Woe is me (some more)

We’re back from our all too short stress-management vacate-shun. I’m chronically underslept (indeed, I ought to be in bed right now) and now I think I’m coming down with a generic Obnoxious Respiratory Ailment for the third time in as many months, which is extremely unusual for me, and which I definitely Do Not Want. Also, it turns out that as usual, Motorola cellphones are crippled. My Razr V3 apparently doesn’t allow applications to access the camera, so there’s no way for me to cram a functional datamatrix barcode decoder onto it. And the built-in wireless networking in Igor (my venerable 3½-year-old laptop) appears to have died…

I need a new cellphone. And a microscope. And a “netbook”. And a digital camera that handles low-light conditions and close-ups better. (And a pony?…) Still, things aren’t all bad, for all my whining.

A DataMatrix barcode painted in watercolors...I did manage to get some interesting pictures on the trip, at least, along with GPS tracks for geolocation purposes. Also, wine jelly and interesting spices from generous family members we were visiting, and even some avocado honey from a little roadside produce stand on the way back to the train station for the trip back.

I’m going to bed now. Hopefully after work tomorrow or this weekend I’ll be putting up another post (and start posting more often again). Anybody want to see pictures of oil and rocks from JelloLlamaJalama Beach, or the majestic Los Angeles River?

A cheap techno-toy concept to distract me from my woes…

A DataMatrix barcode with a 'secret' message...It’s been a relatively awful month here, to tell the truth, but we’re still hanging on so far. Hopefully things will improve soon. In the meantime, I’m having as much fun as I can get away with without spending any real money. Mining old patents for interesting gadgets and ideas, for example…did you know that Google has a US Patent search? And unlike the USPTO, you can actually get a PDF of old patents, not just try to view them as “TIFF” images in a plugin that you may or may not have for your browser and may or may not even work if you do…However, my quest for old designs for industrial brewing equipment and ozone generators is not the subject of this particular post.

One thing I find I like to do for fun with my computer is sort of the opposite of what most people seem to do for fun with their computers. Most people seem to treat their computers as grossly overpriced video-game devices, whose main purpose is to connect people to fake worlds to interact with. “Computer games”. Bah. Humbug. The computer is the game, boys and girls. I like to instead find ways to connect my computer to the real world. I suppose that’s where I get my interest in neogeography, and Asterisk, and home automation (which I’ve only dabbled with but still fascinates me), and so forth.

My latest discovery of a cheap real-world/computer interface is barcodes.

More specifically, I’ve discovered that there’s finally a working project that lets me read and write Data Matrix barcodes. I ran into the project when it was mentioned in the
“New Projects” section of the March 2009 “Linux Journal”
(you won’t be able to actually read the article at the link unless you’re either a subscriber, or you wait until they finally open it to the public, though you might also find a copy of the magazine at the bookstore). The actual project in question is libdmtx, and they provide some basic software for generating and, more importantly, decoding these barcodes, which means I can finally actually play with them myself.

There’s an irritating “functional fixedness” issue with these barcodes. There’s an implicit assumption that they are only for one of two things – either they are for inventory tracking (i.e. they encode serial numbers or some proprietary equivalent), which renders them essentially meaningless for anyone but the entity doing the tracking, or they may be used like the QRCode barcodes popular in Japan, which are usually assumed to be used specifically to encode a company’s website URL for “consumers” to decode with their cellphone cameras. Again: Humbug! “Consumers” can go conjugate themselves. “Consumers” are the screwups who made it possible to destroy the world economy, pollute the planet, and make vampire crap a popular “mainstream” genre. No, it’s time we paid a little less attention to catering to “consumers” and gave some love to “participants” instead.

See, both Data Matrix and QRCode barcodes can encode up to a kilobyte or so worth of any kind of data, which might then be stuck in just about any kind of place where someone might see it and take a picture of it (either for immediate decoding or for later).

