Thursday, May 28, 2009

Obama Requests $50 Million for the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Here comes that wealth redistribution. Perhaps this is Obama's answer to Bush's faith-based initiatives. This money goes towards non-profits intended to benefit, "for example, Harlem Children’s Zone, YouthVillages, Nurse-Family Partnership, and Citizen Schools."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Siberian Child Raised by Dogs & Cats

Russian officials have taken a five-year-old Siberian girl into care, saying that she had apparently been "brought up" by cats and dogs.

The girl, who is unable to speak, was discovered living in a squalid flat in the Siberian city of Chita.

Police said she had never been allowed outside and had adopted the behaviour of the animals she lived with.

They said she now "barked like a little dog" and jumped at the door when her carers left the room.

Police are questioning the girl's mother, but her father has not yet been found.

'Animal language'

A police statement said the girl was unwashed, dressed in filthy clothes and had the "clear attributes of an animal".

"For five years, the girl was 'brought up' by several dogs and cats and had never been outside," the statement said.

The police said the girl had managed to master "animal language only", but seemed able to understand Russian.

Earlier this year, President Dmitry Medvedev called for more action on child abuse.

He said 750,000 children in Russia were living in "socially hazardous conditions".

Green GT’s All-Electric Supercar Unveiled

From the article:

"Up-and-coming Swiss auto company GreenGT recently unveiled plans for a fully-electric vehicle that is heralded to be the most powerful and cutting-edge electric race car ever built. Designed with the famous Le Mans race in mind, their Twenty-4 vehicle is currently undergoing development and will boast two 100-kw electric engines that provide 350-400 horsepower and a top speed of 171 mph."

GreenGT homepage:

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Things You See...

Michelle Unmasked

Who knew?

Afghanistan? No, that looks like...of course...Detroit Rock City!

It has been rumored that Queen Elizabeth is a

Going the Full Monty:

North Korea nuclear test

Following Pyongyang's April launch of a rocket carrying what it says is a communications satellite, North Korea has now conducted an underground nuclear test over the weekend.

From the article:

...Russia's defence ministry estimated a blast of up to 20 kilotons - comparable to the American bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Battery Fueled by Air, Solar Powered Cell Phone

World's first battery fuelled by air
The world's first battery fuelled by air - with 10 times the storage capacity of conventional cells - has been unveiled.

Scientists say the revolutionary 'STAIR' (St Andrews Air) battery could now pave the way for a new generation of electric cars, laptops and mobile phones.

The cells are charged in a traditional way but as power is used or 'discharged' an open mesh section of battery draws in oxygen from the surrounding air.

This oxygen reacts with a porous carbon component inside the battery, which creates more energy and helps to continually 'charge' the cell as it is being discharged.

By replacing the traditional chemical constituent, lithium cobalt oxide, with porous carbon and oxygen drawn from the air, the cell is much lighter than current batteries.

And as the cycle of air helps re-charge the battery as it is used, it has a greater storage capacity than other similar-sized cells and can emit power up to 10 times longer.

Professor Peter Bruce of the Chemistry Department at the University of St Andrews, said: "The benefits are it's much smaller and lighter so better for transporting small applications.

"The size is also crucial for anyone trying to develop electric cars as they want to keep weight down as much as possible.

"Storage is also important in the development of green power. You need to store electricity because wind and solar power is intermittent."


Japanese to unveil solar-powered mobile phone

The new phone is a waterproof, sunlight-powered device which will be sold by the Japanese mobile phone company KDDI from June.

Ten minutes of explosure to sunlight is sufficient for a one minute call or to power the handset in standby mode for two hours.

As much as 80 per cent of the battery of the handset, a collaboration with manufacturers Sharp Corp, can be recharged entirely by sunlight as a result of storage technology embedded in the front face of the phone, according to manufacturers.

Marketed as a “green” eco-friendly alternative to conventional mobile phone handsets, the company claims that the device’s lack of dependence on standard electricity will help reduce carbon dioxide emission levels.

