A letter from the Cuprohastes-in-Chief

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Japan has something like 52 nuclear reactors. Two of them are in trouble at this moment – And here’s why:

The basics

The reactors were shut down when the earthquakes started up, but you can’t turn off a nuclear reaction, you can only damp it, down to6% in this case. This was done as per normal.

The Reactors are built to survive a 7.9 magnitude earthquake (Not Richter scale – that’s now obsolete, hence ‘Magnitude’), but the Quake that hit was 9.0, the fifth largest in history.

Then the Tsunami hit and caused even more damage. Specifically the emergency power generators that pump water to cool the reactors were off line. An irony because if the power plant could be turned on it could supply it’s own power!

Keeping Cool

Nuclear reactors work by using fissionable materials – Nuclear Fuel – To produce heat, which boils water into high pressure, superheated steam, which then goes through a turbine, turning it and producing power.

As you damp the reaction down it starts to cool naturally and produce less heat, but this takes several days, during which time, heat is still being generated.

To stop the reactor melting itself under it’s own heat, you just keep pouring water over it. Unfortunately the pumps aren’t working so the water’s just sitting here getting hotter… worse the water is leaking out.

To fix this – Just add more water.

This is one reason nuclear plants are generally placed by rivers and oceans – lots of water to dump your ‘used’ hot water into and in an emergency, get cold water.

So right now, the Japanese are pumping sea water from bay into the cooling system to try and keep Reactor No. 3 cool for long enough that it stops producing heat.


There was an explosion at the NPP (Nuclear Power Plant), which seems like it should be incredibly bad news, but actually isn’t that bad.

The reactor is armoured. It’s designed to withstand 7.9 magnitude earthquakes, being hit by planes, or anything short of… well, a 9.0 earthquake and Tsunami. However it’s also inside a fairly lightweight shed that’s more or less there to keep the rain off and the pigeons and critters out.

When the water level dropped, it let the fuel rods heat up which caused a reaction that produced metal oxides and hydrogen (The water lost it’s oxygen atoms, just leaving hydrogen) which then exploded doing little damage to the well shielded reactor but blew the walls panels off the shed.

The Japanese then checked the radiation levels and found they were decreasing, meaning that it wasn’t the reactor blowing up.


Basically it’s a waiting game. In theory the Japanese just have to keep the reactor cool and name sure that the other reactors aren’t running low on water, for a few more days to avoid any really dramatic problems.

The downside is that the earthquakes are still happening (In the 4-6 mag range!) and though it’s unlikely there’s still a chance of another large enough quake to produce another Tsunami, or that a new problem will be uncovered and will have to be dealt with.

No Chernobyl

Unlike Chernobyl, the Fukushima reactors do not have graphite cores. Graphite is very useful for containing nuclear reactions but is also flammable at nuclear reaction temperatures, which is what happened at Chernobyl.

The big problem with Fukushima is most likely to be a ‘China Syndrome’ meltdown where the fuel becomes so hot it melts through the floor and digs a pit ‘to China’ (This phrase was coined by the USA after Three Mile Island).

Again this is something that’s planned for and there are safety measures in place to capture molten fuel rods, but it’d be messy, hard to deal with and dangerous as hell.


Pencil time

I told Richard Bartrop I was getting some pencils and he said…

Working hard on your hipster badge, I see.

Or words to that effect. The reason being that I’d decided on some Palomino Blackwing pencils, which have a slightly odd history.

Eberhard Faber produced the Blackwing pencil, a pretty standard pencil with black painted body, novel flat eraser holder (Called the Ferrule), stamped “Twice the speed, half the pressure” in reference to the lead’s nice dark colour and smooth glide on paper (Most pencil lead is graphite and clay, the Blackwing’s lead contained a little wax to make it smooth).

Because it was a generally OK pencil, it got used by a lot of people, and since a few of them became famous and at some point mentioned they used the Blackwing 602, it developed a reputation.

And then Faber stopped making them.

Faber had bought a machine, second hand that made the pencil’s special ferrule that held the oblong pink erasers with a special tension clip that meant that you could whip the eraser out and replace it with your own, making the pencil ideal for actually rubbing things out. The machine though, was broken when it was bought and either wasn’t economical to fix or couldn’t be fixed – But it did come with a large supply of already made components, and so the pencil was made until the ferrule supply ran out.

