After the death of all of it’s polar bears, presumably because being dead is simply a more reasonable and respectable lifestyle choice than being a polar bear in St. Louis, the St. Louis Zoo has decided to make the most retarded decision possible over what to do for their Christmas display. That decision? To replace the dead bears with animatronic facsimiles. Which is to say, robotic polar bears.

Merry Fucking Christmas, Kids.

Really shitty robotic polar bears.

You can tell this is a retarded decision because PETA supports it, and it’s a well known fact that PETA is a front group for the meat industry designed to make every person who has even a semblance of respect for animal rights look like a brain damaged asshole through the consistently ludicrous, offensive and well publicized actions of PETA.

While Gizmodo expressed the completely reasonable concern that the development of a robot bear army is bad news, there is worse to this decision than just it’s implications in the inevitable robot uprising. It will serve as a nightmarish warning to the rest of the zoo’s charges, who will only be able to reasonably conclude that their departed bretheren have been returned to them in a state of horrific un-life, unable even in death to escape the dread clutches of St. Louis.

The folks at Chuck E. Cheese have to be fucking elated at this development though, knowing that they have a whole slew of new business opportunities building shitty robotic versions of actual animals that are too difficult or expensive for small zoos to acquire or keep. Did your rare white tiger get mauled to death by a pair of lions? Why not replace it with a version that costs half as much, never needs medical care or food, and erupts into a rousing chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ every hour on the hour?

And why stop at making inroads into crafting zoo animals that can also play the banjo and terrify children? When real polar bears go extinct in ten years, we can just place animatronic bears on ice floes to star in our wildlife films and keep elephant seals in their fucking place.

The i Phone – it’s not just for making your friends jealous and checking your email on the bus any more. Researchers at MIT have developed an app for everyones favorite handheld that allows users to control an unmanned drone via their very own palm pilot. It’s quite a feat just one year after their colleagues at UC Berkeley managed to control a small fleet of UAVs from an iPhone.

Between simpler methods of controlling the small wonders and more efficient power sources like solar panels and next gen batteries, UAVs are poised to make a jump from indiscriminate killing machine to phenomenally effective intelligence gathering devices that can operate over long ranges at little risk. Imagine if, rather than maybe probably almost killing a Taliban leader in Pakistan after definitely killing their fairly harmless wives, these things could gather intelligence on where he and his cohorts actually were. Imagine a fight against the Taliban that doesn’t involve us tossing Hellfire missiles around pell mell at every possible target.

Doesn’t that sound like a more effective war? Doesn’t that sound like a war that doesn’t give the people we’re fighting for an endless string of reasons to fear us? Doesn’t that sound like a war we could win?

Oh, BBC, you’ve put me in a wicket that is ever so sticky.

On the one hand, I’m as ready as anyone for a serious rethinking of how we use Predators and other UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s particularly important in the latter theater, where civilian casualties caused by drone strikes play a major part in turning public opinion against US and NATO forces. The fact of the matter is that we don’t win the war against the Taliban in the region until we end public perception that we are the enemy, and we don’t end that perception until we stop killing civilians. Because frankly, until we stop killing civilians, we are the enemy to the vast majority of people on the ground in Afghanistan.

Since I’m on record as feeling this way, I couldn’t be happier to hear that Professor Noel Sharkey, who has been talking for years about the need for a reconsideration of whether the new face of modern warfare is a net improvement. For the soldiers who get to control these heavily armed automatons from half a world away, it certainly seems like it. But if we’re unable to distinguish civilian from combatant – a task that’s often difficult enough for a soldier on the ground – then are we really making wars more winnable? Or are we just making the rules a little different?

America - Are You Going To Let A Robot Fight Your Battles For You?

America - Are You Going To Let A Robot Fight Your Battles For You?

