myself eat another hamburger. The smell wasn’t offensive, but it was pervasive; it was just the smell of a lot of meat. The smell of death.

What doesn’t come across in this description is the visceral experience of being in a place where there is, literally, so much dead meat all around. People can get used to it; I think people can get used to damn near anything. But it’s about as far removed from the occasional chicken or pig slaughter on Grandma’s farm as a spacecraft is from a horse-and-buggy. I’m not saying it’s wrong; I like the cheap food too. It’s an amazing thing that chicken costs about the same today in absolute (not inflation-adjusted) dollars as it did when I was a child. And we have technology to thank for that. I’m glad it’s there.

But I’m also glad I know what it looks like, even if I didn’t eat hamburgers for a month after I first learned. For one thing it gave me a great appreciation for why the food seems so different when I visit a place like Trinidad or the rural area around Veracruz where they don’t have these economies of scale. It seems unlikely, but just as a cabinet made from hand-selected wood by a craftsman will not be the same as one stamp-constructed out of particle board laminate, the chicken that is raised in a barnyard isn’t the same as one grown from genetically growth-optimized stock in a closed building and trucked to a closed facility to be mass-processed along with 100,000 other chickens a day. I’ve learned to appreciate such food when I can have it.

In the places I live and frequent you can’t get it very often.



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Classic Roger #3: Getting Your Teeth Fixed in Mexico

HOWTO: Get Your Teeth Fixed in Mexico was Originally Published Sat Dec 20, 2003 at 06:36:52 PM EST.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written in 2003 shortly after localroger’s whole mouth reconstruction. The work has held up beautifully as of this date over 11 years later. However, please be aware that Roger wrote this piece over a decade ago. It is your responsibility to learn the current situation for yourself if you need dental or medical work done in a foreign country.]


In the United States, major dental work can be financially ruinous. Without belaboring the lively political topic of why this is, I am here to report that it is possible for a US resident to save 75% or more on major dental work by the simple expedient of having it done in Mexico.

Inside, my story and practical details for others whose dentists may be about to give them a nasty surprise.


My Story

About a year ago I went to have my first dental checkup in nearly two years. My dentist didn’t even bother to X-ray my front teeth. He hung the back X-rays up for me to see, comparing them with my two year old X-rays, and announced “if you don’t have these teeth capped soon, you are going to lose them.”

“And how much does that cost?” I asked. Two years before, Dr. S had tried to sell me a splint to ward off the effects of my bruxism (teeth grinding). But I couldn’t figure out how this $125 implement was supposed to help and he didn’t really explain it, so I passed on it.

“Seven hundred and fifteen dollars per tooth,” he said with what I hope wasn’t really the I-told-you-so air I seem to remember in his voice. “At a minimum, we need to cap these five, which are almost down to the nerve, immediately.” To “cap” or “crown” a tooth, the dentist grinds the original dooth down to a post or cone shape, and creates a sculptured replacement tooth which is cemented to this sculpted receiving surface. I would later learn that $715 is actually a very reasonable rate in the US; I’ve spoken to people who paid from $850 to $1,400 for the same procedure, and to only one whose rurally located dentist charged “only” $650.

I had a once-slight underbite which was no longer slight. My top teeth were sliding down behind my lower teeth instead of meeting them, and my back teeth were all worn down to varying degrees so that the tips of my incisors nearly met the opposing gums. All in all I had seven front teeth that weren’t disastrously worn — and they were badly misaligned, as well as discolored.

What Dr. S was proposing was nearly four thousand dollars worth of work which would be little more than a stopgap measure, leaving me with the same messed up bite and at least 15 more teeth waiting to give me trouble in the future. I really couldn’t see spending that much money to end up with the same problem. Getting them all pulled and having dentures made was looking like a very reasonable alternative.

It was obvious to me, even though Dr. S didn’t seem interested in telling me, that what I really needed was to have all of my teeth capped at the same time so that instead of simply duplicating my messed-up condition, my bite could be elevated and corrected. I didn’t know it at the time but this is a somewhat standard procedure called “full mouth rehabilitation.” If Dr. S considered me a candidate for such a procedure, he probably figured I was too cheap to pony up for it — which was at least partially true.

I mentally multiplied $715 by 28 and groaned. Either my teeth were about to become the most expensive thing I ever owned, or I was going to lose them and likely have to start wearing dentures at the age of 39.

