Looks like the truckloads of candy-seeking larvae are done finally. Wretched little urchins now get driven from block to block rather than walking the neighborhood like we did.

(It doesn’t actually bother me as much as that makes it sound, I just like having an excuse to say “wretched little urchins”…which reminds me – I have only about a month to get a cheerful flashing “Bah! Humbug!” sign built…)

The only thing that really annoyed me is the fact that having to be ready to be interrupted by another horde of costumed consumers meant I couldn’t really spend any of the evening getting into anything requiring any real attention…which means the 113g of CaCl2.2H2O I’ve got sitting here now to go with my Xanthan Gum has been left neglected, and I still don’t know if I can make Xanthan Gum gel into beads the way you can with sodium alginate. I figure it must be possible, given that both Xanthan gum and Alginate (among others) were all formed into little “bio-booger” beads using the same kind of process in the paper I discussed in Episode 2 of my little audio oggcast. Perhaps I’ll have time to find out tomorrow.

For now, it’s time for bed. Daylight Losings Time starts tonight, so if the critters allow me to actually sleep, I ought to be well rested to attempt some serious lake-spanking in the morning – there’s supposedly a resort on the shore of the lake that has a sushi bar, and the idea of being able to paddle out for sushi amuses me. It looks like it’s at least 9-10 miles away, though, so it’ll be a long trip if I attempt it. Hopefully I’ll have time left after that.

Also, the developer of the libdmtx datamatrix barcode encoder and decoder software posted a recent comment on my previous post about the software and its potential uses – looks like some interesting projects going on there, including one intended to generate ID cards that only legitimate authorities could read (so as to prevent identity theft).

P.S. Anybody know how to build a really good (but simple) ozone generator for sanitization purposes? Or the effective pore sizes of commonly available materials like plastic wrap? Or if a corporate entity can be a shareholder/partner in a Limited Liability Company?

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.

Wells Fargo Bank is evil

Submissions for the next edition of The Giant’s Shoulders blog carnival are due in the next couple of days. I actually had the paper I’m doing for this one picked out last month even as I was submitting last month’s paper on Lister’s experiments with fermenting milk. I expect I’ll have this month’s written up this weekend…but first, partly as a reminder to myself, I just wanted to say Wells Fargo Bank is a greedy evil bastard.

Seriously, if Wells Fargo Bank was a cartoon character, it’d be someone resembling Snidely Whiplash. I can totally hear the corporation saying “If you don’t give me the deed to your ranch I’m gonna throw you on the railroad tracks!” and twirling its evil little moustache.

What prompts this outburst of a blog post, you ask? Well, even if you don’t ask, I’ll tell you anyway.

I got a phone call this evening. Someone from Wells Fargo Bank calling to tell me they were going to mail me something. “Why the heck”, I thought to myself, “do they need to call me to tell me they’re mailing me something? Why can’t they just mail it?” You see, apparently I may be eligible for over a million dollars of death and disability coverage! And I’ll have sixty days to look it over and it won’t cost me anything! Isn’t that great? But still….”Why do they have to call me to tell me they’re mailing me something? Why can’t they just mail it?”

Here’s why: evidently they feel they’re not getting enough “raping people’s accounts with Mystery Fees” income these days…so unless I’m mistaken, this insurance from Wells Fargo is an “opt out” thing. They’re calling because when they say “hey, we’re doing this and mailing stuff to you”, and I say “Oh, okay”….That’d mean I’d just consented to it. If I get busy or the mailing they send gets “lost” and I forget, Wells Fargo gets to automatically start extracting “insurance premium” mystery fees from my account. (No doubt if they happen to do it on a day when my account is low, they get to charge me an overdraft fee along with the insurance premium. Isn’t that great?) Maybe I’m misinterpreting this, but it sure sounded like this was what was going on from the obfuscated sales-pitch script the caller was going through.

I asked them to go ahead and cancel me before even sending out the stuff, since I already have insurance. We’ll see if they honor my request. I was, incidentally, quite cordial with the poor person who has to do this evil crap for a living in the call center. I’ve done tech support, I know what it’s like having to deal with awful crap that’s not your fault…

Anyway, just wanted to mention this in case anyone else has their bank pull this trick – and so in case I forget and they try to send me the stuff anyway, I’ll hopefully see this post again and be reminded to go through whatever obnoxious “opt-out” procedure I’ll have to deal with…

(I’m reminded of when BlockBuster slipped a tiny, folded notice, buried in a full-size envelope with some other stuff, alerting me in tiny print that they wanted to sell my information to junkmail marketers but they wouldn’t if I filled out their tiny little form and mailed it back to them. As I recall, I had to buy the stamp to mail it, too…)

Anyway, I just had to get that out there. I’ll be back to microbiology and biochemistry shortly. We shall begin with another bit of spiffy practical microbiology from the late 19th century…

All this week: A topic important to secular and religious people alike

It’s not midnight here yet, I’m still on time!

