The lake was exceptionally naughty…

Once again, I found myself with some time to give the nearby lake a good paddling. It’s said that in order to get real physical development you have to work out to exhaustion…so I did. Five hours of giving the lake a paddling, and over 15 miles of travel in the process. My goal is to get to the point where I can set out and get comfortably to and from anywhere on the lake that I might want to go during a single paddling session, at least if I leave early enough.

The Minister of the Front End of the Kayak is out of town, so I struck out bravely all alone in my explorations. It’s just as well – the Minister of the Front End doesn’t like going to the civilized side of the lake. She’d much rather head into areas of the northern side of the lake to poke around the tree-lined inlets. I, on the other hand, find the populated side of the lake much more interesting. It’s not that I dislike the more wilderness-themed areas, but to me one “beautiful expanse of tree-lined lake shore” (alligators and random fishing boats aside) looks pretty much like any other. There are all kinds of odd things to find hidden in the populated side of the lake, however. I’m mentally kicking myself for forgetting to get a picture of the “Southern Empres”[sic – looked like they’d lost a letter] Paddlewheel boat as I paddled by. Not all of the interesting things are even human-derived – the bird-covered island was kind of a surprise.

Interactive map with track and pictures (which will hopefully display correctly now) may be found below (RSS feed readers, you may need to click through to the actual blog post to see it; or, download the .kml file of this weekend’s Lake Conroe paddling trip [width=540;height=540] and take a look at it in Google Earth…)

I’m going to have to paddle back out to “Zach’s Bar-B-Q Barge” for lunch one of these days and see how they are. Checking out the publically-accessible and potentially paddle-friendly establishments on the lake is one of my excuses for getting out into the Big Room for exercise.

Full-scale and fully geolocated versions of several photos from this trip may be found at the Panoramio page. I’m also still thinking about getting a recorder and incorporating some audio into these things. Hopefully Firefox 3.5 will actually be released one of these days…

Now, back to bed. I have to get up to start the work-week in about 8 hours…Good night everyone, and let me know how the map works and how the pictures look…

Yummy mold!

Fuzzy mold growing in a petri dishYes, I mean “mold” as in “fuzzy fungus”, not as in “something you put JellO® in to harden into a funny shape”. I’m not even talking about “Blue Cheese”, though blue cheese is pretty good too. I’m actually referring to Fusarium venenatum.

Okay, the picture linked here is actually F. oxysporum, one of several Fusarium species that are crop diseases (mmmmm, rotted moldy potatoes…), but I haven’t found a picture of a F. venenatum culture yet. Anyway, before going to bed I just wanted to mention that I’ve run into the first genuinely good “meat substitute” that I’ve tasted so far, and it’s made of mold.

They evidently grow it in vats, dry it into mats, mix it with some egg white to hold it together, and then make meat-like food product out of it. “They” being Astra-Zeneca, who appear to be the owners of the “Quorn®” trademark.

The chicken-like food product (“Chik’n”) patties they make are actually passable imitations of chicken, and actually taste good. They make a breaded Gruyere-“Chik’n” patty thing that I will probably go out and buy more of, of my own free will – which will be a first for “vegetarian” food for me.

Makes me wonder what I’d get if I subjected another known edible mold like Penicillium roquefortii (Mmmmmm…Blue Cheese) to the same process. Would I get blue “meat”?…

And, no, I’m not actually a paid shill for Astra-Zeneca or Marlowe Foods (who distribute the “Quorn®” products), though as I mentioned a while back to the dairy industry in my “Margarine makes you stupid” post, if anyone wants to HIRE me as a paid shill independent advocate, I could sure (yes, still) use a good microscope. Come on, Astra-Zeneca! A fancy biotech company such as yourselves must surely have dozens of surplus microscopes laying around!…

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?

This Week = No Fun, but here’s an update anyway…

Busy week with unpleasant surprises, but I ain’t dead yet. You’re probably wondering what a hot dog that’s apparently eagerly anticipating eating itself has to do with that. The answer is: nothing, but it does relate to something I have been intending to post about for a long time, but haven’t since I didn’t have access to the paper…

So, in lieu of blasting out Twitter®-style updates on my Laconica feed that nobody reads anyway (a few people no doubt see the echo of them on Twitter® itself, but I don’t know if anyone cares…), here are a couple of what-I’m-doing-now updates before I go to bed:

  • I just shot off an email to the webmaster (the only contact I could find who might have the relevant information) of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, trying to get access to a classic paper published in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling for the upcoming “On the Shoulders of Giants” carnival.
  • There’s no way I can afford the ~$300US that it would cost to join the group, nor even at the moment to pay the typical $30 or so that greedy paywall-imprisoned publishers charge for individual articles. However, they appear to be opening up their archives to the public, for which I think they deserve substantial praise. Still, they haven’t worked their way back to the first few decades of the 20th century yet, so I had to email and ask if there was a way to get the article in question. If not, I’ll see if there’s any way to get it through inter-library loan in time.

