The Maker Shed is Moderately Awesome

I’ve got two blog posts that I want to get done this weekend. This is one of them.

I’m something of a fan of MAKE magazine and its related websites and such, being a frustrated “Maker” and all. “Frustrated” because although I have a strong urge to make things, I seem to have a gross oversupply of chores and issues constantly popping up to keep me from getting much done. Still, I try, despite the efforts of the Dog and five (insert mild profanity here) cats (I seem to have been declared the household “Stuff that goes into and comes out of nonhuman mammal companions technician”), and living space that thinks it’s necessary to demonstrate how entropy works on a constant basis. MAKE’s slogan is “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it”, which I so passionately agree with that I wish they were a political party so I could vote for them.

Anyway…MAKE magazine recently posted a poll asking for opinions on the magazine, the website, and so on. The way the poll was structured didn’t really let me address what I really like and dislike about the site, so I thought I’d post it here in case anyone besides me is interested.

But first, some praise: part of the poll was asking about the online store they run – The Maker Shed. I filled in the poll just a day or so before I went and ordered something from it, so I couldn’t give any opinion of it at the time. Having now gotten what I ordered, I have to say the store seems to be moderately awesome.

One of my complaints about the MAKE franchise is that it often seems to be made entirely of Arduino™ electronics, Arts-and-crafts (e.g. knitted things), and baking-soda-volcano sorts of projects for children. In truth it’s not that bad, but I would personally like to see “less Arduino™, more ‘Bioreactor’” – they actually published a “Bio-hacking“-themed issue a while back, so there’s hope. I bring this up because what they had at the Maker Shed that I bought was microbiological staining supplies (not actually the kit pictured above, but they didn’t have pictures of individual bottles of what I got). I put in my order online expecting it to be shipped the next business day, and was pleasantly surprised to find an “okay, you’re order’s been shipped” notice in my email within an hour or two. The stuff even arrived by that weekend (i.e. today), hopefully leaving me time to use it for my planned second blog post of the weekend. So, definitely fast service at the Maker Shed.

There are a few annoyances I have with the MAKE franchise, though:

  • Their “pod®casts” appear to all be videos (no audio-only podcasts at all)
  • I’d actually really like to have actual no-video-required audio shows that I could listen to on my 2½-hour daily commute. Not all of us want to (or can!) sit and stare at computer and/or “iPod®” video screens but still would like regular infusions of MAKE-related news and information.

  • The videos appear to be all presented in proprietary Apple® formats or proprietary Flash on youtube.
  • This isn’t a major technical problem for me – Mplayer handles the files just fine. However, given that Apple’s preferred formats are all heavily patent-encumbered and proprietary and therefore not really legally usable for “making” video without special paid-for permission from Apple® corporation, it seems an odd choice for the “If you can’t open it you don’t own it” folks. Perhaps they’re just paranoid that Steve Jobs is lurking just on the other side of the bay, waiting for an excuse to come up there and kick their butts if they aren’t pro-Apple® enough? In any case, I’m kind of surprised they seem to have no interest at all in legally-free, amateur-multimedia-maker friendly formats like Vorbis and Theora.

  • Where are the “Food and Drink” issues of MAKE?!?!? (And I don’t mean an Arduino®-controlled Lego® motorized model of a carnivorous cupcake or something, I mean actual edible food and potable brews. Not that “Killer Lego Robot Cupcake” wouldn’t be kind of neat….)
  • There’s enough “kids stuff” to split off into its own publication
  • Or so I believe, anyway. They already split the arts-and-crafts stuff off into its own CRAFT magazine. If they also split off the “make a paper plate toy” stuff to “Make: Kids” (Wait, “making kids” sounds like some kind of pornographic euphemism. Make that “Kids: Make”) there’d be more room for the more hardcore stuff (and a higher chance of more stuff I’m personally interested in).

  • It doesn’t seem like you can log in to comment on the Make blog without an account somewhere else (I USED to have a login directly on the site from when it first started, but that login no longer seems to work and the login screen implies the need to login through some other site’s service. Time to look up how to set up my own OpenID server…)
  • The Maker Faire always seems like it’s awesome but I can never go.
  • This isn’t really MAKE’s fault, unless they’re part of the secret cabal that conspires to keep me from having enough wealth and leisure time to attend things like this.

  • I can’t get this dang cat to quit jumping on my lap while I’m trying to type.
  • Okay, this has nothing to do with MAKE, but it’s annoying me right now.

There – now I’ve gotten it out of my system and out here where if anybody actually cares they can see it. Just some stuff that there was no way to convey in the survey. Otherwise I highly recommend MAKE magazine and its associated online material. The world needs more Makers and they’re doing some spiffy stuff to help in Sebastopol these days.

Now then, if all goes well I should have another post tomorrow with some pretty pictures of soap. Stay tuned…

Nerd Reading Spasm!

Did I mention the place I work has some amazingly spiffy perks for a nerd like me?

