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6 ounces hidden inside more than 22 metric tons
October 29, 2011 8:05 PM   Subscribe

On July 13, 2010, a cargo container arrived in Genoa, Italy from Saudi Arabia. It was emitting torrents of radiation. No one knew what was inside. And no one knew what to do next....

Report from La Repubblica Genova (in Italian, Google Translate)
posted by zarq (79 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wired is awesome now
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:09 PM on October 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


that 'Container Bob' business seems like it could be it's own FPP.
posted by ninjew at 8:24 PM on October 29, 2011 [14 favorites]


No wonder it was so well hidden
posted by pupdog at 8:40 PM on October 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


We'll probably never hear of it, but someone put that thing into the container and probably took a lethal (or slightly sublethal) dose of gamma rays doing it.

Actually, the crew that loaded the box up are probably all in peril.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:40 PM on October 29, 2011


This is a pretty scary scenario. How many of these cobalt death sticks are out there unaccounted for? I seem to remember a Brazilian(?) example some years ago where cobalt was melted into scrap metal and used to make dinnerware. They only caught it after people went to hospital with radiation burns.
posted by storybored at 8:47 PM on October 29, 2011


It was hardly the first fishy shipment to pass through Gioia Tauro. Famously, just six weeks after 9/11, workers there heard noises coming from inside a container being transshipped to Nova Scotia via Rotterdam. Inside, police found an Egyptian-born Canadian carrying a Canadian passport, a satellite phone, a cell phone, a laptop, cameras, maps, and security passes to airports in Canada, Thailand, and Egypt. The container’s interior was outfitted with a bed, a water supply, a heater, and a toilet. Nicknamed Container Bob, the man posted bail in Italian court and was never seen again.
Here's hoping Wired is going to write a sequel...
posted by the painkiller at 8:50 PM on October 29, 2011 [16 favorites]


There was that horrific story where someone found an old medical imaging device which was cracked open, and they were distributing all the beautiful sparkly blue powder throughout the community as fairy dust, or something. It pretty much ruined the town.

They're lucky they caught this one. Who was it who, a few years ago as a research project/exposé, put the radioactive equivalent of a dirty bomb into a container and it wasn't detected anywhere, and basically ended up in a harbor where if it had been an actual terrorist device it would have been completely devastating?

We really don't have good controls on radioactive material much at all anywhere on this planet.
posted by hippybear at 8:54 PM on October 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I was thinking of the people who loaded it. You hear tales of abandoned USSR radioactive devices being found by ordinary people who eventually die from their exposure.
posted by maxwelton at 9:00 PM on October 29, 2011


hippybear: "There was that horrific story where someone found an old medical imaging device which was cracked open, and they were distributing all the beautiful sparkly blue powder throughout the community as fairy dust, or something. It pretty much ruined the town."

I was thinking the same thing. "Sparkly blue powder" was the key [PDF]. Pretty harrowing stuff.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:06 PM on October 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Judging by its size and shape, the object was probably part of a medical device or a machine used to sterilize food.

Cobalt 60 is known as "the peaceful atom" and it is widely used in commercial applications. It's used to sterilize everything from milk to bandages. It is one of the things you are expressly looking for when doing a scan like this so it is a bit odd that the Italians were flummoxed by the "mystery."

The IAEA has extensive experience in such matters. Odd that no where in the article are they mentioned, but then again this explains a lot of what happened.

It shows how poorly trained the people in that port are. "You Luigi, your job is to point this thing at those things. Call me if it beeps."
posted by three blind mice at 9:11 PM on October 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


Interesting. Something similar happened in a Prague playground recently. I sense a pattern.
posted by empath at 9:12 PM on October 29, 2011


Under the right conditions, just 20 milligrams of cesium-137—roughly the amount found in gadgets that hospitals use to calibrate their radiation therapy equipment—could contaminate 40 city blocks.

Compared to a nuclear explosion, a dirty bomb would be a hiccup in terms of destructive force. The real problem would be panic. A light coating of radioactive dust raining down on Manhattan might cause only a minor increase in cancer rates, but it would definitely result in a major national freak-out.


