Rescue robots need to imitate cockroaches

It’s possible that if you were trapped under a pancaked skyscraper after an earthquake, or in a mine that had just collapsed, you’d be totally fine with getting rescued by a giant robot cockroach. What are you going to do? Say, “No, thanks, I’m good, send something cute”?

Even if you did request something more charismatic, odds are it couldn’t reach you. The American cockroach, says a paper out today, is perfectly adapted for getting into tiny spaces a human-shaped rescuer might not, thanks to a collapsible exoskeleton and really creepy mode of locomotion. The cockroach, it turns out, is a good model for a rescue robot. The researchers even built a prototype. It skitters.

Yes, it had to be cockroaches. “We are not entomologists. We also think they’re disgusting,” says Robert Full, who works on biomechanics and animal locomotion at UC Berkeley and is lead author on the article, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “But they can teach us bigger principles.” As is typical for insects, cockroaches have an exoskeleton—overlapping plates of a tough material called chitin held together with a flexible membrane. In the wild, that flexibility lets American cockroaches run about 5 feet per second, more than 3 mph…

Don’t blame the cockroaches for their extraordinary adaptability to that space between your floorboard and your wall. That’s not what their skill set evolved for. It actually keeps them safe. “Cockroaches like to be against walls, against surfaces, and the more surfaces they can contact, the more comfortable they are,” says Coby Schal, an entomologist at North Carolina State University. It’s called “thigmotaxis,” and the roaches feel most OK when they perceive a slow, light brushing against bristles that grow from their bodies…

That collapsible exoskeleton is yet another physiological marvel. Not only does it flex and expand—allowing for developing insects to grow and molt, and bloodsucking insects like bedbugs to accommodate the meal they have made out of your precious life essence—it also shunts their mass around. “In a cockroach the blood flows in an open cavity called a hemocoel,” Schal says, “so it can deform its body by moving blood from one part to another.” It’s like a disgusting, insectile, armored balloon…

Gross, sure, but it also makes a great model for robot mobility…That’s why you might not mind if a robot bug comes to rescue you. A Terminator wouldn’t be able to get there at all. “It’s not like the Darpa robotics challenges where you go down a hall, down stairs, skip over some rubble. No, no, no,” Murphy says. “You’re going into spaces too small for a human or a dog to get into. Or maybe they’re on fire…”

If you still can’t handle the idea of someday being carried to safety by a swarm of chittering, exoskeleton-wearing robot bugs, Full has you covered. He’s also working on a giant crab.

Something, anything, saving my butt is welcome. I don’t even care if it looks like Ted Cruz.

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Pentagon chooses science over Know-Nothing politics on climate change


Click to enlarge — Republican conference on climate change in 2100

A bit over a year after identifying climate change as a “significant challenge” for the US military, the US Department of Defense has given its top officials orders for handling the hazards posed by a warming world.

The boring-but-important 12-page document issued in January tells the armed service chiefs and top civilian officials to identify how climate change will affect their missions, figure out how to manage any risks it poses, and factor those into their planning. It gives specific tasks to various Defense Department offices and regional commands, from determining how higher sea levels or longer droughts affect US bases to what new gear might be needed to work in a thawing Arctic.

❝”Although this looks very bureaucratic in nature, I would actually give the department full credit for it,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who served as the Navy’s top oceanographer. “I think this is one of the more significant steps they’ve done, because they’ve linked that high-level strategy down to a daily to-do list.”

Titley said the new order means the Pentagon “is now thinking seriously” about whether American soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines “have the right tools, the right equipment, the right training, and the right risks for a changing environment…”

The Navy is already trying to figure out how to protect its Atlantic fleet headquarters at Norfolk, Virginia — the world’s largest naval installation — from the two-pronged threat of rising seas and a sinking shore. Norfolk is already seeing periodic coastal flooding from a rising ocean, and Titley said 2012’s Hurricane Sandy showed how badly a big storm could hit vital urban systems like the New York subways that few had thought of as vulnerable…

But Holland said Pentagon officials are still struggling to figure out how other expected changes — to food, water, and energy supplies, increases in extreme weather, and an increase in refugees — will affect operations overseas…

The new directive is aimed at shifting that mindset…

Titley appeared at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing that attacked climate scientists. The hearing was called by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the GOP presidential candidate who insists that no global warming has occurred since 1998 — an assertion contradicted by the findings of US and international science agencies.

“Senator Cruz was asking me which is more important, climate or ISIS?” Titley said. “And what I told Senator Cruz at the hearing back in December was we don’t get to pick and choose. We’re a big country, and we have to deal with both … Mature superpowers have to deal with more than one thing at a time.”

Mature politicians should do the same. Unfortunately, Cruz, the ignoranus electorate he represents, the rightwing political clot he leads not only ignores science, history and maturity – they prefer the politics of fear and ignorance as their best bet to gain power in the United States.