The new handset is the latest in an increasingly competitive global race among mobile phone companies to produce “eco friendly” devices.

Two months ago, the Korean company Samsung Electronics unveiled a solar-powered mobile phone made from recycled plastic from water bottles.

While the company claimed it was the world’s first solar-powered mobile phone device, it did not state when it would go on sale.

Meanwhile, in January, Motorola described its new W233 Renew, also made from recycled water bottles, as the world’s first carbon neutral mobile phone.

A solar-powered mobile phone that can be entirely operated by exposure to sunlight is to be launched this summer in Japan.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sensory Augmentation Research

From the article:

Mixed Feelings

See with your tongue. Navigate with your skin. Fly by the seat of your pants (literally). How researchers can tap the plasticity of the brain to hack our 5 senses — and build a few new ones.
By Sunny Bains

For six weird weeks in the fall of 2004, Udo Wächter had an unerring sense of direction. Every morning after he got out of the shower, Wächter, a sysadmin at the University of Osnabrück in Germany, put on a wide beige belt lined with 13 vibrating pads — the same weight-and-gear modules that make a cell phone judder. On the outside of the belt were a power supply and a sensor that detected Earth's magnetic field. Whichever buzzer was pointing north would go off. Constantly.

"It was slightly strange at first," Wächter says, "though on the bike, it was great." He started to become more aware of the peregrinations he had to make while trying to reach a destination. "I finally understood just how much roads actually wind," he says. He learned to deal with the stares he got in the library, his belt humming like a distant chain saw. Deep into the experiment, Wächter says, "I suddenly realized that my perception had shifted. I had some kind of internal map of the city in my head. I could always find my way home. Eventually, I felt I couldn't get lost, even in a completely new place."

The effects of the "feelSpace belt" — as its inventor, Osnabrück cognitive scientist Peter König, dubbed the device — became even more profound over time. König says while he wore it he was "intuitively aware of the direction of my home or my office. I'd be waiting in line in the cafeteria and spontaneously think: I live over there." On a visit to Hamburg, about 100 miles away, he noticed that he was conscious of the direction of his hometown. Wächter felt the vibration in his dreams, moving around his waist, just like when he was awake.

Direction isn't something humans can detect innately. Some birds can, of course, and for them it's no less important than taste or smell are for us. In fact, lots of animals have cool, "extra" senses. Sunfish see polarized light. Loggerhead turtles feel Earth's magnetic field. Bonnethead sharks detect subtle changes (less than a nanovolt) in small electrical fields. And other critters have heightened versions of familiar senses — bats hear frequencies outside our auditory range, and some insects see ultraviolet light.

We humans get just the five. But why? Can our senses be modified? Expanded? Given the right prosthetics, could we feel electromagnetic fields or hear ultrasound? The answers to these questions, according to researchers at a handful of labs around the world, appear to be yes.

It turns out that the tricky bit isn't the sensing. The world is full of gadgets that detect things humans cannot. The hard part is processing the input. Neuroscientists don't know enough about how the brain interprets data. The science of plugging things directly into the brain — artificial retinas or cochlear implants — remains primitive.

So here's the solution: Figure out how to change the sensory data you want — the electromagnetic fields, the ultrasound, the infrared — into something that the human brain is already wired to accept, like touch or sight. The brain, it turns out, is dramatically more flexible than anyone previously thought, as if we had unused sensory ports just waiting for the right plug-ins. Now it's time to build them.

How do we sense the world around us? It seems like a simple question. Eyes collect photons of certain wavelengths, transduce them into electrical signals, and send them to the brain. Ears do the same thing with vibrations in the air — sound waves. Touch receptors pick up pressure, heat, cold, pain. Smell: chemicals contacting receptors inside the nose. Taste: buds of cells on the tongue.

There's a reasonably well-accepted sixth sense (or fifth and a half, at least) called proprioception. A network of nerves, in conjunction with the inner ear, tells the brain where the body and all its parts are and how they're oriented. This is how you know when you're upside down, or how you can tell the car you're riding in is turning, even with your eyes closed.