Maybe that's because media outlets continue to sensationalize the dangers of dirty bombs with exaggerations like "just 20 milligrams ... could contaminate 40 city blocks".
posted by heathkit at 9:15 PM on October 29, 2011 [19 favorites]


Wow, I had never heard of the blue sparkly powder incidents. That is insane.
posted by sio42 at 9:19 PM on October 29, 2011


Cobalt 60 is known as "the peaceful atom" and it is widely used in commercial applications. It's used to sterilize everything from milk to bandages. It is one of the things you are expressly looking for when doing a scan like this so it is a bit odd that the Italians were flummoxed by the "mystery."
Yeah. I wonder how much of this was embelishment from the wired writer? How 'mysterious' was this to the people doing the actual work, I wonder?

Also, I don't know I guess it's a style thing but I would rather just read "A chunk of cobalt-60 giving off 600 mSv of radiation was found in a container that had been shipped from Saudi Arabia, it appeared to be from a medical device but somehow ended up mixed in with scrap metal." Then you could go and give more detail. I find it kind of annoying when simple stories are expanded into "Long form" writing by puffing them out with extraneous details.
posted by delmoi at 9:21 PM on October 29, 2011 [25 favorites]


I find it kind of annoying when simple stories are expanded into "Long form" writing by puffing them out with extraneous details.

I have the opposite opinion. I'm not going to WIRED for inverse pyramid style news blurbs, I'm looking for a story, and good stories have to build up before a paying off.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:28 PM on October 29, 2011 [13 favorites]


From the comments in the Wired article "The US now has "cobalt jackets" to strap onto conventional missiles that when exploded, make a great dirty bomb to contaminate where ever. "

Is that true?
posted by Rumple at 9:29 PM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you put "Radioactive Scrap" into Google you get a mess of scary stories.

This is one of those situations where people tend to be really bad at estimating risk and absolutely freak out for very low exposures (e.g. my wife's uranium glass sugar bowl which is maybe a couple times more radioactive than a banana split*) but then compensate for their early over-reaction by failing to get more freaked out well past the point when it's time to stop freaking out and start freaking the hell out.

In the Prague story, for example, if by five times over standard they mean 5x background, that's odd, but not exactly something to freak out over. (If that's not what they mean, then by all means, freak away.)

Given that X-rays are produced by electric discharge, it would not surprise me if most of these cases were not someone cavalierly discarding something they knew to be dangerous, but naively assuming that once's it's disconnected from power, it's perfectly safe.

*When I started reading this, I was kind of expecting to learn that the box was full of bananas until they started putting numbers, instead of adjectives on things. Nope, not bananas.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:30 PM on October 29, 2011


Rumple: " Is that true?"

Cobalt jackets were first theorized in the 1950's as a way nuclear weapons could be made far more deadly than their current yields. Wikipedia: Cobalt Bomb. Salted Bomb
posted by zarq at 9:41 PM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


More on Container Bob:

Guardian:
He was well dressed, carried a laptop computer and appeared no different than any other business traveller except for the fact he had chosen to come to Canada in a metal box. Italian police arrested Amir Farid Rizk under new anti-terrorism legislation last week after finding him stowed away in a steel box on a container ship, on the eve of a three-week Atlantic crossing to Canada.

Canadian officials were also alarmed, worried he might be a terrorist with a devious plan to sneak into the country undetected. His box was furnished with a bed and a bucket and was stocked with food and water. Mr Rizk also had a satellite phone, maps and security passes for airports in Canada, Thailand and Egypt. He was travelling with a Canadian passport, which officials thought might be a forgery.

He had not thought about air quality, and began pounding on the walls of his box after arriving in the Italian port from Egypt because he was having trouble breathing.
ABC News:
Police believe he boarded the ship in Egypt and planned to travel all the way to Canada. But Farid, who was holding a Canadian passport, also had a plane ticket to fly from Rome to Toronto to Montreal. His seat on the flight, scheduled to leave last Friday, was confirmed. Italian investigators say everything about Farid — his documents and claims about himself — appear to be either false or obscured. They have checked his stories with police in other countries — including Egypt, Canada and the United States — and believe none has panned out. Canadian investigators are further investigating the suspect's background.

posted by zarq at 9:48 PM on October 29, 2011 [11 favorites]


"He had not thought about air quality, and began pounding on the walls of his box after arriving in the Italian port from Egypt because he was having trouble breathing."

