MIT unveils prototype oil-skimming robots

Here’s a new way of looking at oil spill clean-up: Forget the big ships, massive work crews and hefty price tags.

Instead, just deploy an army of autonomous, oil-scrubbing robots. They can find the oil on their own. And when they reach the site of an oil spill, they talk to their robot friends to figure out the best way to get the whole thing mopped up.

That’s the vision the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put forward on Wednesday as the school announced the development of a prototypical robot called Seaswarm. The $20,000 robots will be unveiled officially to the public on Saturday at an event in Venice, Italy, and will be ready to deal with oil spills in about a year, said Assaf Biderman, who oversaw MIT’s research team on the project.

The Seaswarm robots…look like a treadmill conveyor belt that’s been attached to an ice cooler. The conveyor belt piece of the system floats on the surface of the ocean. As it turns, the belt propels the robot forward and lifts oil off the water with the help of a nanomaterial that’s engineered to attract oil and repel water…

The material on the robot’s conveyer belt, which MIT calls a “paper towel for oil spills,” can absorb up to 20 times its weight in oil.

Once it has absorbed the crude from the surface of the ocean, the robot can either burn off the oil on the spot, using a heater on the “ice cooler” part of its body, or it can bag the oil and leave it on the surface of the water for a later pick-up, Biderman said. That oil could be reused or recycled…

The Seaswarm robots operate on solar energy and require only 100 watts of power, or about that of a bright light bulb. They could stay at sea for months, Biderman said, and could operate around the clock.

The science silver lining rolls out, once again. Too bad it took a disaster to prompt research along this and other lines, research to deal with oil spills.

Consider what could have been if the ever-greedy oil corporations spent a fraction of one percent of their profits on remediation and prevention of environmental disasters? Instead of turning their tame Congressional pimps to churning out taxpayer-paid subsidies to exploration schemes?

Frog the size of a pea discovered in Borneo

Microhyla nepenthicola, which was named after a plant on the island, is the smallest frog discovered in Asia, Africa or Europe.

Adult males of the new micro-species range in size from 10.6 and 12.8 millimetres, according to the taxonomy magazine Zootaxa.

Indraneil Das of the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak said the sub-species had originally been mis-identified in museums.

“Scientists presumably thought they were juveniles of other species, but it turns out they are adults of this newly-discovered micro species,” he said.

The tiny frogs were found on the edge of a road leading to the summit of the Gunung Serapi mountain in the Kubah National Park in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

The scientists said they tracked the frogs by their call, a series of “harsh rasping notes” that started at sundown.

They then made the frogs jump onto a piece of white cloth to study them.

The find was part of a global search being undertaken by Conservation International and International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Amphibian Specialist Group to “rediscover” 100 species of lost amphibians.

Phew! It’s about time we had some good news about amphibians.

Between climate change, disappearing habitat and – no doubt – some lounge lizard discovering they make a tidy snack, it feels like we’re losing little critters faster than ever.

Bush campaign chief and former RNC Chairman: “I’m Gay”

Getty Images used by permission

Ken Mehlman, President Bush’s campaign manager in 2004 and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has told family and associates that he is gay.

Mehlman [he says] arrived at this conclusion about his identity fairly recently, he said in an interview. He agreed to answer a reporter’s questions, he said, because, now in private life, he wants to become an advocate for gay marriage and anticipated that questions would arise about his participation in a late-September fundraiser for the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the group that supported the legal challenge to California’s ballot initiative against gay marriage, Proposition 8…

“Everybody has their own path to travel, their own journey, and for me, over the past few months, I’ve told my family, friends, former colleagues, and current colleagues, and they’ve been wonderful and supportive. The process has been something that’s made me a happier and better person. It’s something I wish I had done years ago.”

Privately, in off-the-record conversations with this reporter over the years, Mehlman voiced support for civil unions and told of how, in private discussions with senior Republican officials, he beat back efforts to attack same-sex marriage. He insisted, too, that President Bush “was no homophobe…”

Mehlman acknowledges that if he had publicly declared his sexuality sooner, he might have played a role in keeping the party from pushing an anti-gay agenda.