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Billionaire surprised that American voters are unhappy — this is news?

As income inequality and healthcare costs rise in the United States and as an economic slowdown may be on the horizon, one of the world’s richest men expressed surprise that U.S. voters seem so angry in advance of the 2016 presidential election. Speaking at a gathering of corporate and government leaders in Switzerland, Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman told Bloomberg Television that he is bewildered about why Americans seem so discontented.

I find the whole thing astonishing and what’s remarkable is the amount of anger whether it’s on the Republican side or the Democratic side,” the Wall Street mogul said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Bernie Sanders, to me, is almost more stunning than some of what’s going on in the Republican side. How is that happening, why is that happening?”

On the eve of the conference, the nonprofit group Oxfam released a report showing that the richest 62 people on the planet now own more wealth than half the world’s population. In the United States, recent data from Pew Research shows the average American’s median household worth has stagnated, as the median household worth of upper-class Americans increased 7 percent. Schwarzman, though, expressed surprise that people are enraged…

Schwarzman’s private equity firm, Blackstone, manages — and makes fees from — billions of dollars of pensioners’ assets, and was recently fined by federal regulators for not properly disclosing fee terms to its investors. The investors harmed by Blackstone’s conduct included public retirement systems in California, Florida and New Jersey.

Schwarzman has donated $100,000 to a super PAC supporting Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and reportedly organized a meet-and-greet session between John Kasich and Wall Street executives, but Schwarzman said on Wednesday that he would ultimately support Donald Trump should his fellow Republican billionaire win the GOP nomination for president. In recent years, Schwarzman has made national headlines likening tax increases on the wealthy to the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Same as it ever was.

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Social media in one easy chart

image

Hat tip, Ian Bremmer

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Are we seeing the dying days of party politics? — [I certainly hope so]

zippy politics
Click to enlarge

As the nation begins the process of electing a new president, the roles of the Republican and Democratic parties are undergoing fundamental shifts that are threatening their impact on both elections and policy.

Built in the 19th century, grown dominant in the 20th, they are largely out of date in this new age.

Folks ignorant of American political history need to know that up through the end of World War 2 alternative parties, third parties, even radical parties were often successful forces in local, state and national politics. Part of the purpose of McCarthyism and the domestic portion of the Cold war was the suppression of independent electoral politics. Americans have been thoroughly brainwashed into believing 2-party politics is God’s Will, the core of constitutional freedom.

They – the 2 old parties – still control the ballot and machinery such as the primaries. But they do not hold the loyalty of the people. The largest party in America now is no party – with the ranks of people calling themselves independents at the highest level in more than 75 years of polling. The parties do not control the message. People learn about politics from social media instead of traditional means such as mailings or campaign rallies. And the parties are no longer the sole banker of politics. Big-money interests now effectively create shadow parties with extensive networks of donors of their own.

The result: People are tuning out and turning away.

In 2012, average voter turnout for statewide primaries for president, governor and U.S. Senate plunged to its lowest level since the modern primary system became popular in 1972…

Just 29 percent called themselves Democrats last year, it found, “making it safe to conclude that the current (number) is also the low point in Gallup polling history.” Republican loyalty was only 1 percentage point above its recent low of 25 percent three years ago.

The bloc of independents reached 40 percent in 2011, and it has stayed at or above that level ever since…

Most indifferent to parties: young Americans. Nearly half the millennials identified as independents in 2014, Pew found, more than the combined total of those willing to be called either Democrats or Republicans…

Historically, children adopted their parents’ political views, including identification with the two major parties. Not anymore.

Millennials get information from sources other than from family dinners, neighbors or campaign brochures. If something piques their interest, they turn to Twitter, text messaging, The Skimm and other modern forms of instant communication…

Political parties are seen as too narrowly focused, too interested in keeping incumbents in office.

They gerrymander congressional districts to maximize their chances so that election after election only a handful of House of Representatives races are true contests. Of the House’s 435 seats, 402 incumbents are considered safe bets for re-election this year, said the nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.

Those safely partisan seats help keep Washington gridlocked – and turn off more Americans…

The parties now thrive by firing up the fringes. Republicans once had a strong bloc of abortion-rights supporters, for example, but in 1976 the party formally included in its platform support for a constitutional amendment “to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.”

It’s now unmistakably the anti-abortion party, the comfortable home for conservatives and therefore the party that dominates the South and the Rocky Mountain West. Democrats are the party of the Northeast and the West Coast…That generally includes lots more folks with better than a 6th grade reading level.

