Data – the (very long winded) second language we all speak

I was fortunate enough to attend SINET 61, a major cybersecurity event supported by ACSGN. It was a very interesting event (hot button jobs alert: security, blockchain and IoT) with lots of expertise in one room. Fundamental to a lot of discussions was data. What is data?

Data traditionally means pieces of information stored/transmitted by a computer. Its the universal language most modern electronic speaks to each other. Google it and you will see 1s and 0s, and lots of green screens.

Let’s ignore all that, and go back to where it all started…{queue dream sequence music :)}

Once Upon a Time, when computers first evolved into the shape we know today, a lot of electronics sensors can only read 2 voltages correctly, On and Off. Through convention they were labelled as 1s and 0s.

Now let’s relabel them as As and Bs and the computer just become another person like us. But they are like a tourist that doesn’t speak English. Just like foreign languages, when you put letters in different orders you will form words that mean different things.

The down side of making words out of two letters is that you are limited with how many meanings you can make in a given word length. A 2 letter word (AA, AB, BA, BB) only allows you to represent 4 different ideas. In contrast, because there are 26 letters in English, 2 letter words gives you possible (26×26=) 676 unique words.

In order to emulate the English alphabet (so that humans can interact with machine without having to talk gibberish), a group of people called American National Standards Institute agreed to a set of zero and ones strings that will represent the alphabet and commonly used symbols. This standard is now known as ASCII character set. The added bonus is that machines from different manufacturers can now also understand each other when they operate on ASCII.

But what about the others...

At this point, I am expecting a lot of passionate people writing in to say, what about the other standards? Yes, there are other standards out there, but fundamentally they are an agreement to use different strings of 1s and 0s out there.

Like in the human world when different people speaks different languages. This cause a lot of issues when people try to use one set of data in one machine in one standard to another one that use a different standard, but that’s the subject of another post. 🙂

Every time you press a key on your keyboard, you are actually speaking in strings of 0s an 1s to your computer. You didn’t know you are talking a second language every time you use a keyboard did you?

Sugar: An Origin Story


Sugar, the common hidden ninja in most of our daily foods. Where did it come from? How did it get here? In this series, we will find out.

Sugar – An Origin StorySugar is present in much of the natural world, honey, maple syrup, saps and even sweet potatoes. What we know as sugar (or granulated sugar) is a refined form of sugar. That means that humans have taken a plant that contains sugar (from sugar cane or sugar beets commonly) and extracted the sugar that within it.

Figuring out how to to do it took thousands of years, and we can still see remnants of each step in getting our white sparkly sugar today.

Step 1 – Sugar cane (or beets) are grown in the fields by farmers. When they are ready, they are harvested. At this point, the clock is on to race to extract the sugar before the plants go off.

Step 2 – The juice are (literally) squeezed out of them. Out of which comes a greenish, sticky liquid that resembles a really thin spinach smoothie – yum!

Step 3 – The juice are then treated with milk of lime (no, not the stuff from the green fruit) and carbon dioxide. This makes other bad bits in the juice, that are too small for a physical sieve, to clump together. Then it is put through giant sieve to get a clear juice.

Step 4 – The clear juice is then reduced down to a thick sauce by boiling.

Step 5 – The sauce a la sugar is then left to grow sugar crystals. At which point raw sugar emerges (this is not your supermarket “raw sugar”, for that see below). The sugar crystals are scooped up. The left over gooey mess is what is known as molasses.

Step 6 – The raw sugar then goes through a further wash, spinning, clarifying and filtering to get the remaining molasses off the surface of the crystals, (a bit like a bath and a buff). The resulting clear liquid will go through crystallisation again to get us the white sparkly powder we see on shop shelves.

There are many sugars available now that do not go through step 6, go through a light version of it. There are only definitions for white sugar and icing within the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards. So the key is to read the packaging and understand where the product comes from and how its made.

Next up in the series: Sugar, Where are they now?

Brown Sugar's Secret History

Standard brown/raw sugar are actually refined white sugar with molasses added back in. When I asked a staff at a sugar refinery why would they go into the trouble of the extra step, they said that is to ensure the level of taste and colour is consistent. This is so that a bag of brown sugar does not sit next to the shelf to another bag where it may be lighter due to the natural varying content of sugar cane/beets that had been used to make them.

Make you own Brown Sugar

Brown sugar are actually white sugar and molasses added together. You can make your own. Grab some white sugar and add teaspoons of molasses to it until it reaches the colour and taste that you want. Once you work out your own favourite recipe you can use it in most recipes that calls for brown sugar.

Sneak Preview No.2

“Oh, this is one of those onion things, isn’t it?”

-Donkey from Shrek

Flour: An Origin Story

Flour is a generic term that can applied to any grains that had been pounded into a powder form. However these days it’s commonly used to mean powder that has been produced from wheat grains.

But where did the ubiquitous powder come from? And what does it actually consists of? This series explores all of these.

Step 1

Wheat grass is harvested. In the old days it used to be done using a scythe and then the wheat grains are beaten off the stalks in bunches. These days a machine called a combine harvester is used to remove the seeds and leaves the stalks behind on the field.

What happens to the stalks then?
The stalks that are left on the ground are not going to waste. Usually a machine called a hay baler, is sent through the fields, after the combine harvester, and tie up the stalks into huge bales/rounds. These hay bales are then used for other purposes such as feed for animals. A great example of using up every part of a plant.


Step 2

The wheat grains are then cleaned and sorted so that any non-wheat things, like pebbles, twigs, are taken out. These are then sent to be “tempered”. See this as a hot bath for our wheat grains which makes it softer for crushing later.

Step 3

The wheat grains are then taken to be crushed by giant rollers. Each time the wheat germs are crushed, the fluffy white bits in the middle of the grain(called the endosperm) are crushed to a powder and that passes through the sieve. Anything that doesn’t get through are crushed again. This step is repeated until all the flour are extracted. What you have left are the skin and kernel (aka brans and germs) in the sieve.

Hang on...Whole... what?
Wholegrain and wholemeal are two words that are used to describe the fact that the germ and the bran (not just the endosperm) are crushed down and put into the flour as well.



Step 4

It is mandatory, in Australia, for millers to add folic acid to flour, with a few select exceptions. This is added to the product before bagging and shipping to shops all over the country.

What's that in my flour?!
The folic acid addition is a reaction to concerns that folic acid levels have been declining in society. As folic acid has been shown to be critical to baby development BEFORE conception (up to a month before), this is a strategy that hopes to maintain folic acid levels in everyone with its flow on effect to the next generation.



Up Next in the Series…

A look inside the grain to see how this versatile grain gives us flour