“It’s a legitimate question and one I understand,” Mehlman said. “I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that. It was very hard, personally.” He asks of those who doubt his sincerity: “If they can’t offer support, at least offer understanding…”

Mehlman is aware that his attempts to justify his past silence will not be adequate for many people. He and his friends say that he is aware that he will no longer control the story about his identity — which will simultaneously expose old wounds, invite Schadenfruede, and legitimize anger among gay rights activists in both parties who did not hide their sexual orientations…

RTFA. There is a great deal of soul-searching in the interview with Mehlman. As much as anyone concerned with the ethics of hypocrites – whether they are conservatives or Christians, politicians or pundits – I can’t waste any time on forgiveness over the simple act of finally telling the truth.

There can be military, security reasons for lying – in some few contexts. Platforms vying to represent the political will of the American people are often as likely an opportunity for lying – and wholly unjustifiable. The best I can say about Ken Mehlman is I’m pleased to hear he can look himself in the mirror, now, and know he’s willing to face the world – and himself – as an honest man.

The “Terror Mosque” is Fox News. No, really!

News Corp’s 2 largest shareholders, Rupert Murdoch and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal

In an awkward moment on Fox News this week, a pundit suggested that a member of the Saudi royal family who has supported the bridge-building work of the imam behind a planned Muslim community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan “funds radical madrasas all over the world.” The awkwardness came from the fact — unmentioned by anyone on the Fox set — that the same Saudi, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, also happens to be the second-largest shareholder in News Corp., the parent company of the Fox News Channel.

During his appearance on Fox News on Monday, Dan Senor, a former Bush administration official, hinted darkly that Feisal Abdul Rauf — an imam who was first recruited to promote religious tolerance in the Middle East on behalf of the United States government by the Bush administration — had, in the past, received financial support from a Saudi foundation established by a man with supposed radical ties. Mr. Senor did not mention the prince’s name but said:

“The Kingdom Foundation, so you know, is this Saudi organization, headed up by the guy who tried to give Rudy Giuliani $10 million after 9/11 that was sent back, funds radical madrasas all over the world…”

Through his Kingdom Holding Co., Alwaleed owns about 7 percent of News Corp., or about $3 billion of the media giant…

But taking the Fox pundits at their word, Jon Stewart suggested on The Daily Show this week that the best way to keep the Saudi prince from making money and then possibly using it to back the mosque project, is to boycott Fox News:

“This is the proposed ‘terror mosque.’ We know that it’s a ‘terror mosque’ because the money may be coming from a bad guy, who definitely owns part of Fox News. Now, we know that he’s a bad guy because we just heard it on Fox News…

My point is this: If we want to cut off funding to the ‘terror mosque,’ we must, together as a nation, stop watching Fox.”


A new life in America no longer requires a new name

For many 19th- and 20th-century immigrants or their children, it was a rite of passage: Arriving in America, they adopted a new identity.

Charles Steinweg, the German-born piano maker, changed his name to Steinway (in part because English instruments were deemed to be superior). Tom Lee, a Tong leader who would become the unofficial mayor of Chinatown in Manhattan, was originally Wong Ah Ling. Anne Bancroft, who was born in the Bronx, was Anna Maria Louisa Italiano.

The rationale was straightforward: adopting names that sounded more American might help immigrants speed assimilation, avoid detection, deter discrimination or just be better for the businesses they hoped to start in their new homeland.

Today, most experts agree, that traditional immigrant gambit has all but disappeared…

The New York Times examined the more than 500 applications for name changes in June at the Civil Court in New York, which has a greater foreign-born population than any other city in the United States. Only a half dozen or so of those applications appeared to be obviously intended to Anglicize or abbreviate the surnames that immigrants or their families arrived with from Latin America or Asia…

The vast majority of people with clearly ethnic surnames who applied to change them did so as a result of marriage (belatedly adopting a spouse’s surname or creating a new hyphenated one) or childbirth (because they were legally identified when they were born only as a male or female child or were adopting a parent’s name)…

If you are talking about 1910, the social forces on conformity were much stronger,” said Marian Smith, senior historian of the United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, “whereas now an immigrant arrives with all these legal and identity documents, a driver’s license in their pocket, a passport, with one name on it. To change this is a big deal…”

Nancy Foner, a sociology professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said: “Jews and Italians changed their surnames in the past so that people wouldn’t identify them as Jews or Italians, the famous cases of course being movie stars…Betty Joan Perske became Lauren Bacall, and most people didn’t know she was Jewish; whatever name she used, Lena Horne was black.”

And the fools whose understanding of humanity hasn’t progressed beyond 1910 are the bastion of forces demanding conformity to the most reactionary standard of America’s past: if you’re white, you’re right!