Maybe, by their definition, there’s no such thing as a safe weapon. But there’s a clear line between weapons that are ready to be used safely and ones that aren’t. And it’s time for a serious conversation about where UAVs and other robotic weaponry are in that process. Are they highly advanced? No doubt – technology has made undeniable strides from the days when all that robot warriors could do was rock ’em and/or sock ’em. But are they fool proof? Hardly, and when they’re not, the results are disastrous. So yeah, I’m happy that the media is giving the subject some love.

But really, BBC – did you have to run Jason Palmer’s excellent story on the matter under the headline ‘Call for debate on killer robots‘?

Oh, sweet God, I am in trouble.

Talking Points Memo has set up Twitter rooms, collecting all the Twitter feeds of elected representatives and political insiders on both sides of the aisle in one easy to find, constantly updating place. So now I don’t have to jump all over, constantly updating the feeds of different politicians to keep up with their antics.

I very well may never sleep again.

Kindle owners beware – that electronic copy of a book you thought you purchased and, thus, owned? Not so much.

As it turns out, the publishers to whom Amazon is so beholden for Kindle content still own the content. That’s why they can decide at a whim to give you back your money and have your copies of books erased from your digital device without notifying you until the deed is already done.

That’s what happened to hundreds of Kindle owners who thought they had purchased safe, legal copies of George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm. Copies of these novels were erased from Kindles under cover of darkness last night. This morning, Amazon sent affected users a form e-mail, noting that there had been a “problem” with their digital copies of the book and crediting their Kindle store accounts, the digital equivalent of a “Had a nice time, call you soon”  note left on the end table by someone slinking out of a one night stand.

The gall of invading peoples privacy  this way aside, Amazon’s caginess on the matter sets a troubling precedent for similar issues in the future, as does their refusal to define just what the “problem” with the books was. Were they riven with typos? Were they illegal copies, and if so what were they doing on the Kindle store in the first place? Were they alternate texts that were never meant to see the light of day – a copy of 1984, for example, that culminates in Winston Smith’s flamethrower rampage through the heart of London?

Why, in other words, is it okay to access and erase user data without notification or permission, but out of bounds to discuss why it was done?

More new images from Herschel Space Observatory have arrived, and you can check out the whole spread at their website here. They aren’t as impressive as the last composite of the M51 Whirlpool Galaxy, but for images that still represent rough drafts of the data we can eventually hope to see after the equipment on board the probe is fully calibrated, they’re exceptionally promising.

Though something less than breathtaking aesthetically, these shots do give Herschel a chance to flex it’s analytical muscle. Each image is more than just a still photo of celestial objects like the Cat’s Eye Nebula. The observatory also provides important data on their physical properties and chemical composition by taking photos of objects at specific wavelengths.

A recent Twitter post alluding to failed activities and urgent re-planning aside, calibration on Herschel seems to be going swimmingly, with results so far exceeding researchers expectations. Scientists at the European Space Agency are sanguine that they will have the observatory running at full speed shortly, and hope to have new scientific results courtesy of the data the craft will provide before the end of 2009.

Between headline grabbing tales of plane crashes, South American coup d’ etats and untimely demises of high profile celebrities, it’s understandable that less sexy stories might fall through the cracks. And if there’s anything less sexy to mainstream media than the super fast translation of neurological messages, I’m hard pressed to think of what it would be.

That said, a couple of stories about doing just that managed to sneak in under the radar this week. And while restoring motion to paralyzed individuals might not be the sort of thing that gets CNN’s engine revving, it’s just the sort of thing that makes my heart go all aflutter. I’m a little weird that way, I guess.

Apparently the BSI-TOYOTA Collaboration Center knows just how to get me of a temper. Researchers there have develeoped a wheelchair controlled by the brainwaves of a subject. The wheelchair, which has been in development since 2007, has a 95% accuracy rate in translating brainwaves into simple directional controls like backward, forward, left and right. Even more impressively, it does so in fractions of a second, courtesy of a groundbreaking method of brain-machine interface that separates pertinent brain signals from the ‘white noise’ of EEG readings to analyze brainwave patterns several times faster than conventional methods.

