Archive for the ‘North Carolina’ Category

Penises grown in laboratories could soon be tested on men by scientists developing technology to help people with congenital abnormalities, or who have undergone surgery for aggressive cancer or suffered traumatic injury.

Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, are assessing engineered penises for safety, function and durability. They hope to receive approval from the US Food and Drug Administration and to move to human testing within five years.

Professor Anthony Atala, director of the institute, oversaw the team’s successful engineering of penises for rabbits in 2008. “The rabbit studies were very encouraging,” he said, “but to get approval for humans we need all the safety and quality assurance data, we need to show that the materials aren’t toxic, and we have to spell out the manufacturing process, step by step.”

The penises would be grown using a patient’s own cells to avoid the high risk of immunological rejection after organ transplantation from another individual. Cells taken from the remainder of the patient’s penis would be grown in culture for four to six weeks.

For the structure, they wash a donor penis in a mild detergent to remove all donor cells. After two weeks a collagen scaffold of the penis is left, on to which they seed the patient’s cultured cells – smooth muscle cells first, then endothelial cells, which line the blood vessels. Because the method uses a patient’s own penis-specific cells, the technology will not be suitable for female-to-male sex reassignment surgery.

“Our target is to get the organs into patients with injuries or congenital abnormalities,” said Atala, whose work is funded by the US Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, which hopes to use the technology to help soldiers who sustain battlefield injuries.

As a paediatric urological surgeon, Atala began his work in 1992 to help children born with genital abnormalities. Because of a lack of available tissue for reconstructive surgery, baby boys with ambiguous genitalia are often given a sex-change at birth, leading to much psychological anguish in later life. “Imagine being genetically male but living as a woman,” he said. “It’s a firmly devastating problem that we hope to help with.”

Asif Muneer, a consultant urological surgeon and andrologist at University College hospital, London, said the technology, if successful, would offer a huge advance over current treatment strategies for men with penile cancer and traumatic injuries. At present, men can have a penis reconstructed using a flap from their forearm or thigh, with a penile prosthetic implanted to simulate an erection.

“My concern is that they might struggle to recreate a natural erection,” he said. “Erectile function is a coordinated neurophysiological process starting in the brain, so I wonder if they can reproduce that function or whether this is just an aesthetic improvement. That will be their challenge.”

Atala’s team are working on 30 different types of tissues and organs, including the kidney and heart. They bioengineered and transplanted the first human bladder in 1999, the first urethra in 2004 and the first vagina in 2005.

Professor James Yoo, a collaborator of Atala’s at Wake Forest Institute, is working on bioengineering and replacing parts of the penis to help treat erectile dysfunction. His focus is on the spongy erectile tissue that fills with blood during an erection, causing the penis to lengthen and stiffen. Disorders such as high blood pressure and diabetes can damage this tissue, and the resulting scar tissue is less elastic, meaning the penis cannot fill fully with blood.

“If we can engineer and replace this tissue, these men can have erections again,” said Yoo, acknowledging the many difficulties. “As a scientist and clinician, it’s this possibility of pushing forward current treatment practice that really keeps you awake at night.”

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/05/laboratory-penises-test-on-men

UtahReducesHomelessness011814

Earlier this month, Hawaii State representative Tom Bower (D) began walking the streets of his Waikiki district with a sledgehammer, and smashing shopping carts used by homeless people. “Disgusted” by the city’s chronic homelessness problem, Bower decided to take matters into his own hands — literally. He also took to rousing homeless people if he saw them sleeping at bus stops during the day.

Bower’s tactics were over the top, and so unpopular that he quickly declared “Mission accomplished,” and retired his sledgehammer. But Bower’s frustration with his city’s homelessness problem is just an extreme example of the frustration that has led cities to pass measures that effective deal with the homeless by criminalizing homelessness.

•City council members in Columbia, South Carolina, concerned that the city was becoming a “magnet for homeless people,” passed an ordinance giving the homeless the option to either relocate or get arrested. The council later rescinded the ordinance, after backlash from police officers, city workers, and advocates.

•Last year, Tampa, Florida — which had the most homeless people for a mid-sized city — passed an ordinance allowing police officers to arrest anyone they saw sleeping in public, or “storing personal property in public.” The city followed up with a ban on panhandling downtown, and other locations around the city.

•Philadelphia took a somewhat different approach, with a law banning the feeding of homeless people on city parkland. Religious groups objected to the ban, and announced that they would not obey it.