Which is when the pencil, dubbed by it’s admirers as “The best pencil in the world” started to get it’s own cult and mythology.

In the minds of certain people, it was the magic tool that’d allow them to be a great artist or composer or writer, just like the famous creators who’d used their Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencils to sketch out famous works.

It became a talisman, a fetish (Of the little voodoo doll meaning of the word), and so when un-sold boxes of the pencils started showing up on eBay, prices skyrocketed, with people paying $20 or $60 for an original Blackwing.

A note about the Blackwing, Old and New.

The original Blackwing’s eraser was pink and either due to the material used or age is now generally reported to be “Not so much an eraser as a graphite smearing device”. The new eraser is white and quite generic and capable, with one small caveat that I’ll save for later.

Bother the old and new pencils use Cedar – the new “Palomino Blackwing” uses California cedar and is manufactured by the California Cedar company, which makes it easy to remember…

This means the pencil is made of a renewable wood that’s been grown for commercial use, and it also means that the wood is nicely dense, fine grained  and has a homogenous texture, which is important for the purpose of sharpening. This is pretty important in a pencil. It also smells nice, which is a trivial point but if you’re going to dick around with pencils instead of using a pen mechanical pencil or computer, you might as well enjoy the æsthetics of it fully.

The main event though is the lead. The new lead may not be the same recipe as the old (and the manufacturer is re-formulating it to produce a harder, firmer lead for writing), but it is a very dark, smooth experience. The current softer lead is quite nice for artists or if you favour an especially dark pencil, though as ever, darker means softer and more prone to snapping and blunting.

However, due to the smoothness, which presumably is created by adding in oil or wax of some sort to recipe, the eraser which works quite well on normal pencil marks can’t seem to completely remove the marks left by the Blackwing.

I suspect that the harsher eraser of the original Blackwing may have been closer to the ones used by secretaries to remove typed text by ablating the ink and layers of paper away, which may be the only way to completely remove the ghostly marks left by even a thorough rub down with the eraser or even with my collection of very competent pencil erasers.


It’s a pencil. It writes nicely but so does a Zebra gel-ink pen or a B6 art pencil. The eraser arrangement is nice but not up to actually fully eradicating the marks.

On the up side, it’s not that expensive and quite pleasant to work with.

Price: $19.95 for a 12 pack from



We're all so very proud of those guys right now. Let's hope they get the government they deserve now!


And now… Ze Vorld.

I upgraded to a Mac keyboard because it’s less wide than pretty much every other keyboard I could fine.

There’s a few problems with using it on windows… Namely, Apple expects you to buy OSX to get the Windows keyboard driver, and doesn’t offer it for Windows users in any stand alone form – Also they don’t support the full use of the enhanced function keys n windows – like the Eject button, volume controls, etc.

Oh and they don’t offer a layout for it so the key caps don’t match what you type unless you set it to US layout, and lose the ability to type £.

But then that’s apple – they’re not exactly good at this ‘computer’ thing.

Luckily Microsoft has an app for creating keyboard layouts, which makes it easy to create a layout that matches your keyboard… But then I thought – “Actually, there’s a lot of characters I’d quite like to be able to type that I usually can’t because they’re not included!” – Being a bit of a typography nerd, I’d like to be able to type things like 10°c or use an ellipsis … or an em-dash – instead of an en-dash, throw in the odd © or ® or ™, even the very seldom used ℗, which isn’t № 1 on anyone’s character list – mostly it makes people say “What was that‽”.

Of course, not all the characters are supported. Some of them are basic, a few of the weirder ones are Unicode, but even so, I’m quite pleased with my new, custom¹ keyboard layout!

¹ Even if I do keep having to refer to a keyboard map becasue I can’t recall where I hid everything…


The Internet Debacle

Years ago I signed up with an ISP. Let’s call them GoodNet.

GoodNet was good. A good package, very few hidden ‘gotchas’, an OK price. The downside was that they split into Home and Business and the Home section had a habit of appropriating Business accounts if they thought that they should, and then you’d have to call up and shout at people with the aptitude of a banana for this Interwide Netweb thing.

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