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.

A secret message for Climate-Change Skeptics..


I admittedly find it hard to believe that such a large proportion of scientists in any field, climatology or otherwise, could actually conspire together to pull off this big of a hoax when at all other times they’re competing pretty intensely against each other for funding and attention. Heck, most of us mad scientistsGrumpy Visionaries would sooner give up our armies of Atomic Robot Zombie Clones than share credit for scientific discoveries. Still, I’m just cynical enough to believe that it’s not impossible. Even if it’s true, though, I don’t care, because something unprecedented and very important is happening right now, and there’s no way we’re likely to ever have this chance again.

To those of you reading this who agree that something needs to be done about “Climydia” (hat-tip – if I wore a hat – to Justin Jackson of “This Week in Science” for this neologism; a combination of “Climate” and “Chlamydia”, if it’s not obvious, making “Global Warming” a metaphorical embarassing but hopefully curable disease): you can stop reading now. I agree. We must do something about it. It is a serious problem and needs to be corrected. The rest of this post is for those who don’t agree. Go ahead and click away. Don’t worry, I’ll tell the deniers off, you can go read something else now. Thanks.

Continue reading A secret message for Climate-Change Skeptics..

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!

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 -80°F 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 -80°F 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”…

Off-Topic and Back Again: “Framing”, Cluetrain Manifesto, and Twitter

“Framing” came up briefly on one of the other small independent blogs I follow. I’d link
to the post but it’s gone now. I sincerely hope its disappearance wasn’t related to the
comment I posted there, unless it was just because of the “don’t feed the trolls” part
of it – (in which case excuse me for a moment while I tell myself what an amazing fountain of useful advice I am and feel self-important for about 15 seconds before I return to reality…). I’m guessing the poster just decided he didn’t want to keep the post, but I won’t let that spoil my brief ego-feeding fantasy.

For those lucky enough to have missed it so far, here’s my flippant and extremely brief explanation
of my understanding of how the “framing” thing goes. An assistant professor of communications popped up among the science blogs one day with what seemed to begin as a couple of reminders of the obvious (mainly because it occasionally seems that people have forgotten). Namely, that if you want someone to understand what you are trying to communicate (particularly scientific matters) and agree with you, you are more likely to succeed if you can connect what you are discussing to something that your audience already cares about, and you are less likely to succeed if you are, shall we say, unfriendly to them as you present your subject.

From there, “framing” seems to have grown into something resembling the brand-name of some kind of mass-market “self-help” product line. Its primary proponent, from the distant vantage point
whence I occasionally catch a glimpse of the fight, starts to seem like the angry Vice President
of Communications for Science, Incorporated, whose office issues angry memos denouncing the insubordinate “screechy monkeys” who insist on deviating from the approved language when discussing Science, inc.’s Mission Statement. The fact that science is a conversation among people rather than a corporation probably explains why so much of the response has been not “Oh, crap, we’d better behave ourselves or we’ll get in trouble” but “Who the heck are you, and why are you telling me what I can say and how I can say it?” And that, I think, is all that needs to be said. (Anyone who stumbles upon my little blog and disagrees is welcome to say so in the comments.)

Book: The Cluetrain ManifestoActually, it’s probably more than needs to be said, and I wouldn’t have even mentioned it except that the problem of trying to apply this sort of approved “Command and Control” approach towards information in the Internet age reminded me of something else. The Cluetrain Manifesto was published so long ago that AOL was still considered a successful and valuable operation at the time, but it still seems to be relevant. (It’s free to read online – follow the link if you want to do so). At its core, its central thesis seems to be that the “Command and Control” approach to information management favored by corporate and political entities is effectively broken now because of the two-way communication made possible by a ubiquitous internet. In essence, “the market” is no longer made of isolated individuals passively sitting on the couch “consuming” the approved messages coming through the television, but a “conversation” of people who can easily tell the difference between a corporate “message” and authentic human conversation. Here’s a relevant passage:

“Imagine for a moment: millions of people sitting in their shuttered homes at night, bathed in that ghostly blue television aura. They’re passive, yeah, but more than that: they’re isolated from each other.

Now imagine another magic wire strung from house to house, hooking all these poor bastards up. They’re still watching the same old crap. Then, during the touching love scene, some joker lobs an off-color aside — and everybody hears it. Whoa! What was that? People are rolling on the floor laughing. And it begins to happen so often, it gets abbreviated: ROTFL. The audience is suddenly connected to itself.

What was once The Show, the hypnotic focus and tee-vee advertising carrier wave, becomes in the context of the Internet a sort of reverse new-media McGuffin — an excuse to get together rather than an excuse not to. Think of Joel and the ‘bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The point is not to watch the film, but to outdo each other making fun of it.”

