Archive for the 'Off Topic' Category

I want my own enormous robotic ant

Unleash the awesome!

A robotic engineer has developed a beautifully designed hexapod robot based on the biomechanics of ants. He calls his remote controlled creation A-pod, and cites the photography of Alexander Wild (of Myrmecos) as an influence on his design.

A-pod is capable of a wide range of motions and body contortions. In addition to walking around, A-pod can grasp and carry objects in its metallic mandibles. The motions are incredibly fluid and I can’t imagine the amount of work that had to go into programming the synchronous movements of all six legs. You can watch videos of A-pod in action here and here, and learn more about the construction of the robo-beastie here.

At this point, A-pod just needs to be programmed to find Sarah Connor, and then it can assist in the inevitable robot uprising.

Let this abomination unto the Lord commence!

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has begun its service as humanities most ambitious science experiment; colliding two beams of protons at 7 TeV (seven trillion electron volts). I’m not sure what that means, but I have it on good authority that it is awesome.

Though the physics that this thing is supposed to sort out are completely over my head, I can’t help loving the epic scale and mad science on display in this behemoth. I imagine that if I visited one of the LHC’s detectors I would be unable to resist the temptation to throw my hands in the air and cackle like a madman.


Congrats to the brilliant physicists who have dedicated their lives to making the LHC a reality; all despite misinformed fear-mongering, mechanical complications, and bagel dropping avian saboteurs from the future.

You can read more about the LHC’s first experiments from someone who knows his gluons from his gravitons at Cosmic Variance, or from the horses mouth at CERN.

The ultimate rugby venue

Discoblog has a story about a decades-long rugby rivalry between American and New Zealand research stations in Antarctica. They play on a frozen ice sheet at the foot of an active volcano near McMurdo Sound. Now, I’ve played the game in some adverse conditions, but this definitely takes the cake.

Photo: Discoblog

As it stands, the New Zealanders (calling themselves the Ice Blacks, har har) lead the series 26-0. Time to step it up America. I know its hard to find Americans who are both Antarctic research scientist and experienced rugby players, but enough is enough. Stop working on your important research and get a sports training montage going down there. We can’t let those frosty Kiwis walk all over our desolate, ass-end-of-nowhere, research bases.


I am mostly a pretty easy going guy, but one thing in particular always manages to push my buttons and throw me into a rage: Phantom traffic jams.

You know the type: You inch along on the interstate, bumper-to-bumper, for excruciating amounts of time, only to eventually round a corner and pick right back up to full speed. There’s no sign of an accident, or road work, or a rubberneck-inducing event (like a singe orange cone on the shoulder, or a UFO landing site, or the second coming of the Flying Spaghetti Monster).

I always try to give these situations the benefit of the doubt. Maybe a funeral procession just merged from an on-ramp, or a catastrophic accident just got cleaned up, or a 747 needed to use the highway as an emergency runway, or the military had to cluster bomb a herd of zombies hiding under an overpass; you know, something justifying an hour long traffic jam. But then there’s the little, road-rageous voice pinging away in my brain behind my eyes,

There was no good reason for that traffic jam, Mike. People just can’t drive a constant goddamn speed on a straight goddamn road. One person probably tapped their breaks to get a better look at a McDonald’s billboard and set off a chain reaction, culminating in ruining your day.

Now, science has validated that voice by describing the shock-wave traffic jam phenomenon. It turns out, people can’t drive a ‘constant goddamn speed on a straight goddamn road!’

Just watching that video starts to put my nerves on edge…

Why the Nameless Stranger always won his gunfights

I am a huge fan of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns”; especially Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Everything about them is spectacular. The cinematography is breathtaking, the acting is top notch, the music is epic, and the climactic showdowns were always awesome.

During these duels, the score builds and builds as the good guy and the bad guy stare each other down for several minutes until it reaches a crescendo and instantly cuts out amid a split-second of frenzied gunfire. If you watch these scenes closely you will notice that the bad guy invariably goes for his gun first, however despite this, the good guy beats him on the draw. This is a fairly standard movie-making cliche, but it turns out that there may be some science behind it.

Researchers have shown that the act of intentionally initiating an action, such as drawing a pistol, is slower than semi-reflexively responding to an action. In a series of mock, “lab gunfights”, they simulated duels with volunteers pressing buttons; both against one another and against computers. The responders showed a significantly faster draw-motion than the initiators. This is likely the result of specialized emergency reflexive processing pathways in the brain. When a person is in sudden danger, the brain can bypass certain processing elements, and respond to a stimuli at a faster rate.

This is also why arthropods have much faster response times than chordates. Information needs to travel less distance and span fewer synapses before initiating a response in their smaller brains. The classic example of this is split-second responses during fruit fly flight. (Ha-ha! I managed to work arthropods into my cowboy post!)

Read more about the study here. Also check out these spectacular duel scenes from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West.

I have moved.
Arthropoda can now be found here.

Michael Bok is a graduate student studying the visual system of mantis shrimp.

Flickr Photos