Regenerative medicine: Printed parts for a broken heart

If you needed a kidney, who’s the best person in the world to donate that kidney to you? Your brother? Your sister? Your child? If I told you this was a trick question, you might guess the answer is you. Of all the people in the world, you are the only donor guaranteed to cause no problems with tissue rejection.

By why donate an organ to yourself if it’s already in the right place? Anthony Atala knows the answer.

Here’s the short answer. Let’s say your bladder is diseased or broken (sorry). If you give Atala one little chicklet chunk sliced from the healthy side, he’ll pop it in a Magic Grow oven and make you a new one (Please select one of the following: small, medium, large, or extra large. Allow 6-8 weeks for delivery). Then, like a sea turtle release program, a surgeon will introduce your new bespoke bladder to its natural environment: you. It sounds like science fiction, but he’s been doing this successfully for ten years.

I knew this much, but the images are compelling, and I was surprised by how much farther they’ve gotten in the last few years. In their experimental (non-clinical) work, they’re building highly vascularized organs like the liver. They’re using ink-jet printers to make simple hearts. Watch the video. It’s really mind-boggling. By the time I got to the end of it, I was convinced that Bill Gates must have backups of all his organs in three different redundant facilities. Maybe it’ll be cheap enough for me to do that too some day.

Bonus footnote: I grew up in the shadow of Wake Forest University, so I take hometown pride in pointing out that the leading edge of regenerative medicine is happening at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.


A widely traveled friend of mine tells me that there are dozens of countries that pride themselves on having the hottest cuisine in the world. You think you’ve had hot peppers before, my friend? That’s only because you’ve never been to _____. Similarly, people like to believe that their native tongue is the zaniest, most mixed-up and implausible language on the planet. And why not? All languages have their weirdness, and local chauvinism is a satisfying brew. My friend Mike lived in Japan for a few years and got used to having the locals tell him Japanese is wicked hard because, get this, the words for bridge and chopsticks are the same: hashi. He had very little luck explaining that homonyms can be found in English too. Mike liked to point out that, while the writing system and politeness levels are tricky, simply learning to speak Japanese well enough to be understood actually isn’t that hard.

Does it make sense to try to figure out which language is truly the hardest? This is the question that an entertaining essay in the Economist by Robert Lane Greene tries to answer. As you might expect, he doesn’t produced a single answer, but he does give some remarkable facts about languages with difficult sounds (!Xóõ in Botswana has more than twenty clicking sounds) and grammars (Bora in Peru has 350 genders).

My friend Alan, the famous Star Chamber guest author on all matters linguistic, forwarded the article to me with a note that he’d come across it on the Language Log. I recommend reading both the article and the Language Log commentary, because watching linguists argue is almost as much fun as watching statisticians argue, and there many fine points here up with which for discussion to be put.

I especially liked Greene’s comment on long words: “Agglutinating languages—that pack many bits of meaning into single words—are a source of fascination for those who do not speak them.” I am certainly guilty of this. Language Log commenter Bill Poser elaborates as follows.

A point that frequently arises is the idea that languages that pack a lot of information into words are difficult. Is it really self-evident that it is harder to deal with complex words than with multi-word phrases that convey the same information? If a language puts a lot into a word but does so in a transparent way, so that words are easy to parse, interpret, and construct, why should this be difficult? It may well be that the perception of difficulty here merely reflects unfamiliarity, which is likely true of quite a few of the features often cited as leading to difficulty.

Doubleplusgood pointgespoken! Nothing is more contemptible than familiarity, nor more exotic than something that is exoticnessful. Nevertheless, I can’t help but be tickled by a comment from a reader of the Economist article that in Inuit, one can say “it can be very slippery on the deck” with the assertion Quasartupilussuusinnaavoq.

Flatten the world

Squaring the circle is hard, but it’s nothing compared to the problem of flattening the globe. We like flat maps, but any map of a sphere is going to cause major distortions one way or another. So the map you like tends to be the one that distorts the stuff you care about least. Maybe you want to preserve the areas of the land masses or the great circle distance between points. That’s all good so far as it goes. But there’s a problem: map projections are a drug. They induce obsessive behavior among their users. They multiply beyond necessity and fragment into a fetishistic and surreal cornucopia. Beware!

Oh sure, you start off with a well-intentioned disdain of the old-school Mercator. Then you roll a few of Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion Icosohedrals and chase it with a Rhombicuboctahedral. No harm done. You could stop. But soon you’re into the heavy stuff. Wiechel’s Modified Azimuthal Projection is just a gateway to a Stabius-Werner Cordiform Pseudoconic. Your lust for exotic creatures like Peirce’s glorious Quincunx are matched only by your ability to end conversations and empty rooms with impromptu lectures on Mollweide’s wicked homolographic compromise. Where will it end?