Twitter logoAnd now we take one more step towards on-topicness: One current set of the metaphorical wires described in that passage is Twitter. Twitter is kind of like a gigantic lobby at a convention center where some huge conference is going on. The lobby is filled with little groups of people, collectively discussing with each other all kinds of little thoughts, observations, and events that each person there has encountered. You can easily wander through the lobby for hours, listening for snippets of conversation that relate to your own interests. Sure, being a raw, natural, human group of discussions, Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of Everything is Crap”) is in full effect. Sometimes literally: On Twitter I’m tracking the term “brewing” which seems to pick up more metaphorical uses of the word than literal, and a recent “Tweet” that popped up was somebody commenting that someone didn’t flush the toilet (“someone’s been brewing up a 1.6 gallon pot of turd stew.”)

So why bother? Because I think the remaining 10% has enough potential value to make a little mental effort to sift through the stream of messages worthwhile. I’d say a majority of the messages that come through are related to events happening at that moment. Twitter seems to get a lot of use as a back-channel for commenting on things that are happening, and for organizing impromptu gatherings. In most of these cases I think location information would be a valuable addition…and now I’m finally back to “on-topic”.

I think it’d be exceedingly nifty to be able to map Twitter messages in real-time. If I can convince anyone else that my “geostrings” idea is worth using, and then if one were to track “geostr”, any “tweet” with parseable location information would automatically show up. A small tag containing precise location information would make it possible for your computer automatically alert you if a post was describing something anywhere near where you are. Imagine the case of posts like “I just saw a tornado touch down, I’m going down to the basement now”. Or, say, “Who wants to try the homebrew I’m about to bottle?”

Example code in Javascript and PHP for picking out and parsing geostrings to follow soon. I’ll get back to yeast again shortly thereafter, though.

Drugs make you stupid. And so does fear.

Ignorance breeds fear. Fear breeds terrorism. Terrorism breeds interruption of homebrewing. There was a disturbing article that came up today. Evidently, someone’s burglar alarm went off, so the security company drove by to check it out. They opened the garage (where I guess the alarm indicated an attempted break-in or something) and thought they saw a “still”. Naturally, anything that looks science-y with copper tubes or whatever can only be for one thing: drugs, right?

A bunch of police officers in both marked and unmarked cars AND the fire department later, somebody finally finds out it’s just somebody’s (completely legal!) homebrewing setup. Of course, officials describe the panic as “an appropriate response”. You might think this was in notoriously over-reacting Boston, but no – it was Hamilton, New Zealand.

My first thought was that it probably wasn’t even a “still”, which due to unrepealed prohibition-era laws is still treated pretty much the same that meth-lab equipment would be in terms of legality here in the US. I kind of assumed it was probably just the owner’s fermentation container, or possibly a wort-chiller (see image – click for context). Without some apparently-rather-expensive permits, it’s extremely illegal to have distillation equipment in the US, and I’m under the impression that most places around the world still criminalize home distillation. It’s worse, though – apparently New Zealand repealed the ban on home distillation for personal use over a decade ago. Even if what the panicky security guys saw really WAS a “still”, it’s STILL a completely legal piece of equipment there. And yet, surrounding the guy’s house with marked and unmarked police cars and firefighting equipment was “appropriate response.” Because somebody said “drugs”. The original article may be found here.

In fairness to the public officials, it sounds like once the police and fire department showed up, they actually talked to someone at the house (no tasing or teargas required) and had no trouble figuring out that nothing illegal was actually going on, so the damage was pretty much limited to the time wasted by the police and fire-department in responding. What I want to know is why the “security” company gets a free pass on causing all this fuss by reporting a completely legal piece of vaguely science-like equipment as a “clandestine drug lab”? At the very least, I’d expect people to want to know which “security” company is supposed to be protecting their houses but cannot tell the difference between legal homebrewing equipment and real criminal activity.

As a fairly hardcore nerd with an interest in intentional food microbiology (brewing, cheese, etc.) this kind of thing worries me. I intend to build myself a fairly decent science-lab setup for doing food microbiology. I’m already planning to label everything as though it were part of a public museum exhibit, just in case some idiot happens to see it and assume it’s some kind of terrorist drug lab or something.

Here in the US, I consider “amateur” science and technology to be part of the very foundation of my country’s greatness. Think Thomas Edison. Nikolai Tesla [yes, he was a naturalized American citizen]. Benjamin Franklin. And no doubt many, many others who are less famous but nonetheless made major contributions to the advancement of their country. When we set about attacking that, we’re harming our country – yes, you people outside the US, this applies to you, too.