DARK IN HERE, ISN'T IT?
posted by Pinback at 10:03 PM on October 29, 2011 [16 favorites]


Thanks zarq. The commenter's suggestion is, I think, that these are cobalt jackets for conventional weapons, producing a US Military-approved "dirty bomb". Doesn't sound like a good military weapon to me, let alone an ethical one, but then again they are still using cluster bombs so I am not giving the benefit of the doubt.
posted by Rumple at 10:05 PM on October 29, 2011


From the comments in the Wired article "The US now has "cobalt jackets" to strap onto conventional missiles that when exploded, make a great dirty bomb to contaminate where ever. "

Is that true?


Yes. They are real, and they are fabulous.

posted by Threeway Handshake at 10:07 PM on October 29, 2011 [13 favorites]


Holy bombshell. And now shipping to Canada!
posted by Rumple at 10:16 PM on October 29, 2011


It is one of the things you are expressly looking for when doing a scan like this so it is a bit odd that the Italians were flummoxed by the "mystery."

I think the mystery angle is just overembelishment by Wired, similar to how they are trying to overplay the fact that you can't be completely certain of the container contents because manifests can be falsified or the containers tampered with.

This is a container with a stated content of scrap metal giving of a ton of gamma rays - the first guess you will get from anyone with minimal training in radiation protection will be orphan Co-60 or Cs-137 source. Identifying the isotope and locating the approximate position of the source should take all of a couple of minutes using a simple NaJ detector.

Oh by the way, this story perfectly illustrates why the dirty bomb scenario is so stupid and has yet to be used by a terrorist with half a brain: Any significant amount of radioactive material is, on a technical level, trivially easy to detect with a radiation detector - not to mention lethal to your untrained goons trying to deliver it to the target without proper protection. If this container was filled with drugs, contraband or explosives it would probably have reached its destination undetected.

Who was it who, a few years ago as a research project/exposé, put the radioactive equivalent of a dirty bomb into a container and it wasn't detected anywhere, and basically ended up in a harbor where if it had been an actual terrorist device it would have been completely devastating?

I haven't heard of this - can you come up with any links about how they did it? Smuggling an actual dirty bomb is considerably harder than smuggling a simulated one.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:59 PM on October 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Anyone else think of Spook Country? Yeah, I didn't either, talk about a letdown of a novel.
posted by TungstenChef at 11:02 PM on October 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Anyone else think of Spook Country?

Yes - I first head of this from @GreatDismal

talk about a letdown of a novel.

I was disappointed by it after my first read. Then I read Zero History. Came back to Spook, and appreciated it a lot more.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:14 PM on October 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow. I was less than a mile from that thing. Maybe I need to rethink working in international ship yards.
posted by LoudMusic at 11:29 PM on October 29, 2011


Blue sparkly powder was an FPP as well
posted by infini at 11:34 PM on October 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


Hmmm, maybe I'll have to muster up the resolve to finish out the series with Zero History then.
posted by TungstenChef at 11:45 PM on October 29, 2011


I think the mystery angle is just overembelishment by Wired

I agree with that. I don't think that means the guy was poorly trained, necessarily, though.

Identifying the isotope and locating the approximate position of the source should take all of a couple of minutes using a simple NaJ detector.

Not if it goes off-scale high any time you get near the container. I have some NaI detectors that would have been totally useless in that situation, since they aren't multichannel detectors for doing iso id's. They're calibrated for a particular energy range and very, very sensitive. We use them for surveying supposedly-non-radioactive-material containers. They are outstanding at finding very low levels of radiation. I have other instruments to measure high levels, but again, I have no method of doing an iso id just hanging out in my truck.

He did exactly what I would have done. Shut down the shipment, have the container moved to a safe place, keep people away from it, call the boss and say there's a problem. I'm not about to start being all Sherlock Holmes by myself on the waterfront without everyone knowing about it, even if I do have the technical ability.