The Idea

Some of you may remember that one of the good things that happened to me during the rollercoaster year of 2003 is that a nice person gave me a perfectly driveable 1982 Chevy van. The nice lady who gave us the van did so because she had only recently become a nice lady instead of a nice guy after her sex change operation. And the van, as she said, “just wasn’t me any more.” In the process of collecting this gift we heard her story, which included how she had travelled to Thailand to have both her sex reassignment and gender enhancement surgery performed, because it was so much cheaper and there was no waiting list there.

A few days after getting the news from my dentist I put the words “Dentistry” and “Thailand” into Google and my jaw hit the floor. The ceramic-over-metal caps my dentist wanted $715 for could be had for $125 at several places that would even make my appointment and plot my course of treatment over the Internet.

It was still an iffy proposition, though, what with that $3,000 round-trip airfare to consider.

Thinking of other places, I remembered that Costa Rica has one of the best medical systems anywhere and is also much cheaper than the USA. Googling “Dentistry” and “Costa Rica” revealed that I could have the services of a world-class expert who had a lot more experience than Dr. S, at $350 per tooth.

I have to admit it was the girlfriend elsewhere known as “Y” who thought of Mexico. Once again we found tales of $120 caps, and of an entire industry catering to American medical tourists. In several places along the US-Mexico border, clusters of dentists operate within convenient driving distance so that an inexpensive bus tour from Las Vegas or a trolley ride from San Diego could bring you to where this cheap care was available.

Nowhere did we find a horror story — indeed, everything we read was very enthusiastic. We did research and began to lay plans.

First of all, if you live any distance from the Mexico border you should need a fair amount of work — at least two or three caps, or bridgework or some similar work that would run a few thousand dollars at home. Depending on what you need done it is likely to take three or more trips to complete your course of treatment, and it’s silly to let travel expenses eat your savings.

Second, you may want to be wary of any procedure that involves major anesthesia, such as removing impacted wisdom teeth. The drug laws make it practically impossible for a Mexican dentist to prescribe the most potent pain therapies for you; an American pharmacist can’t fill the prescription, and you can’t bring scheduled drugs back across the border if you fill it in Mexico. On the other hand there is also a lively cosmetic surgery business operating in the same way, doing liposuction and facelifts and similar procedures, so there may be a way to deal with this. It might involve staying in Mexico for a few days to recover; more on that below. My procedure was extensive but involved no drugs other than novacaine and antibiotic mouthwash.

Third, the work you need should not be just-invented cutting-edge stuff. Most Mexican dentists will have access to state of the art adhesives, crown and facing materials, whitening agents, and so on; but only the top tier will have lasers, computer models, and other recently introduced high-tech tools. While my procedure was extensive it was done entirely with equipment that hasn’t changed much since 1950.

Finally, you should be able to take the time off of work for the travel and “slop” days you’ll want to schedule in case something needs retouching. Like the travel itself, the lost work can quickly eat up your savings on a modest job that requires multiple trips.

How do you Find a Dentist?

I did not do this, but most of the people who have had dental work done in Mexico tell you to go to Tijuana or wherever it is convenient and look for a dentist. If you live in the Southwest you can probably find a tour service that will make travel arrangements for such a “dental vacation.” And if you just have one tooth that needs a cap or similar minor work and you live within easy travel distance of a Mexican dental destination, it might even make sense.

I have never felt comfortable taking such an informal approach with something so expensive and important, though. I had to travel over a thousand miles and take significant time off of work, so I wanted to know what I was getting into before getting on an airplane. So I waited to find a dentist who had e-mail. This is still an unusual thing among Mexican dentists but I expect it to catch on fast. This way you can e-mail photos and X-rays, and make travel accommodations sensibly. I found Dr. T in Tijuana, which is not very close to New Orleans but makes for very convenient air transportation from just about anywhere in the US.

If anyone reading this needs work like mine done, e-mail me in private and I’ll refer you to Dr. T. But if you Google for tijuana-dental you will probably find him anyway.

Once I sent him my X-rays and photos of my teeth, Dr. T confirmed my own self-diagnosis and told me about “total oral rehabilitation.” He gave me several references who had had very similar work done, and indeed on my first visit he showed me a study model of another patient whose condition was nearly identical to my own.

How Long Does This Take, and How Much Does it Cost?

I had to send Dr. T my physical X-rays, since scanning them doesn’t do justice to the details. Like all the dentists I contacted about this he warned me that I would probably need an unknown number of root canals in addition to 28 caps. (Depending on one’s condition, bridgework and facing may also be part of the mix.)