The moral of the story is this: Please, people – science and technology are fun. Yes, there are many of us out here who quite happily set up “science-lab stuff” to play with food, or rocks, or plants, or electronic circuits or whatever else in a completely safe and legal manner. Sure, it’s a good thing when good police-work closes down some drug-crazed freak’s meth-production setup – I don’t want some idiot blowing up my neighborhood with unsafe chemical activity nor attracting violent criminals anywhere near where I live. All I’m asking is, will people please stop panicking and screaming “drugs!” or “terrorism!” every time you see some glass tubes or blinking lights? Please? Thank you.

This Public Service Announcement has been brought to you by the popular drug 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine. We now return you to your regularly scheduled (and, it should be emphasized, completely legal) nerdity.

Superman is Homeless!

Two weeks of midterms, and now it’s finally Thanksgiving Break week.

In honor of this celebration of my second most favorite deadly sin, I was going to do a food post, but I’ll save that for later.

Instead, I want to share a shocking and surprising fact that I’ve discovered: People are Stupid.

Actually, that’s not true, it’s really more like “People are Lazy, and Thinking is Work”, but “people are stupid” is easier to say.

Today’s illustration of this principle includes a visit to the former town of “Metropolis, Nevada” (link goes to Google Maps image, centered in front of the hotel. Should pop up in a new window.).

Composite image of the ruins of the Metropolis Hotel

Yes, evidently a bunch of developers from New York thought it’d be a great idea to build a big city in the barren deserts of Northeastern Nevada. This is where the “stupid” comes in.

Check out that map, zoom out and look around. What do you see? Yes, that’s right: sand, sagebrush, and dead grass.

There’s something downright appalling about the way people in the Western United States (where I’ve lived, in various places, for the last couple of decades) romanticize living in the middle of a desert, while at the same time trying desperately to pretend that they’re NOT living in a desert.

Here’s the story of Metropolis, as I understand it, in short form: Bunch of New York developers decide to build a big city for Mormon settlers. In order to pretend they’re not living in a desert, they figure they’ll just dam a spot on the small river to the northeast somewhere so that can stop enough water to keep themselves running.

Now, plunking down in the middle of the desert and pretending there’s nothing odd about building a large water-demanding city in it is a time-honored tradition of the American West, so why didn’t it work here?

Apparently, it’s because somewhere in the Lovelock, Nevada area a bunch of people said “Hey! We were here using that river’s water to pretend we’re not living in a desert first, so you can’t take it away from us by damming the river up there! So there!”. And the courts agreed.

You might think the teachers at the local school would be educated enough to know that “desert” means “lack of water”. I went over to ask about this, but…:

The ruins that once was the Metropolis, NV high school.

I guess school’s out for the moment. I wonder what their sports mascot was. “The Metropolis Dustbunnies?”

I was reminded of all of this by a recent story that was going around about some developer who thinks it’d be a great idea to build a 100,000,000 gallon-per-year water park in Mesa, Arizona. Which, for those unfamiliar with the area, is a desert just like Metropolis, only substantially hotter.

He’s not the first one though. Palmdale, California – out on the edge of the ‘Los Angeles area’ of California, appears to have the aptly-named DryTown Water Park. Palmdale is in the area of the Mojave desert. I have no idea how much water it uses up. I’m certain there are numerous others in the Los Angeles area alone.

It’s something to think about if you find yourself wondering why the Los Angeles area continually induces the shunting of water from other parts of the country to itself, like a cancerous tumor inducing blood-vessels to form in order to feed its own growth.

It’s probably obvious that I’m tired of living in deserts…

#1 on Google!

Over on scienceblogs.com’s The World’s Fair, the author has started an amusing meme.

It goes like this: the challenge is to find 5 sets of search terms for which your own blog or site is the #1 hit on a Google search. Note that it is acceptable to quote specific phrases but of course it’s more impressive if you don’t. Here are 8 that (as I type this) for which this blog is the #1 hit (links go to the blog address that is the hit):

There was at least one other which I’m having trouble remembering at the moment. Perhaps I’ll update later if I remember what it was.

Saturday Night Meta-Blogging

I’d like to thank (profusely and repeatedly) everyone who has been coming to check out my blog via the College Blogging Scholarship site. Whether you’re deciding to vote for me or not, I hope you’ll keep coming back.