Today it will end with a lovely movie courtesy of New Scientist on some recent research into algorithmically generated arbitrary interrupted maps. Behold van Wijk’s Myriahedral projection!

Oh Lord, keep me away from Carlos Furuti’s lovely cartography site.

Toxic and proprietary fame

Fame is evasive right up to the moment in which it becomes suffocating. Toxic Fame is a book about what an incredible nuisance it is to be famous. The celebrities quoted therein describe so many unpleasant scenarios that you have to wonder why people seek fame at all. It’s as if the your fans feel entitled to claim you as their property. Stephen King gives an especially gruesome rendition of the proprietary nature of fandom in Misery, in which a famous writer is held captive and hobbled by a psychotic fan. To be famous is, in some sense, to be imprisoned.

This scenario has existed for a long time in human culture. When I came across Toxic Fame some years ago, I was immediately reminded of Frazer’s Golden Bough, a Victorian-era encyclopedic compendium of cultural practices. Frazer describes a fantastic variety of rules and taboos associated with chiefs, kings, and high priests around the world. There are whole chapters on the king’s prohibition on leaving the house, on letting his feet touch the ground, on being outside when the sun sets or rises, on being seen while eating, on leaving food on his plate. You don’t have to read for very long before you realize that royal privilege is wildly overrated. The chief is always in a box, always performing, and when his performance does not suit he will suffer.

We need to project our mythic images onto high-profile individuals. The age of kings has passed, but the age of celebrity has arisen conveniently to fit the same bill. The foolish behavior of celebrities is one of the things we demand of them. We need our celebrities to have too much money. We pour money on miscreant rockers and movie stars for the same reason a ten year old boy pours salt on a slug: for the awful pornographic spectacle of it. Then we can tut-tut at the tabloids and pretend it isn’t exactly the performance we were looking for.

What is especially interesting now is that the money is draining out of the music business. Old rock stars are still in the news, but who are the new bad boys? We’re not giving them enough money to misbehave in the truly spectacular ways we crave. Movie stars, for now, still satisfy this need. But consider, if movies should go the way of the newspaper, the vinyl LP, and the ivory-billed woodpecker, then upon whom will we dump our toxic and voyeuristic love?

Perhaps the departure of the celebrity will usher in the return of royalty.

Steward Brand and the new nuke news

Ever since I first stumbled across issue number 57 of the Whole Earth Review many years ago, I’ve been a fan of Stewart Brand and his philosophy of access to tools and ideas. Among many other things, he’s been leading the Long Now Foundation for some years now, and their site of free seminar podcasts rivals TED in its extent and impact.

One of the recent seminars on the site is by Brand himself as he talks up his latest book, Whole Earth Discipline. I highly recommend listening to it. He gives a good summary of one of the major tenets of the book: coal is killing us, and nuclear energy is the only thing that can possibly fill its shoes. Wind, solar, and hydro can help daddy hold the tools, but they won’t come close to meeting the global demand for energy.

Fortunately, there are two good pieces of news. One is that long-term exposure to low levels of radiation doesn’t appear to be nearly as unhealthy as we once thought. The other is that better and safer nuclear technologies are on the way. Coincidentally, Wired magazine just ran an article on the potential of thorium fission. Let’s hope it works, because the alternatives are looking increasingly grim.

As Brand summed up in his talk, the original Whole Earth Catalog from 1968 began with the statement “We are as gods, so we may as well get good at it.” His new book begins with something more emphatic: “We are as gods, and we HAVE to get good at it.”

[Brand’s talk first spotted chez Jon Udell]

The power station in your basement

Cooling your car in the summer burns a lot of extra gas, but heating your car in the winter is essentially free. Why? Because the tiny explosions that push the car are also hot. Just scoop up some of the waste heat and pour it on the driver. Problem solved. The car is a natural CHP cogenerator, where CHP stands for Combined Heat and Power. (Note that winter heating is a big problem for electric cars.)

Cogeneration is such an appealing concept. It’s always surprised me that it doesn’t show up in more places, like your house. If you’re already burning something to heat your house, why not do some work at the same time? But identifying waste is one thing and selling profitable products that reduce waste is something else again. The market for expensive durable house-related products is incredibly conservative, even when new efficiencies are at hand.

But change is finally in the air. I was happy when, a few years ago, I started hearing about Honda’s Micro CHP unit. It’s a little natural gas-powered motor that sits in your basement and makes heat and electricity. Does it work in the real world? The answer appears to be yes, to judge by local press stories and YouTube videos.

I was especially glad to come across a Jon Udell interview with someone who works for Freewatt. Freewatt installs (and adds value to) the Honda CHP system. The interview helped convince me that the Micro CHP revolution is the real deal. If you live in a cold climate and you need to replace your furnace, please consider buying one of these.