While independents are gaining clout, so are the big-money groups that now operate as virtual political parties…Take Freedom Partners, an organization sponsored by brothers Charles and David Koch of Wichita, Kansas. Last year, the group committed to spend $889 million on politics and policy in 2015 and 2016…

And the Koch network does more than just spend money. Twice each year it hosts about 400 executives, who pay dues of $100,000 each, for meetings on politics and policies. And its spending goes beyond the planned $250 million to help candidates, to include grants to organizations to help promote small-government policies as well as college scholarships and fellowships.

As Peter White, a cabin manager in Nottingham, N.H., put it, “You feel the two parties both work for Wall Street and don’t care who wins.”

The chunk of the article I left out is mostly ideological pimping for the wonders of middle-of-the-road folks who feel left out nowadays. They still are the group the two old parties try to rope into obedience. True independence of thought and progress – which includes fiscal conservatism as often as progressive social and structural reforms – scares the crap out of party loyalists of either Republican or Democrat flavor.

Segments of the discussion about new media, the facile communications available with amazing speed, nowadays, are something everyone now understands as part of the matrix of coming change. Personally, I think the biggest significant conflict still lies between top-down leadership and grassroots activism. Conflicts as critical to the Left as the Right – though I think the Leftish flavor of populism, equal rights and personal liberty will succeed in grassroots building. Rightwing ideologues ranging from Ayn Rand out-of-date to Ted Cruz/Donald Trump out-of-date should fail and will.

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“FREE PARKING” ain’t always a good idea – especially on a frozen lake

Around 20 cars sank into a lake in Wisconsin…after visitors to a winter festival parked on its frozen top.

Emergency crews had to pull the vehicles out of the water Saturday after the vehicles fell through the ice during Lake Geneva’s Winterfest…

Since parking was scarce in the area, officials had allowed people to park on the frozen lake, but the ice cracked under the weight of the vehicles during the judging of the the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition…

Officials had told people they could park on the ice because parking in the area is scarce – but at least two rows of cars ended up in the water…No one was inside the cars when they began to sink…

So, officials said parking was allowed. Did any of them say it was safe? In front of witnesses. :)

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Big pharma got people hooked on opioids — made tons of money while people died

How did America get to a point where legal opioid painkillers, marketed as medicine, killed nearly 19,000 people in 2014?

One alarming explanation is that the drug companies behind these opioids wanted more people to buy their product, so they led a misleading campaign to get doctors to prescribe their drugs.

The result: Drug companies profited as more and more people got addicted and died of overdoses. This chart, from a 2015 study published in the Annual Review of Public Health, tells the story:

…The opioid epidemic began in the 1990s when doctors prescribed a tremendous amount of opioid painkillers to help treat pain — a serious problem, given that chronic pain alone afflicts about 100 million Americans.

But one reason doctors were so willing to prescribe these painkillers, despite the clear risks of addiction and overdose, is heavy marketing from the pharmaceutical industry.

Andrew Kolodny and other public health experts…detailed Purdue Pharma’s involvement after it put OxyContin on the market in the 1990s…

Between 1996 and 2002, Purdue Pharma funded more than 20,000 pain-related educational programs through direct sponsorship or financial grants and launched a multifaceted campaign to encourage long-term use of opioid painkillers for chronic non-cancer pain. As part of this campaign, Purdue provided financial support to the American Pain Society, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the Federation of State Medical Boards, the Joint Commission, pain patient groups, and other organizations. In turn, these groups all advocated for more aggressive identification and treatment of pain, especially use of opioid painkillers.

Often, these campaigns propagated highly misleading claims — including assertions that OxyContin and other new opioid painkillers were safer than other medications on the market.

The claims were so misleading, in fact, that Purdue Pharma eventually paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for them…

Purdue learned from focus groups with physicians in 1995 that doctors were worried about the abuse potential of OxyContin. The company then gave false information to its sales representatives that the drug had less potential for addiction and abuse than other painkillers, the U.S. attorney said.

But in the midst of the misinformation campaigns, doctors prescribed hundreds of millions of prescriptions for opioids — in 2012, enough to give a bottle of pills to every adult in the country. And as people became addicted to opioid painkillers, they also began turning to a cheaper, more potent opioid — heroin — to satiate their cravings.

The result: In 2014, there were a record 47,000 drug overdose deaths in the US, nearly two-thirds of which were opioid-related, according to federal data. And all along the way, drug companies made a lot of money.

Purdue Pharma and company officials were ordered to pay fines totaling over $600 Million in 2007 for false advertising. A lawsuit by the state of Kentucky could have resulted in another $1 billion added to payment for their crimes. The Republican attorney general settled for $24 million. Perhaps the fact of his law firm representing Purdue had something to do with that.

No officials have ever been charged with crimes. They’ve only killed thousands. Barely up to the level of many of our presidents.

