The Sake Adventure, Part 1

Sake, as you probably know, is commonly referred to as “Japanese rice wine.” The term wine here is a misnomer, as wine is made from fermented fruit, and rice is a grain. The common term for a drink made from fermented grain is beer. Nomenclature aside, I’ve long enjoyed this particular beverage.

Shortly after I started brewing my own beer 10 years ago, I got to thinking about making my own sake. A perusal of the Internet and discussions with my Japanese friends (owners of my favorite sushi bar) dissuaded me from attempting it. The only instructions I could find online at the time made it look like the production of sake was beyond anything I wanted to try, as it involved an endlessly complicated series of adding ingredients, stirring the brew, changing temperature, and other arcane rituals over a 50-day period. That’s way too complicated for a simple minded brewer like me.

Last weekend when I was at the homebrew store getting ingredients for my latest batch of fermented malt beverage (a juniper rye that’ll be ready in a few weeks), I ran across the homebrew sake kit, consisting of four pages of instructions and a small packet of koji-kin–the mold that converts the starches in rice to sugar, making it possible for the yeast to digest and make alcohol. Reading the directions convinced me that even an amateur kitchen hacker like me could make sake, so Friday I picked up five pounds of rice and Saturday I began the process.

Making sake is a little bit more involved than making beer. In particular, not only do I have to boil water, but I also have to steam rice! Since I don’t own a rice steamer (I have one of those cheap rice cookers, but the instructions specifically say to steam cook the rice), I had to cobble together a steamer out of an 8 quart stew pot, two colanders, and a dish towel. I managed not to burn my fingers too badly on the steam, and 90 minutes later I had a small amount of steamed rice to use for the next step.

This is the fun part: you cool the rice and then add a small amount of koji-kin, place the mixture in a warm place (they recommend 86 degrees), and wait. What are we waiting for? Why, for mold, of course! We’re actually trying to grow mold on the rice! It’s like the refrigerator science experiments, but on purpose. Every 12 hours I have to stir the mixture and make sure that the temperature in the ice chest (hey, it works for keeping things warm, too) is correct. Last night I detected the first signs of mold on the rice. This morning almost all of the rice was covered in a nice thick fuzzy white mold. The Japanese term for this molded rice is kome-koji.

So the first step is successful. Tonight or tomorrow I’ll cook up a couple more pounds of rice and mix it with the kome-koji, some water, and yeast. Then it’s back into the ice chest (this time at 68 degrees) where it’ll stay for two weeks, with me stirring it every day. At the end of that time I just need to filter it through a cheesecloth, put it in bottles, and pop it in the fridge.

I can hardly wait.

Web Search Ramblings

Most people reading this blog understand conceptually how Google and other search engines work. In brief, they have a program called a Web crawler that goes from one Web site to the next, downloading and storing pages, and extracting links to other pages. A separate process reads the stored documents and creates an inverted index that is (conceptually) similar to the index at the back of a book except that it indexes every single word in the document. When a user does a “search,” the search engine need only look up the terms in the index and return a list of documents that contain those terms.

I’ve waved my hand over significant technical detail, but the details of the implementation are not the point. The point is that many people–perhaps a majority of Internet users–do not have even this level of understanding. They think that when they pose a query to a search engine, the search engine searches the Web in real time. Those of us who understand a little bit about the Internet and the inner workings of search engines might find that idea absurd, but the term “search engine” does imply that some kind of searching is going on. What we call a search engine is more correctly a Web index.

Except that it’s not an index of the entire Web. In fact, not even Google indexes a majority of the visible Web. The best estimates I’ve seen put the number of publicly visible Web pages at somewhere between 50 and 100 billion. Researchers estimate that nobody indexes even 20% of them. If you give it a little thought, you can understand why.

The data I’ve gathered in crawling more than 100 million Web pages over the last few months indicates that the average Web page size is about 30 kilobytes. A one-megabit Internet connection can pull down 100 kilobytes per second, or about 3.3 Web pages per second. Large search engines, of course, have much faster Internet connections–on the order of gigabits. But even a gigabit connection can only pull down 3,300 pages per second. At that rate, it would take about 35 days to download 10 billion documents.

Granted, some pages are updated less frequently than others, and search engines have been optimized to take that into account. Still, it’s not possible right now for any search engine to have a current index of the entire visible Web. At best, a general search engine can have a reasonably current–say 24 hours–index of the most popular one percent of the Web. Everything else has to wait until the crawler gets around to it.

Note that I said “general search engine.” Targeted search engines that index specific topics or particular subsets of the Web are becoming more popular because they can keep their indexes more up to date. Some of them can update their indexes several times per day. Not only is their information more current, but it’s also more focused and more likely to give you higher quality results in whatever narrow field it targets. The drawback, of course, is that you won’t find information about Twinkies on the Steam Train search site. (I made that up. I have no idea if there really is a Steam Train search site.)

The large search engine companies understand this, of course. Google, for example, has introduced Google Custom Search, which allows you to create what is, in effect, your own custom search engine. This is the first step in what I think will be a very large emerging market.

Hypocrisy? In Congress?

