I want a pork-belly-backed currency, before it’s too late!

It annoys me that it’s taken me this long to start figuring out, I think, why and how money works.

I started writing a long rambling post here on the subject, but it’s too much of a mess so I’ll just skip to the punchline.

Our modern currencies are so-called “fiat currencies”. It used to be that, for example, “a dollar” actually represented and could be traded for a specific amount of refined metallic gold. Now, it’s not really redeemable for any pre-specified amount of anything. I don’t really see this as a huge problem unlike some people, but there is a lot of noise lately about how we need to go back to “the gold standard” (i.e. back to the time when a “dollar” was directly redeemable for some fixed amount of gold). My problem with this is that gold is mostly useless, really. If there were really some sort of horrible society-destroying catastrophe, about the only thing you’d be able to use the gold for is as a bludgeon to club people with (gold is quite heavy, at least), or maybe as radiation shielding if you’ve got enough of it stacked around your basement. If we’ve got to go back to an “asset-backed” currency, I think it ought to be pork-bellies. Or wheat. Or maybe heads of lettuce.

Better still, make it a “basket” of all three, so that fluctuations in the value of one of those three things doesn’t screw up the value of the currency. Plus, then you could redeem 3 $1US bills for a BLT sandwich.

What prompted me to start typing, though, was the thougts of how badly at the mercy of economic parasites we are in the modern world though – I’m thinking here mainly of abusers of “intellectual property” monopolies like broad idea patents and eternal copyrights, who demand tribute before you’re allowed to participate in just about any modern activity using the internet or other digital medium. And then the shocking, horrifying thought came to me: “mp3-download-backed currency”.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be over there in the corner, curled up in fetal position, rocking back and forth, and whimpering occasionally.

Stir-Fried Stochasticity Ep 04 (“TuberculosisBurgers”) is up…

Oh, I forgot to mention here that Episode 4 is up at http://www.dogphilosophy.net, where I’m trying out the “Powerpress” plugin for WordPress to see how it works out. Please give it a listen and let me know how it is.

I’m still plotting to expand out to three different podcasts/oggcasts or so, including of course the current Stir-Fried Stochasticity podcast (Science news direct from primary sources: scientific publications), an intermittent “Perceptive Peripatetic” series literally based on random things that I happen to run into as I wander around which happen to amuse, interest, or inspire me, and a “The Computer Is My Friend” free-fun-with-computer-nerd-stuff podcast. Upcoming episodes being considered for each include:

    Stir-Fried Stochasticity

  • Episode 5: This Episode Is Garbage (concerning Landfills)
  • Episode something-higher-than-5: “Two Mass Spectrometers, High Performance Liquid Chromatography, and a Female Donkey” (concerning exactly what it says…)
  • Episode also-something-higher-than-5: “Is there anything Beer cannot do?” (concerning some interesting beer-related publications I’ve collected)
  • Various other papers from various fields have also been collected for consideration. Suggestions are welcome.

    Perceptive Peripatetic

  • “The Firebreathing All-Devouring Skybeast of the Gulf” (inspired by a photo I took recently, if I can get it to turn out the way I want it.)

    “The Computer Is My Friend”

  • Episode 01: “Freetarded” podcasting (concerning practical, ethical, legal, and technical stuff I’ve run into and considered while trying to support this new podcasting hobby of mine – hopefully useful for anyone else interested in producing their own audio and/or video for the web and for public participation.)
  • Episode sometime-after-01: “Enterprise Linux Must Die” (Tentative plot: it’s actually “pro-Linux” but is a rant against “Enterprise” distributions, or at least one in particular, and some praise for “rolling releases”).
  • Episode also-sometime-after-01: “Freetarded” mobility (concerning Android, Meego/Maemo, and my quest to get as much functionality on my cellphone while remaining as “Legally Free” as possible. Might possibly include instructions for making an external microphone adapter for various cellphone models, and might also include some (optional) video content.
  • Episode yet-another-sometime-after-01: Where? (Concerning geolocation, geolocated digital photos, other geolocated media, “geotagging” in general, and some verbal chastisement for people who say they are “geotagging” but [in my opinion] are not.)