Between this sort of advanced translation and research at the University of Washington that bypasses damaged nerves completely, the prospect of one day restoring limb function to paralyzed individuals has never been more realistic. And as a happy side effect of the technology, bloggers will one day to post updates just by thinking about them. Take that, my future case of carpal tunnel syndrome!

The first images from the European Union’s fancy new Herschel Space Observatory have arrived, and ahead of schedule no less.

Scientists working with the project have made the announcement with caveats attached, reminding the public that the Herschel and it’s Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer are new tools, and will take some adjusting before they’re properly tuned. Of course, this makes the Observatory’s first glimpses of the Whirlpool Galaxy (that’s M51, if you’re feeling nasty) all the more impressive for being essentially rough drafts. They’ve also provided side by side comparisons of the new Herschel images and images of the same galaxy taken by NASA’a Spitzer space telescope, along with the following statement:

The obvious advantage of the larger size of the telescope is clearly reflected in the much higher resolution of the image: Herschel reveals structures that cannot be discerned in the Spitzer image.

Herschel has certainly earned it’s bragging rights here, having accomplished the difficult task of making what was once a state of the art photograph of the unsurpassed glory of deep space and the majesty of the universe look like a total piece of crap. But it’s hard not to see the statement as a sort of kicking a space agency when it’s down. Pieces are actively falling off the Hubble like my grandmother’s Oldsmobile. This week brought a reminder that the remaining fleet of space shuttles is held together mostly by duct tape, spit and happy thoughts. And American astronauts are faced with the prospect of calling up Russia every time they need a ride to the ISS anytime in the nest five years. With all this taken into consideration, it’s not as if NASA needed another reminder of it’s inadeqacies. But hey, there it is.

Cancer research saw a couple of exciting stories this week, with German researchers taking a novel approach to tackling the chronic pain associated with many cancer cases while an Australian pharmaceutical company tries to beat the disease from the inside.

A team at Heidelberg University has found a molecule produced by tumors which enhances nerve ending growth in surrounding tissue. It’s thought that this new growth of nerve endings may be responsible for the unique type of pain suffered by cancer patients, which is not only intense  but often doesn’t respond to traditional treatments for pain. With a likely suspect for cancer pain in their sights, the next step for researchers is to find a way to block transmission of the molecule, ideally easing the pain at it’s source.

Meanwhile, Australian firm Bionomics released promising findings from the Phase I clinical trial of BNC105. The catchily named substance is among a  crop of drugs known as Vascular Targeting Agents (VDAs), which fight cancer by cutting off the blood flow to tumors, effectively starving them. Which is interesting enough, but BNC105 turns it’s nice jab into a strong 1-2 punch. In addition to cutting blood flow to tumors efficiently while avoiding ill effects to other organs, BNC105 has is also a cytotoxic agent, poisoning the tumor while also starving it. It also seems to be retained within tumors, meaning that it can keep doing it’s dirty work on the inside with minimal side effects. That’s because by the time blood flow is cut off, it’s too late for the tumor to expel the toxic agent. Or, in the parlance of horror films – THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!

Take a look at the drugs bio at Bionomics website, and take a look at the Phase I trial results here.

GPS mapping is a great tool for figuring out where things are, from the apartment that the best party is at to the house you’re supposed to demolish. No one is arguing that.

The problem arises when having a new tool like GPS prevents people from doing the simple things they used to do to problem solve. Like asking “Hey, don’t most of the houses we tear down not have furniture in them?”  Instead, apparently without double checking their coordinates or contacting the owner of the house, which was vacant at the time, a Georgia demolition company razed the home to the ground.

Condolences to the Byrd family, and a note to the companies involved – demolition is a big job. Next time, take a break before you start. Get a bite to eat, have a smoke – and oh yeah, make sure you’ve got the right damned address before you start knocking houses down, you bunch of jackasses.

The item at the top of plenty of military wish lists looks like it’s on it’s way to a battlefield near you with the long awaited XM25 is out of the prototype phase and due to begin field testing in Afghanistan and Iraq this summer.