When computers sense the world, they do it in largely the same way we do. They have some kind of peripheral sensor, built to pick up radiation, let's say, or sound, or chemicals. The sensor is connected to a transducer that can change analog data about the world into electrons, bits, a digital form that computers can understand — like recording live music onto a CD. The transducer then pipes the converted data into the computer.

But before all that happens, programmers and engineers make decisions about what data is important and what isn't. They know the bandwidth and the data rate the transducer and computer are capable of, and they constrain the sensor to provide only the most relevant information. The computer can "see" only what it's been told to look for.

The brain, by contrast, has to integrate all kinds of information from all five and a half senses all the time, and then generate a complete picture of the world. So it's constantly making decisions about what to pay attention to, what to generalize or approximate, and what to ignore. In other words, it's flexible.

In February, for example, a team of German researchers confirmed that the auditory cortex of macaques can process visual information. Similarly, our visual cortex can accommodate all sorts of altered data. More than 50 years ago, Austrian researcher Ivo Kohler gave people goggles that severely distorted their vision: The lenses turned the world upside down. After several weeks, subjects adjusted — their vision was still tweaked, but their brains were processing the images so they'd appear normal. In fact, when people took the glasses off at the end of the trial, everything seemed to move and distort in the opposite way.

Later, in the '60s and '70s, Harvard neuro biologists David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel figured out that visual input at a certain critical age helps animals develop a functioning visual cortex (the pair shared a 1981 Nobel Prize for their work). But it wasn't until the late '90s that researchers realized the adult brain was just as changeable, that it could redeploy neurons by forming new synapses, remapping itself. That property is called neuroplasticity.

This is really good news for people building sensory prosthetics, because it means that the brain can change how it interprets information from a particular sense, or take information from one sense and interpret it with another. In other words, you can use whatever sensor you want, as long as you convert the data it collects into a form the human brain can absorb.

Paul Bach-y-Rita built his first "tactile display" in the 1960s. Inspired by the plasticity he saw in his father as the older man recovered from a stroke, Bach-y-Rita wanted to prove that the brain could assimilate disparate types of information. So he installed a 20-by-20 array of metal rods in the back of an old dentist chair. The ends of the rods were the pixels — people sitting in the chairs could identify, with great accuracy, "pictures" poked into their backs; they could, in effect, see the images with their sense of touch.

By the 1980s, Bach-y-Rita's team of neuroscientists — now located at the University of Wisconsin — were working on a much more sophisticated version of the chair. Bach-y-Rita died last November, but his lab and the company he cofounded, Wicab, are still using touch to carry new sensory information. Having long ago abandoned the vaguely Marathon Man like dentist chair, the team now uses a mouthpiece studded with 144 tiny electrodes. It's attached by ribbon cable to a pulse generator that induces electric current against the tongue. (As a sensing organ, the tongue has a lot going for it: nerves and touch receptors packed close together and bathed in a conducting liquid, saliva.)

So what kind of information could they pipe in? Mitch Tyler, one of Bach-y-Rita's closest research colleagues, literally stumbled upon the answer in 2000, when he got an inner ear infection. If you've had one of these (or a hangover), you know the feeling: Tyler's world was spinning. His semicircular canals — where the inner ear senses orientation in space — weren't working. "It was hell," he says. "I could stay upright only by fixating on distant objects." Struggling into work one day, he realized that the tongue display might be able to help.

The team attached an accelerometer to the pulse generator, which they programmed to produce a tiny square. Stay upright and you feel the square in the center of your tongue; move to the right or left and the square moves in that direction, too. In this setup, the accelerometer is the sensor and the combination of mouthpiece and tongue is the transducer, the doorway into the brain.

The researchers started testing the device on people with damaged inner ears. Not only did it restore their balance (presumably by giving them a data feed that was cleaner than the one coming from their semi circular canals) but the effects lasted even after they'd removed the mouthpiece — sometimes for hours or days.