Some of the history is perfectly ordinary. My Italian grandfather: Eduardo Adamo Trotto became Edward Trotter. What counted over his lifetime was his skill as a tool and die maker. But, the land he owned and occasionally farmed might not have been sold to him if he was Trotto instead of Trotter.

His wife, my Italian grandmother, has always provided me with the best story I know that combines the history of European imperialism with the ignorance of America’s political police. In a confrontation with an FBI agent back in the 1960’s, the hotshot tried to threaten me with his detailed knowledge of my family – asserting he even knew my grandmother was German not Italian.

The poor bugger knew nothing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that the village in the Italian Alps where she was born had been overrun by grasping Habsburgian soldiers in the 19th Century. Following the naming conceits of the time – all the residents of her village were forced to acquire Germanic names. She entered the United States as Clara Fritz.

Fitting into the ideology of 1910 America.

Muslim cab driver slashed by boozed-up bigot

Ahmed Sharif undergoing treatment at Bellevue Hospital Emergency Room
Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

A boozed-up bigot who just returned from filming U.S. Marines in Afghanistan used a pocket knife to slash a cabbie – just because the driver was Muslim.

Michael Enright, 21, of upstate Brewster, NY, was charged with felony attempted murder as a hate crime – among other crimes – after the sick attack on Ahmed Sharif, 43.

Enright slashed Sharif across the face, arm and hand after asking the Bangladesh-born cabbie if he was Muslim and then saying ‘As-salaam alaikum’ – which means ‘peace be unto you’ in Arabic, cops said.

The suspect also yelled, “Consider this a checkpoint” – an apparent reference to security screening in Afghanistan – as he wildly thrust his knife through the open glass partition at Sharif, said Manhattan Assistant District Attorney James Zaleta.

“The EMT on the scene said if the cut had been any longer or deeper he [Sharif] would have been dead on the scene,” Zaleta said at Enright’s arraignment…

“This … was a highly vicious attack on an innocent person based on his religion,” Zaleta said in court.

Mayor Bloomberg, who spoke to Sharif and invited him to City Hall, said the unprovoked attack was clearly “motivated by anti-Muslim bias.”

“I assured him that ethnic or religious bias has no place in our city,” Bloomberg said of his conversation with Sharif.

“This attack runs counter to everything that New Yorkers believe, no matter what God we pray to…”

The home of the brave and the land of the free.

Or something like that.

MI6 officer murdered, stuffed into sports bag, left in his bathtub

Forensic investigator on the scene

The private life of an MI6 officer who was murdered at his home close to the UK’s foreign intelligence service headquarters is being investigated by Scotland Yard detectives. The body of Gareth Williams was stuffed in a holdall and dumped in his bath.

Williams is believed to have been killed two weeks ago. His body was badly decomposed when his two-bedroom, top floor flat in Pimlico, central London, was searched by police after colleagues raised the alarm. A postmortem examination found that he had not been stabbed, as had been reported earlier, but the cause of death has yet to be established. Further tests, including analysis of his blood for evidence of drugs and alcohol, will now take place.

When police entered his flat they found Williams’s body, a mobile phone and several sim cards laid out in a ritual manner.

The 31-year-old was on secondment to MI6 HQ from the government’s eavesdropping and communications security centre GCHQ in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. He is believed to have been advising MI6 on secret communication techniques. Many technical staff at Cheltenham spend time advising MI6 and MI5…

Officers from Scotland Yard’s homicide and serious crime command are leading the inquiry, which sources said pointed to the fact that Williams’s intelligence work was not believed to be linked to his death. “National security” seemed to be the least likely of any issues connected with the death, said a Whitehall official…

His former landlady, Jenny Elliott, 71, said he had lived in a flat in her house near Cheltenham for 10 years. He told her he worked at the Foreign Office.

She said he had been due to move back into her house in 10 days after spending a year in London. “He came to live with me in a flat on the side of my house when he started to work at the Foreign Office. He was with me for about 10½ years and then he moved out a year ago. He was due to come back to me on 3 September…

“This awful thing is happening and Gareth was a lovely man, very well-mannered and very likeable. He was very clever and had been to Cambridge and had a very important job at the Foreign Office. Although he didn’t belong to me, I was quite proud of him. It’s like losing one of my own children…

I could remark about American media not knowing the difference between MI5 and MI6; but, the average American doesn’t know the differences between our own FBI, the CIA and NSA.

So, I’ll just watch and read. No doubt, investigative minds will be turned to this mystery.