•Raleigh, North Carolina took the step of asking religious groups to stop their longstanding practice of feeding the homeless in a downtown park on weekends. Religious leaders announced that they would risk arrest rather than stop.

This trend makes Utah’s accomplishment even more noteworthy. In eight years, Utah has quietly reduced homelessness by 78 percent, and is on track to end homelessness by 2015.

How did Utah accomplish this? Simple. Utah solved homelessness by giving people homes. In 2005, Utah figured out that the annual cost of E.R. visits and jail stays for homeless people was about $16,670 per person, compared to $11,000 to provide each homeless person with an apartment and a social worker. So, the state began giving away apartments, with no strings attached. Each participant in Utah’s Housing First program also gets a caseworker to help them become self-sufficient, but they keep the apartment even if they fail. The program has been so successful that other states are hoping to achieve similar results with programs modeled on Utah’s.

It sounds like Utah borrowed a page from Homes Not Handcuffs, the 2009 report by The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless. Using a 2004 survey and anecdotal evidence from activists, the report concluded that permanent housing for the homeless is cheaper than criminalization. Housing is not only more human, it’s economical.

http://www.nationofchange.org/utah-ending-homelessness-giving-people-homes-1390056183

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Vhris

krispy-kreme-cruiser

In a speech a few weeks ago at Durham Academy, his high-school alma mater, Chris Rosati told students about a sweet dream of his.

He wanted to hijack a Krispy Kreme doughnut delivery truck and, with the cops chasing him, drive around tossing out free confections and cheer. Robin Hood, with baked goods.

The normally jaded teens embraced the idea with such enthusiasm that Rosati – already inclined to mischief – became determined to make it happen.

But every successful dreamer is also a realist, and Rosati knew his chances of getting away with a loaded doughnut truck were pretty slim, especially since he was diagnosed three years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He can still walk, with assistance, but the degenerative neuromuscular disorder, which is ultimately fatal, has slowed him down.

He would need some help.

Rosati, a self-employed marketing consultant, knew what to do. He set up a Facebook page called A Krispy Kreme Heist, where he described his plan. He solicited “likes,” in the hopes that eventually, Winston-Salem-based Krispy Kreme would hear about it, lend him a truck and driver, and give him some doughnuts to give away.

Since he got sick, he explained, “I’m more open than ever to chasing my dreams … even odd ones like this.”

His story traveled like the scent of Original Glazed hot off the line. Within eight hours, Krispy Kreme corporate officials heard about Rosati’s idea.

“We got in touch with Chris and told him, ‘Don’t steal one of our trucks,’” said Megan Brock, directer of marketing. “We’ll give you the Krispy Kreme Cruiser and a thousand doughnuts.”

The Cruiser is a 1960 Flexible Starliner bus restored and christened last year for the company’s 75th anniversary. Krispy Kreme likes to say it’s one sweet ride that travels the country for promotional events.

Tuesday, its route was chosen by Rosati, who had the driver go to Duke University Medical Center, where he visited a cancer treatment center, a bone marrow transplant facility and the clinic where he gets treatment for his ALS.

After that, it was on to Durham Academy, where 400 high-schoolers had been assembled on the sidewalk without knowing why.

They figured it out when the Cruiser rolled into the parking lot, with its trademark green polka dots and Krispy Kreme bow-tie logo. They screamed and hooted.

“I told y’all to live out your dreams, as dumb as they may be sometimes,” he told the students as he got off the bus.

They would each get a doughnut, he promised, but then he asked a favor. Would some of them take a box, go out into the community and give them away just to see people smile?

“You get 12 chances in that box to make somebody happy,” he said.

Rosati’s wife, Anna, said the couple would use video of the day’s events to inspire others toward random acts of kindness through Rosati’s nonprofit, called Inspire MEdia. Eventually, Anna Rosati said, the couple hope the foundation will be able to help people fund their own uplifting projects.

http://www.journalnow.com/news/state_region/article_8a8f4da8-5fb0-11e3-ad14-001a4bcf6878.html

Thanks to Dr. Goldman for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

mushroom

A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the US Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.

The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.

Though there has been persistent speculation about how narrow the Goldsboro escape was, the US government has repeatedly publicly denied that its nuclear arsenal has ever put Americans’ lives in jeopardy through safety flaws. But in the newly-published document, a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons concludes that “one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe”.