Generally, it takes five days or so to make a cap, so you need two visits — one to prepare your mouth, and one to install the cap. The days in between can be vacation time in your strange destination or you can go back home, whichever makes more sense.

In my case the extensiveness of the problem meant that before Dr. T could make caps, he had to make a study model of my mouth and plan a course of action. He did not use any computer models to do this — it was all done with impressions, casts, and plaster models. He also had to verify, as I suspected from my local dentist, that I didn’t need any root canals after all. Root canals greatly stretch out your treatment because it’s unwise to do more than one or two at a time. They also add cost, because the root canal (extracting the diseased nerve tissue and replacing it with inert material) must be followed by inserting posts into the tooth to receive the cap. So you still have the cap, plus the posts, plus the root canal. This is why some people who have this kind of work done in the US end up spending $40,000 on their teeth.

The study model delay meant that my eight-day stay wasn’t long enough to have caps made and installed, so my first visit to SoCal was almost a pure vacation — or it would have been, if half of San Diego County hadn’t burned while I was there. My advice is to plan the first trip as a short one for your dentist to inspect your condition and create a plan of attack.

Trip #2 was originally going to be to completely prepare and finish about half of my teeth, so I booked another week in San Diego. After further study, though, Dr. T decided to do everything at once; trip #2 would be all preparation, and I’d have to wear temporary (plastic) caps while my real caps were being made. In this way my bite could be corrected all at once. Alas, the airline reservations were already made so once again I spent a couple of extra days out of town.

Trip #3 was to be a short one to install the caps and perform adjustments, but by now I was used to spending a week in San Diego so I did it again. This gave me a chance to try out my new teeth at some of the great restaurants I’d discovered on trip #1.

Meanwhile, the basic cost for work which would have run at least $20,000 in the US was around $8,000. Even with all the travel and lost work I have saved between $10,000 and $20,000 by doing it this way.

How Do You Get There?

[Editor’s Note: The entire airline industry has undergone a change in the decade since this was written. There are also new options for driving or taking a trolley to and from locations in Tijuana, including medical and dental trollies. It will likely be easier for you than it was for us but do your own research. The prices for tickets, hotel, etc. probably bear no relation to the cost today.]

If you live in the US Southwest you have several options, but the simplest thing if you live any distance away seems to be to fly to San Diego and get the work done in Tijuana. That’s what I did, so that’s what I’ll describe. (If you have a similar experience with another destination, please do comment on it.)

The key to using San Diego as a gateway is the Blue Line Trolley, a high-performance public transit system that goes all the way from north San Diego to the border. Having travelled the entire Blue Line scouting for hotels I can save you a lot of work and grief by telling you to stay on E street in Chula Vista:

  • You can find a hotel in the $40 to $80 a night range. A Best Western, Days Inn, and Motel 6 are located within rock-throwing distance of the E Street trolley terminal. Elsewhere the hotels are either very expensive ($120 a night and up in San Diego) or a real hike from the trolley.
  • Cab fare to and from the airport is a reasonable $25 or so. If you’re adventurous you can also take the 992 bus from the airport to the America Plaza trolley stop, but it’s a pain to do that with luggage.
  • At the E street trolley stop there is a tourist information center that can tell you how to get anywhere with public transit, sell you discount tickets to things like the zoo and Seaworld, and so forth.
  • The E street hotels are a manageable walk or short bus ride from a public library which offers free unfiltered Internet access. While there is a library just off one of the northern trolley stops, the Internet access is limited.

There are vending machines at the trolley terminal. You can get a one-way or round-trip pass for a few dollars based on your starting and ending destinations, or a “day tripper” that gives you unlimited riding on all the trolleys and buses for $5.00. You can also get discounted Day Trippers for two three, and four days, with four days coming in at $15.00. (You can also pay the San Diego Stupid People Tax by buying a one day round trip ticket from San Ysidro to the opposite end of the line at Mission San Diego, which they will cheerfully sell you for $6.00 — a buck more than the unlimited use day pass. Go figure.) You can get a lot more transit information online.

The trolley has no access controls. Just buy your ticket, stand on the appropriate platform for the direction you want to go, and when the trolley shows up press the button to open the door and climb aboard. They do random spot checks for tickets, and you can expect to pay a hefty fine if you game the system by riding ticketless. I’ve experienced four of these spot checks in the time I’ve spent riding.

Once you reach the border, follow the stream of humanity into the spiral ramp building to the pedestrian bridge over the border. On the ground on the other side you’ll pass through two turnstiles, and find yourself at a cab stand.

