LOOKING your best for would-be suitors while escaping the notice of those you want to avoid sounds like an enviable skill. For male Iberian emerald lizards, whose heads turn turquoise during the mating season, being able to do so could be a matter of life or death: a vibrant hue might attract keen females, but risks easy detection by raptors.
Luckily, as Enrique Font and Guillem Perez i de Lanuza of Valencia University report in Naturwissenschaften, the lizards’ heads are iridescent, meaning they reflect light differently—and thus appear to change colour—depending on the angle they are seen from.
When the humanoid robot SAFFiR gets a shove, it reflexively moves to maintain its balance. SAFFiR can also walk over uneven terrain, turn its head to scan its surroundings and — with the help of a human operator — reach out to grasp objects.
Built by a team at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, SAFFiR is a firefighting robot and a prototype for one that will compete in the final stage of the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), a contest run by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The aim is to produce robots with improved mobility, autonomy and responsiveness to human commands. On 5 March, DARPA will announce the 25 finalists who will vie for the US$2-million first prize at the final event in June.
NO ONE is arguing that Joseph Franklin is innocent. He claims to have shot and paralysed Larry Flynt, the publisher ofHustler, because he was outraged at the pornographic magazine’s depiction of a black man with a white woman. He admits to having murdered at least 15 people: some because they were black, some because they were Jewish. He is scheduled to die in Missouri on November 20th for a murder he committed in St Louis in 1977.
The execution may not go as planned, however. It was to have been carried out with propofol, a common anaesthetic. But Fresenius Kabi, the German drugmaker that supplies 90% of the propofol used in America, insists that it must not be used for capital punishment.
SPACE COWBOY, a sword-swallower, was once arrested in New York for brandishing weapons in public. After being locked up for 22 hours, Mr Cowboy (whose real name is Chayne Hultgren) posted on his fan page that busking in New York “sux bigtime”. He now performs on less draconian streets.
Buskers are a freewheeling bunch. They stay or go as they please. They bring music and colour to drab street corners. Naturally, a certain type of lawmaker frowns on them. New York banned busking from 1935 to 1970, and still curbs it in parks. Chicago forbids it in the better parts of town. This year St Louis quadrupled the fee for a street-performance permit. Buskers complained that they had to audition to get them. On behalf of two street musicians, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued.
Palaeontologist Stephen Gatesy wants to bring extinct creatures to life — virtually speaking. When he pores over the fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs and other long-dead beasts, he tries to imagine how they walked, ran or flew, and how those movements evolved into the gaits of their modern descendents. “I'm a very visual guy,” he says.
But fossils are lifeless and static, and can only tell Gatesy so much. So instead, he relies on XROMM, a software package that he developed with his colleagues at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. XROMM (X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology) borrows from the technology of motion capture, in which multiple cameras film a moving object from different angles, and markers on the object are rendered into 3D by a computer program. The difference is that XROMM uses not cameras, but X-ray machines that make videos of bones and joints moving inside live creatures such as pigs, ducks and fish. Understanding how the movements relate to the animals' bone structure can help palaeontologists to determine what movements would have been possible for fossilized creatures. “It's a completely different approach” to studying evolution, says Gatesy.
TERRY MCAULIFFE (pictured, next to the chap with the blow-dried hair) once called himself a “salesman”. Bill Clinton’s presidency was his “product”. He did more than anyone else to create Mr Clinton’s vast fundraising machine. He helped hatch a scheme to reward big donors with a night in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House or lunch with the president. Illegal contributions from Asia flowed into campaign coffers under his watch, though he denies involvement and the money was later returned. To his detractors, Mr McAuliffe represents all that was grubby about the Bubba administration.
But young voters in Virginia, where he is running for governor, don’t remember much of that. The youngest were not even born when Mr Clinton became president. To them, the Clinton years sound like a golden age of jobs and growth. A survey from the Pew Research Centre found that millennials thought Mr Clinton the best president in their lifetime. (Granted, if you are 18, there have only been three.)
In his 1942 short story 'Runaround', science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov introduced the Three Laws of Robotics — engineering safeguards and built-in ethical principles that he would go on to use in dozens of stories and novels. They were: 1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Fittingly, 'Runaround' is set in 2015. Real-life roboticists are citing Asimov's laws a lot these days: their creations are becoming autonomous enough to need that kind of guidance. In May, a panel talk on driverless cars at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington DC, turned into a discussion about how autonomous vehicles would behave in a crisis. What if a vehicle's efforts to save its own passengers by, say, slamming on the brakes risked a pile-up with the vehicles behind it? Or what if an autonomous car swerved to avoid a child, but risked hitting someone else nearby?
CHRIS CHRISTIE, the Republican governor of New Jersey, is heading for a thumping re-election next month. He leads his opponent, Barbara Buono, a Democratic state senator, by some 30 percentage points. Travelling through Palmyra, New Jersey on October 11th, he talked of reaching across the aisle and serving all New Jerseyans. Washington, he adds none too coyly, could “use a dose of New Jersey common sense”.
Palmyra’s Democratic mayor is convinced, and is backing him. So are 51 other elected Democrats in the state. Minorities have warmed to him, too. Just 9% of blacks voted for him four years ago. According to a recent poll from Quinnipiac University, one in four say they will pick him this time. New Jersey’s many Korean-Americans and Hispanics are also lining up behind him. Some new boosters are impressed by his budget-cutting; blacks like his promotion of charter schools; all find him agreeably easy to work with.