The schedule for all this is still unspecified (but far quicker than “another year” until the next episode, at least), and as usual is heavily influenced on what anybody who is willing to listen might be interested in. I may be doing this for fun rather than profit, but the fun will be greatly enhanced if I’m not just sitting here talking to myself. Feel free to post in the comments (anonymously if you prefer – just put a fake email address in the field that asks for it.)

Don’t forget to feed and walk your mitochondria

Yes, I’m still here – though I don’t know if any of YOU are.

The pay at my job is somewhat low for the skillset it requires, but makes up for that by having a very reasonable workload, a pleasant work environment, and certain perks – like access to the electronic journals that my employer subscribes to. I added an RSS feed from pubmed intended to cover my main interests – basically edible and industrial microbiology and biotechnology. Every day, a list of 300-600 or so new scientific articles pops up in my feedreader and I scan through the titles looking for anything interesting to me. Unintentionally, my selection appears to also result in quite a bit of diabetes, obesity, and sports medicine research. Lately I’ve taken a moderate interest in our own most blatantly bacterial components, the mitochondria.

Mitochondria are kind of like a nearly 2-billion-year-long case of typhus (or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, if you prefer). After infecting our ancestors (and now us) for so long, they’ve been reduced to dependency on living in our cells. Perhaps a bit like the progression from wolves to Chinese Crested dogs. On the other hand, having thoroughly domesticated them, we get a lot of use out of them, and couldn’t live without them. Their ability to harness the electron-sucking power of oxygen means we get almost 20 times more energy out of our food than we otherwise would, which is a good thing since biologically speaking, keeping the hideously complicated mess of biochemistry that makes up a human body takes a ridiculous amount of biochemical energy compared to that of normal organisms (i.e. prokaryotes).

Lately in the stream of new publications I’ve been seeing a number of papers suggesting that a lack of proper mitochondrial activity might be related to obesity and related problems (e.g. “metabolic syndrome”, type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance, obesity-related “inflammation”, and so on) and even some age-related problems, both physical and mental. There is some seriously interesting research going on into treatments to potentially stimulate mitochondrial activity and whether this might help solve a number of health problems.

So…take good care of your mitochondria. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to pay special attention to properly feeding my mitochondria and making sure I take them for regular walks (and paddling trips and so on). It could, of course, be purely psychosomatic, but right now I feel better than James Brown

There’s a fair amount of rational skepticism over using drugs or nutritional supplements to stimulate mitochondria, but here’s a tip that I suspect everyone’s doctor would accept: make sure you take your mitochondria for regular walks. Frequent exercise (particularly endurance exercise) seems to be a scientifically well-accepted way to induce production of more mitochondria.

But now I have to go to bed. My main complaint with work these days is that it eats up essentially my entire day, leaving me with just enough time for some household chores between getting up in the morning and going to bed in the evening. Not their fault I live almost and hour and a half from work, though (and at least the commute is through relatively low-traffic and scenic terrain.). Still, it makes it hard to get blog posts and podcasts done (episode 4, on the subject of “heat-fixing” of bacteria for microscopy – particularly Mycobacterium tuberculosis – will be out as soon as I can manage. Still pondering the subject of Episode 5. I’m saving the “Two Mass Spectrometers, High Performance Liquid Chromatography, and a Female Donkey” episode for later when I manage to surpass the “nearly 3” listeners that I seem to be stuck at…)

Magical Miracle Elixir: “better than bleach”. Secret ingredient? Bleach.

The Los Angeles Times published a bewilderingly hyped article today about an electrolytic device that makes “miracle” liquid. The article describes what actually is a kind of nifty gadget that uses an electrical current and a couple of semi-permeable membranes to generate (separately but simultaneously) a “degreaser” and a “sanitizer” out of ordinary salt and tapwater. They say that not only can you use one output to clean your dishes, the other one is “10 times more effective than bleach in killing bacteria”(insert a long string of exclamation points there). I just have one thing to say about that:


Continue reading Magical Miracle Elixir: “better than bleach”. Secret ingredient? Bleach.

Sophic Suds

A beer-colored, sepia-tone-like picture of glass of beer overlooking a valley
(Image: “When Beer Ruled the Earth” – you should really click through and read the caption that goes with it…)

A fundamental aspect of my personal philosophy is this: If you cannot play with something, you have not mastered it, and if you do not play with it, you will not master it.