Do not try to walk from the border into Tijuana. Trust me on this. My dentist e-mailed me a map and said to show it to the taxi driver, but he did not count on the fact that a lot of taxi drivers in Tijuana can’t read. You need the local map yourself, but find a landmark on it. In my case the Plaza Rio shopping center was the thing every taxi driver knew, with a convenient taxi stand to catch one going back to the border, and about two blocks from my dentist. When you go through the turnstile you will be beckoned by eager taxi hawkers. Ask one of them “How much to Plaza Rio?” (or wherever your dentist is near.) Always get the price first in Tijuana. Border to Plaza Rio should be five dollars, and it’s well worth it even though it’s a short ride. The area around the border in Tijuana is unbelievably snarled and confusing.

On your return, tell the cabbie “to the border” and you will be dropped off at an entirely different place. Again follow the sidewalk and the drift of people to the customs station. You will have to go through a metal detector and show your ID to an immigration official. You do not need a passport, but I have one so that’s what I used. [Editor’s Note: A passport is now required.] At some peak periods there are long lines; if you make the mistake of taking your car there are always long lines of traffic.

While you are in the Plaza Rio area, you can shop for your one permitted bottle of cheap liquor at the Comercial Mexicana (think “Mexican Super Wal-Mart”) in the Plaza Rio Mall, which is about 30% cheaper than the tourist traps in walking distance of the border. Every business in Tijuana seems to take US currency, and most are used to dealing with gringos like me whose entire Spanish vocabulary consists of “por favor,” “gracias,” “si,” and “non.” If you buy rum or tequila make sure it isn’t made in Cuba — Mexico trades with them, but the US customs people will take it from you at the border.

What Other Ways Are There?

If you have or rent a car, do not take it into Mexico. This is a Very Bad Idea for a lot of reasons. You can park at several places along the route between San Diego and Tijuana which offer bus service into Tijuana, but most of these will drop you off at a place where you will be mobbed by vendors trying to sell you stuff, and probably not very convenient to your dentist. Frankly I think you’d be better off parking at the Beyer Street trolley stop in San Ysidro and buying a round trip ticket.

There is also a bus which has stops much more convenient to the hotels along I-5 in San Ysidro, but most of the buses only offer half-hour service while the trolley offers 15 minute service most of the day. The closer you stay to the border the more expensive it is to get to your hotel from the airport, too.

The border is not a pleasant place; it’s the economic version of an “edge ecology.” Edges where different environments meet make for interesting animal and plant species, because you get all kinds of specialized predators and prey adaptations. If you are going to Tijuana to spend thousands of dollars on your teeth, there is a wide array of predators ranging from the over-aggressive merchant to the pickpocket who will want your money. My advice is to limit their access to you. For the same reason I advise even more strongly against staying in Tijuana itself unless you are very comfortable with the language and culture.

Even Chula Vista may be a little close for some peoples’ comfort; it’s a stereotypical Southern California city that has grown too fast, planted in the desert where there is no particular reason for humans to live, overpopulated with disaffected youth and poor people who struggle to pay the outrageous rents. There is a lot of evidence of gang activity. The inexpensive hotels on E street get a bit rowdy on the weekend. It was within my comfort zone but then I once lived in a similarly blighted neighborhood in New Orleans. The main thing is to use common sense and avoid looking too affluent.

How Will the Work Go?

Here is where one caveat is in order. If you expect a medical facility to be in a nice glass and concrete building with Muzak drifting from hidden speakers and a statuesque receptionist, you’re going to be in for a bit of a shock. Dr. T’s office was small, in a building that needed some obvious repairs that were never going to happen. The trimwork was uneven. And the receptionist doubled as his dental assistant, so she sometimes had to leave my ongoing procedure to answer the phone.

This is all, however, in keeping with the Third World philosophy of putting the money where it’s needed. The equipment was all in good working order, everything was clean, and most of all I was very impressed with both the doctor’s bedside manner and his skill. After examining me on my first visit he explained exactly what he was going to do, and added up how much it would cost before breaking out the novacaine.

Another item is interesting. He said that, normally, as part of an oral rehabilitation procedure that my wisdom teeth would be extracted as a hygienic measure, because they can’t be capped. (Think of where they are, and the size of the tools.) I balked at this, because my wisdom teeth are one of the things my body has managed to get right. They all came in perfectly and have never presented a problem, except for their participation in the bruxism disaster. Where I’m sure an American dentist would have said “no, they need to come out,” Dr. T asked a couple more questions and finally said there wasn’t really any need to pull them now; if they ever become a problem I can always have them pulled. And furthermore, once the pressure is off of them because the other teeth are crowned, they’ll tend to rise, making them easier to extract in the future. That settled it, and at the moment I still have my wisdom teeth.