Shit, that guy was probably the one who suggested getting the HPGe out there in the first place, and it probably took 6 months for the engineers to listen to the lowly technician.
posted by ctmf at 11:47 PM on October 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


Reading Zero History will help you appreciate Spook Country more in the same sense that repeatedly banging your forehead against the wall helps you appreciate being lightly slapped with a dead fish.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:49 PM on October 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Plus, at that moment, by yourself on the wharf with a smokin'-hot container, who gives a fuck exactly where in the container the source is or what isotope it is? Finding that out is very low priority compared to keeping the people around it safe.
posted by ctmf at 11:54 PM on October 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Not if it goes off-scale high any time you get near the container. I have some NaI detectors that would have been totally useless in that situation, since they aren't multichannel detectors for doing iso id's.

Yeah you need a spectrometer obviously - I mentioned NaJ in contrast to a portable Ge detector which is much more expensive and somewhat trickier to operate. I didn't mean to imply the guy was poorly trained by the way - sorry if it came out that way.

Reading through all the extraneous information in the article it looks like things happened entirely as planned: Control tech picks up weird radiation signature, they move the thing out of the way and call the fire department. Someone comes along with a portable Ge and looks at the thing, and they realize it probably is an orphan source. I don't see any explicit mention of times, but the time from first detection to isotope identification was probably a couple of hours.

After all, the guy wasn't some amateur who happened to be passing by with a radiation detector: he was a trained professional prepared to deal with this exact situation. If you have a formal system in place for scanning cargo containers for radiation, you obviously have the number for someone to call in case you find something. So, not to belittle the contribution of anyone involved in this, but I get the feeling things were a lot less dramatic than the article makes it sound.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:05 AM on October 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm surprised Italian officials did not give Metafilter a call when they discovered the hot box.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:16 AM on October 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


They did. AskMe told them they shouldn't eat it. And to get therapy.
posted by ctmf at 12:43 AM on October 30, 2011 [34 favorites]


Eh, at least they didn't suggest to DTMFA.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:04 AM on October 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


Hmmm, maybe I'll have to muster up the resolve to finish out the series with Zero History then.

If you don't enjoy the Blue Ant series then don't force it.

Reading Zero History will help you appreciate Spook Country more in the same sense that repeatedly banging your forehead against the wall helps you appreciate being lightly slapped with a dead fish.

Who doesn't enjoy the occasional light slap with a dead fish?
posted by b1tr0t at 1:29 AM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, never heard of Container Bob before. That's freaky. And cool. Thanks, guys!
posted by FeralHat at 1:35 AM on October 30, 2011


The whole "no one knew what to do next" lede is fucking annoying and misleading. It's pretty clear that they followed a reasonable process and dealt with it.
posted by wilful at 4:15 AM on October 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Container Bob" wins an award, right up there with that guy who got caught with a trillion dollars in hundreds in the Phillipines.
posted by From Bklyn at 4:32 AM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does the ‘Ndrangheta go in for dodgy waste disposal like other organised crime groups in Italy? Would it be a simple as someone not wanting to pay for proper disposal?
posted by Abiezer at 5:16 AM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've always wanted to live in a sci-fi novel. Not sure I wanted it to be a William Gibson one, though.
posted by signal at 5:27 AM on October 30, 2011


The article establishes a very clear timeline of events.

It took the Italians more than a week, closer to a week and a half, from the time the container arrived in Genoa to narrow down the identity of the isotope.

Specialists had to come in to identify it, because the port's point staff couldn't. Which is why the article said, "No one knew what was inside" meaning no one in port who initially received/scanned it.

The phrase "no one knew what to do next" refers to the subsequent months the container sat in quarantine, while the Italians tried to determine a course of action.
posted by zarq at 5:31 AM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read "doggy waste disposal" and was somewhat fascinated by the idea of the Canine Poo Mob.
posted by likeso at 5:33 AM on October 30, 2011


There was a This American Life story about the Canine Poo Mob.
posted by moonmilk at 5:42 AM on October 30, 2011


Dr Dracator: "I don't see any explicit mention of times, but the time from first detection to isotope identification was probably a couple of hours.

Timeline (all of this was stated in the linked article):

July 13: Container 307703 arrives in port.

July 20: Montagna calls Calimero and Garbarino of the Agenzia Regionale per la Protezione dell’Ambiente Ligure (ARPAL), the Ligurian regional environmental agency. They rush to the port, arriving an hour later. They scan container 307703 (and note that the article explicitly says "July 20, a week after it was offloaded." They determine that there is no nuclear bomb in the container, call local officials and the fire department establishes a quarantine zone at the port.