I can sit here and read for hours, but it’s time I actually put my hands on some brewing again. I have a pound each of wheat and amber dried malt extract, an ounce of a low-bitterness (~2.9% alpha-acids) pellet hops, a packet of medium-attenuation dried beer yeast, two 39 millihogshead plastic containers that I can use as fermenters, an early-20th-century hand-cranked blower/bellows, a hot glue gun, a gallon of pineapple juice, some air-line tubing, a cabinet full of spices (including, of course, ginger), at least one small room air-filter, several pounds of honey, perhaps half a cup of granular erythritol, glycerol, a whole mess of glass bottles and bottlecaps, a variety of high-caffeine black tea bags, miscellaneous kitchen implements, a couple of copper-coated scouring pads, a selection of two-liter PETE bottles, iodophor concentrate, a hydrometer, a somewhat overstressed and twisted mind, a wife, four cats, and a dog. What shall I make?

I’m thinking I should aim for a mildly sweet brew with a ginger bite, perhaps adding a bit of tea or pepper if the sweetness needs balancing – but of course part of the goal of the exercise here will be to try to adapt to whatever I’m getting along the way…


“Improvements in the Fermentation and Maturation of Beers”

Judging by my webserver’s logs, almost nobody actually bothers to click through the blog-carnival host’s site to read my Giant’s Shoulders” posts. This could be due to a secret conspiracy involving famous bloggers and several shadowy government agencies. I suppose, though, that there’s a chance that simply nobody but me is that interested in non-medical microbiology. Well…today’s post is an attempt to disprove that concept, for what aspect of non-medical microbiology could be more universally appealing than beer?

Unfortunately, in the middle of trying to assemble this posting, I see the February host has decided to put the carnival up a day early, undercutting my experiment. See, I told you it was a conspiracy! I suspect the Secret Cabal of Popular Bloggers was getting pressure from the Trilateral Comission, the NSA, and Pepsico® to silence me, so they had to do it. At least being forced to miss one, I am now free from the “I’ve been posting to these since the beginning, I can’t miss one now!” treadmill.

That means, loyal readers, that you get to see this post a month before everyone else! Hooray! Stick it to The Man™! Comically paranoid rantings aside, it also means I can split this up into more than one post, which may be more readable considering how much ground the article in question actually covers. Today’s Classic Scientific Paper is:

Nathan, L:”Improvements in the fermentation and maturation of beers.”; 1930; J. Inst. Brewing; 36; pp538-550

I ran across this reference recently while working my way through an industrial microbiology text[1] that I checked out of the campus library. According to the author of this text, “The use of cylindro-conical vessels in the brewing of lager was first proposed by Nathan (1930)[…]”, referring to the now-ubiquitous style of metal fermenter seen in small brewpubs and “MegaBladderwashCo” large-scale industrial breweries alike. Based on this I had expected the reference to be a digression on the design, construction, and testing of the fermenter. When inter-library loan managed to get me a copy of the paper, I found something much more involved.

The paper is a presentation made by Dr. Leopold Nathan in 1930 to the Scottish section of the Institute of Brewing. The topic was not simply a fermenter design but the entire “Nathan System” of brewing which appears to be the basis of modern large-scale brewing, especially for Lager-type beers. At this point, Dr. Nathan had apparently already been developing this system for about thirty years (apparently starting with a German patent in 1908, which I’ve yet to find a copy of), so as you might guess it was not just a single invention but a whole collection of them. Compared to the more rustic techniques frequently in use at the time, the “Nathan System” of brewing promised to provide faster production, more consistent results, and a better final product. It does this mainly by improving the removal of “trub” (the cloudy bits of protein and such that settle out of the malt-water – the “wort” – after you boil it), preventing infection of the beer with undesirable organisms during the cooling, hops-infusion, and aeration, and by eliminating the need to “age” the brew to make it palatable. The most important improvement in the “Nathan Process” seems to be how he treats the wort between boiling and “pitching”.