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Cartoon of the day


Click to enlarge

Thanks, gocomics.org

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Republicans still trying to keep folks from voting

…Even as Americans start heading to the polls for this year’s presidential primaries, laws remain in flux in a number of states — including North Carolina and Texas, where voter ID requirements are being challenged in court.

Now the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency charged with helping to improve the running of elections, has added to the confusion. And unlike most voter ID conflicts — which involve showing identification at the polls — this comes earlier in the process, when residents are first registering to vote.

The EAC has been in a long legal battle with Kansas regarding the state’s requirement that residents show proof of citizenship when they register to vote — even if they use a federal registration form, administered by the EAC. The federal form, which can be used throughout the United States as an alternative to local voter registration forms, requires individuals to swear that they are citizens. It does not require a birth certificate or other document as proof.

But late last week, the EAC’s new executive director, Brian Newby — a [Republican] former county elections official in Kansas — sent a letter to the state saying that the agency had updated the instructions on filling out that federal form to include the proof-of-citizenship requirement for Kansas residents. This came after previous EAC executive directors had refused to add the requirement.

That led one of the EAC’s three commissioners, Thomas Hicks — the only Democratic appointee — to issue a highly unusual statement Tuesday calling for Newby’s letter to be withdrawn. He said it “contradicts policy and precedent previously established by this commission,” and he called on the commission to review the matter in a public forum…

Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach’s push to require proof of citizenship is part of a larger, national fight over adding new voting restrictions, in what sponsors claim is an effort to prevent voter fraud. Opponents say it’s an effort to suppress voting rights.

Which is, of course, obvious. Nationwide, all of the Republican efforts to claim voter fraud by anyone from illegal migrant workers to Martians have failed. Here in New Mexico the state wasted $200K of taxpayer money to investigate claims by Republican officials of voter fraud by non-citizens. They came up with about a dozen people registered essentially by mistake – mistakes made by the folks registering them. Almost none of whom actually tried to vote.

But, wasting money trying to prove that states need to keep people from voting is OK as far as today’s Republican Party is concerned. If they reduce the number of potential voters who might not be old white men – they figure on another generation of maintaining whatever power they have. Especially if you add in ignorance, lousy education, gerrymandering and all the other old-fashioned methods for corrupt politicians to win and stay in power.

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White House appoints tech researcher – then denies him security clearance


What’s the Pulitzer Prize worth to the White House?

Ashkan Soltani, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and recent staffer at the Federal Trade Commission, recently began working with the White House on privacy, data ethics and technical outreach. The partnership raised eyebrows when it was announced in December because of Soltani’s previous work with the Washington Post, where he helped analyze and protect a cache of National Security Agency documents leaked by Snowden.

His departure raises questions about the US government’s ability to partner with the broader tech community, where people come from a more diverse background than traditional government staffers.

It also suggests that nearly three years later, the Snowden episode remains a highly charged issue inside the Obama administration. Recently some current and former administration officials said the former NSA contractor sparked a “necessary debate” on surveillance, even if they disagreed with his tactics…

…In December, Megan Smith, White House chief technology officer and a former Google executive, welcomed him to her team with an effusive post on Twitter that referenced Soltani’s account handle, @Ashk4n.

Soltani since then has been on loan from the FTC to the White House. He was in the process of getting approved for a clearance to work in one of America’s most secured office buildings. Soltani said he passed his drug test and the Federal Bureau of Investigation hadn’t yet finished his background check, meaning it would have been too early for the bureau to weigh in on his employment…

…Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union, said he wouldn’t speculate on why Soltani was being denied a job, though he did note that he published many stories that likely irked America’s intelligence officials.

“My guess is there are people who are never going to forgive him for that,” said Soghoian, who lauded Soltani’s technical acumen.

“At a time when the government can’t get cybersecurity right they deeply need people like Ashkan in the White House,” he said.

The move is a blow for Smith, the White House CTO, who has spent the past year trying to lure more pure-blood technologists to government. It can be a tough sell. Compared to Silicon Valley, the pay is less, the hours are longer and the cafeteria isn’t free.

Soltani, 41 years old, has been drawn to working on public policy issues since spending years as a private security researcher. In addition to the Post, he has worked with the New York Times, the University of California Berkeley and the Wall Street Journal. In October of 2014 he joined the FTC as its chief technologist, where he worked on consumer protection issues.

He, along with his Post colleagues and the Guardian, won a Pulitzer prize in 2014 for their coverage of the Snowden affair…

❝“I’m definitely ready to go back to the west coast for a bit,” said Soltani, an avid mountain biker.I just wish I hadn’t spent all my money on suits instead of bike parts.”

Perish the thought our government should rely on principled talent, dedication to constitutional freedoms. Better stick stick with what is most available in Washington – well educated and obedient drones, dedicated to power and greed.

Absolutely the best quote out of Washington DC in weeks.

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