"Over the next few days": They "brought in one of the most sensitive portable detectors on the market, an $80,000 Ortec HPGe Detective DX-100T to determine that inside the container, "cobalt-60 slowly alchemizing itself into nickel."

Then:
For six months after the container was discovered, officials made no public announcement about it, and the port’s business continued as usual. But rumor spread through the city. For a while, the only reaction was from port workers. Giacomo Santoro, whose FILT union represents most of the port’s longshoremen, claims Voltri management had his members move the container before adequately explaining the risks involved. And because the box spent a week on the dock between the time it was offloaded and when Montagna scanned it, dozens of people may have been unknowingly exposed to dangerous radiation. In protest, port workers staged a 24-hour strike in August 2010, three weeks after the container landed on the dock. For the next five days, the terminal’s union workers struck for two hours each shift.
Locals took up the cause. For neighborhood activist Nicola Montese, a burly young screenwriter and TV host who grew up in the shadow of the terminal’s cranes, the container was just another example of Genoa’s disdain for the working-class neighborhood across from the port. “Everyone always dumps their trash in Pra’,” Montese says. “We don’t need another problem.” Montese spent months trying to drum up outrage in the local community, hanging hand-painted banners on fences near the port and organizing meetings and protests.

Behind closed doors, officials from various agencies, foreign governments, and businesses struggled to come up with a plan. This was the worst radiologic incident in Italian history, and nobody knew whom to blame or what to do about it. “I’ve seen cesium from Egypt and americium from Russia,” says the environmental agency’s Maggiolo, who has a doctorate in physics. “But I’ve never seen something like this.”

Genoese officials were stuck. No shipping line in its right mind would transport container 307703 knowing only that it was radioactive but not what was inside. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United Arab Emirates were willing to take it back. As a temporary measure, six months after the container was delivered the port built a three-sided “castle” of triple-stacked yellow containers half-filled with concrete around the unwanted box, which still sat at the terminal’s unused far end. Signs reading pericolo—radiazione ionizzante (“Danger—Ionizing Radiation”) were posted at regular intervals, reminding port workers to keep their distance.

After months of wrangling over who was responsible for the removal operation—priced at $700,000—the port and the Italian ministry of the interior finally decided to split the bill. On July 18, 2011, just over a year after the box was unloaded in Genoa, 40 firefighters, a police bomb squad, representatives from the port authority, a team of robot operators, and Calimero and Garbarino descended on the Voltri terminal. Five huge green tents were pitched on the port’s blacktop to house computers and gear. Ten fire trucks and emergency vehicles were parked 100 yards behind the shield wall.

posted by zarq at 5:57 AM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, security experts and politicians have zeroed in on containers as a major risk.

hey look, they got one thing right.

In 2007, Congress passed a bill requiring that every container coming into the US—some 66,000 a day—be scanned before it enters the country. The Department of Homeland Security was given until 2012 to implement the order, but together with the shipping industry DHS has pushed back.

lol ok nvm.
posted by fetamelter at 6:04 AM on October 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm about 1/5 down the page now. Is there an actual story behind the unbelievably overwrought writing?

As he stood in the morning sun listening to that sound, Montagna realized that one of the containers in front of him held a lethal secret. But was that secret merely a slow-motion radioactive industrial accident—or a bomb, one that could decimate the Italian city’s entire 15-mile waterfront?
...
He summoned the safety officer on duty and asked for a stacker, a sort of crane on wheels with an overhead arm that can clean-and-jerk a 50-ton box like a child’s toy.

Ugh.
posted by indubitable at 6:28 AM on October 30, 2011




Timeline (all of this was stated in the linked article):


Note that the timeline does not include the point where they scan the container, figure out something is wrong and call for help. I would bet this was on the morning of July 20, right before they called in the ARPAL crew - it would be very strange if this was not reported immediately, and even stranger if the appropriate authority did not respond ASAP. I doubt they came in to this without some basic identification capability, and a metric buttload of Co-60 is about as simple as you can get in this kind of thing. The portable Ge was probably brought in on the next day for a more detailed scan, to check for any other nasty surprises.
posted by Dr Dracator at 6:32 AM on October 30, 2011


Whenever I see a Wired article with a question as the headline I just skip to the end and read it backwards to find out what actually happened. Takes a minute or two to piece it together then I can be on my way without going through the literary contortions that the author-designer has inflicted on the story.
posted by Edogy at 6:53 AM on October 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


OMG it's Rossi's E-Cat!
posted by spitbull at 7:11 AM on October 30, 2011


< i>Maybe I need to rethink working in international ship yards.

