July 28, 2011

I have to pee.

As the number 3 phrase I use, discussing "number 1" seems like a great idea.

Here is your urinary system, in all its glory: kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra.

The length of the urethra differs, depending on which 
pee-extension hardware you have purchased with your kit.

The urinary system has quite an important job: it's in charge of filtering the blood, removing waste products, and getting these wastes out of the body without harming us.

The basic ingredients of pee are water, urea, and salts.

The lovely yellowish glow of urine is due to urobilin, a byproduct of breaking down hemoglobin from old blood cells--similar to the bilirubin that makes poop brown.

Urea is an easily disposable form of nitrogen. Nitrogen is a tricky element to get rid of, because waste products with nitrogen tend to form ammonia, which is good for cleaning windows, but is poisonous for our bodies. We convert nitrogenous wastes to a urea, which is far less toxic and can be diluted in water and safely removed from our bodies.

So from the kidneys, water and wastes go through the ureters and begin to accumulate in the bladder. When the weight of the pee pool is great enough, you become aware that it's time to evacuate. You engage your bladder muscles while releasing the sphincter that normally pinches your urethra closed, and then you feel that most fabulous of sensations--the bliss that is a good pee.

July 20, 2011

Poop. Magical, magical poop.

In the past, I may have said that things "are poop" in order to illustrate my dislike for them. This was an unfortunate oversight on my part. Poop is in fact a magical thing.

The most medical, polite, and unemotional way to talk about poop is to call it stool or a bowel movementBM for short.

My apologies to anyone whose initials are BM. I’m sure your parents meant well. At least your name isn’t Harry Bear or Shanda Leer. No joke. I’ve met these people.

Bowels are your intestines--a windy canal of fun and excitement. All your food takes a mystical journey from your stomach to the small intestine, the large intestine, the colon, and finally the rectum.

When food leaves the stomach and enters the small intestine, it is further broken down so that nutrients—protein, fat, carbohydrate, and some vitamins—can be extracted. Bile, a mixture of acids and salts, is added to the mix to help with this absorption. One ingredient of bile, bilirubin, is a product of red blood cell breakdown, and this is what gives fecal matter its lovely brown hue.

The small intestine has 3 regions: the duodenum is the first 10 inches of the small intestine, the jejunum is the next couple feet, and the ileum is twice as long as the jejunum. Don’t the names sound like Tolkien characters?

The entire small intestine is about 19' (6m) long. That's about the height of a giraffe.

In the large intestine, water is extracted from the mass to form a lovely solid poop. The end of the large intestine is the colon—the lounge where the poop hangs out and water continues to be removed.

When the poop is fully rested, it makes its way to the last stop of its epic journey, the rectum. Pressure signals in the walls of the rectum alert you that it’s time to go. If you fail to drop the payload within a few minutes, the poop retreats to the colon to resume lounging. But while it waits, more water is removed, so if you continually fail to let the poop see the world, you may end up with a poop that’s difficult to pass.

When you’re finally ready to let the poop be free, you engage your sphincter muscles. There are two: one for pushing out, one for holding in. For the love of Pete, don't get them confused.

Congratulations! You have now successfully pooped, in a toilet no less. Yes, I know. It does smell. That’s because of the intestinal bacteria and their waste products that make up about 8% of the mass of your poop. It’s a great way to remind us that we should stay away from it.

Here is a poop chart (a new kind of pie chart) of the makeup of feces. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to drop the kids off at the pool.

July 14, 2011

The Build-a-Baby Workshop

I’ve never been to a Build-a-Bear workshop. It creeps me out. You’d think that building a teddy bear from scratch—picking the innards and stitches—would be like bringing a kid to a farm to see where hot dogs come from (which incidentally is why I don’t eat pork). But apparently kids like seeing dismembered teddy bears and choosing the type of internal heart-approximated organ their toy should have.

If you don’t think Build-a-Bear is creepy, what about the idea of a Build-a-Baby workshop? Imagine a place where hopeful parents could sit down with a genetic counselor and go on a tour of their genetic material to choose their best traits to pass to their children, or even choose from a catalogue of genes.

It's not unreasonable to assume that as we learn more about genetics and specific genes, especially what exact DNA sequence makes them “good genes” or “bad genes,” it will be possible for gene therapies to “correct” these “mistakes,” allowing us to design our children.

This happens to a slight degree already. In the USA, people can already opt to select the sex of their baby—although it requires in vitro fertilization. In other countries, especially Europe, this is completely illegal. There, the belief is that genetic favoritism is a slippery slope, and even choosing the sex of a baby could create imbalances in the gene pool and natural order. Although, this has been happening for a long time in some countries without the help of genetic meddling thanks to sex-selected abortion and infanticide (usually of girls).

So what do you think? Is this a slippery slope that should be completely roped off, or is it something that could be monitored and kept in check?

For example, what if we could just ensure our children had good eyesight? As a myopic person married to an equally myopic person, I would jump at the chance to offer my offspring the opportunity to live a life free of glasses, contacts, and that air-puff glaucoma test at the optometrist (at least until they’re much older).

But what if it wasn’t just eyesight correction? What if it became routine to select eye color and after that, skin color? What if we could ensure that children wouldn't develop autism or other disorders? Will this create a separate class of people whose parents could afford to visit the Build-a-Baby workshop?

This isn’t like a manned mission to Mars. This is like technology becoming self-aware and killing us all. This is actually going to happen.

Where do you stand on this? Are you going to be Ethan Hawke’s parents in GATTACA and make babies the “old-fashioned way” (which I predict will be called "genetic roulette" in the future), or will you put your faith in technology to "correct" your “errors” and make the "perfect" baby that will grow up to belong to a new genetic elite? And most importantly, how soon after implementing gene therapies to make designer babies do you think the zombie apocalypse will happen?

I may have "used" too many quotation "marks" in this "entry."

July 08, 2011

Anthropornis grandis, and now I feel awkward

Calm yourself. I promise this is rated G and very much safe for work.

Odds are you have only heard of anthropornis if you've read Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft, in which case you should check out the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. If you have no idea who/what I'm talking about, don't worry about it.

Today's largest penguin is a piddly 3-foot tall emperor penguin. While this is a totally decent size for swimming around, catching tasty fish, and raising adorable poof ball babies, it does nothing to impress me.

But 40,000,000 years ago (yeah, I could write "40 million," but I like seeing all the zeroes), there was a species of penguin that was about 6 feet tall.

To put this in real life terms, these penguins were the size of a Tom Hanks.

Or just barely taller than two Verne Troyers.

Their human-sized stature is why the scientist who discovered them put "anthro" in the species name; "anthro" means human. "Pornis" supposedly means penguin, but that's no excuse.

These Antarctic creatures were either the cutest giant penguins imaginable,

or they were the penguins that nightmares are made of.

From the fossils we've found, we can only know their size, not their place on the cuteness scale.

But cute or not, giant penguins are still awesome. They serve as a reminder that evolution is neither linear, nor perfect. Much tinkering has gone on for millennia for this process to result in the organisms we see today. Turns out there is some reason 3' penguins fare better than 6' ones. Why exactly, we can only guess. Perhaps they couldn't find enough food to nourish their huge body, or maybe they died in a thousand-year penguin war. I'll leave this to the experts.

Now I'm just thinking about what deranged google searches will now bring people to my blog.