It was clear to me that Dr. T was very experienced. He performed all aspects of my rather complicated procedure with a manner of unhurried confidence. A procedure like mine is as much an art as it is a medical procedure; working with hand tools the dentist must sculpt the living teeth into appropriate shape to receive caps, and then must create caps which are not copies of existing teeth but instead are an original sculpture which must both look good and function mechanically for eating. It may be important to note that Dr. T is not at the bottom of the Tijuana price scale; while there are dentists who will do a single cap for $120 he is not one of them. His prices run $280 to $350, and no doubt reflect his experience.

On my first visit Dr. T cleaned my teeth and took impressions; it then took him awhile to make the study model and plan my treatment. On my second visit to San Diego I made two trips to Dr. T’s office, spending about 4.5 hours each time as he prepared my teeth and took more impressions. On my final trip, as I walked in he told me “yours was an especially difficult case.” In addition to the grinding down my TMJ (jaw joint) had worn so that my jaw was a tiny bit to the left of where it is supposed to be. Nevertheless he felt that with a couple of caveats my new bite would be acceptable. After about 3 hours of work he announced that the caps were in, and while we would still need to adjust my occlusion I could now see how they would look.

What I saw in the mirror made me gasp. My teeth weren’t just acceptable; for all intents and purposes they were perfect. Although I could see the “cheats” Dr. T had had to accept in order to make my teeth meet, they are not apparent to anyone who isn’t an expert. My teeth which had never been straight or properly aligned even in my childhood now looked like the “after” image from a toothpaste commercial.

That night I ate a steak at the Stuart Anderson’s in Chula Vista. (I had been planning to go downtown on the trolley and eat at Ruth’s Chris, but I was just too tired.) After three weeks of eating mush and liquid food because the plastic temporaries didn’t function very well, and sensing with every bite how my new teeth met properly, I think that is the single most enjoyable steak I have ever eaten.

Paying For It

The logistics of payment are pretty much the same as they are in the US. Dr. T accepts all major credit cards, and that’s how I paid him. He also will arrange payment plans and accepts US dental insurance. It’s worth mentioning that even if you have dental insurance, it won’t cover a procedure like this in full; you will probably still save a lot of money by going to Mexico. It’s worth checking with your provider.

Dr. T quoted me a price in dollars and accepted payment in dollars. This seems to be fairly standard in Tijuana. At the Comercial Mexicana, the cash registers do automatic currency conversion and they keep American change.

What Else Is There To Do?

On your recuperative and slop days in San Diego, there is plenty to do. [Editor’s Note: Again, these tours were taken in 2003. Check for up-to-date information about an attraction to make sure it’s still there before you make a special trip.]

You can take the trolley from Chula Vista to the College Station stop, then walk up C street and catch the #7 bus (or just walk north another half-mile) to Balboa Park and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. You can easily spend a week on the attractions at Balboa Park. The zoo alone can fill a couple of days, and you won’t want to miss the aerospace museum with its SR-71 Blackbird mounted on a pylon out front or the automotive museum with its actual Tucker Torpedo. I also highly recommend the Model Railroad Museum, which is much more impressive than you might guess even though it’s a work in progress. There is excellent (if expensive) food both at the zoo and in the park, or you can bring your own and picnic.

You can also take the trolley to the Little Italy exit, walk to the waterfront, and explore antique ships at the Maritime Museum. If you’re into steampunk the 140 year old metal sailing ship Star of India will make you swoon. And hopefully there’ll be someone aboard the Berkeley who can run its triple-expansion steam engine for you to admire. You can also board the Surprise, the boat featured in the film Master and Commander which they recently acquired on loan.

Or you can take the trolley to Old Town, cross the tracks and catch the #9 bus to Seaworld and see Shamu. (Frankly I was more impressed by the penguins than the orcas, but that’s just me.) Be warned, the food at Seaworld is just expensive, and you can’t bring your own. You can get two small free beers from the Budweiser pavilion, though.

If you want to catch a movie, take the trolley up to the Fashion Valley stop where there is a large mall with a nice stadium-style cinema. (I made the mistake of seeing The Matrix Revolutions there.) There is also other shopping at the stops north of Fashion Valley if you want to go exploring.

