Not Worth The Paper It’s Printed On

This is what would come out of any 3D printer I used. (Photo credit Axel Hindemith via Wikimedia Commons)
This is what would come out of any 3D printer I used. (Photo credit Axel Hindemith via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s official: I’m doomed.

The good news first. Scientists are developing a way to build brain tissue, cell by cell, so that they can have near complete control over how a graft is constructed.

The bad news? They’re using ink-jet printer technology to do it. It’s part of a new method of manufacturing, commonly called 3D printing.

Apparently, printers can be modified to spray droplets of live cells suspended in a sustaining solution. The latest technique for doing this involves using a powerful electric field to control the spray, rather than forcing the material through a needle-shaped nozzle.

Overall, this is very cool. Who couldn’t use a few extra brain cells now and then? But why, why, WHY does the technology have to be based on printers?

As long time readers of this column know, printers and I do not get along. I had no problem programming my VCR when we owned one. My cell phone does not confound me. I can install software on my computer and build web sites with one mouse behind my back. (Indeed, sometimes with two mice behind my back — we really need to get a cat for the home office.)

But printers? Grrr.

I can just see it now. I’m getting ready for a big presentation, and decide that a few extra brain cells would help me field the questions I’ll get afterward. I open up the file called BRAIN_BOOST.doc and click Print.

Error: Printer Not Found

But the printer is right there! Check the plugs, check the cables, reboot computer and printer. Open file. Click Print.

Unable To Print: Cyan Ink Low.

But I’m not printing with cyan ink! I’m in brain cell draft mode! Print!

Unable To Print: Cyan Ink Empty.

But you haven’t printed *anything* yet! How can you go from low to empty… fine… search for cyan replacement cartridge, open box, open printer, burn hand on hot component, wrestle old cartridge out, put new cartridge in. Print!

Error: Did You Just Replace An Ink Cartridge? You Must Print A Calibration Page Before You Can Print Again.

But! Okay, whatever, close file, change mode, Print Calibration Page.

Error: Out of Paper.

[Long pause while I have a Yosemite Sam style fit.]

Find paper. Load tray. Print Calibration Page.

Calibration Page Printed.

Hooray! Open file again. Print.

Error: Paper Jam.


Error: There Really Is No Call For That Sort Of Language.

Open printer, gently attempt to pull out jammed paper. Laugh hysterically when it shreds into two thousand smaller pieces. Spend an hour removing all the bits. Close printer. Print.


Wait. Wait some more. Make a pot of tea. Bake cookies. Eat tea and cookies.



Error 8768: Out of Memory.

Call tech support hotline. “Hello, thank you for calling Sister Printers. It is Sunday, February 12, at 3:22 a.m. EST. We are experiencing higher than usual call volume, so your call is being held in priority sequence. Your call is important to us—”

Hang up. Search Sister Printers web site. Find obscure note in knowledge base about error 8768. Find out printer came with drivers that were out of date before this particular model even rolled off the assembly line.

Download and install new drivers. Check all cables. Reboot everything. Check all ink cartridges. Check all paper trays. Print calibration page. Sacrifice a plate of cookies to the Printer Gods. Close eyes. With trembling hands, click Print.

It prints…

… five pages full of brain cells and one page with just two brain cells at the top.

By this time, the printout barely replaces the cells I have fried just getting the printer to work. I begin having visions of introducing the printer to a baseball bat. Idly surfing the web now, as it just about time for me to leave to make my presentation, I check out the prices of replacement printers.

New! Easy to use! Blunderbuss MP730! Now just $35!*

Hey… I could afford to replace this thing at that price…

* Replacement ink cartridges $325 each, after mail-in rebate.

Or not.

You see? I’m doomed.


All Talk And No Action

Conferences haven't changed much (Photo credit: Fritz Cohen via Wikimedia Commons)
Conferences haven’t changed much (Photo credit: Fritz Cohen via Wikimedia Commons)

When you have been to as many conferences as I have, especially those dealing with politics and public policy, you start to see the same people. Not necessarily the same faces, but the same types. Let’s see if you recognize some of them too:

Details, Details — This is the fellow who, who presented with a straightforward clause in a very simple resolution, will query the placement of every comma, semi-colon, and article. Nuance isn’t his middle name, but nuisance certainly is.

I Don’t Understand — This person always acts like he’s in the wrong breakout session, or possibly even the wrong conference. In spite of having listened to the same panel of speakers as everyone else, he never seems to know what the topic is, and clearly has not read any of the background information provided. He’s the one who interrupts every 15 minutes with agonizingly obvious questions.

Snoozer — You can find one of these at just about any gathering, particularly if the conference room is warm, or if everyone’s just had lunch. This is the person who distracts you by nodding off; she either snores very loudly, or you have to watch with horrified fascination to see when she will go nose first into the carpet.

Social Gadfly — These people attend conferences strictly for the schmoozing and boozing. Unfortunately, they’re not very good at either. At the opening reception, if you look friendly, they will glom on to you and then sit beside you at every session throughout the conference. They will talk your ear off, usually about personal stuff, at close range, and smelling strongly of rum.

Free Food And Drink — You see these people at every meal, in every hospitality suite, and in the corridors on coffee break. Strangely, you never see them in the actual conference sessions. You suspect they may be local college students, guests from the wedding being held three floors up, or strays from last week’s sales conference.

