Sunday, July 25, 2010

101 Interesting Things, part forty-five (a): Blood - An Overview

Leviticus 17:11 says, in part, "the life of the flesh is in the blood". This is one of those things where the Bible actually gets it right, but they really had no idea how right they were. It doesn't take any great leap of creativity to notice that draining the blood from an organism is, by and large, fatal to said organism: massive blood loss is so consistently fatal because blood does so goddamned much for us in the first place.

Blood carries oxygen, food, and water to living tissues; it carries waste to the kidneys, liver, and lungs; it maintains the police presence of the immune system and carries vital hormonal signals all throughout the body; it even has pressurized hydraulics and helps regulate body temperature, all within a narrow range of pH values (a tenth of a point, between 7.35 & 7.45). Your body is basically a sac for your blood, the universal fluid that ties every part and function together. They Might Be Giants explain it in broad strokes and easy language in The Bloodmobile:
In many ways, your life revolves around your blood: your bones make erythrocytes in their marrow, and your tendons (which technically aren't vascularized) hold your bones together in ways that (usually) don't impinge upon the flow of your circulatory system; your circulatory system, in turn, carries blood to the various organs you use to maintain the fuel supply within your blood, including the brain and heart with their minute-to-minute demand for oxygen; your digestive tract is a tube within a tube, busting up what you eat at the molecular level to harvest the aforementioned fuel before dispensing with the unnecessary bits; and your skin holds it all in and keeps unwelcome elements out.

Blood's very ubiquity made this an unusually research-intensive entry, and there's so much interesting stuff that I want to take it by parts. This weekend - and since I'm not spending all my time reading about blood, I'll actually have time to write about it, so it will actually be this weekend - I'll write about blood's role in respiration and homeostasis, ferrying oxygen and carbon dioxide hither & yon, and regulating pH levels & body temperature. Next Wednesday, I'll write about the immune system, which I would normally give its very own entry except for the fact that it all kind of takes place within the blood. And the following weekend, I'll talk about blood technologies and diseases, because they are also fascinating. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

101 Interesting Things, part forty-four: The Death Star Galaxy

The Death Star Galaxy is easy to remember in two different ways: first, it's called the Death Star Galaxy, and second, its designation is 3C 321. The mnemonics practically write themselves!

OK, so what's so crazy about formation 3C 321, and what makes it deserving of the title "Death Star Galaxy"? Well, for starters, the supermassive black hole at the center of this galaxy is blasting apart a nearby orbiting galaxy. Here's an artist's conception, so you can see the sort of thing we're talking about:
Just so we're clear, here's a breakdown of the situation. There's a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy, but no ordinary supermassive black hole: this one is emitting a jet of incredibly intense EM radiation. How intense? Intense enough to move stars. While jet emissions from black holes and other stellar formations are not rare, what is rare is to see one firing point-blank into a nearby celestial formation. Like, these galaxies are only about as far from each other as we are from the center of the Milky Way.

Heroes in lab coats are still trying to figure out what exactly causes these kinds of jets - I suspect the right hand rule, but the Devil's in the details. One strong possibility, though, is that the very process of blasting apart the neighboring galaxy will cause it to be re-formed around the area where the jet peters out. That is, assuming that the galaxies don't collide first. Dammit, why can't I live for billions of years so I can watch this sort of scene play out?

Here's a really cool animation showing how this plays out and giving a sense of scale to the operation: it starts by the event horizon of the supermassive black hole, then zooms out until you can see the whole scene. Check it out!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cosmetic Brain Surgery

Some time ago, I wrote about a church sign with an offer for a free trip. Well, the same church had come up with another offer, though it has since been taken down and I could not get a picture. I need to give myself more time to travel between jobs, so I can stop to take pictures of these obnoxious godvertisements. Anyway, this time their sign read, "Need a new look? Come in for a faith-lift!" As with last time, I came up with a few questions and concerns while mulling over their offer.

Unlike the trip to Heaven, this offer didn't have "free" anywhere in it. Is this faith-lift included in the "10% of your income for life" price of membership in their organization, or does it incur an additional charge? I just moved and had to pay double rent for July, so money's tight and I can't afford to be spending on unnecessary procedures. Do they offer installment plans? Or is it maybe like the Templeton Prize, where they pay you for your trouble in order to get free advertising?

