Dec 26, 2008

NMI Q&A with… Frank Young

Watchdog blogger tells 'the rest of the story' at Los Alamos labs
By Trip Jennings, The New Mexico Independent

Frank Young runs LANL: The Rest of the Story, a blog about the inner workings at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

Young, aka Pinky and the Brain to his regular readers (the Brain is his wife, Dorothy), has operated the blog for more than a year, picking up the mantle from two predecessors who provided a forum for lab insiders to vent, while giving outsiders a window into one of the U.S.’s most famous laboratories.

What Young’s blog lacks in numbers of readers it makes up for in quality and influence. Readers at Congressional offices and the Pentagon are among his regular viewers, he says, as well as folks as far away as Russia and China.

Young, who is 45 and now lives in Houston, says he became interested in the lab after working there for a contractor. Later, he became sick from what he believes was exposure to high-level liquid radioactive waste at the lab. He has written about his sickness here.

The blog is a blend of news about the lab and the nuclear community, articles contributed by readers and articles Young has written himself. Most of the content is contributed by readers in the comment threads, he says.

“Those [comments] are the most interesting part of this,” Young says. “There’s a mix — some hateful stuff, some humorous stuff and some very thoughtful stuff.”

Beyond LANL, Young has begun to track larger issues. He just returned from a nuclear deterrence summit in Washington the first week of December.

“They invited me,” Young says. “I had to pay travel and expenses, but they waived the $1,100 registration fee. They consider me a member of the press.”

We talked more with Young about The Rest of the Story and the politics and science of blogging.

NMI: What is your relationship to LANL?

FY: The Army brought me out West. My last duty station was Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. [After leaving the Army,] I took a job with a firm in Albuquerque that does business throughout New Mexico. Most of our work was with a few big customers. The lab was one of them. I’ve probably worked at almost every tech area in the lab. As an electrical engineer, I tested power systems and also did repairs and upgrades. Just to be clear, I was never an employee of the lab.

How did you get interested in the goings on at LANL?

I started following the story of safety and security problems because I was involved. The big issue for me was becoming sick and wanting to know what I had been exposed to. The last place I worked at Los Alamos was TA-55 [Tech Area 55, the plutonium facility where plutonium pits are made]. That was a two-week project that started April 1, 2002.

I have not worked since then. Accidents happen. I don’t blame anybody and I’m not interested in suing anybody. I just want an answer.

How did you come to take up the original blog for the LANL community?

When I first discovered the original blog, it was like a gold mine to me. I read it daily and fast-tracked my understanding of how the weapons-complex worked. It’s not an easy thing for an outsider to teach himself. When that blog ended, someone else took up the mantle for a while. When the second blog ended, I decided to do it if no one else would. I’ve been doing it since April 1, 2007. None of the blogs are anti-lab, by the way, just anti-bad management.

How do you get your information?

People at the lab contact me through the blog’s email address. They’ll send me ideas, material they want posted … I even get fan mail. I try to keep it mostly related to LANL. I think that’s about as much as one person can handle.

Do you allow people to remain anonymous when they send you stuff?

Absolutely. Anyone can email me anonymously. Often they don’t hide who they are from me but still request that I publish what they sent without naming them. I have been doing this long enough that if I released their names, word would get around and people would stop sending me stuff. Heck, for the first year, I was anonymous. I understand the situation my readers are in.

How many contributors do you have?

I’ve never counted but I’d say easily over a hundred. There are regular contributors who send me stories they want posted every day, and then there are a lot of people who have contributed only once or twice.

How do you get the content?

I’ve only written a few of the posts myself. Most are news articles or written by a reader. The majority of the content is contributed by readers in the form of comment threads that trail posts.

Why do you think they participate in the blog?

I think most readers are seeing things they believe aren’t right and they want a way to fix them and they don’t see any other way other than the blog. It gives them a voice in a way that poses no risk to their careers.

What is your relationship with the labs’ administration?