If this sounds familiar to you, it may be that you remember hearing about a “Hobo Code“, which wandering homeless folks might use to encode visual messages for others with small pictograms. The catch is that since in that context you have to be able to keep the entire “dictionary” of what each symbol means in your head, you’re kind of limited to a small number of specific messages. On the other hand, one ought to be able to hypothetically cram a couple of SMS/”Twitter”-sized messages into a pattern of dots not much bigger than a postage stamp…or conversely stomped out on a giant scale in a wheat field like an especially nerdy “crop circle” just in time for Google Maps’ latest satellite imagery update.

I happened to be at an office-supply store today and was kind of surprised at the variety of things are now available to be shoved through a laser printer. Not only greeting cards and mailing labels, but a variety of self-adhesive and even refrigerator-magnet sheets. I saw they even had blank bumper stickers. Never mind serial numbers and “consumers” websites – you could stick all kinds of messages in all kinds of places with this.

A tip or warning for future diners at a restaurant (“Ask for ‘Chef Special #3’, it’s not on the menu but it’s great!” or “be nice to the waitress or the chef will spit in your food” for example) might be encoded on a small sticker or card and hidden underneath the table. You might encode your personal website URL or just a friendly greeting to be stuck to the inside cover of a Bookscrossing book along with it’s ID number. You might encode a time and place for a meeting as a geostring on printed on little magnetic squares to for members of the Secret Society (or Linux Users’ Group?) that you belong to, or to be included as an “album art” image in the metadata of a geolocated sound or video recording. You might compose original short poems or haiku and leave them in random business-card racks for the bemusement of technically-inclined strangers…

I think the stress must be getting to me, because it’s usually about this point in my thought processes that in a corner of my brain a voice pipes up, saying “What the hell’s wrong with you? This doesn’t sound like you at all! You’re starting to sound like one of those artsy-fartsy techno neo-hippies that gather at things like Burning Man or guest-post at BoingBoing, babbling about nerdy art projects and ‘culture’!”. Then another corner pipes up with “Hey, it might be kind of fun to go to Burning Man one of these years”, and then another pops up with “I like pie!” and everything erupts in chaos. Next thing I know, some indeterminate amount of time has gone by without me noticing and I suddenly realize I’m dangling from a rope over a highway wearing nothing but a pair of SpiderMan™ underpants and a thick coating of cocoa butter, still clutching a handful of LED “Throwies” and looking down at the nice folks offering me a nice warm jacket with extra-long wraparound sleeves…

But I feel MUCH better now…

Am I insane, or can any of you think of other uses for this? Or is that not an “or” question?…

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…



They say “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. What if life gives you snot instead?

Someone's slime-covered handNow, see, this is what happens when I’m too poor to buy nice distracting new toys for myself. (No, not the hand in the picture – that’s not mine, it’s just there for illustration.)

I found a pot that I’d rinsed well but then left filled with water in the sink to soak, to help remove the last of the rice bits stuck to it. It hadn’t gotten stinky or fuzzy or anything, but it had gone…viscous. Like a light sewing-machine oil. Naturally, I took appropriate action to deal with it.

I fed it.

Glucose (“dextrose”), to be precise. It’s since been dumped into an old glass jar and the original pot thoroughly scrubbed with hot soapy water. At this point (a day later) the slime is closer to the viscosity of vegetable oil now. And I fed it again.

I wonder what it is? I mean, obviously it’s bacteria-snot, but what kind? I suppose if I had some iodine I could check to see if it’s a polysaccharide (evidently this test works on polysaccharides besides starch). If only I had a microscope, I could at least get some basic hints as to what’s producing the slime. Maybe I can maintain a culture and figure it out later, if I can ever afford a real microscope. Perhaps I could even attempt a strain-improvement program to increase the production rate…

Uh…I did mention I was a nerd, right? Okay then.

I wonder if anyone at work has a bacteriological microscope setup that I could use?…

Since I’m sure you’re all aching to know:

According to the nutrition information on the back of the bag and some quick calculations, powdered Xanthan Gum has a density of a little over 610mg/ml (or about 10 slugs/hogshead).