Last night, I was poking around pubmed looking for references to yeast and erythritol (namely, do yeast interact with it, and will they metabolize it?) I found precisely one relevant reference. From 1975. In a Czechoslavokian microbiology journal. A no-longer-existent Czechoslovakian microbiology journal. Even though it was a journal published in English, I didn’t figure I’d be able to find the article I was looking for. It did turn out that the greedy (insert long string of profanity here) anti-open-access “SpringerLink” Netherlands organization has an electronic copy of the article…which I can get limited access to for a short time for a mere $34.00. Not going to happen, obviously.

Just in case the college had a subscription that would let me get to the article at no extra cost, I checked. No such luck. But…

…The campus medical science library just two buildings over from where I work has dead-tree editions of essentially the entire journal! Im name des Nudelmonster! Instead of paying $34.00, I got a photocopy of the article for about $0.50. Bonus: As I had hoped, the article[1] reports that erythritol is not metabolized by yeasts, although it is taken up to a small extent. That means I can add erythritol (or xylitol or sorbitol or whatever) to must or wort, and it’ll still be there when the yeast finish, leaving the resulting beverage still sweet. Hooray!

Plus, I was also able to get access to an electronic copy of a review of the uses of poly-?-glutamate[2], which I was bemoaning not having access to over on an interesting Small Things Considered post recently.

Speaking of reading, one thing I really could use are any worthwhile books on the general subject of applied/industrial microbiology, bioprocess engineering, fermentation, and so on. “Worthwhile” here means practical texts that are A)primarily about microbiological processes (as opposed to, say, bioengineering of plants) B)Reasonably technical, and C)Either “not very old” or “very old indeed” (I collect old science books).

I’m not a fan of Amazon.com’s abuses of the patent system, but I’m in a hurry since it’s past my bedtime already. Therefore, purely as a sampling of the kinds of books that sounded interesting to me, here is a selection in more or less random order of books that came up in a quick search on amazon.com. Anybody out there have any other suggestions?

Continue reading Nerd Reading Spasm!

I Hate You, Carl Zimmer!

Carl Zimmer wrote a book. Of course, that’s no reason to hate him, and I don’t hate him for that.

His book is all about Escherichia coli (“E.coli”). The friggin’ “Microsoft” of the biotech world. Accursed E. coli, hogging up all the print space and protocol development and sucking up electricity for -80F freezers. I mean, come on people! You could be doing transformation of B. subtilis and related organisms instead, which form nice, sturdy endospores which you can dry out and keep in an any cool, dry place, no -80F freezer needed! Or you could use something like Agrobacterium tumefaciens, and as a bonus be able to then transfer your nice transformed genes into plants, too! But NOOOOOooo….it’s always “E.coli, E.coli, E.coli.” DAMN YOU, E.COLI!

Of course, none of that is Carl Zimmer’s fault, either, so this is also no reason to hate him.

Now, if his book was lousy, that MIGHT be a reason to hate him, but as far as I can tell there’s no reason to think the book is lousy, so this is no reason to hate him either. In fact, that’s kind of the problem.

No, the reason I Hate Carl Zimmer is that he’s written a book about friggin’, stage-hogging E.coli…and I want it. (Well, a copy of it anyway.) It sounds like a very interesting book. I feel like a Republican who wants a copy of “The Audacity of Hope”. Or a Democrat who wants to plan a vacation to visit the George W. Bush Presidential Library. The cognitive dissonance torments me, and it’s all Carl Zimmer’s fault! CURSE YOU CARL ZIMMER!

Okay, got that out of my system. A review might follow eventually if I manage to get a copy of the book. Meanwhile, for a change of pace, anybody want to hear about my Asterisk setup? Or should I just get back to the fermentation stuff?

P.S. Here’s a bit of trivia for you: “Frig” is apparently an old-English word meaning “to wiggle”…

I has a books.

I also has a bad grammar (curse you, internet!)

The front cover: 'Wine Microbiology - Practical Applications and Procedures'It’s slow going trying to get the mess up here in Idaho organized in preparation for the move to Texas, but I did manage to sacrifice a large number of my old books that I no longer need. Trading them in at the local representative of the “Hastings” bookstore chain got me a decent amount of store credit, and I was able to special-order this wine microbiology book I’ve been lusting after for months. It showed up a couple of days ago.

Very interesting so far, but I’m only a little ways into it. I’m still in the theory sections, so I can’t say if it covers yeast-mating or not (see previous two posts on this blog…)

Front cover: Wildbrews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer's YeastPrior to that, I picked up a book I found at the local brewing-supply place in The Woodlands, Texas. It’s an entire book on the subject of Belgian and “Belgian-style” beers (like Lambic) fermented with “wild” yeasts and bacteria. It’s an excellent mix of history, science, travelogue, and “how-to”. I highly recommend it.

I noted with particularly nerdly glee that there are several breweries here in the U.S. doing non-traditional brewing cultures. At least one was brewing entirely with Brettanomyces yeasts! (Most traditional brewers and vintners shriek in horror at the thought of Brettanomyces in their brew instead of the standard Saccharomyces yeasts, blaming Brettanomyces for – you guessed it – “off-flavors“.)

That is so amazingly spiffy I can hardly stand it. I note that one of them appears to be only a few hours from the area we’re moving to. And two of them are in Colorado, more or less on the road between Idaho and Texas, so on my next trip down which is likely to be as early as next week, I may have to try to arrange to visit at least one of them and see if I can get a tour.