Writing eight years after the accident, Parker F Jones found that the bombs that dropped over North Carolina, just three days after John F Kennedy made his inaugural address as president, were inadequate in their safety controls and that the final switch that prevented disaster could easily have been shorted by an electrical jolt, leading to a nuclear burst. “It would have been bad news – in spades,” he wrote.

Jones dryly entitled his secret report “Goldsboro Revisited or: How I learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb” – a quip on Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satirical film about nuclear holocaust, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The accident happened when a B-52 bomber got into trouble, having embarked from Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro for a routine flight along the East Coast. As it went into a tailspin, the hydrogen bombs it was carrying became separated. One fell into a field near Faro, North Carolina, its parachute draped in the branches of a tree; the other plummeted into a meadow off Big Daddy’s Road.

Jones found that of the four safety mechanisms in the Faro bomb, designed to prevent unintended detonation, three failed to operate properly. When the bomb hit the ground, a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device, and it was only that final, highly vulnerable switch that averted calamity. “The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52,” Jones concludes.

The document was uncovered by Schlosser as part of his research into his new book on the nuclear arms race, Command and Control. Using freedom of information, he discovered that at least 700 “significant” accidents and incidents involving 1,250 nuclear weapons were recorded between 1950 and 1968 alone.

“The US government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy,” he said. “We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here’s one that very nearly did.”

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/20/usaf-atomic-bomb-north-carolina-1961

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

tesla_model_s_rear_new

Tesla Motors has become the belle of Wall Street over the past week after revealing its first quarterly profit and receiving the top score ever from Consumer Reports for the Tesla Model S electric luxury sedan. But those accomplishments haven’t played well yet in North Carolina, where the state Senate unanimously passed a bill Monday night that would block Tesla’s plan for selling its cars directly to consumers — forcing it to either steer clear of the entire state or use a franchised auto dealer like all other automakers.

The Republican-sponsored bill, which has the backing of the North Carolina Auto Dealers Association, mirrors fights in several other states by dealers who worry about the precedent set by Tesla — even though Tesla’s own projected output of 20,000 vehicles a year is a rounding error on the 15 million new vehicles sold by U.S. dealers annually. Dealers in New York and Massachusetts have gone to court in attempts to block Tesla; in Texas, the automaker has been pushing its own bill that would loosen restrictions which limit its sales pitches to phone conversations.

Dealers contend automakers, especially a start-up like Tesla, aren’t inclined to handle warranty repairs, service and other tasks that customers need close to home. For its part, Tesla has been lobbying North Carolina lawmakers for an exemption by arguing that blocking the company’s plans hurts the state economy; it says it has sold nearly 100 Model S cars to state residents with deposits for 60 more, and plans more service centers beyond the one opened in Raleigh.

What’s noteworthy about the North Carolina bill is that in addition to stopping Tesla, it would force minor changes on the agreements dealers have with established automakers — including an odd proposal barring automakers from ordering dealers to remove sports memorabilia from their stores. (This may have something to do with NASCAR owners who run one model of car on Sundays but sell a variety of them through their name-brand dealership every other day of the week.) Automakers and dealers have fought for years in statehouses over who controls what, and in general, the dealers have held the upper hand. For Tesla, it’s just another sign that Silicon Valley’s only automaker has joined the major leagues.

http://autos.yahoo.com/blogs/motoramic/auto-dealers-push-law-blocking-tesla-sales-north-194223800.html

Thanks to Mr. Cuomo for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

brain

Behind a locked door in a white-walled basement in a research building in Tempe, Ariz., a monkey sits stone-still in a chair, eyes locked on a computer screen. From his head protrudes a bundle of wires; from his mouth, a plastic tube. As he stares, a picture of a green cursor on the black screen floats toward the corner of a cube. The monkey is moving it with his mind.

The monkey, a rhesus macaque named Oscar, has electrodes implanted in his motor cortex, detecting electrical impulses that indicate mental activity and translating them to the movement of the ball on the screen. The computer isn’t reading his mind, exactly — Oscar’s own brain is doing a lot of the lifting, adapting itself by trial and error to the delicate task of accurately communicating its intentions to the machine. (When Oscar succeeds in controlling the ball as instructed, the tube in his mouth rewards him with a sip of his favorite beverage, Crystal Light.) It’s not technically telekinesis, either, since that would imply that there’s something paranormal about the process. It’s called a “brain-computer interface” (BCI). And it just might represent the future of the relationship between human and machine.

