Military bees, insubordinate postal workers and more 

LEAD STORY: University of California researchers, on a Pentagon contract, announced in January success at rigging a live flower beetle with electrodes and a radio receiver to enable scientists to control the insect’s flight remotely. Pulses sent to the bug’s muscles or optic lobes can command it to take off, turn left or right, or hover, according to a report in MIT’s Technology Review, and the insect’s “large” size (up to a whopping 4 inches in length) would enable it to also carry a camera, giving the beetle military uses such as surveillance or search and rescue. The researchers admired the native flight-control ability of the beetle so much that they abandoned developing robot beetles (which required trying to mimic nature).

WHY THEY GO POSTAL: An official of the National Association of Letter Carriers in Buffalo, N.Y., said in February that it would challenge the Postal Service’s threatened suspension of a carrier who was using sidewalks to get from house to house this winter instead of walking across ice-packed, deep-snow-drift yards. Cutting across yards is required by Postal Service rules to speed up deliveries.

SCENES OF THE SURREAL: 1) Allahmanamjad Barbel, 21, sought help in February at the police station in Barnstable, Mass., after his sister playfully put handcuffs on him at a birthday party and couldn’t get them off. Police removed them and then, after running his name through the computer, discovered several outstanding warrants and immediately recuffed him. 2) Doctoral student Daniel Bennett filed a lawsuit against Britain’s Leeds University in February because custodians had mistakenly thrown out research that he had been working with for the last seven years. Bennett is studying the rare Butaan lizard of the Philippines and over the years, to examine its diet, had painstakingly sifted through jungle dirt to gather more than 70 pounds of its feces, which Bennett believes is worth far more than the ($720) Leeds has offered him.

THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT: A coin-operated self-service dog-washing machine (“self” meaning the dog’s owner, not the dog) has been introduced in a half-dozen carwashes in the United States recently, at $10 for 10 minutes, according to a January report on one such franchise in Stuart, Fla. The “K9000” is a 3-foot-high, walk-in shower area (or push-in, for reluctant dogs) with an open top, has six separate wash cycles, conditioner and flea-and-tick options, and adjustable water pressure and dryer settings.
At Mannerspielplatz (“Men’s Playground”) near Kassel, Germany, testosterone-fueled office workers can get in touch with their “inner ditchdigger” (according to a January Wired magazine report) and frolic all day long on 29-ton backhoes, 32-ton front-end loaders, jackhammers and various other big, loud vehicles for an admission fee of about $280 a day. At the Men’s Playground, the owner said, “We fulfill men’s dreams.”  

WEIRD BIOLOGY: “Reproduction is no fun if you’re a squid,” said a biologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, referring especially to the deep-sea squid. Finding a mate a mile down in pitch darkness is hard enough, but the combination of males that are smaller and fearful of being overpowered and females whose reception of sperm involves being stabbed makes the insemination process especially traumatic. Sperm deposits are delivered by the reckless slashing of the skin by the male. In fact, according to a December report in Germany’s Der Spiegel, in the darkness the male sometimes misses the female altogether and inseminates himself.
Princeton University scientists, reporting in January on research in Peru, said they observed aggressive, carnivorous behavior for the first time among dung beetles, which decapitated and ate millipedes.

LEADING ECONOMIC INDICATORS: People With Too Much Money: At Tokyo’s first fish auction of 2009 in January, the upscale Kyubey restaurant and the more moderate Itamae Sushi dining chain jointly purchased a single, 280-pound bluefin tuna for the equivalent of about $104,000. Kyubey said it would cut its half into slivers priced at about $22 each.
In Hong Kong, according to a February Wall Street Journal report, when a feng shui master speaks on the economy, investors listen closely (especially in view of the mess quantitative analysis has made of things). Alion Yeo, an expert on the Chinese system of beliefs in stars, geography and the location of objects, and whose popular finance seminars attract high-end investors, told a group of about 170 recently that 2009 would be dismal because the U.S. economy is now in the hands of a president and a secretary of the Treasury who were both born in a Year of the Ox (1961), of which 2009 is another (and which has already started frighteningly with both a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse).
Some laid-off workers may be desperate to exhibit their work skills at any available job, but February news reports highlighted two government bureaucrats who draw $250,000 a year between them yet have been prevented from doing a stitch of work for, in one case, six years, and in the other, 18 months. Randall Hinton is nominally the chief of investigations for the New York State Insurance Fund but was ostracized by his supervisors in 2002 and has taken home his $93,000 a year for zero work ever since. U.S. Labor Department official Bob Whitmore earns $150,000 but has had no work to do since July 2007 due to a clash with his supervisors.

FINE POINTS OF THE LAW: Drug-trafficking is a capital offense in Malaysia, and it appeared that one man would go down after being spotted by a police officer with the key to a large drug locker. However, the man has an identical twin brother who was not charged, and in February, Kuala Lumpur High Court Judge Zaharah Ibrahim ruled that because it was impossible to know which one had been seen with the key, both had to go free.

LEAST COMPETENT CRIMINALS: Recurring Themes: In February, David Hampton, 23, was charged in Charlotte County, Fla., with robbing a BP gas station and became the latest such robber to run out of gas in his getaway car even though minutes earlier, obviously, he had been present at a gas station.


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