Or you can just walk across the Chula Vista I-5 overpass to the parking lot for the nature center, and catch the free shuttle to the interpretive center. If you’re into birdwatching you can spend a whole day or more there at Gunpowder Point, looking up shorebirds in your field guide.

You can also schedule a tour of the wineries (with samples!) or a boat trip in San Diego Bay. The tourist center in Chula Vista was amazingly helpful, right down to reminding me of the bus connections I’d need.

So how did it come out?

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here are the ones Dr. T took of my teeth:

  • Before (warning, image may cause loss of appetite)

    teethbefore-150x150

  • After
    teeth after

I have noted with interest that a lot of online brag pages for dentists show off rehabilitations that didn’t come out as good as mine. I credit that partly with the fact that I got to Dr. T before there was serious root damage — it was another dentist’s warning, not pain, that sent me on this quest. But a lot of it goes to Dr. T’s very high level of skill and expertise. In particular, he completely fixed my underbite. If I didn’t see it in the mirror, I wouldn’t have believed it to be possible. Dr. T is the very opposite of a “discount” dentist, even if his rates were unbelievably low compared to US dentists.

If you’ve read this far, one thing I can’t stress enough is to go to the dentist once in awhile. The amount of grief a thing like this can cause increases exponentially past a certain point; catching it as early as possible is key. One dentist I talked to in Costa Rica had a patient similar to me who was flying down from Alaska once a month for five months to complete his treatment. In my case it came on suddenly late in life, due almost certainly to work related stress. According to Dr. T, my X-rays show that four years ago my teeth were in pretty good shape. Between the ages of 35 and 39 everything went to hell, and because I skipped going to the dentist for two years it went to hell more than it needed to before I realized drastic action was necessary. The occasional checkup can make the difference between minor work, a smile that can be saved with major effort such as I just did — or dentures, and all the hassle that entails.



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Classic Roger Series #2: Plant

Plant was Originally Published on kuro5hin.org Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 05:38:10 AM EST


Dry limestone crunches beneath my feet, and the hot Louisiana sun beats down past huge racks, each an impenetrable maze of plumbing, wiring, and catwalks. The very ground vibrates with a low mechanical hum, the echo of countless motors and pumps. In all the landscape there is no sign of life; not a blade of grass, no birds, not even insects. I might be on Mars for the sterility of it all, except that I can look down one road — only one! — and far away, past a chain-link fence and state highway, spy the verdant canopy of a lowland swamp.

There are several hundred places like this in Louisiana alone, where humans have ripped Nature from her mooring in order to plant a testament to practicality and pure engineering. Like demons, they all have different personalities yet are instantly recognizable as members of a single, unique class. Nothing else built by humans is quite like a chemical plant.


All chemical plants are built on a similar model. The “racks” are like reverse play-houses built for the Jolly Green Giant, with steel-mesh floors separated by 20 or 30 feet, sometimes rising 10 or more levels high. The lower levels are accessed by steel-mesh stairs, the higher ones by more stairs or heavy open-cage elevators that are human-rated but really designed for moving equipment. The racks are arranged in blocks like city apartments, separated by streets that usually are named. The racks support holding tanks and reactors which are interconnected by a bewildering maze of plumbing and wired with thousands of sensors and controls. Control rooms may be blockhouses at a distance on the ground or tin shacks high up in the racks, near to the processes they attend.

Welcome to our facility. Drop your pants and bend over.

Before you can see the racks and the plumbing, you have to get in. Southern hospitality notwithstanding, the Plant’s first acknowledgement of your merely human existence will be The Sign. It comes in variations but the tone never changes:

By entering this facility you agree that you and your vehicle may be searched at any time. The following safety equipment is REQUIRED for entry into this facility:

  • Hard Hat (approved type)
  • Safety glasses with side shields
  • Chemical goggles
  • Respirator (approved type)
  • Valid safety pass

The following items are not permitted within the facility under any circumstances:

  • Illegal drugs or alcohol
  • Firearms
  • Cigarette lighters
  • Cameras (unless accompanied by pass)

The guard will put his hand on a Bible and swear before all nine billion names of God that the camera ban is to prevent industrial espionage, but few of these places really have any secrets worth stealing. I’ve always believed the real problem is that they don’t want June and Ward finding out what is going on only a few miles from the school, playground, and new subdivision.

Now listen while we tell you how safe you’re going to be while you’re here.

