April 2nd, 2008


The oil bug.

I’m watching this image on a computer screen at Amyris Biotechnologies in Emeryville, California, where one of the founders, biologist Jack Newman, is giving me a tour. The genetically manipulated E. coli before me are highly crafted units of industrial production, which Amyris is using to turn sugar into novel versions of gasoline, jet fuel and diesel—in other words, the fuels on which the world already runs. Amyris is one of a handful of young biofuel companies putting a brilliant and weird twist on the future of green.


I think this is a very interesting idea. I'm not sure if it'll work out in mass production, but certainly worth investigating.

I just have one question... what happens when (not if) these bugs get out into the wild? Are they going to get into our streams and lakes and start generating gasoline in the water? (This kind of thing is exactly what the book Zodiac is about - highly recommended, btw.)

We already have an organism that naturally makes oil from sunlight and carbon dioxide. It's called algae. It's already everywhere, so there's no additional environmental impact. I don't see how genetically engineering E. Coli to do the same thing is a significantly better idea. Except from a "we can patent it and make tons of money off royalties" perspective. Which I'm not sure is sustainable in the long term, given that algae exists.

Though I don't mean any of this to imply that there isn't an even better option...
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"Not an angel"

Using a slide rule.

The basic idea of the slide rule comes from logarithms, in particular this fundamental identity: x * y = blogb(x) + logb(y). That is: adding logarithms is equivalent to multiplying numbers. The slide rule places numbers onto a ruler on a logarithmic scale; so the distance from "1" to a number "n" on the rule is the logarithm of "n". That's the whole fundamental trick to make it work.

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You whipper-snappers and your fancy loggerisms! When I wuz your age, we had to do our multerplications by counting out grains of gravel! And WE LIKED IT that way!

And now you lazy kids even have Virtual Slide-Rules!!

Well, you kids just quit playing with your slide-rules on my lawn! You hear me!?

Heheheheh. This reminds me of Cliff Stoll's TED talk, where he does an neat little experiment with an o-scope and microphone to figure out the speed of sound. He's crunching the results when he runs into a division he can't do in his head, so he whips out the slide rule he carries around in his pocket and does the division on the slide rule right there!
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