For anyone unfamiliar with the brewing process, here’s a Grossly Oversimplified review of the steps:

  • Boil some malt-sugar dissolved in water to sterilize it and to help coagulate the “trub” proteins so they’ll settle out of the liquid.
  • Cool the malt solution and aerate it so that the yeast will grow in it.
  • “Pitch” your yeast into the now-cooled-and-aerated malt-water, in a container that will keep air out while letting out the carbon dioxide bubbles that the yeast will give of during the fermentation
  • Wait until the yeast get done fermenting, then put the resulting liquid into bottles/kegs/casks/whatever.

Diagram showing the containment vessel, cooling system, and sterile-air generator for the 'Nathan method' of brewing
I’ve added a couple of labels to that image from the paper, which I’m guessing was itself copied from a contemporary patent of Dr. Nathan’s. There are two purposes to this part of the Nathan Process – To cool and aerate the wort quickly without exposing it to risk of contamination, and to move trub and volatile sulfur compounds that would otherwise make the brew taste and smell funny. The hot boiled wort is pumped directly into an insulated vat (labelled “A” in the diagram) from the boiling kettle. At this stage the wort is hot enough to prevent anything from landing in it and growing. Then, the hot wort is pumped from the top of this vat into a clean-room containing a cooling device that the wort is poured on, cooling and aerating it as it flows through. Infection is prevented here by the fact that the room has a continuous stream of “sterilized” (or at least well-filtered) air, which is exhausted through the vent in the ceiling. The cooled, aerated wort is then pumped back out of the room and into the bottom of the insulated container below the still-hot wort.

Because of the large open cooling room with its constant stream of clean air, the cooling and aeration step also allows the volatile sulfurous compounds of “jungbukett” (The “Bouquet of Youth”; the unpleasant smells and tastes of immature beer, described in this paper as ‘onion-like’) to evaporate off and be carried away. Since waiting for these compounds to break down was apparently a primary reason for having to “age” lager before selling it, this not only improves the quality but eliminates the need to store the beer for months after fermentation.

The now-chilled wort then rests back in vat “A” and the trub settles out onto horizontal plates inside the vat, where it stays behind when the clarified wort is pumped out to the fermenters.

I did some poking around, and this appears to be what is described in US Patent# 1,581,194 (application filed in August of 1921), in case you are bored and want to look that up. If not, or if you don’t want to deal with the frustrating hassle of trying to view TIFF files in your browser, I intend to provide a followup post with some more details of the process and some interesting bits I found in it, and I’ll include a pdf of the patents, assuming anyone wants them.

Oh, one last thing – I’ve had no luck getting any biographical information about Dr. Leopold Nathan. Unfortunately when you search for “Leopold Nathan”, the results are clogged with references to a murdering smartass named “Nathan Leopold” instead. Doesn’t Google™ realize that brewmeisters are far more important than obscure murderers? No pictures of him, either, so I can’t even say whether his hairstyle is cooler than Eduard Buchner’s or not.

[1] Stanbury PF, Whitaker A, Hall SJ:”Principles of Fermentation Technology (2nd edition)”; 1995; Elsevier Science, Ltd; Tarrytown NY

The rightful place of science, and “The definition of an intoxicating beverage”

Advocates for the repeal of prohibition carrying 'We Want Beer' signs

Just a brief point first: President Obama in his inaugural address promised to “restore science to its rightful place.” In traditional fashion, this prompted all manner of verbosity on blogs around the web concerning just what science’s rightful place actually is. Let me just take a moment to settle this question:

Science’s rightful place is kneeling at my feet in supplication and doing my bidding! AH, HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!

But that’s not what I came here to post about. Instead, I wanted to mention a paper I finally got my hands on. You may recall that some time back there were a few stories that popped up about what was said to be a “you can’t get drunk on beer” paper published back in the 1950’s. As usual, the people doing the reporting couldn’t be bothered to actually cite the paper in question, but I figured out which one it was. The paper is this one:
Greenberg LA:”The Definition of an Intoxicating Beverage”; Q J Stud Alcohol. 1955 Jun;16(2):316-25.

I have that paper. And I am quite disappointed in it in much the same way I was with Linus Pauling’s paper proposing a triple-helix structure for DNA. I did, though, learn some interesting things from Greenberg’s paper.