There are a lot of people who I or the blog readers have criticized harshly who probably don’t like it. There are also people in the administration who are some of my sources. It’s hard to view the lab as one single entity. It is a bunch of groups that sometimes fight with each other. It’s Balkanized.

Do you see yourself as fulfilling a public service?

I don’t think the public benefits a lot, because I think the public is mostly not paying attention. I guess it’s a service for the Los Alamos community and stakeholders.

What is the most rewarding part of providing the blog?

What is humbling to me is who reads it. The Senate, the House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Department of Energy, all the branches of the military, all the other labs. I get hits from all over the world. There is a person in Sweden who reads it for hours every day. The only domain I can think of that I have never seen reading the blog is whitehouse.gov.

Where do most of the hits come from?

The lab recently blocked Internet communication with the blog’s stat counter and site meter, so I don’t see hits from LANL.gov anymore, though you can still read the blog from work at LANL. Before that about 80 percent of my hits came from the lab.

Do you get feedback from the Pentagon or the Senate, or the House?

Indirectly, yes. I’ve gotten feedback that they read it every day. I can also see what they are reading by looking at the logs.

The principal assistant deputy administrator for National Nuclear Security Administration Defense Programs came to Los Alamos for an an all-hands meeting and said the blog was “one of the most informative sources of information he’s found regarding what’s going on inside the Lab.”

At the Nuclear Deterrence Summit this month, a deputy director of another lab told me that what I was doing was great, was improving things, and to keep up the good work. He also mentioned he was thankful I wasn’t blogging about his lab.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Frank,

Nice interview. Thanks for all the hard work.

Anonymous said...

The principal assistant deputy administrator for National Nuclear Security Administration Defense Programs came to Los Alamos for an an all-hands meeting and said the blog was “one of the most informative sources of information he’s found regarding what’s going on inside the Lab.”

What a shame. This blog does not represent what goes on inside the lab. Mostly it reflects what conspiracy theories go on inside people's heads superimposed on the lab from time to time.

Anonymous said...

Nice work Frank. Thank you for your efforts-facts, opinions,conspiracy theories & all :) I look forward to reading your Blog everyday.

Good interview

Anonymous said...

So, with the hit meter blocked by LANL, we are seeing a very distorted picture of how many people are reading the blog and where they are when they are reading. Blocking the hit meter would seem to be very petty on the party of LANS management. No surprise.

Frank Young said...

It sounds like 11:12 PM takes the reports of Mike Anastasio being an Ewok (and himself) a little too seriously.

To everyone else, and to Trip Jennings, I thought the interview turned out great. Thanks to everyone for your help.

As for the hit counter being blocked, I'd love to know what the story is there. It can't be some DOE regulation because I still see hits from LLNL. Since the blog itself isn't blocked, I wonder if the hit counter is blocked to protect the identity of readers who view the blog while at work.

Anonymous said...

Yes, keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 12/26/08 11:12 PM writes: "This blog does not represent what goes on inside the lab. Mostly it reflects what conspiracy theories go on inside people's heads superimposed on the lab from time to time."

This writer is either a fool or it is Mikey!

Anonymous said...

A distinction without a difference.

Doug said...

Nice mug shot, Frank!

Seriously: congratulations on the recognition.

--Doug

Frank Young said...

Close, it's my passport photo. Dorothy thinks it's the only good picture of me. She's wrong of course, there are no good pictures of me. Seriously!

Thanks though, and I owe you and Pat (The Dog) a few cold ones for blazing the trail for me. Fear not, I'm good for it.

Anonymous said...

Frank,

It's a little jarring when you expose your true identity like this. You'll always be Pinky to me. Anyway, kudos on your interview and I'm delighted to hear that you've become a minor celebrity in your own right.

Now you *can't* quit.

Anonymous said...