I think I may be an Applied Microbiology nerd.

See, when I put dirty dishes in the sink to wash later, I often fill them up with water to soak. I didn’t see this much in Idaho, but down here in Texas I notice that if I leave them too long, the water will sometimes end up turning into a thick slime.

And here I am, wondering what kind of slime it is and if I could find a way to produce it in quantity and purify it (and then find something useful to do with it).

I’m also wondering if this delightfully simple gel electrophoresis technique might be scaled up for more production-type purposes.

Coming Soon to a Bigroom.org blog post near you!

I got a little money for Christmas, but I’m feeling quite guilty as I didn’t really have the time and money to reciprocate in advance. I also haven’t been able to figure out what to spend it on until now. Now, I have a solution for both problems.

Xanthomonas campestris growing in a petri dish and exuding slimeI intend to spend it all on fermentation-related food ingredients and do some experimentation with sweet-tasting foods. Initially, in addition to flavors (spices and whatnot), I need to track down bulk quantities of:

  • Erythritol, which is a virtually non-caloric sugar alcohol which unlike sorbitol and so forth is not normally prone to cause gastric distress, and unlike Xylitol is not hazardous for beloved household pets. Better still, it actually is very tasty unlike that nasty hippy “Stevia” crap (which isn’t produced by fermentation anyway, as far as I know).
  • Food-grade Glycerol (“Glycerine”), which I hypothesize is close enough to the structure of Erythritol to mix well with it and help the erythritol dissolve (and hopefully prevent crystallization, much the same way the “corn syrup” does with sucrose).
  • Xanthan Gum. MMmmmmm…edible bacteria-snot. (Okay, for all that this sounds disgusting, it’s really somewhat similar to pectin, which like xanthan gum is a polysaccharide. Pectin is just fruit-snot rather than bacteria snot. Dietarily, both count as “soluble fiber”.)

There are probably other ingredients I can come up with as well. For those of you out there who are owed gifts: Chewy candies, hard candies, baked goods, and/or beverages, what’s your preference for my initial experimentation? Assuming anyone’s interested, I will probably blog my results…

Meanwhile, I’ve also been thinking about geolocation, geotagging of audio and video media, and Asterisk again. I want to take the lessons learned from my playing with the “Where Was I?” prototype and turn it into a real geolocation system, integrating with Asterisk and Laconica (which turned out to be easier to set up than I’d feared – I’ve now got my own Laconica server at http://omniblab.dogphilosophy.net/laconica, though I need to sit down and activate the IM integration (Twitter may have abandoned IM, but it reportedly works fine in Laconica).

It also turns out that you can use Asterisk with cellphones(!), at least if they have bluetooth. That’s handy to know…

Argh – too much to do, not enough time!…

Oh boy. This is “bad”.

(Note the “scare quotes” around “bad” up there…)I woke up kind of late this morning, which is probably just as well as I think I really needed the sleep before I load up the car with stuff from the old house and make the ~1600 mile (about 2575km or 83.45 picoparsecs) return journey. As a bribe to myself for making this trip, there are two places I had been considering stopping for a bit on the way back. One of those two is New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. In order to do this, though, I obviously need to arrange to be going through Fort Collins (around 8-9 hours from here) while they’re open. The thing is, there’s really not much point in stopping from my perspective unless they happen to have what I’m really interested in – their not-always-available limited-release “La Folie” (link from the image goes to the page describing it) and possibly their seasonal “Frambozen“. Last time I went by it appeared they always had some La Folie on tap at the tasting counter but not in bottles for take-out.

It turns out New Belgium is open on Saturday until 6pm. And they have both La Folie and Frambozen in bottles there right now.

The other possible stop is Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, where I find it very enjoyable to lounge in the hot springs amid all the snow. However, they open at 9am, so even if I get up really early to make it to Fort Collins before New Belgium closes, I can’t spend any time in the hot springs until 9am anyway, so I’d never make it from the Hot Springs to Fort Collins on the same day. I could, of course, lounge at the hot spring today and then hit Fort Collins tomorrow morning, stopping somewhere between Central Wyoming and Fort Collins tonight, but that could mean the return journey spanning three days rather than two.

