Highlights from AAAS: Plant-inspired robots

Animal biology is often used as an inspiration for robotics. Case in point: Cephalopods, whose distributed system of neural processing is being put to use in robotic arms. But plants can also play a role in the development of better robots. At AAAS 2011, researchers from the University of Michigan and Penn State talked about how they were designing artificial structures with the help of the Mimosa plant.

The plant’s movements are made possible by the process of osmosis. As the plant cells take in and release water, they collapse and expand, causing the plants to move and change shape. If the researchers can harness this mechanism artificially, they may one day be able to produce advanced robots capable of changing shape for increased maneuverability, or becoming rigid to grab objects. “This is really a unique concept inspired by biology,” Kon-Well Wang, chair of the mechanical engineering department at the University of Michigan, said in a press release.

The Scientist: News from AAAS
Press release: Plants that can move inspire new adaptive structures
AAAS conference program: If termites do it, why can’t humans?

Highlights from AAAS: Microbial spit in the Gulf of Mexico
Highlights from AAAS: The sign language of science
Today on BoingBoing: Highlights from the world’s largest gathering of scientists

Flier beats TSA video recording charge in court

Phil Mocek knows he isn’t required to show ID to fly, and that it’s perfectly legal to record video in publicly accessible areas of an airport. A jury agreed with him earlier this week, acquitting him of trumped-up charges brought against him by TSA and police officers who demanded obedience. He didn’t need to call any witnesses or testify himself; he was acquitted based on the evidence entered against him.

I went to a conference in Albuquerque in 2009, I went to the airport there, I spoke with some people, I went to jail, I went to court, and I was acquitted. This took over a year and I owe for thousands of dollars of legal fees as a result. Here’s a video I created at the airport. The State of New Mexico entered this as evidence against me last week. The jury was unconvinced that I was disorderly, trespassed, refused a lawful order, or concealed my identity from police officers with the intent to obstruct.

He was helped, however, by TSA rules that say “in no uncertain terms [that] you do not have to show ID in order to fly, and that you can use cameras in public areas of the airport.” It’s also clear from the video that, while uncooperative, he remained polite to officers even after one of them waves a baton in his face. As soon as he revealed he didn’t even have ID with him, one officer claimed that he had to show it because ‘you are now part of a criminal investigation.’ [via Submitterator]

The Price of Everything

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“According to Eduardo Porter of The New York Times editorial board, prices are more interesting than most of us realize. And the prices that never appear on a price tag are the most fascinating of all. In his new book The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do (2010, Portfolio), Porter explores the surprising ways prices affect every aspect of our lives, including where we live, who we marry, how many kids we have, and even how religious we are.”

Here is the introduction to Porter’s book.

PRICES ARE EVERYWHERE

Anybody who has visited a garbage dump in the developing world knows that value is an ambiguous concept. To most people in the developed world, household waste is worthless, of course. That’s why we throw it away. Apparently, Norwegians are willing to pay about $114 a ton for somebody else to sort their recyclables from the general garbage. A survey of families in the Carter community of Tennessee several years ago found they were willing to pay $363 a year, in today’s money, to avoid having a landfill nearby.

But slightly beyond our immediate experience, waste becomes a valuable commodity. In Kamboins√©, outside Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, farmers pay municipal trash haulers to dump unsorted solid waste on their sorghum and millet fields as fertilizer — bits of plastic included. The going rate in 2003 was 400 francs per ton. In New Delhi, a study in 2002 found that waste pickers earned two rupees per kilo of PET soda bottles and seven rupees per kilo of hard plastic shampoo bottles. A child working on foot on Delhi’s dumps could make twenty to thirty rupees per day.

Waste, in fact, confronts us with the same value proposition as anything else. The price we put on it — what we will trade to have it, or have it go away — is a function of its attendant benefits or costs. A bagful of two-rupee PET bottles is more valuable to an Indian child who hasn’t eaten today than to me, a well-fed journalist in New York. What she must do to get it — spend a day scavenging among the detritus of India’s capital, putting her life and health at risk — is, to her, not too high a price to pay because life is pretty much the only thing she has. She has little choice but to risk it for food, clothing, shelter, and whatever else she needs. I, by contrast, have many things. I have a reasonable income. If there’s one thing I have too little of, it is free time. The five cents I could get for an empty PET bottle at the supermarket’s recycling kiosk are not worth the trouble of redeeming it.

Continue reading “The Price of Everything”

Mexico toy museum tribute to 9/11

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During his trip to Mexico artist Mitch O’Connell went to MUJAM, Museo Del Juguete Antiguo Mexico (in English, the Antique Toy Museum of Mexico) and came across this tribute to 9/11. “The planes and towers are all filled with rubber and plastic heroes to show, well, to show that the creator’s heart was in the right place. I’m still amazed!”

911 Tribute- Mexico Style! Part 1 | 2 | 3

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As drug violence escalates, entire length of US-Mexico border to be patrolled by unmanned drones

[Image courtesy General Atomics. An artist’s rendition of Predator B, the unmanned aerial drone patrolling the US-Mexico border for human and drug trafficking, and other threats.]

Beginning this Wednesday, the entire 2,000 miles of border between the United States and Mexico will be patrolled by unmanned aerial drones. Three drones are already patrolling portions of that border, and a fourth Predator begins operations tomorrow out of Corpus Christi, TX, completing the full stretch of la frontera.

The news came in a Department of Homeland Security announcement yesterday, along with word that 1,200 additional National Guard troops will be deployed “to provide intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, and immediate support to counternarcotics enforcement.”

Those Predator B drones are made by military contractor General Atomics. You can read more about the drone specs here at the General Atomics website, and download a PDF here. Snip from Reuters:

They carry equipment including sophisticated day and night vision cameras that operators use to detect drug and human smugglers, and can stay aloft for up to 30 hours at a time.

All of this is part of $600 million legislation signed by President Obama earlier this month to increase border security before midterm elections in November, and in response to the ever-escalating drug war in Mexico. Just today, at least 8 people were killed when attackers hurled Molotov cocktails into a bar in Cancun, a popular tourist destination. The attack is presumed to be cartel-related.

And a major drug kingpin nicknamed “The Barbie” for his light complexion was arrested this week— his takedown is seen as a badly-needed public relations coup for the Mexican government, as successive waves of horrific news hit the country.

Perhaps the most gruesome of those recent revelations was the discovery just last week of a mass grave filled with 72 murdered migrants, including a pregnant woman, who were all executed by a dominant cartel, the Zetas.

The incident took place just 100 miles from the US border.

Continue reading “As drug violence escalates, entire length of US-Mexico border to be patrolled by unmanned drones”