Or living anywhere near a major hospital.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:15 AM on October 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


A few months after container 307703 passed through, police at Gioia Tauro working on a tip opened an unassuming box from Brazil filled with tractors and found inside (not listed on the manifest) a ton of pure coke.

those pesky drug dealers, not listing things on the manifest!!! what sneaky methods will they come up with next???1?
posted by alan2001 at 7:22 AM on October 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


Oh by the way, this story perfectly illustrates why the dirty bomb scenario is so stupid and has yet to be used by a terrorist with half a brain: Any significant amount of radioactive material is, on a technical level, trivially easy to detect with a radiation detector

Sure thing. And while I'd like to think that procedures have changed since this happened in 2003, there was that widely reported incident where ABC News staged a radioactive container to be shipped to the United States and it went undetected. Twice.

And as has already been pointed out upthread, this isn't a case where the radiation was reported and then it was dealt with in a quick and effective manner. The container SAT IN THE PORT FOR OVER A YEAR before they actually took steps to neutralize the unknown substance. Anyone making a dirty bomb would likely have it set to go off long before that, rendering the port and its surroundings pretty much useless for a long time.
posted by hippybear at 7:29 AM on October 30, 2011


I think I've figured out where it came from.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:33 AM on October 30, 2011


And while I'd like to think that procedures have changed since this happened in 2003, there was that widely reported incident where ABC News staged a radioactive container to be shipped to the United States and it went undetected. Twice.

I read that article, their point is that the entire act of inspection is not an effective means of keeping weapons-grade uranium from entering the country (they then go on to list what is effective, things like blending down excess stocks, banning commercial use, etc.). The idea that a change in inspection procedures would make it more effective is the sort of thinking that may qualify you for a rich and rewarding career at the Department of Homeland Security.
posted by indubitable at 7:49 AM on October 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, that's kind of my point. If the container gets to port, then it's already too late, isn't it?
posted by hippybear at 8:00 AM on October 30, 2011


Indubitable, they said basically the same thing in the wired article. “The radiation portals that were deployed in the aftermath of 9/11 are essentially fine, except for three problems: They won’t find a nuclear bomb, they won’t find highly enriched uranium, and they won’t find a shielded dirty bomb,” says Stephen Flynn, a terrorism expert and president of the Center for National Policy. “Other than that, they’re great pieces of equipment.”

Does this single statement bother anyone as much as it bothers me? If true, seems like a giant waste of expenses, and a story of its own. I suppose at least situations with accidental radioactive scrap can be caught. Still, I would expect Wired to follow up this statement with a more thorough explanation, or at least a link.
posted by Nutri-Matic Drinks Synthesizer at 8:23 AM on October 30, 2011


Sorry, hippybear, when I read "I'd like to think that procedures have changed," I interpreted that as "I'd like to think inspection procedures have improved."
posted by indubitable at 9:02 AM on October 30, 2011


If true, seems like a giant waste of expenses, and a story of its own.

You could analyze any aspect of the Department of Homeland Security and use that line.
posted by maxwelton at 9:52 AM on October 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


then I can be on my way without going through the literary contortions that the author-designer has inflicted on the story.

These kinds of creative non-fiction articles use a mystery to drive the story forward, to keep the reader interested while the author imparts lots of factual information. The hook may or may not be interesting in the end, the real value is in the stuff the author imparts along the way. If all you read is the hook your missing everything else, which is really the value of the article.
posted by stbalbach at 10:56 AM on October 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


If all you read is the hook your missing everything else, which is really the value of the article.