However, the weather on this side of Idaho and Wyoming looks most passable today especially later in the afternoon when the roads have been cleared off well, and it looks like getting across the bad wind and snow on the Eastern side of the Wyoming may be safer and better tomorrow morning rather than today.

So, basically, the entire Universe (or at least that portion of it in charge of weather for this region of the country) is obviously telling me that I should take my time loading up and getting out of town, and then go ahead and stop at Lava Hot Springs for a little while to relax before continuing on to somewhere around Rawlins or so, and then resume in the morning which should just coincidentally put me going through Fort Collins in the Late-Morning to Early Afternoon time frame, when New Belgium Brewing is open.

I mean, I don’t want to stop and enjoy myself. Really, I want to be a good boy and drive back in the quickest, most efficient way possible, but who am I to thwart what is the Obvious Will of the Universe? (Supernaturalism makes some of the best excuses…)

In other news, I did manage to fix the Stupid Mistake™ in my little “Where Was I?” application for Asterisk, so now not only do the location updates happen but also the conversion of the associated voice update to MP3 for listening now happens automagically as well. I also fixed the hard time-limit, so updates shouldn’t cut off at 30 seconds like the one from Fort Collins did on the 24th. If you keep an eye on the page and everything goes well for me, you may catch an update from Lava Hot Springs later in the day. If you are especially bored (or are being paid by a Secret Government Agency or Vast International Conspiracy or Santa Claus to spy on me) I will try to do an update from there while sitting on the steps in view of the East Webcam. If so, I’ll be the tiny figure waving at the camera from the steps. If you happen to be watching at the right time, you might catch me there to gaze upon my magnificent pixellated spiffitude. Just don’t look directly at it or you may go blind…

Naturally, a live update from New Belgium Brewing Company is planned for tomorrow as well. After I return I can work on making my little application more interesting (embedded audio player, nicer presentation, maybe an embedded map, ability to come back later and attach related pictures…) and masssaged into a condition that wouldn’t be too embarassing to let others use. This “live neogeographical netcasting” thing is too much fun to keep just to myself. (I wonder how hard it would be to interface this with the Laconica microblogging system?…)

Further bulletins as events warrant…

Geotagging through Asterisk?

Between telemarketers annoying me into getting my upgrade to Asterisk 1.6 finished and the hasty long-overdue road-trip back to and from Idaho again, I’m reminded of an idea that has been fluttering around in the back of my head, not unlike a small bat in the top of a bell tower.

My vast hordes of cult-like fans always seem to want to know where I am. This is obviously an issue in a case where I’m going to be driving 1600 miles, then turning around and driving back, over the span of 4-6 days. It would be pretty easy to set up something on a web page somewhere with some kind of map. The real problem is – how do I update the map?

In some places, I could stop for a while, haul out Igor, boot up, find a public wireless network connection to the internet, and do the update that way. However, that’s time-consuming and awkward, and I want to get this trip successfully completed as quickly as I can. Plus, it’s not always easy to find public network access points, especially through the barren, windy, snowdrift-covered wastelands of Southern Wyoming where a chunk of my route will take me. I have a hypothetical solution, however…

Continue reading Geotagging through Asterisk?

Über alkoholische Gärung ohne Hefezellen

In my last submission to “The Giants’ Shoulders” blog carnival, we saw how the famous surgeon Dr. Joseph Lister deftly demonstrated definitively that fermentation processes were caused by live microbes rather than some sort of mysterious soluble substance that just happened to be associated with microbes. In today’s episode, we will see how Eduard Buchner definitely demonstrated that fermentation was caused by a soluble substance that was associated with microbes, and no microbes are actually needed.

Better still…they’re both right. “Wait…what?” Read on, O Seeker of Microbiological Knowledge, and be enlightened by this month’s entry: Continue reading Über alkoholische Gärung ohne Hefezellen

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…