Designed to eliminate targets in cover, such as snipers standing behind walls or entrenched in caves, the XM25 is a sort of high tech hybrid of carbine rifle and precision grenade launcher that fires High Explosive Air Bursting (HEAB) 25mm rounds. Courtesy of a laser range finder, infrared, built in compass and thermal optics, the rifle can tell it’s user, via a wireless signal, exactly how far away their target is. The user can then tell the rifle how at what distance from the target the 25mm high explosive round should explode in the air, eliminating whatever material, be it trench, cave or door frame, the target is using for cover, and in all likelihood, eliminating the target as well.

Right now, the only ammunition available is the standard HEAB round, but munitions for every situation are in development, including less lethal rounds. Details on ammo and the tech heavy aspects of the last available prototype can be perused at Gizmodo. But the fact is that if even one of these $25 rounds at some point prevents troops under fire in Afghanistan or Iraq from needing to call in artillery fire or air strikes, that are far more potentially hazardous to the lives and welfare of innocent bystanders, then it has served it’s purpose admirably. The XM25 is a gun designed to prevent collateral damage and save civilian lives, and that is fundamentally a good thing.

It also happens to be one of the only ways that the United States is going to come out of the current wars in the Middle East in a better position than we entered them. Whether you believe they’re necessary or not, we’re not going to come to victory in Afghanistan on the back of a Predator drone. We have to stop indiscriminately endangering and harming civilians, and until we do, the mission on the ground – to disable the roots of global terrorist cells, rob their leaders of places to hide and cripple their ability to attack the citizens of the United States – has to be seen as a failure.

In other security news, scientists in the United Kingdom have made a big step forward in detecting concealed weapons. Researchers have unveiled the prototype for a hand held microwave radar scanner that can detect gun like objects discreetly, from a distance and, to hear the inventors tell it, outside of a laboratory environment. What exists right now is a very early but promising iteration of the technology, which resembles in principle a portable airport security sensor that’s limited in what sort of objects in can detect – guns, but not knives – and isn’t able to paint the clear picture of the object that one would get from a larger machine. But more advanced versions of the device could be helping police in the UK get a read on suspicious characters sooner than later, though it’s perceived usefulness as less a security countermeasure and more of a predictor of accuracy in ‘stop and searches’ does have the troubling ring of Newspeak to it. Then again, this is the London Metropolitan Police we’re talking about, so maybe a lack of concern for privacy that shouldn’t be surprising.

Finally, this week also brought a reminder that while microwave radars and laser range finders are all well and good, these things are not what security is ultimately about. At the end of the day, it’s about whatever works for your situation. And if that entails smiting your gigantic enemies with thousands upon thousands of stinging insects, then so much the better.

The bad news is that, stringent counter-measures and all, China saw it’s first reported case of domestic swine flu today. But even with the latest H1N1 strain making it’s first appearance in Venezuela, Paraguay and several other South American nations this week, there may be more cause for celebration than outright terror. The virus doesn’t seem to be sweeping the southern hemisphere, where flu season is in full swing, with beyond normal levels of contagion.

Meanwhile, research labs in the US and UK have both successfully produced “starting strains” of the young virus. These strains, which hybridize the new flu with extant viral strains, are the first steps toward a vaccine for the disease. The two existing strains are being shipped to labs throughout the world allowing researchers to start developing ways to fight the newest H1N1 virus. And with Australian researchers nearing completion on a third starting strain, the chances that we’ll have a functioning vaccine sometime in the near future are actually pretty good.

And while a vaccine is great news, quickly identifying viral outbreaks is about to get a lot easier, thanks to research firm Ostendum. The company has produced a prototype device that can detect the presence of a particular virus in just minutes. Seemingly straight out of James Bond movies, the gadget is light weight and portable, and can also be used to uncover specific bacteria or proteins with just a small sample of blood or saliva. If all goes well, the company plans to have every hypochondriac’s handheld best friend to market by late next year.

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