Before you can get that safety pass, you usually have to take some “training.” This will be a little slideshow or video which reveals useful information about how to stay alive and out of the way while you’re foraging in the bowels of the Plant.

At Big Chemical Company, Inc., your safety is a top priority. In order to ensure your safety, we need for you to follow a few rules.

  • {usual safety equipment blurb}
  • This map shows the emergency assembly areas at BCC. You should maintain an awareness of the nearest assembly areas.
  • In case of emergency, park your vehicle by the side of the road and leave the keys in the ignition.
  • BCC is equipped with numerous windsocks. In case of emergency note the wind direction and proceed on foot to the nearest assembly area which you can reach by going crosswind from your location.
  • BCC uses [particularly noxious chemical] in its processes. If you smell [perfectly ordinary smell] immediately put on your respirator and proceed crosswind to the nearest assembly area.
  • The BCC siren announces all emergencies. Always be aware of the emergency code for your area! For example, here is the sound of an alarm for the [noxious chemical] unloading area:

WHONK WHONK WHONK
WHONK WHONK WHONK WHONK WHONK
WHONK

That’s code 3-5-1. You will be issued a card which lists the other [four dozen] such codes in use at BCC. When the emergency has cleared, one long blast will signal that it is safe to return to work:

WWWWWHHHHHHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNKKKKKKK

  • BCC maintains a strict lockout/tagout policy. Never remove a lock or tag from a control yourself. It is your responsibility to remove your own lock or tag from a control when your work is complete. Failure to observe lockout/tagout rules can result in uncontrolled energy releases and/or injury [ed: things going boom and people getting killed]

Pay no attention to the guy behind the curtain, or his wallet.

So you don your hard hat and get your safety card and pull your vehicle through the gate and past the truck scale, following the map of the Plant to the intersection of J street and 3rd Avenue. It’s now, if you have made a habit of flipping through the Grainger catalog, that you will start adding up how much it cost to build the place. And you’ll quickly run out of digits in your mental calculator as you do so.

Industrial equipment is fabulously expensive compared to consumer goods, and here you have an entire city of fabulously expensive industrial crap. The budget for valves alone will be millions of dollars. Add in a few tanks (each of which cost more than a typical residential house) and the sensors and wiring stainless-steel piping and energy utilization and it’s very easy to reach the US$100,000,000 mark and start getting dizzy. It’s not unusual for a Plant to cost more than $1 billion, and if you have the misfortune to work on a machine that’s at a bottleneck in their production you’re likely to hear some variant of this:

Well, son, you take all the time you need to fix that, but just bear in mind that we’re losing $400,000 an hour while this line is down.

OOOOOH, what’s that SMELL?

It’s impossible to keep volatile chemicals completely contained, and most Plants have a distinctive smell. In some the smell is oily and sulphurous, in others sharp and acidic; the truly terrifying Plants are the ones that don’t smell at all. No smell doesn’t mean there’s nothing in the air, it just means that you don’t get any warning that there is.

Some Plants have pandemic corrosion problems. Chemicals eat away at the concrete foundations, they eat away at the steel mesh so there are dangerous holes in the rack scaffolding, and they eat holes in the employees’ skin which are passed off as “that damn rash.” I have seen type 316 stainless steel (which is a better grade than anything you have in your kitchen) turn brown with rust in a matter of weeks.

Other places are so spotlessly clean that they are more worrisome than the overtly dirty ones. One local Plant has a density of safety and, interestingly, anti- industrial-espionage signage that reminds one of the adverts on a NASCAR racer. In the obligatory safety video you are reminded that

Here at BCC we work with [omigod] which reacts violently on contact with water or air. WARNING TO WOMEN OF CHILD-BEARING AGE: [omigod] is a powerful teratogen, and if you are or might be pregnant you MUST consult with a Plant nurse before entering operating areas where [omigod] is handled.

I propose Localroger’s Law of Plant Safety: The more safety notices you see in a place, the less safe the place is.

Plants take pride in their safety records because safety is so hard to achieve, but it’s a rare thing to see the “days since last lost-time accident” sign in front of any industrial facility with four digits. Industrial accidents happen all the time and unless they claim multiple lives or spill out beyond the perimeter fence, they aren’t news.

Unbearable Sameness of Being

Plants don’t win architecture awards. The one concession to aesthetics which some Plants make is that they are located on oversized tracts of land, surrounded by berms of earth and trees, so as to be as invisible as possible. On a more practical level this also reduces the inevitable damage if something fall down go boom. However, people like to live close to their workplaces and even when they are located in the middle of nowhere, Plants have a magnetic attraction which tends to cause towns to form around them.