Am I the only one who recognizes the hypocrisy in these “withdraw the troops” bills that continue to be introduced in Congress? I’ll grant that our involvement in Iraq has become an untenable situation, but anybody with brains (and, as much as I distrust our Congresscritters, I don’t for a minute think they’re stupid) knows that pulling our troops out any time soon will cause way more problems than it’ll solve. Whether or not going in was a good idea is a different issue entirely, and one I might discuss at some point.

In any case, those who introduce or support the troop pullout bills (or riders on other bills) know that the bills won’t pass. They’re counting on it. The war has become increasingly unpopular with the American people, so supporting an anti-war bill scores points with the constituents. Even better, it makes those who oppose the bill look bad. “He voted to keep the troops in Iraq!”

The absolute worst thing that could happen, as far as the troop withdrawal supporters are concerned, would be for one of those bills to pass. Then they’d actually have to bring the troops home, or come up with some lame excuse as to why they can’t do it. That would make them look bad. It’s not likely to happen, though. They can keep introducing bills that are fatally flawed, knowing full well that the bill won’t pass, and bask in the admiration of the constituents who are too blind to see what’s really happening.

Magnetic Conditioning of your Wine

Over the weekend I visited a place called Water 2 Wine, where you can make your own wine. They help you make your wine, handle the fermentation for you, and even assist in designing custom labels. It’s cheaper than buying the wine in a liquor store, but much more expensive than making it yourself in your own home. If you have the equipment, that is. In any case, you can make good wine for about half the price you’d pay for an equivalent bottle in the store.

One of the options they give is to “condition” your wine with a magnet. The idea is that you set your wine bottle on this magnetic coaster thing, put the special cork in it, and let it set for 30 minutes. The magnet supposedly “ages” the wine two years in half an hour. The people at the store will tell you that it works great.

After leaving Water 2 Wine, I went to the homebrew store to get ingredients for another batch of beer (a juniper rye that I brewed up last night). There I noticed that they were selling The Perfect Sommelier–one of those wine coaster things. I asked the guy at the store if it really worked, because it sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me. He assured me that it really works, and that he’d give me my money back if I tried it and didn’t agree.

There’s really no reason for me to try the silly thing. Plenty of reviews of this and other devices have convinced me that these magnetic “conditioners” are just scams. There is no scientific evidence to support the claims that these people make. And yet people fall for this crap all the time. It’s like “high quality” speaker cables or putting things under pyramids. It’s a bunch of crap couched in vague pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo designed to fool uninformed people into parting with their money. Don’t fall for it.

Too Much Memory

More memory is a good thing, right? Not necessarily. I upgraded my machine last week from four gigabytes of RAM to six (I’m waiting for the replacement two gigabytes to make it eight). Now TextPad won’t load a one-gigabyte file. It used to, back when I only had four gigs of memory. But not now. The error it gives is kind of funny: “Disk full while trying to read .”

I don’t know for sure, but I strongly suspect that the error has to do with the way that TextPad checks for available memory. It’s probably calling the Windows API function that returns the amount of memory as a 64-bit quantity. Since TextPad is a 32-bit application, it just checks the lower 32 bits of the returned result, and assumes that I only have two gigabytes of memory. Oops. I’ll bet that it’ll load the file for me no problem once I have the full eight gigabytes.

But I’m looking for a new editor. And I’d really like a text file viewer. I find it hard to believe that there aren’t file viewers and editors that intelligently handle large files. They all seem to insist on loading the entire file into memory before allowing me to do anything. This is asinine. WordStar could operate on larger-than-memory files 25 years ago. There’s no reason why today’s software shouldn’t be able to do the same.

If you know of a good text editor or text file viewer that can work with very large–multi-gigabyte–files that are larger than available memory, please let me know. And please don’t tell me “move to Linux.” That’s not currently an option, and if the GNU tools for Windows that I’ve downloaded are any indication, they suffer from the same problems.

Memory Test

Memory prices are really coming down. Three months ago we paid about $80 per gigabyte for the one-gigabyte sticks. The two-gig sticks were more than double that–$175 or so. Last week we ordered some two-gig sticks to upgrade a couple of machines. We paid about $80 each, with shipping. One-gigabyte memory sticks are now available for under $35.

I installed the eight gigabytes into my machine and started getting intermittent failures–usually resulting in a hard system crash. That’s always fun. A quick Google search revealed Microsoft’s Windows Memory Diagnostic: a standalone memory testing program. To use it, you download the program from that page and run it to create a boot diskette or an ISO image that you can use to burn a bootable CD. The memory test program starts immediately when you boot the system with that diskette or CD.

The program works, and pretty darned quickly on the machine in question–a 2.4 GHz Pentium Core 2 Duo. But it has its quirks. First of all, it’s apparently a 32-bit application, as it won’t access more than four gigabytes of memory. Microsoft really needs to update their program. 64-bit Windows has been available for more than two years. A worse problem is that the program reports that I have more than 4 gigabytes of memory in the system when I install two 2-gig memory modules. So some memory, somewhere, doesn’t get tested. I had to test each of the 2-gig modules individually in order to make sure that everything got tested.

Memory Diagnostic did find the bad memory module, so I’m happy. And I’ll keep that CD around. We’ve purchased a lot of memory in the last few months, and have had trouble with some of it. I think we’re going to start testing the modules first thing, before dropping them into a machine.

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