I see this on MeFi frequently when print magazine articles are posted. It's a whole genre of writing, people, not something invented to frustrate those with the attention span of a gnat. Oh no! He used unusual or long words! Oh no! It was not in AP pyramid style! Oh no! The point was not summarized in the headline! This is not blogging.
posted by dhartung at 1:10 PM on October 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


Cobalt jackets were first theorized in the 1950's as a way nuclear weapons could be made far more deadly than their current yields. Wikipedia: Cobalt Bomb. Salted Bomb

Cobalt bombs were the cardinal plot point in the most depressing novel ever written, On the Beach - Cobalt 60 dust is propogated through global air currents, slowly poisoning the entire world until Melbourne, Australia, is the only city left.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:49 PM on October 30, 2011


Oh no! He used unusual or long words! Oh no! It was not in AP pyramid style! Oh no! The point was not summarized in the headline! This is not blogging.

Well, there's also the separate issue that it's just crap writing. Like, do you know what a clean and jerk is? It looks nothing like what a gantry crane does; the journalist probably was just blindly flipping through a thesaurus to see if he could make the phrase "pick up" more exciting.
posted by indubitable at 3:10 PM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


"the real value is in the stuff the author imparts along the way."

But what about when that stuff is mostly fluff, tortured analogies, and a level of over-simplification that actually harms your ability to understand and follow the story?

Frankly, I've given up reading most of the magazine style articles posted on MeFi, particularly from the likes of the NYT, Atlantic Monthly, etc., for just that reason. I just can't be bothered wading through the standard "2 dramatic intro paragraphs, 4 pages of fluff and shoehorned-in human interest with bits of detail occasionally interspersed, wrapped up with a dramatic denouement and final 'what if?/where now?'" looking for the actual story.
posted by Pinback at 3:24 PM on October 30, 2011


looking for the actual story

Creative non-fiction is a genre of writing. All the things your complaining are features not bugs. It's like complaining that a movie has close-ups and blurred backgrounds and you can't see everything in the frame. It's the art of making film. I suggest reading some good creative non-fiction away from the computer, in a book, with no distractions. One of my favorite authors in the genre is David Grann whose magazine pieces were anthologized in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.
posted by stbalbach at 5:32 PM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, I don't disagree that it's a valid form of art or anything - but, to quote directly from wikpedia:
"Creative nonfiction … is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives."
Where the original article and so many others fail is in sacrificing "factually accurate" for "styles and techniques".
posted by Pinback at 5:59 PM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


OK, let's look at some more problems the author injected into the article, as fluff:

By the time the sun came up, the box had become a single dark-red pixel in a shifting mosaic of commerce, buried among identical containers bearing logos like Yang Ming, Hamburg S\0xFCd, Maersk Sealand, MSC, Cosco, OCL, Sinochem, Hapag-Lloyd, “K” Line, and Hyundai.


"Hamburg S\0xFCd" is not a logo. "Hamburg" may be a logo, but more likely a point of origin or destination, since "\0xFCd" is a database designation for the container a/o its contents. The author walked 10' in the yard, writing down what he saw written on the containers, and ascribing every scribble as a "logo". We're lucky "yor mom has aids" and "u suck dick" weren't listed, as well.

Long on words, short on understanding, is no way to write an article, son.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:00 PM on October 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you think Container Bob really escaped while on bail, or do you think he ended up at a black site in Thailand? I think I favor the latter.
posted by Mid at 7:05 PM on October 30, 2011


"Hamburg S\0xFCd" is not a logo .. "\0xFCd" is a database designation for the container a/o its contents

It's the Hamburg Süd logo. The S\0xFCd is computer-speak for "Süd" .. "S" followed by the escape sequence "\0xFC" (which is the ü") followed by a "d". It's an error in the printing by Wired. Long on words, short on understanding.
posted by stbalbach at 7:36 PM on October 30, 2011 [10 favorites]


You know what's always bothered me? Dirty bombs that go "BOOM". If I made a dirty bomb, I would design it to burn the radioactive material. Imagine billowing clouds of radioactive smoke wafting towards downtown. Nothing beats a roaring fire for dispersing fine particulates, I always say!

(terrorists take note)
(also feds)

posted by ryanrs at 3:20 AM on October 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wow, thanks, stbalbach. I was both right and wrong. As was the author.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:49 AM on October 31, 2011


ryanrs, that's actually quite brilliant.

A burning pile of rubbish would disperse it well, but not draw rapid attention. Depending on the fuel, it could be very difficult to put out... or the responders might even choose to let it burn out.