It turns out that the paper actually concerns the legal definition of “intoxication” and whether or not, based on this definition, beer should be classified as an “intoxicating beverage”. Greenberg actually raises some good points…but first, some amusement:

“The average alcohol content of American beers is 3.7 per cent[…]The strongest ale is 4.2 per cent” (page 320, paragraph 4)

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite as funny as it sounds, because the part I clipped out of that quote is where he says “by weight”. It’s still kinda funny though, since that would mean, in mass-market-bladderwash terms, that “The Strongest Ale” is Heineken.

This Alcohol-by-Weight-vs-Volume issue may actually be part of why American beers have a reputation for having watery, feeble beers. It evidently used to be that places like Canada were using alcohol-by-volume, while the US was using alcohol-by-weight on their labels. An otherwise-identical beer bottled in Canada would have a higher “percent alcohol” on the label than the US-bottled version, making it seem as though the American version was weaker. So, evidently it’s not really true…things like “Coors Lite” notwithstanding. (See this recent page at Fermentarium.com for more details.)

But back to the point of the paper…evidently as Greenberg was writing this paper half a century ago, there wasn’t a clear, quantitative scientific or legal definition for “intoxication”. He points out that you can’t just define it in terms of alcohol merely having noticeable effects on the drinker, since the magnitude of the unpleasant effects at low to moderate drinking levels aren’t really much different than that for (for undesirable effects) lack of sleep, distraction [remember all those studies saying talking on the cell-phone while driving is as bad as being drunk?], hunger and so forth. For that matter, I think we can all see the problem of trying to arrest anyone who is being relaxed and amiable for “public intoxication”.

Greenberg solves this problem by looking at the average blood-alcohol concentration of people arrested for “intoxication” (0.21% back in the 1950’s, evidently), and a couple of previous studies from the 1920’s and 1930’s, and he finally settles on 0.15% Blood Alcohol Concentration as a level he’ll use as the line for “definitely intoxicated”. He then proceeds to go through the common classes of alcohol-containing beverages to determine how easy it is for someone to consume enough to reach this BAC.

In summary – For hard liquor, and average person would have to consume 8 ounces plus one ounce per hour of drinking (for example, 9 ounces consumed over the course of one hour). That’s not a difficult quantity to fit into a typical stomach, so hard liquor is obviously an “intoxicating beverage”. Fortified wines (like Port, Madiera…or Thunderbird): about 18 ounces plus 2 ounces per hour – say, a pint and a half in about 4 hours. Still pretty easy to do. An ordinary wine (like, say, a Gewürtztraminer): 36 ounces plus 4 ounces/hour – or a 7-11 “Super Big Gulp®”-sized portion in two or three hours. Getting to be a fairly substantial amount of liquid, but still plausible.

And then there’s beer. Greenberg comes up with a figure of 80 ounces + 10 ounces/hour. That’s roughly three quarts within one hour, which is quite a bit more than the approximately 2 quarts that a human stomach can hold. He goes on to describe several controlled experiments on beer consumption and the resulting blood-alcohol concentration. By pushing one group to consume a gallon and a half of beer over a period of 8 hours, they were able to get up to an average of just under “intoxicated” (by Greenberg’s definition) at 0.13%. The rate of beer ingestion required to pass the “intoxication” threshhold was more than most test subjects could even manage. Therefore (Greenberg concludes) beer should probably not actually be classified as an “intoxicating beverage”

Now for the party-poopery: Greenberg explicitly points out that this is certainly not the same as saying that beer cannot impair a drinker’s performance or judgement, so just because you haven’t consumed anything stronger than beer it doesn’t mean you should be allowed behind the wheel of a steamroller. Nor does it mean that it’d be okay for an alcoholic to drink beer (since an alcoholic is very unlikely to stop with just beer). Furthermore, these days “intoxicated” is legally about half of the level that Greenberg is using – 0.08% in most places in the US as far as I can tell. By Greenberg’s measure, you can easily get that amount of alcohol out of a pitcher of beer consumed over an hour.

So, Greenberg isn’t crazy, and beer can still make you drunk, just as we all would expect. How disappointing. Still, it’s an interesting paper and I’m glad I dug it up.