Stephen Helms Tillery’s laboratory at Arizona State University is one of a growing number where researchers are racing to explore the breathtaking potential of BCIs and a related technology, neuroprosthetics. The promise is irresistible: from restoring sight to the blind, to helping the paralyzed walk again, to allowing people suffering from locked-in syndrome to communicate with the outside world. In the past few years, the pace of progress has been accelerating, delivering dazzling headlines seemingly by the week.

At Duke University in 2008, a monkey named Idoya walked on a treadmill, causing a robot in Japan to do the same. Then Miguel Nicolelis stopped the monkey’s treadmill — and the robotic legs kept walking, controlled by Idoya’s brain. At Andrew Schwartz’s lab at the University of Pittsburgh in December 2012, a quadriplegic woman named Jan Scheuermann learned to feed herself chocolate by mentally manipulating a robotic arm. Just last month, Nicolelis’ lab set up what it billed as the first brain-to-brain interface, allowing a rat in North Carolina to make a decision based on sensory data beamed via Internet from the brain of a rat in Brazil.

So far the focus has been on medical applications — restoring standard-issue human functions to people with disabilities. But it’s not hard to imagine the same technologies someday augmenting capacities. If you can make robotic legs walk with your mind, there’s no reason you can’t also make them run faster than any sprinter. If you can control a robotic arm, you can control a robotic crane. If you can play a computer game with your mind, you can, theoretically at least, fly a drone with your mind.

It’s tempting and a bit frightening to imagine that all of this is right around the corner, given how far the field has already come in a short time. Indeed, Nicolelis — the media-savvy scientist behind the “rat telepathy” experiment — is aiming to build a robotic bodysuit that would allow a paralyzed teen to take the first kick of the 2014 World Cup. Yet the same factor that has made the explosion of progress in neuroprosthetics possible could also make future advances harder to come by: the almost unfathomable complexity of the human brain.

From I, Robot to Skynet, we’ve tended to assume that the machines of the future would be guided by artificial intelligence — that our robots would have minds of their own. Over the decades, researchers have made enormous leaps in artificial intelligence (AI), and we may be entering an age of “smart objects” that can learn, adapt to, and even shape our habits and preferences. We have planes that fly themselves, and we’ll soon have cars that do the same. Google has some of the world’s top AI minds working on making our smartphones even smarter, to the point that they can anticipate our needs. But “smart” is not the same as “sentient.” We can train devices to learn specific behaviors, and even out-think humans in certain constrained settings, like a game of Jeopardy. But we’re still nowhere close to building a machine that can pass the Turing test, the benchmark for human-like intelligence. Some experts doubt we ever will.

Philosophy aside, for the time being the smartest machines of all are those that humans can control. The challenge lies in how best to control them. From vacuum tubes to the DOS command line to the Mac to the iPhone, the history of computing has been a progression from lower to higher levels of abstraction. In other words, we’ve been moving from machines that require us to understand and directly manipulate their inner workings to machines that understand how we work and respond readily to our commands. The next step after smartphones may be voice-controlled smart glasses, which can intuit our intentions all the more readily because they see what we see and hear what we hear.

The logical endpoint of this progression would be computers that read our minds, computers we can control without any physical action on our part at all. That sounds impossible. After all, if the human brain is so hard to compute, how can a computer understand what’s going on inside it?

It can’t. But as it turns out, it doesn’t have to — not fully, anyway. What makes brain-computer interfaces possible is an amazing property of the brain called neuroplasticity: the ability of neurons to form new connections in response to fresh stimuli. Our brains are constantly rewiring themselves to allow us to adapt to our environment. So when researchers implant electrodes in a part of the brain that they expect to be active in moving, say, the right arm, it’s not essential that they know in advance exactly which neurons will fire at what rate. When the subject attempts to move the robotic arm and sees that it isn’t quite working as expected, the person — or rat or monkey — will try different configurations of brain activity. Eventually, with time and feedback and training, the brain will hit on a solution that makes use of the electrodes to move the arm.

That’s the principle behind such rapid progress in brain-computer interface and neuroprosthetics. Researchers began looking into the possibility of reading signals directly from the brain in the 1970s, and testing on rats began in the early 1990s. The first big breakthrough for humans came in Georgia in 1997, when a scientist named Philip Kennedy used brain implants to allow a “locked in” stroke victim named Johnny Ray to spell out words by moving a cursor with his thoughts. (It took him six exhausting months of training to master the process.) In 2008, when Nicolelis got his monkey at Duke to make robotic legs run a treadmill in Japan, it might have seemed like mind-controlled exoskeletons for humans were just another step or two away. If he succeeds in his plan to have a paralyzed youngster kick a soccer ball at next year’s World Cup, some will pronounce the cyborg revolution in full swing.

