underage bolt expert
Wednesday, April 27 2011
I went to town today, and, among other things, I bought a 120 gallon polyethylene composter for use at my brownhouse. I had been using a drum-based composter, but it was proving difficult to load and unload. That's less of a problem with the drum composter used for kitchen garbage, since only a little is loaded at a time and unloading consists of opening up the drum and rolling it around in the garden. But with humanure, you don't necessarily want it to spill out chaotically in your garden (even if it is fully-composted, a state I've never actually seen). So the idea with a huge 120 gallon composter is that I can fill it with years' worth of humanure and begin pulling the fully-composted stuff out of the bottom some day when I'm in my late forties. A bin composter works more slowly than a drum composter, but it's also much less interactive (which, with humanure, is definitely a plus).
I bought the composter at Home Depot, and while I was there I went back to the aisle where they have the nuts, bolts, washers, and screws. (I used to love that aisle back when I was more of a shoplifter.) There was a kid in the aisle doing real Home Depot work. He was wearing the orange Home Depot apron and moving boxes of screws from a pallet to a shelf, though he was only eleven or twelve years old. I also noticed that he was already sporting at least one ear piercing. Using his prepubescent voice, he asked if he could be of help, and I decided to act as if he were an adult, just because I guessed he was probably weary of comments about his age. I said that I was looking for a bolt similar to one I'd brought but perhaps a little longer. For a kid his age, he seemed unusually knowledgeable about such hardware, immediately distinguishing between carriage bolts and regular bolts, comparing and contrasting the difference between "full thread" and "end thread," and knowing what I meant when I asked about "available increments." (I've found that the word "increment" is not widely used or understood by people working in retail.) As for what he was doing working there in defiance of child labor laws, I remain ignorant.
I'm still reading James Gleick's the Information, and some passages today reminded me of the amazement I'd had upon first learning what is known of the information technology available to a biological cell. Of course, growing up in a post-Watson-and-Crick world, I'd "always" known that DNA contained encoded information and that it could be copied because of the complementary nature of DNA's double strands. What I learned in my first college biology class was how that information gets transcripted into RNA, carried to ribosomes, and translated into proteins. A great deal about this process is known in gorgeous detail, and it seems like the stuff of nanotechnology.
So today I found myself reading about ribosomes in Wikipedia. At this point I learned an additional piece of information: most of the catalyzing function of a ribosome (that is, most of its machinery) is in the RNA, not in the protein. In biology, we tend to think of protein as the material that does and comprises stuff. DNA and RNA, by contrast, are thought of as pure information "technologies." But evidently it's not that simple. RNA can both be an information store (usually a temporary one) and can also do things in the cell without any translation at all. To me, this really cleared up the process of how the evolution of biological machinery could get started in conditions conducive to the replication of RNA. All you'd need would be some free nucelotides randomly combining into RNA strands, at which point they could replicate and compete against each other while also carrying out functions to alter their immediate environment and possibly improve their chances for survival. Once that system is in place, the utilization of protein and DNA can evolve over time. The hypothetical pre-protein/pre-DNA condition actually has a name: the RNA World. (Given the possibility of Panspermia, it's even possible that that world didn't actually exist on Earth.)
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