A small percentage of Plants will try to show off by having a really fine administration building. Since these places never build enough offices this monument will often be surrounded by “temporary” office space in the form of double-wide trailers, most so old that the floors are going soft and the roofs leaking. I’ve been into nuclear power Plants where the all-important radiation and safety screening is done in this kind of housing.

In the working areas of the Plant, there is no consideration at all. Functionality determines form. Color may be used to indicate danger or access restrictions, but is mostly dictated by process needs. Bare metal rules the day. The layout may encode those valuable trade secrets you’re warned about when they “borrow” your camera, but the basic language of tanks, pipes, valves, pump motors, racks, wiring trays, and whatnot never varies. If the control room is a blockhouse, worry. There is a reason it’s not in a tin shack closer to the reactors.

You will probably be there to work on something — there are few other reasons for a human to ever enter such a place. The component, module, process, or machine you’re there to manage will exist on a spiderweb of support and dependent functionality. No matter at what scale your responsibility lies, you will manage something that eventually merges into an impenetrable vastness far beyond your comprehension. Your charges will take power, chemicals, and human input and turn them into different forms of power, different chemicals, and annunciators for humans to read. And you will never be granted more than the most passing explanation of where the inputs came from, or for what the outputs are used.

Inasmuch as functional things are beautiful — and to some of us they are — the Plant shyly hides its beauty, cloaking the clarity of its existence behind its own sheer scale. Somewhere there are engineers who understand the processes it marshals, who can tell you every reaction, pressure gradient, transport mechanism, and staging area from the raw materials dump to the rail-car loading barn; these same engineers wouldn’t know the purpose of an actual valve or sensor if they tripped over it. The techs who keep it working can find every nut and bolt blindfolded but don’t really know why it’s all arranged the way it is. The totality of its existence is beyond mere human consideration.

OOPS

Humans fuck up. Like Microsoft says, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

In Plant parlance a fuckup is called an “unintentional energy release.” This euphemism hides the basic problem with Plants, which is their sheer scale. If you trip on the sidewalk, you may get some scrapes; you may even break a bone; if you are really unlucky you may fall onto someone else and break one of their bones. Odds are you won’t blow out all the windows in town, or kill thousands of people. Walking is a low-energy activity in the grand scheme of things.

Get into a car and have a similar fuckup, and you can easily kill yourself and an arbitrary number of strangers. It’s a matter of the energies at your disposal; when misdirected, the thousand-kilo car travelling at 50 kph can do vastly more harm than your 100 kilo body going 10 kph.

In a Plant, the energies are phenomenal. Huge tanks are superheated and pressurized; huge tanks of toxic and explosive chemicals lounge around waiting to be tapped at the wrong time or spring leaks. I have picked up the pieces after an operater added the water to the acid instead of the other way around, and a 20,000-pound capacity tank the size of a living room danced around a a process area bashing the crap out of everything in its way. I’ve visited a Plant days after a catalytic cracker exploded, killing seven, blowing out all the windows in the town that grew up around the Plant, and tearing up everything in the facility except the blockhouse-like control room. I’ve given last rites to equipment that was designed for 110 VAC operation but given 440 VAC instead.

That’s not even to mention incidents like Bhopal.

Plants are built the way they are to harness economies of scale; efficiency is their purpose, which is why they are ugly, smelly, and ubiquitous. Yet there is a fundamental danger in the whole philosophy behind Plants, because by their nature they require vast concentrations of energy to work, and when that energy is released by accident the consequences are horrible.

And this concludes our tour of Oz.

My purpose here isn’t to call for some action. I really don’t know what could be done about the Plant problem; we depend on them now to such a degree that we can’t exist without them. But I think it’s important to know what the infrastructure of your life looks like. I know a lot of tofu-munching PETA member vegetarians who have no idea how dangerous the processes are that make the vinyl and PVC they would rather use than leather. And i know right-wing Rush Limbaugh worshippers who have no idea what shortcuts are taken in the name of efficiency because the possibility of a few deaths doesn’t impact the bottom line quite as severely as a really effective safety program.

I don’t know if there is an alternative to the Plant. But I think people should know what they are like. You should be aware of what is done to provide you with PVC plumbing and HDPE milk cartons and gasoline and even silicon chips. You should be allowed to appreciate it in all its ghastly splendor, and to pass an informed judgement on it.

There have been many people who died because they could not do that. This is my testament in their honor, such as it is.



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