Hello, “Just Science 2008” subscribers and everyone else. My life is insane at the moment but dagnabbit I’m going to do my best to get at least one post up on a scientific topic every day from today (Monday, February 4th) until Friday…

Today’s post is in the form of a gedanken experiment.

First, imagine the following:

  • Some “entities” existing somewhere
  • It doesn’t matter what “entities” you are imagining, whether they are products in a market setting, or data structures in a computer program, or topics of discussion on a news broadcast. All that matters is that there can be more than one of them.

  • A mechanism by which these “entities” are copied (and, optionally, also sometimes removed)
  • Products are manufactured or recalled, data structures can be copied or deleted, additional news anchors can be added to comment on a topic or conversely may shut up about them…

  • At least one mechanism by which changes can occur between or during copies
  • Product designs can be changed, a computer program may consult a “random number” generator and use it to make small changes in the data structure, scriptwriters may alter the news anchor’s teleprompter messages…

  • Some aspect of the “entities” that affects the rate at which they are copied (and/or, optionally, removed).
  • Demand by buyers in the market results in ramping-up of production, a computer program may perform some test or comparison of a data structure and use the result to determine how many copies of it to make (or whether or not to delete it), news topics that result in more people watching are repeated more often while those that people tune out from are dropped from the schedule…

What happens to this group of “entities” over time should be obvious. Taking the example of products in a market, producers introduce a variety of products (the group of “entities” in this example) and buyers examine their characteristics and, based on which ones they like, buy some of them. The producers observe which kinds of products are selling more and make more of those, while reducing or outright eliminating the production of those that aren’t selling well. Over time, a few of the kinds of products in this group which best fit the preferences of the buyers and the ability of the producers to make them. These products will dominate the market until the preferences of the buyers or the ability of the producers to produce them change [example: a shortage in the price of a particular material needed for a popular product].

You have most likely observed this process in the “news topic” context yourself, where it tends to happen much faster as “cheap and easy” news stories are happily picked up by news agencies to broadcast until people get sick of them and tune out.

This can all, hopefully, be understood as a purely logical outcome – a conclusion that universally and necessarily follows from the premises given. There should be nothing supernatural or even surprising here, is there?

So, now that you understand why and how evolution works (if you didn’t before), I can move on. (Incidentally, the part of the example above that describes a computerized system is actually referred to as a “genetic algorithm”.)

My purpose in starting with this is because it really and truly is fundamental to the topic that I expect to spend most of this week posting about, and which has been of vital importance to human culture and intellectual development for thousands of years. This most important subject involves such notable figures as Charles Darwin,St. Thomas Aquinas, Noted American Science-guy Benjamin Franklin, New England Puritan Cotton Mather and Quaker William Penn ,Hardcore Catholics like Pope John Paul II, Hardcore Athiests like PZ Myers, even famous religious figures like Jesus.

I refer, of course, to wine (and beer and other examples of ethanol production).

Okay, here’s the background: I just graduated with my B.S. in Microbiology, and I’ve got this whole “Hillbilly Biotech”/”Do-it-yourself”/”Practical Science” kind of thing going on in my interests. That being the case, I wondered what it would take to isolate, culture, and maintain my own yeast (and bacteria – more on that later) stocks from the environment rather than buying “canned” cultures – or at least play with the “canned” yeasts to create my own stocks. As I was poking around, though, I kept running into the same attitudes – namely that it’s “too hard” to do this, and although there are a number of people who advocate re-culturing canned commercial yeasts for a short time to save money, none of them think it’s feasible to do this for more than a couple of generations, at which point we are assured that you have to go buy it again or else “mutations” will inevitably appear and scary and mysterious “off-flavors” will result and the brewing police will come and throw you in jail for deviating from the archetype of whatever pre-defined style of wine or beer you’re trying to make. Or something like that. In any case, it’s because of this fear of “mutations” that I am starting out with this “evolution”-related post: in biological evolution, various forms of alterations in the genetic material are the “changes before or during copying” in the gedanken experiment above.

I didn’t buy it when people were telling me that it was “too hard” to learn how my computer works so that I could run Linux and should instead leave deciding what my computer should do to the “professionals”, and I’m not buying the same argument about commercial yeasts, either. If I felt that way, I might as well leave the rest of the complex technology of brewing to the “professionals” too, and consign myself to “Lite Beer” and “Thunderbird” for the rest of my life.

I’ve been spending much of the last few weeks perusing books, online articles, and scientific papers on subjects related to brewing in general and brewing yeasts in particular, and this should form the bulk of this week’s post topics, of not well beyond this week. Tomorrow I intend to start in on the actual process of culturing yeasts. Meanwhile, feel free to correct my no doubt horribly over-simplified explanation of evolutionary processes in the comments.