The success of that balance therapy, now in clinical trials, led Wicab researchers to start thinking about other kinds of data they could pipe to the mouthpiece. During a long brainstorm session, they wondered whether the tongue could actually augment sight for the visually impaired. I tried the prototype; in a white-walled office strewn with spare electronics parts, Wicab neuroscientist Aimee Arnoldussen hung a plastic box the size of a brick around my neck and gave me the mouthpiece. "Some people hold it still, and some keep it moving like a lollipop," she said. "It's up to you."

Arnoldussen handed me a pair of blacked-out glasses with a tiny camera attached to the bridge. The camera was cabled to a laptop that would relay images to the mouthpiece. The look was pretty geeky, but the folks at the lab were used to it.

She turned it on. Nothing happened.

"Those buttons on the box?" she said. "They're like the volume controls for the image. You want to turn it up as high as you're comfortable."

I cranked up the voltage of the electric shocks to my tongue. It didn't feel bad, actually — like licking the leads on a really weak 9-volt battery. Arnoldussen handed me a long white foam cylinder and spun my chair toward a large black rectangle painted on the wall. "Move the foam against the black to see how it feels," she said.

I could see it. Feel it. Whatever — I could tell where the foam was. With Arnold ussen behind me carrying the laptop, I walked around the Wicab offices. I managed to avoid most walls and desks, scanning my head from side to side slowly to give myself a wider field of view, like radar. Thinking back on it, I don't remember the feeling of the electrodes on my tongue at all during my walkabout. What I remember are pictures: high-contrast images of cubicle walls and office doors, as though I'd seen them with my eyes. Tyler's group hasn't done the brain imaging studies to figure out why this is so — they don't know whether my visual cortex was processing the information from my tongue or whether some other region was doing the work.

I later tried another version of the technology meant for divers. It displayed a set of directional glyphs on my tongue intended to tell them which way to swim. A flashing triangle on the right would mean "turn right," vertical bars moving right says "float right but keep going straight," and so on. At the University of Wisconsin lab, Tyler set me up with the prototype, a joystick, and a computer screen depicting a rudimentary maze. After a minute of bumping against the virtual walls, I asked Tyler to hide the maze window, closed my eyes, and successfully navigated two courses in 15 minutes. It was like I had something in my head magically telling me which way to go.

In the 1970s, the story goes, a Navy flight surgeon named Angus Rupert went skydiving nude. And on his way down, in (very) free fall, he realized that with his eyes closed, the only way he could tell he was plummeting toward earth was from the feel of the wind against his skin (well, that and the flopping). He couldn't sense gravity at all.

The experience gave Rupert the idea for the Tactical Situational Awareness System, a suitably macho name for a vest loaded with vibration elements, much like the feelSpace belt. But the TSAS doesn't tell you which way is north; it tells you which way is down.

In an airplane, the human proprioceptive system gets easily confused. A 1-g turn could set the plane perpendicular to the ground but still feel like straight and level flight. On a clear day, visual cues let the pilot's brain correct for errors. But in the dark, a pilot who misreads the plane's instruments can end up in a death spiral. Between 1990 and 2004, 11 percent of US Air Force crashes — and almost a quarter of crashes at night — resulted from spatial disorientation.

TSAS technology might fix that problem. At the University of Iowa's Operator Performance Laboratory, actually a hangar at a little airfield in Iowa City, director Tom Schnell showed me the next-generation garment, the Spatial Orientation Enhancement System.

First we set a baseline. Schnell sat me down in front of OPL's elaborate flight simulator and had me fly a couple of missions over some virtual mountains, trying to follow a "path" in the sky. I was awful — I kept oversteering. Eventually, I hit a mountain.

Then he brought out his SOES, a mesh of hard-shell plastic, elastic, and Velcro that fit over my arms and torso, strung with vibrating elements called tactile stimulators, or tactors. "The legs aren't working," Schnell said, "but they never helped much anyway."

Flight became intuitive. When the plane tilted to the right, my right wrist started to vibrate — then the elbow, and then the shoulder as the bank sharpened. It was like my arm was getting deeper and deeper into something. To level off, I just moved the joystick until the buzzing stopped. I closed my eyes so I could ignore the screen.