Keep going with the good work Frank. Contrary to 12/16 11:!2 pm, this blog does reflect what is going on at LANL most of the time. Yes, there are a few crackpots out there that post to it, but it truly does reveal the vile and corrupt upper management at LANL that has mostly destroyed the lab's morale and sent most of the real talent packing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks much for the blog.
It is the only source of truth about LANL.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be interesting to compare the information content, accuracy, breadth of subject matter, honesty, diversity, and progressive attitude of this admittedly flawed blog to one of Anastasio's seriously flawed, and totally useless all-hand's meetings. I don't think I've ever heard the man actually answer a question directly or honestly. Keep up the good work, Frank. 11:12 is a management kiss ass or a moron or both.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, there are a few crackpots out there that post to it, but it truly does reveal the vile and corrupt upper management at LANL that has mostly destroyed the lab's morale and sent most of the real talent packing." (3:47 PM)

So many good scientists I've known over the last few years have left during LANS' reign. Each month seems to bring word of yet another good employee who reached their breaking point and left for a better research environment.

One of the saddest part of this is that LANS seems to have decided to ignore the brain drain and pretend that all is well. I've noticed that Email announcements typically issued when employees leave LANL have stopped being issued except for the losses at the top levels. Even worse, LANS has recently been keeping former staff listed in the LANL employee database long after these people have left the lab and cut all their LANL relationships. This makes it difficult to even know who has left the lab. You only find out when you try to contact them or by word of mouth from former colleagues. It's sad to see this lab die a slow death in this manner.

Anonymous said...

Nobody has the guts to ask Mikey difficult questions. There is a real atmosphere of oppression. Good scientists and engineers are leaving and LANS does not care. In fact, they may be pleased. Meanwhile, they are hiring third-rate people to do the compliance work. LANL is in a downward spiral.

Anonymous said...

Frank, this blog in fact does represent what does go on internally within the lab. I have worked at Los Alamos for almost 30-years and have observed morale and capability continue to worsen primarily due to inexperienced and now greedy and deceptive Lab management. I have observed literally hundreds of key and vastly experienced weapon engineers leave Los Alamos during the past 3 years. Many that didn't leave on their own accord were literally forced out of their positions and forced into non-weapons jobs. As an example, all 4 lead weapon system engineers have left LANL to work for other external agencies. The weapon system engineers are considered to be the most comprehensively knowledgeable individuals for each weapon system. While I have made Director Anastasio aware of this situation he continues to inform me that his Associate Director for Weapons (Knapp) is responsible for this area and that "he knows nothing". The Weapons Programs, particularly in the area of weapon engineering, continues to deteriorate, if not rot, at an alarming rate under the current LANS "leadership'.

Anonymous said...

Knapp is one of the worst. The fact that Mike rubber stamps Knapp's incompetent management style is reason enough for many people to leave - and they have. Meanwhile, second-rate yes-men are put in place with clear directives to institute phony compliance milestones instead of genuine national security work. LANS stays out of the papers, Bechtel gets their bonus, and the American people are none the wiser. It is most certainly a downward spiral.

qgrrrl said...

How nice to see The Brain mentioned for once!

No, I'm not The Brain. Is this another of your conspiracy theories?

Anonymous said...

I fully agree that this blog is the only source for truth about the rotting core of LANL. If only the folks that control this mess could at least be embarrassed by the small spotlights being shown on them. They evidently are so wrapped up in themselves that they believe themselves to be untouchable...a pathetic witness to our once great USA.

Anonymous said...

We all seem to forget that a second weapons lab is redundant and that the warheads will last a much longer time than the figures used for the "Stockpile Stewardship" ruse. Extremely reliable weapons can be built with a slight alteration of the one-point safety criterion. In sum, a single lab will serve the nation just fine and the grousing about the loss of LANL capabilities is only self-serving.

Anonymous said...

"How nice to see The Brain mentioned for once!

No, I'm not The Brain. Is this another of your conspiracy theories?"

As they say, behind every good man is a GREAT woman, in this case, the Brain. :*)

Anonymous said...

Frank, I don't know why on Earth you continue to run this blog, but... please don't stop!

There are many of us at LANL who appreciate your effort. Thank you, and may you have a Happy New Year!