  • “Small Things Considered” asks “What Microbiological Discovery in 2008 Did You Find Especially Interesting?” Which brings us to the “self-eating” thing.
  • The paper on caffeine’s induction of macroautophagy (“self-eating”) in yeast (and what happens when benzoic acid is also present) finally escaped from the paywall prison in January, and I now have a copy. I at least thought it was full of interesting implications (along with some useful knowledge), so I’ll hopefully be posting about it soon.

  • I’m also a computer nerd
  • Particularly when it comes to things like Linux. I’ve been thinking of trying to do some recordings on a couple of practical subjects that interest me for “Hacker Public Radio”

  • And of course, I still need to do some Xanthomonas snot Xanthan Gum experiments.

I am an attention-whorewilling to listen to my readers’ interests, so if anyone has suggestions or comments feel free to post them…

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 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…

Vindicated! Margarine is correlated with stupidity!

'Happy Boy' brand margarine, with creepy-looking blank-eyed 'smiling' kid on the boxI’ve been saying for years that anyone who actually wants to eat margarine has something wrong with their head. Now, there’s PROOF:
“The study suggests that if children eat certain types of food their intelligence may be boosted or significantly lowered. It singles out margarine as having particularly strong links with lower IQ scores.”

It’s still not entirely clear whether margarine makes you stupid, or if instead being stupid predisposes you to eat margarine (or both). Either way, I continue to maintain that if you want to eat vegetable oil on your bread instead of good, wholesome, delightful butter – just get some herbed olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar [it’s not butter, but it’s darned good]. Don’t run it over powdered nickel while pumping it full of hydrogen gas to make it hard, color it yellow, and then use it as make-believe butter-like-food-product because if you do, you might as well make a Play-Doh® bread-like-loaf-product to put it on.

And before anyone asks – no, I’m not affiliated with the dairy industry…though if anyone in the dairy industry feels sympathetic to my current situation with my under-equipped home lab and wants to send me an old bacteriological microscope they just happen to have sitting around, I’d be willing to consider being a paid shill independent advocate in return…

Coming Soon to a 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, 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!…

“Top Ten Favorite Microbes” proto-meme…

Dr. Joseph over on the “(It’s a…) Micro World (…after all)” blog posted a list of his ten favorite microbes. After showing up in the comments of his post and being a wiseass about E.coli and Gram staining, the least I can do is participate here. Besides, it’s a great idea. Therefore here are ten of my current favorite microbes:

Continue reading “Top Ten Favorite Microbes” proto-meme…

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…

Double-Ewe Tea Eff: “Modified Food Starch”

A small package of 'Cinnamon Bears' candyOne of my projects is to appease one of my weaknesses. As I’ve probably mentioned before, “Gluttony” is my second-most-favorite deadly sin. If you’ve been listening to “Stir-Fried Random” (new episode coming shortly, I promise) and reading the blog recently, you can probably tell that among my large collection of “a peculiar fondess for [whatever]” attributes that I possess is one for “Cinnamon Bears“. While they’re not too bad as far as candy goes, they’re still not good for me. Plus, like any candy they can get to be kind of expensive. (Dear The package plainly says “2/$100“. You’re selling these in groups of 12. Now, I only carried my calculation out to 3 significant figures, but I estimate that this should cost $6.00. Not “$6.85”. Plus $7.90 for shipping. $14.75 for $6.00 worth of convenience-store candy is just stupid.)

Anyway…I’ve gotten my grubby paws on a small bag of erythritol, which is effectively a calorie-free sugar alcohol produced from a regular sugar by a natural fermentation process. All I should need is one or more thickening agents and some oil of cassia and/or other flavors and I should be able to come up with a recipe for my own pig-out-all-I-want, even-better-than-mass-market cinnamon bears. Food is one of the few areas that I seem to have any natural artistic talent with, so I ought to be able to handle this.

A bulk bag of 'Modified Food Starch'The trick is going to be getting the right texture. I’ve found recipes online that use gelatin or pectin. The store-bought product, though, uses “Modified Food Starch”. How exactly do they “modify” the food starch? I vaguely recalled that it was an acid-treatment process that partially breaks up the long glucose polymers, but I wasn’t sure. As any modern nerd would do, I decided to ask My Friend, The Internet.

Most places seem to be vague about what exactly the “modification” is, but it became quickly obvious that there were multiple treatments that result in “Modified Food Starch”. Ah, but I was in luck! The Food and Drug Administration actually has a specific entry[1] in the Code of Federal Regulations, which can always be counted on to definitive. So, I went and looked at good old Title 21, Volume 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations and…WTF?!?!?

They list a bewildering array of chemical and enzymatic treatments that all get lumped into “Modified Food Starch” (or “Food Starch-modified” as they quaintly put it).

I guess my happy new box of “Corn Starch” will have to remain unmodified for the time being. At least until I can figure out how to produce my own ?-amylase [without spitting, that is]. I also have unflavored gelatin and pectin at my disposal here, so I’ll come up with something.

Anybody got a good reference on industrial food processes?…

[1] 21CFR172.892