First, the bad news. We all know how this goes: the finalists are announced, and they all go ask all their friends and associates to vote for them, and to pass on the message to go vote for them. When someone, given the “Go vote for Sean” (or whoever) message, lands on the voting page, they’re confronted by a list of 19 other blogs besides the one they went there to vote for. How many of them REALLY think “Gosh, I should probably check out all of the other blogs to see which one really deserves my vote!”. The vast majority, I’m sure we all realize, just click on whoever they came to vote for and leave. Obviously whoever has the largest network of affiliated bloggers to send out repeated “vote for my buddy” posts every day has a huge advantage. Checking my server logs, I see that this is definitely true. (I’m lookin’ at YOU, scienceblogs.com! Unfair? No, actually, not at all. Jealous? You bet your sweet bippy I’m jealous!)

Since the start of the competition, I’ve gotten a total of 465 unique visits referred from the scholarship finalists announcement page. At present, there are 19,740 votes that have been cast – so less than 2.5% of the voters have bothered to check out the other blogs.

Now, the good news: This is actually much higher than I would have guessed. Given the comparative obscurity of my blog (at the moment), the fact that more than one in fifty voters have at least looked over the first page of my blog makes me very happy. So, again, thanks, and I hope you’ll keep coming back.

In other news, Josh Charles of “[website]$sudo life” suggests that my post suggesting a “War on Science” could be a good thing for science would make a good basis for an entertaining spoof documentary. I’m kind of liking that idea…

Enough of that for now, though. I’ll be getting back to my science communication, amateur science, and microbiology roots in the next few posts. Stay tuned…

Yatta! I Fail to Reject the Null-Scholarship!

(Oops, got so excited I got carried away with the title. Fixed now.)

I am thrilled to notice this morning that I am in the running for the College Blogging Scholarship, honestly, if this even attracts a larger population of active readers, I’ll consider that alone an excellent “Runner-Up” prize.

Not that the scholarship money wouldn’t be much appreciated…but more about that later.

For the moment though: Hello, current and new readers, to the internet’s self-proclaimed foremost authority on Expired JellO, among other things. I suppose that since I’m asking people to vote for me, I should probably give a quick description of myself and this blog. I’ll keep it short for the moment:

My actual name is Sean Clark; the explanation for the “Epicanis” handle deserves a post of its own. I am a “non-traditional” student at Idaho State University, working on finishing my long-overdue B.S. in Microbiology. This is actually the 5th college institution I’ve attended. It’s not that I’ve been kicked out of the others or anything, just that I keep having to move and start over. I’m finally in one place here long enough to actually finish the degree. Where I end up doing my graduate work depends on where (and if) we end up moving next year – I’ll post about this if anybody’s interested.

My primary interest is in “applied” microbiology, particularly non-medical biotechnology. I’ve been convinced for many years that non-medical applications of microbial biotechnology are underappreciated and somewhat neglected, and I’d rather people not have to get sick before they can benefit from whatever I might come up with…

Incidentally, Hillary Clinton agrees with me (“we should increase investments in non-health applications of bio-technology” – see paragraph 23). Whether that helps or harms my position no doubt depends on your political opinions, but still, I appreciate that someone with some kind of official authority agrees with me. And, hey, maybe this means I’ll be able to find a decent job during or after graduate school. Anybody think the Office of Technology Assessment will be hiring again soon?…

This blog itself is primarily concerned with sharing some of my education, and science in particular, as an exercise in communicating science. I, for one, think I’ve gotten better as the blog has progressed.

A couple of important points: This is a blog, not a magazine: participation is encouraged. If nothing else, the voting for the scholarship looks like it goes on for a couple of weeks, so if you are thinking to yourself “Gosh, I’d vote for you, but you don’t talk enough about X” or “you talk too much about Y” or “I hate the background color of the webpage” or whatever, now’s your chance to speak up. You do not need to be logged in to comment (but I do screen comments, so spammers: you’re wasting both your time and mine), so please do. Also consider subscribing to the RSS feed, found in the upper-right area of the page.

I try to update at least a couple of times each week, though lately I’ve managed to maintain a nearly daily pace. Participation helps here, as comments from readers helps me come up with additional topics to post on. I’m getting a lot of enjoyment out of blogging, so I’ll post as often as I reasonably can…

One last quick note on using this blog: I try to put title tags on most special bits of posts, like images and links. And…bits of text like this, which you might think of as “inline footnotes”. If you hover over anything with that thick-dotted-underline, you should see some additional information. As of a week or two ago, if you click on them, the entire extra text will pop up in a separate box where you can read it all, assuming you don’t have javascript turned off. I haven’t yet gotten around to going back and doing this to the previous bits like this, but I will eventually.

So, again, welcome. Comments, questions, and suggestions will help me improve the blog, and are therefore strongly encouraged. Oh, yes, and please vote for me. Otherwise, I’m going to have to resort to selling blood plasma and begging outside of scientific conferences. Thanks.