Finally, Schnell set the simulator to put the plane into a dive. Even with my eyes open, he said, the screen wouldn't help me because the visual cues were poor. But with the vest, I never lost track of the plane's orientation. I almost stopped noticing the buzzing on my arms and chest; I simply knew where I was, how I was moving. I pulled the plane out.

When the original feelSpace experiment ended, Wächter, the sysadmin who started dreaming in north, says he felt lost; like the people wearing the weird goggles in those Austrian experiments, his brain had remapped in expectation of the new input. "Sometimes I would even get a phantom buzzing." He bought himself a GPS unit, which today he glances at obsessively. One woman was so dizzy and disoriented for her first two post-feelSpace days that her colleagues wanted to send her home from work. "My living space shrank quickly," says König. "The world appeared smaller and more chaotic."

I wore a feelSpace belt for just a day or so, not long enough to have my brain remapped. In fact, my biggest worry was that as a dark-complexioned person wearing a wide belt bristling with wires and batteries, I'd be mistaken for a suicide bomber in charming downtown Osnabrück.

The puzzling reactions of the longtime feelSpace wearers are characteristic of the problems researchers are bumping into as they play in the brain's cross-modal spaces. Nobody has done the imaging studies yet; the areas that integrate the senses are still unmapped.

Success is still a long way off. The current incarnations of sensory prosthetics are bulky and low-resolution — largely impractical. What the researchers working on this technology are looking for is something transparent, something that users can (safely) forget they're wearing. But sensor technology isn't the main problem. The trick will be to finally understand more about how the brain processes the information, even while seeing the world with many different kinds of eyes.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Things You See...

Frogs so small I almost dismissed them as insects.

Friday, May 15, 2009

China says Tibet video is 'a lie'

Unverified video of Tibetan monks being assaulted posted on YouTube

China says video footage that purportedly shows Chinese security personnel violently beating Tibetans last year is "a lie".

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Illusion Cloak Makes One Object Look like Another

Article from

Just when you thought invisibility cloaks couldn't get any weirder, researchers come up with this: a way to make one object look like any other.

Invisibility cloaks work by steering light around a region of space, making any object inside that region invisible. In effect, an invisibility cloak creates the illusion of free space. This is possible because of a new generation of artificial materials called metamaterials that can, in principle at least, steer light in any way imaginable. Indeed, various teams have built real invisibility cloaks that hide objects from view in both the microwave and optical bands.

Now Che Chan and pals from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology say that metamaterials could be used for an even more exotic effect: for cloaks that create the illusion that a different object is present.

The illusion is a two-step process, and to see how it works, imagine making a mouse look like an elephant. The first step involves an idea that these guys came up with about six months ago in which they described a way of cloaking objects at a distance.

The trick is to create a material in which the permittivity and permeability are complementary to the values in a nearby region of space containing the mouse we want to hide. "Complementary" means that the material cancels out the effect that the mouse has on a plane lightwave passing through. So a plane wave would be bent by the mouse but then bent back into a plane as it passes through the complementary material, making the mouse disappear.

The second step is to then distort this plane wave in the way that an elephant would. This means creating transformational material that distorts a plane lightwave in the same way as an elephant. So anybody looking at this mouse would instead see an elephant.

An invisibility cloak is just a special case of this, when the mouse is simply replaced by the illusion of free space, say Chan and co.

The researchers have even found a mind-boggling application. Their idea is to create the illusion that a wall has a hole in it, and then use the hole to look through the wall.

That's not quite as bonkers as it sounds. The wall has to be pretty thin, and what the new device does is allow light to tunnel through the wall in a way that would not ordinarily be possible. Amazing, if it works.

There's no telling where this kind of thinking will lead. But surely metamaterials can't do anything weirder than this?

Ref: Illusion optics: The optical transformation of an object into another object

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Things You See...

Who's yer lady, who's yer lady