Point of Order — This woman, who has the entire book “Robert’s Rules of Order” memorized, will halt proceedings frequently and loudly, chastising the speaker, the moderator and the audience for not adhering to procedure. This is even when the moderator has declared the session to be informal.

Axe to Grind — There’s always at least one person with “issues” at these things. They attend conferences solely so they can stand up as often as possible to rant. They usually don’t bother with a microphone and, nine times out of ten, the things they’re peeved about have nothing to do with the topic of the gathering.

Precocious Youngster — A relatively rare species, this one comes in two types. Both are young, well-groomed, astonishingly well-informed, and articulate. One will impress your socks off and make you wonder if your kids will be as bright. The other will have been told he or she is very bright too many times, and be obnoxious enough to make you want to cuff them.

Commentator — This person, usually an older male, takes the floor to “speak to an issue.” His comments will be long and rambling, and will never come to a point, pose a question or add anything of value to the session. Mostly he’s there to hear the sound of his own voice.

Moderator — Finally, I’ve determined there are two types of moderators or chairpersons: Bad and Worse. A Bad Moderator will let every character in the room run roughshod over the proceedings. Point of Order Lady will never be told where to put her copy of Robert’s Rules; nor will Axe to Grind Guy be told to save it for a one-on-one after the main presentation. A half hour meeting will drag to five, perhaps six hours under a Bad Moderator.

The Worse Moderator — Embittered by sitting through one too many Bad sessions, will cut the power to the sound system and throw conference literature at anyone who dares approach the mic. They wrap up the session within 10 minutes and spend the rest of the allotted time at the bar, head in hands.

The mods, at least, have my sympathies.


Many Are Called, But…

If you live in a city, you probably think that cell phones are ubiquitous. You see people using them in the grocery store, or while driving their car and even while in the bathroom.

As hard as it may be to believe, there are still plenty of places in the world where cell phone coverage isn’t available or is just now coming in.

Can you hear me now? (Credit: Alan D. Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons)
Can you hear me now? (Credit: Alan D. Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons)

Take the far north: Service providers are reluctant to set up in places like Inuvik. It’s hard to make a profit when you have a huge land mass to cover, and a very low population.

But those are only the two most obvious problems. Consider the issue of where to locate towers:

TECHNICIAN ONE: Joe, it’s Mike. We’ve lost coverage around Tuktoyaktuk again. Can you check the tower?
TECHNICIAN TWO: Sure. [Pause]. There’s no tower.
MIKE: What do you mean there’s no tower?!
JOE: Well you know how last month, we had to move it 500 feet so it wouldn’t be on the caribou stampede path?
MIKE: Yeah?
JOE: It looks like we put the tower on a frozen lake.
MIKE: A lake?! But the map…
JOE: Was wrong. And we just started spring thaw here. Know anyone with cold weather scuba gear? A really strong fishing pole?

Using a cell phone would also be difficult. Residents must wear, on average, 54 layers of clothing to stay warm. You couldn’t hear a phone ring under all that insulation, so you would have to A) Use the vibrate feature to know someone was calling and B) Keep the phone close to the skin so that the layers wouldn’t muffle the vibration as well.

This means that normally quiet, sane people will suddenly be seen to leap into the air, fall to the ground, and laugh hysterically while digging through layers of clothes to stop the tickling.

Once the phone has been extracted, the user would have less than 2.5 seconds to stuff it under the 23 layers of headgear to take the call. The phone you see, could stand 2.3 seconds of exposure to the extreme cold. At 2.4 seconds it would have become cold enough to stick to the user’s ear, requiring the application of either boiling water or surgery to remove. At 2.5 seconds, the phone would freeze solid and shatter. “Hello, are you there? Your call is breaking up!”

Using the special features of cell phones would be just as difficult. Text messages are hard enough to decipher at the best of times. When entered with gloved fingers, something like: MEETING RUNNING LATE. CUL8R! would become MNERERYTIONMGH RTUINMNMINMGF LKASTRER. CVU89TYER!@

Camera phones would be equally useless, at least outdoors. It’s dark 24 hours a day for roughly half the year in the far north, and if it isn’t dark, it’s snowing. Photos would have to be captioned: “Bob in his black parka, 2 p.m. If you squint you can see the flash reflecting off his visor.” Or “Polar bears checking out our white pickup truck, blizzard of December ’05.”

Speaking of polar bears, can you just imagine if any of the local wildlife managed to snag your cell phone? Trying to get the charges reversed from your bill would be a nightmare.

JULIE: Hello I need to dispute my recent charges.
DODGERS WIRELESS REP: Which ones please?
JULIE: I didn’t make 32 calls to the Aklavik Pizzeria.
REP: Ma’am, you’ll need to provide some proof that-
JULIE: They only serve pizza with seal toppings. And there’s an overfed bear passed out in my driveway, clutching the remains of my cell phone.
REP: Yeah right, why don’t you send photos of that…
JULIE: Yes, photos — I also didn’t download 425 mb of images from the Polar Bears 2014 calendar website.
REP: You can’t possibly expect me to believe…
JULIE: Further, I did not download the games Penguin Bowling, Polar Express, or Ice Fishing Derby.
REP: Ma’am this is ridiculous, I—
JULIE: Shall I put the bear on the line?

In spite of the obstacles however, it’s good to see that our northern cousins are finally getting access to the same sorts of modern conveniences we are.

Now they too can be annoying in movie theatres.