5 Intriguing Things: Tuesday, 1/7

Greyhound's cultural significance, slime mold models, the amoeba board game, a Road Rule hacker, and the continuing mysteries of evolution.
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Sunset aboard a Greyhound (Reuters).

1. What Greyhound, which is celebrating its centennial, meant to America.

"It was during these decades—from the 1930s through the 1950s—when Greyhound was among a small group of U.S. firms that helped America reimagine itself. Mostly movie studios, automakers and large consumer product companies, these firms painted a picture through their ads and products of a country whose future was only exceeded by the gumption of its citizens and the bounty of its natural resources. Greyhound’s self-selected role was as unofficial tour guide. “Greyhound invested time and financial resources in advertising its ability to transport passengers all over the U.S.,” says Margaret Wash, an intercity bus historian. 'They suggested it was fashionable to take bus trips.'"

 

2. A slime mold was grown to approximate Route 20 in the United States using nutrients to represent cities. And there are implications for robotics, apparently. Whoa.

"When presented with a distribution of nutrients, the slime mold spans the sources of nutrients with a network of protoplasmic tubes. This protoplasmic network matches a network of major transport routes of a country when configuration of major urban areas is represented by nutrients. A transport route connecting two cities should ideally be a shortest path, and this is usually the case in computer simulations and laboratory experiments with flat substrates. What searching strategies does the slime mold adopt when exploring 3-D terrains? How are optimal and transport routes approximated by protoplasmic tubes? Do the routes built by the slime mold on 3-D terrain match real-world transport routes? To answer these questions, we conducted pioneer laboratory experiments with Nylon terrains of USA and Germany. We used the slime mold to approximate route 20, the longest road in USA, and autobahn 7, the longest national motorway in Europe. We found that slime mold builds longer transport routes on 3-D terrains, compared to flat substrates yet sufficiently approximates man-made transport routes studied. We demonstrate that nutrients placed in destination sites affect performance of slime mold, and show how the mold navigates around elevations. In cellular automaton models of the slime mold, we have shown variability of the protoplasmic routes might depends on physiological states of the slime mold. Results presented will contribute toward development of novel algorithms for sensorial fusion, information processing, and decision making, and will provide inspirations in design of bioinspired amorphous robotic devices."

 

3. The German board game, Primordial Soup, where you play with amoebas.

"Each player guides a species of primitive amoeba drifting through the primordial soup. The player controls whether and how his amoebas move, eat and procreate using the 10 biological points which he receives each turn. A player may evolve his species by buying gene cards, which give the amoebas abilities such as faster movement. The abilities are pictured on the gene cards, showing amoebas growing finstentaclesspines, etc.

A key feature of the game is its self-balancing ecosystem. The food required by each amoeba is a mixture of the excrement of the other players' species. Food may become scarce and cause amoebas to starve, die and decompose into food."

 

4. The kid who hacked Road Rules.

"Abe, a compact, spiffy-looking 18-year-old, was a cast member of “Road Rules: Latin America” — a 15-week-long installment of MTV’s peripatetic spinoff from the rusty but reliable documentary show, “The Real World.” (Abe’s “Road Rules” episodes, which first aired earlier this year, will likely be rerun in the fall.) When the self-professed “punk hacker kid” decided to audition for the show, it occurred to him that he might upgrade his odds of making the cast by hacking into the network of the show’s production company, Bunim/Murray. He was right. Included in his haul were transcripts of previous interviews with prospective cast members, which gave him an inside track on what the producers were looking for."

 

5. In 2003, a line of E. coli evolved before scientists' eyes. But they still aren't sure precisely what happened.

"Twenty-five years ago, Richard Lenski used a single microbe to seed twelve lines of bacteria. He fed each line a meager diet of glucose, and the bacteria have been adapting to this existence in his lab at Michigan State University ever since...

In 2003, Lenski’s team realized that something utterly unexpected happened. One of the hallmarks of Escherichia coli as a species is that when there’s oxygen around, it can’t feed on a compound called citrate. But one day a flask turned cloudy with an explosion of E. coli that were doing just that. The change was so profound that it may mean these bacteria had evolved into a new species.

For the past 11 years, the scientists have been trying to figure out how the bacteria gained this ability to feed on citrate."

 

Today's 1957 English Usage Tip:

aesthetic. More usual than esthetic (US & Brit.). The word means concerned with sensuous perception & was introduced into English to supply sense of beauty with an adjective. It is in place in such contexts as aesthetic principlesfrom an aesthetic point of viewan aesthetic revival occurred. It is less so in the meanings professing or gifted with this sense (I am not aesthetic; aesthetic people), dictated by or approved by or evidencing this sense (a very aesthetic combination; aesthetically dressed; flowers on a table are not so aesthetic a decoration as a well-filled bookcase); & still less so when it is little more than a pretentious substitute for beautiful (that green is so aesthetic; a not very aesthetic little town).

 

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A Player May Evolve His Species by Buying Gene Cards or Tiring of the Game

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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