Matt Reusswig's Weblog

What I’ve Been Reading

Community Urinalysis–I heard a talk on a similar technique utilized in European cities. During the Q&A session, many audience members focused in on privacy issues. For instance, could police perform analyses upstream of the main combined-sewer lines in order to identify households with using members? Is there a privacy issue that could come into play here? NB: This is an old story and I can’t recall where I found it! Therefore hat tip to the internet.

How did I miss this Venter/Exxon tag-team on biofuels?

Geometry and design in manhole covers .


Tab Dump

–Air born particulate matter concentrations in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics were lower than normal but this seems to be a consequence of meteorological conditions rather than the actions of the PRC.  Anecdotally, this trend of reduced smog seems to have continued in 2009.

–Roger Ruan of the University of Minnesota is working on converting concentrate (water left over from sludge dewatering processes at wastewater treatment plants)  into biodiesel via alge.

–The House cap & trade bill will mandate that states and municipalities adopt more energy efficient building codes.

–It seems like everyone participating in Infinite Summer has rapidly reached a point where they are either thoughtfully annoyed or converging-on-very-annoyed.   Contra Sanchez, I’ve always loved the endnotes.

China Climate


Via a great post from Charlie McElwee at China Environmetal Law, I see that the Swedish Prime Minister’s Commision on Sustainable Development has released a report entitled “A Balancing Act: China’s Role in Climate Change“.

I have an extremely superficial grasp of carbon emmission policies in the West, let alone in China, so my recommendation of the report isn’t really all that useful.   But McElwee, on the other hand, is wildly well informed!  And he recommends it so there you go.

The Great Pacific Garabage Patch; or How to Eat Plastic


I came across the above image last week, depicting the vortex of plastic caught up in the Northern Pacific Gyre.  Why do all those plastic bags just hang around in the ocean?  We all know that plastic doesn’t biodegrade but–why doesn’t plastic biodegrade?  Will that plastic be there forever?

It turns out that yes, the plastic will essentially be there forever.

Merriam-Webster defines a biodegradable object as “capable of being broken down especially into innocuous products by the action of living things.”  In general, the “living things” that do the vast majority of the biodegrading are microorganisms. Another way of thinking about biodegredation is that its just another word for eating–i.e. humans have been biodegrading sugars, starches, and proteins  for some time now.

For example, we–as a species–are excellent biodegraders of pizza.  Imagine: you consume a slice of ‘Za and, with the help of our trillions of bacterial symbionts, tear it apart at a molecular level by stripping electrons off organic molecules and shuffling them through our mitochondria.  The electron shuffling transfers energy to our cells which we use for a variety of purposes before dumping the electrons onto an oxygen molecule.  After all that, we end up with:

  1. No More Pizza
  2. Useful Energy (despite any incidental food comas)
  3. CO2 and Water

This is a highly evolved process and bacteria do more or less the same thing.  But the group “bacteria” contains a huge array of species and metabolic diversity.  Essentially, for any molecule that contains free energy, there exists some microorganism that has evolved a metabolic infrastructure which is used to extract from the molecule a thermodynamic dividend–in the same way humans do with pizza.

So why don’t plastic grocery bags biodegrade?  From nature’s point of view, polyethylene is a fairly new development.  In principle, it can produce exploitable energy for microoganisms.  But that energy is tough to get at and virtually no bacteria have yet evolved a metabolism that can process PE.

The single known exception comes from the genera Sphingomonas as was demonstrated in 2008 by a 16 year old from Canada.  He found that with 3 months of contact he could convert more than 30% of the PE mass to CO2 using Sphingomonas.  To put that in perspective, respiration tests using common bacterial communities produce biodegredation estimates of 500 to 1000 years which (as Juliet Lapidos notes) is a more professional sounding way of saying, “we have no idea but it takes an effing long time!”


Paul Krugman on what the future was supposed to look like:

Hong Kong, with its incredible cluster of tall buildings stacked up the slope of a mountain, is the way the future was supposed to look. The future — the way I learned it from science-fiction movies — was supposed to be Manhattan squared: vertical, modernistic, art decoish.

Speaking of Black Boxes

The excerpt (below the fold)  is from an interview with an anonymous hedge fund manager in n+1: Read the rest of this entry »

Black Boxes and Engineering

Agronomists, biologists, engineers and technologists make and accomplish many useful and interesting things with living stuff. These can be broken down into broad two categories:

  • Commodities–e.g. food, textiles and energy;
  • Services–e.g. cleaning water and soils, detecting pathogens.

What’s sort of amazing isn’t that we have taken biological systems and made them do all this–it’s that for much of human history up until the mid-twentieth century we have made them do it without always understanding how plants and microbial communities really work! Read the rest of this entry »

Synthetic Biology and Biofuels

Check out Rob Carlson’s post titled “High yield biofuels production using engineered non-fermentative pathways in microbes“.  Also, see Juan Enriquez’s TED presentation.

Third Culture Watch: Mandelbrotian Art Show

Its very cool that Benoit Mandelbrot has an art contest featuring fractal art. Here’s what the man himself has to say:

“What distinguishes fractal geometry within mathematics is an exceptional and uncanny characteristic. Its first steps are not tedious, hard, and unrewarding, but playful and extraordinarily easy, and provide rich reward in terms of stunning graphics. To the mathematician, they bring a bounty of very difficult conjectures that no one can solve. To the artist, they provide backbones around which imagination can play at will. To everyone, a few steps in about any direction bring extraordinary pleasure. Nothing is more serious than play. Let’s all play.”

Svelte Information: Charts

Via Jason Kottke, this Economist piece reviews the history of three influential charts from the 19th century.