The only problem is that its effects have to be detected soon enough to create panic. A dirty bomb's purpose is purely terrorism, in the classic sense: panic and disruption. Even a well-placed molotov cocktail can be more effective at actual slaughter.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:51 AM on October 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


As I said, we get this sort of thing every time a magazine article is posted. If you don't like the genre, maybe you shouldn't click on those links. This is not a news story.

ryanrs, the collective term of art is "radiological dispersion device", but "dirty bomb" is pretty much all you'll see outside of professional literature.

As was the author.

No, the author probably submitted Süd, and the editors approved Süd, and it is almost certainly Süd in the print magazine. The online posting software, however, got confused (i.e. did not include full support for extended character sets) and substituted a code for the ü. This is actually a fairly common web publishing issue, although it's been getting better the last few years. Your criticism was off-base. There is nothing about this that reveals confusion on the part of the author.
posted by dhartung at 10:50 AM on October 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


The style doesn’t bother me. Obviously the techie is trained for this eventuality, but there’s a big difference between being trained for something and being faced with it, at least emotionally, which is what this kind of writing draws on. I can easily see the tech telling the journo “So at first I thought it was an error, you know?” It’s all about the narrative.

Dangerous for the port workers, sure, but what about the container ship crew? One might be around this thing for weeks or months, though the dates (trucked to port “in June or early July” and at port on July 13th) have a lot of wiggle room, so this particular container could have been at sea for a couple of weeks or six.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:40 PM on October 31, 2011


How fast does radiation fall off with distance -- inverse square?
posted by empath at 1:44 PM on October 31, 2011


Yes, inverse square.

but what about the container ship crew

Well, it's anybody's guess where it was placed on the ship. It might have been adjacent to a crew walkway or living quarters, or buried within a pile of dozens, offering some shielding by sheer bulk of steel (and random contents). I guess I'd be happier knowing they tracked down the ship and crew, just in case any of them received a serious dose.

Another question is how much residual radiation that kind of exposure would leave on those other cargo containers, and how many false positives future radiation-monitor guys will have to deal with. Would it be to the extent any need scrapping? I just don't know, although my guess is that it's unlikely.

Like, do you know what a clean and jerk is? It looks nothing like what a gantry crane does

Seems like a clear enough metaphor for a powerful lifter, to me. I didn't imagine it was holding the container over its head.
posted by dhartung at 2:05 PM on October 31, 2011


If it was multi-modal shipping, driven by truck at some point, the truck driver was probably close enough to that container for long enough to get an impressive dose. I know if something like that had happened around here, we* would be going through the serious PITA of tracing this container's every move since it was loaded, and getting statements from everyone trying to do dose estimates for each person. Really, since this source was initially removed from whatever place it came from, even before it got in the container. If it's that small an object, where was it stored before it went in the container? Someone's desk? Car? Pocket? Yikes.

*together with our counterparts in other countries and organizations, as appropriate

Gamma radiation exposure (which Co-60 gives off) to adjacent materials probably wouldn't cause any significant activation. I'd be more worried about that thing having been damaged at some point during the (mis)handling and contaminating surrounding areas with Co-60 dust. That's one good reason why I wouldn't have gone any farther than this tech did when he discovered it, as far as investigation is concerned. He put it in a (relatively) safe condition so everyone could go make a plan about what to do next, and what additional precautions (Anti-contamination clothing? Additional dosimetry? Practice walk-throughs to save time in the actual high rad area? Robot?) might be required for that.

Although I like colorful stories, I had to laugh out loud at the clean and jerk comparison, too. Seems a little too explosive a movement to describe what a crane does. I was imagining inventing a forklift that could clean and jerk pallets. Or probably just snatch them, for simplicity.
posted by ctmf at 5:55 PM on October 31, 2011


Seems like a clear enough metaphor for a powerful lifter, to me.

The complaints offered in this thread are about as weak as they come. The only real complaint I see is they don't like non-fiction metaphors. All writing contains metaphors, but most metaphors are just so cliche you don't even notice them. This type of creative non-fiction is better because it doesn't use cliche, it uses original metaphors, and that drives some people nuts. Maybe because it forces them to slow down and think, and they'd rather just skip to the end and find out what happens without expending much energy or thought on reading.
posted by stbalbach at 12:28 PM on November 1, 2011


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