As for the procedure itself, how exactly is it performed? Do they just permanently affix a god-walloping grin to your face? What if I want to express emotions besides generic oblivious felicity? I've heard that they can go in through the ear, with boring music and uninspiring sermons which are very slightly less anesthetizing and invasive than putting you under and cutting on your face. But if everyone's getting this routine procedure every Sunday, I don't know if it's really worth it. I mean, cosmetic surgery is all about looking better than your peers because you can afford to spend loads of money on superficial beauty. I'm not sure that the procedure to which they allude is really in keeping with their overall mission as a spiritual institution. Or maybe I'm coming at this wrong and it's spot-the-Hell-on.

Finally, I'm at least a little worried about complications. I've heard that these sorts of operations can leave one with eyes glazed over, taking the sharp edges off the world and making it look less dangerous than it really is. Also, making room for all that religion in one's head can require that chunks of the frontal lobe be completely removed, impairing one's decision making and critical thinking skills. What's more, I've heard that some people can come out so hopped up on God-smack that they've been left permanently desensitized to the plights of others, and thinking that this one procedure is a panacaea - like it doesn't matter who you are or where you live, all you need is more Jesus and your problems will go away. I've looked into the research, and some of the signs of a botched faith-lift include: thinking of one's demographic as a persecuted minority perpetually on the verge of acquiring the influence it already in fact enjoys, anticipating the end of the world with apocalyptic glee, advocating against real-world solutions to real-world problems because one is no longer capable of grasping coherent arguments or basic implications of evidence gathered through research, and experiencing diminished outrage against pedophiles when said vile monsters happen to also be priests.

You know what? I don't think I'm going to risk it. The offer seems sketchy, the procedure is of dubious value, and the risk that something will go horribly wrong and leave me with a lifelong cognitive impairment is just too high to ignore. I mean, I guess if you want to be able to feel more self-righteous than other people, and you don't mind abdicating reality to do so, maybe a faith-lift is right for you. Count me out, though.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Thoughts on "Food, Inc."

I recently watched Food, Inc. (yes, it's two years old; no, I don't care), and I have to say, I agree with the advertising. This is an important movie, and everybody should watch it, for one simple reason. There are others, of course, and I agree or disagree with them to various degrees, but one reason I think any decent person could agree to is: it is important to know where your food comes from.

I also ought to say that I am a quality consultant in my office life, and so I am marginally sympathetic to the corporate perspective in this situation. I mean, I spend my downtime at the office reading up on things like process compliance an' shit. Just two days ago, I read about How To Think Like a Factory, and my mind is abuzz with ways to apply this to the call center floor which will be good for both the corporation's bottom line and the mental stability of us drones.

With those caveats out of the way, you should still watch Food, Inc. It's really well made, and it highlights some core parts of the industry that a great many people would probably prefer to ignore. Blissful ignorance is precisely why the food industry has been able to get away with this sort of thing, and if it makes people uncomfortable, then they need to be made aware so that they can vote with their dollars and pay the extra buck-two-ninety-eight to get a product that is brought to them in a way they can stomach.

OK, so I want to talk about how things got here, and not in terms of blame and disgust and harsh invective, but in terms of impersonal and perfectly logical (if unfortunate) progression. It's very simple. So simple, in fact, it's stupid. Try walking out into the street and asking people about "factory farming", and I can almost guarantee that a sizable fraction will think it's a metaphor, most will have vaguely unpleasant thoughts, a few will regurgitate very similar talking points (and probably smell of patchouli), and a tiny minority will have something well-informed and thoughtful to say. This is just the industrial revolution, applied to what you put in your belly every single day: a similar thing is happening in consumer electronics, Wired put out an article on it and called it "The Good Enough Revolution". In most of our day-to-day lives, quick & dirty is just fine, and top-of-the-line gizmos can be left for professionals and cutting-edge aficionados. Ah, but when you're struggling to feed your family, what approach is going to garner the most of your votes dollars? The costlier but more wholesome product, or the cheaper bulk product? Imagine this decision being made in dozens of millions of homes across the nation, and at the other end are chief executive officers who want to make as much money as they can and control as much of the market as they can. How should they do this? By trying to put out a costlier but more wholesome product, or by putting out cheaper bulk products? It all comes down to selection pressures.

What do you think a successful climber of the corporate ladder would do? I'm not asking what you would do, since you haven't climbed to the top of your corporate ladder - these decisions are in the hands of the ruthless opportunists who have climbed on the backs of their competitors to be where they are today, not the people who have made the decision to be satisfied with a modest existence.