On a related note, if I can get my hands on an old paper from the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, I may have found my selection for February’s Giant’s Shoulders blog carnival. Stay tuned, more to come…

Stir-Fried Random Ep 03: All I Want for Christmas Is…

A thanksgiving themed 'buy stuff' advertisementThanksgiving = Shopping, evidently. Anyway, since this is about the time of year when the vast population of my devoted fans around the world begin demanding to shower me with gifts and asking what kinds of gifts they should give me…this episode of Stir-Fried Random has some suggestions. Enough suggestions, in fact, that I didn’t even have room to include a Nerd Word, Emprical Observation of the Week, or Microbiology Microlecture. Therefore, while this episode will probably be slightly less interesting to the microbiology and computer-nerd focussed listeners, it should be of special interest to members of my immediate family, secret admirers, cultists who worship me as a living embodiment of divine spiffitude, and agents of the NSA, FBI, CIA, USDA, and Federal Department of Blog Enforcement who are busily profiling me. There is some other stuff though – please give it a listen, pass copies along to your friends, play it over the Public Announcement system at school, turn it into a techno-dance remix video on YouTube®, whatever.

As usual, direct download links for mp3 and ogg versions, plus <audio> tag support for those with really new browsers to listen in place, and embedded Flash-based mp3 player for everyone else who wants to listen in the browser instead of downloading and singing along during your commute or whatever.
(UPDATE 20081126: I’ve REMOVED the embedded player for now – it seems it ignores me when I tell it to wait until it’s told to before it starts playing. Autoplay annoys the heck out of me, and this seems to insist on it. The embedded player will remain gone until I get it to behave properly. Meanwhile, you can double-click or “right-click -> save as:” on the ogg or mp3 download link to get the audio files to listen to. Apologies to anyone ambushed by the unwanted auto-playing of the sound…)

Show Notes:
Continue reading Stir-Fried Random Ep 03: All I Want for Christmas Is…

Stir-Fried Random Ep 02:Sex, Violence, and Cinnamon Bears, y’all!

Only about five more days until the next “Giant’s Shoulders” blog carnival. I still need to pick a paper. ARGH!
(UPDATE 20081126: I’ve removed the embedded flash player – it seems to ignore me when I explicitly tell it NOT to automatically start playing rather than waiting until you intentionally hit “play”. Sorry for anyone annoyed by the autoplay. The embedded player will not return until I solve this.)

Meanwhile, here’s this week’s episode of “Stir-Fried Random”, weighing in at a MASSIVE 12 WHOLE MINUTES or so. As before, there’s an “<audio>” tag pointing directly at the Ogg Vorbis audio for those of you running a beta of the Firefox 3.1 series, a recent version of Opera, or (I believe) the current Safari on a system with the Ogg Vorbis Quicktime component installed. There is also the usual embedded Flash®-based mp3 player and direct download links for both versions.

Somebody please let me know if I’m making a fool of myself here… Anyway, here are the show notes:
Continue reading Stir-Fried Random Ep 02:Sex, Violence, and Cinnamon Bears, y’all!

Stir-Fried Random: Alferbeetagama!

(Update 20081104T1050: added a minimal embedded flash-based player at the bottom of the post, if you’re willing to settle for mp3 quality and want to listen from your web browser…)
(Update again 20081126: I wish I had realized before that the stupid thing was autoplaying despite explicitly including “autoplay=false” in the parameters. I’ve removed the embedded player again until I find a way to prevent autoplaying. Sorry about anyone that was annoyed by this.)

I was going to post this last night, but there appears to have been another bout of database connection errors again at my ISP (“host blocked due to too many connection errors”). I’m guessing either someone is DOS’ing the database server or one of the other users had some very badly behaved custom code running. They’ve got it fixed now, so here we go…

After staying up too (insert profanity here) late again despite having to get up extra-early this morning to vote before work…here’s the first real episode of Stir-Fried Random. Still only about 10 minutes long – I’d like to make it longer, but it’ll still probably take a few episodes of building up to it. An actual shiny new <audio> tag is included for those with bleeding-edge browsers that support it (let me know if it works – hypothetically the 3.1 Beeta[sic] version of Firefox and I believe the most recent Opera support this.). Otherwise, direct-download is available below the show notes:
Continue reading Stir-Fried Random: Alferbeetagama!