So of course we're in the situation we're in today. It couldn't have happened any other way. No single person is to blame for this: we're all to blame. The producers are to blame for their production, and the consumers are to blame for their consumption, and no single person "decided" that this is the way it would go. This is the way it had to go. At least, so far. I dunno, maybe I'm just saying that because I'm a determinist, but the point remains that there's no great and powerful wizard behind the curtain. There's nobody behind the curtain at all.

I want to take some time to talk about some of the "gross" aspects of industrial food production, like chlorine baths. Actually, that's a great example in itself. See, if you've got a huge food operation, this is going to be a literal wellspring of opportunity for disease. Any disease that could infiltrate such an enormous and far-reaching niche would be hugely successful. But of course we don't want diseases to be able to carve out a niche in our food supply - we want our food supply to be a safe, standardized, idiot-proof sort of thing that we can set up anywhere and have a dependable outcome. We don't want to have to think about every single fucking food purchase, we want to be able to just pick something we want that's in our price range and take the rest for granted. We want factory farming, and so as a corollary we want to set up an over-the-top obstacle to give pathogenic would-be infiltrators as little opportunity as possible to survive and adapt. Corporations have an honest interest in making their operations disease-proof, because their customers can sue if something goes wrong. Food, Inc. has a segment where a mother relates the story of how her son fucking died from a food-borne pathogen. It's a goddamned tragedy, and I'm being perfectly serious about this: losing a child is one of the worst experiences a person can have, and for a whole lot of reasons, and if that death was caused by the food you put in that child's mouth, but you didn't make that food, then whoever did is going to fucking pay.

But now stop and consider the numbers. We're not talking about whether this particular child would have died or not, but the raw, impersonal statistics. This is reality, where things go wrong, and sometimes they go wrong in very bad ways, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it for good. Mistakes shall always be made, and someone will always need to pay for them, because we are a litigious people and that's how things go. As it stands, this is one child out of millions, and it's terrible and awful and a genuine tragedy, and the corporation paid something for their mistake - but what's the alternative? Let's say that we go all organic and local, and all our producers feed grass to their cows and butcher their free-range chickens under open sky and they all have twenty times fewer pathogens. This is great! Ninety-five percent less children will die of food-borne pathogens!

But what about the other five percent? For every twenty food-related lawsuits we have now, we'll only have one, and this is truly great news. But in order to save nineteen families from a personal tragedy, we'll have to upset the lives of an entire farm's worth of folks because I can guarantee that those honest, hard-working, wholesome farmers who fucked up once won't have the money to pay hot-shot lawyers to stop litigious citizens from breaking their banks. When something bad happens with less frequency, those few times it does happen become all the more significant, and someone will still have to pay. Now, personally, I think it's better that a few dozen families have their incomes destabilized in order to save nineteen out of twenty lives. This is a genuinely smaller cost. But it's still a cost, it's just diffused and lessened, and it bothers me when people think that going all-organic (or whatever the fuckin' buzzword is gonna be) will make everything turn to sunshine and rainbows. I dunno, maybe I'm just upset that not everybody is as cynical as I am.


Enough defending dehumanizing corporate practices as logical outgrowths of consumer disinterest. We should follow the film's advice and vote for the bucolic, sustainable approach to our food - y'know, the kind that costs more money because you'll have to train folks to do more steps in a process, which requires a larger up-front investment and blah blah blah - because if we don't, I can see where things are going. The corporations will continue to control the means of production, and pretty soon, complete nutrition will come in the form of convenient pills so that people can keep their bodies running smoothly without all those pesky calories that make you fat. I mean, who wouldn't want to be able to ensure that they stay slim and get all the nutrients they need without drinking Liquid Sanctimony? Sure, the act of actually eating will become a luxury, but that's OK because more folks will be able to eke out a decent living on less money. The cost of feeding oneself will become an increasingly known quantity, and when you combine that with the cost of housing and clothing oneself, suddenly we have a precise calculation of what the minimum wage needs to be to let people just barely keep their heads above water. And honestly, that's all you need: to tread water your whole life, with tax breaks for deciding to permanently shack up with someone and raise some offspring, and the requirements for this will also be a known quantity. Pretty soon, the middle class will be entirely eliminated, and the corporate overlords will manage the lives of their drones with vaguely humane efficiency, since they know exactly what they need to pay their workers to keep them alive without giving them the opportunity for their offspring to break into the upper class.

You might have doubts that things could go that far, for the simple reason that pills alone won't fill you up - but have you heard of the Full Bar?