Schwartz, the Pittsburgh researcher who helped Jan Scheuermann feed herself chocolate in December, is optimistic that neuroprosthetics will eventually allow paralyzed people to regain some mobility. But he says that full control over an exoskeleton would require a more sophisticated way to extract nuanced information from the brain. Getting a pair of robotic legs to walk is one thing. Getting robotic limbs to do everything human limbs can do may be exponentially more complicated. “The challenge of maintaining balance and staying upright on two feet is a difficult problem, but it can be handled by robotics without a brain. But if you need to move gracefully and with skill, turn and step over obstacles, decide if it’s slippery outside — that does require a brain. If you see someone go up and kick a soccer ball, the essential thing to ask is, ‘OK, what would happen if I moved the soccer ball two inches to the right?'” The idea that simple electrodes could detect things as complex as memory or cognition, which involve the firing of billions of neurons in patterns that scientists can’t yet comprehend, is far-fetched, Schwartz adds.

That’s not the only reason that companies like Apple and Google aren’t yet working on devices that read our minds (as far as we know). Another one is that the devices aren’t portable. And then there’s the little fact that they require brain surgery.

A different class of brain-scanning technology is being touted on the consumer market and in the media as a way for computers to read people’s minds without drilling into their skulls. It’s called electroencephalography, or EEG, and it involves headsets that press electrodes against the scalp. In an impressive 2010 TED Talk, Tan Le of the consumer EEG-headset company Emotiv Lifescience showed how someone can use her company’s EPOC headset to move objects on a computer screen.

Skeptics point out that these devices can detect only the crudest electrical signals from the brain itself, which is well-insulated by the skull and scalp. In many cases, consumer devices that claim to read people’s thoughts are in fact relying largely on physical signals like skin conductivity and tension of the scalp or eyebrow muscles.

Robert Oschler, a robotics enthusiast who develops apps for EEG headsets, believes the more sophisticated consumer headsets like the Emotiv EPOC may be the real deal in terms of filtering out the noise to detect brain waves. Still, he says, there are limits to what even the most advanced, medical-grade EEG devices can divine about our cognition. He’s fond of an analogy that he attributes to Gerwin Schalk, a pioneer in the field of invasive brain implants. The best EEG devices, he says, are “like going to a stadium with a bunch of microphones: You can’t hear what any individual is saying, but maybe you can tell if they’re doing the wave.” With some of the more basic consumer headsets, at this point, “it’s like being in a party in the parking lot outside the same game.”

It’s fairly safe to say that EEG headsets won’t be turning us into cyborgs anytime soon. But it would be a mistake to assume that we can predict today how brain-computer interface technology will evolve. Just last month, a team at Brown University unveiled a prototype of a low-power, wireless neural implant that can transmit signals to a computer over broadband. That could be a major step forward in someday making BCIs practical for everyday use. Meanwhile, researchers at Cornell last week revealed that they were able to use fMRI, a measure of brain activity, to detect which of four people a research subject was thinking about at a given time. Machines today can read our minds in only the most rudimentary ways. But such advances hint that they may be able to detect and respond to more abstract types of mental activity in the always-changing future.

http://www.ydr.com/living/ci_22800493/researchers-explore-connecting-brain-machines

Computer applications can drive cars, fly planes, play chess and even make music.

But can an app tell a story?

Chicago-based company Narrative Science has set out to prove that computers can tell stories good enough for a fickle human audience. It has created a program that takes raw data and turns it into a story, a system that’s worked well enough for the company to earn its own byline on Forbes.com.

Kristian Hammond, Narrative Science’s chief technology officer, said his team started the program by taking baseball box scores and turning them into game summaries.

“We did college baseball,” Hammond recalled. “And we built out a system that would take box scores and historical information, and we would write a game recap after a game. And we really liked it.”

Narrative Science then began branching out into finance and other topics that are driven heavily by data. Soon, Hammond says, large companies came looking for help sorting huge amounts of data themselves.

“I think the place where this technology is absolutely essential is the area that’s loosely referred to as big data,” Hammond said. “So almost every company in the world has decided at one point that in order to do a really good job, they need to meter and monitor everything.”

Narrative Science hasn’t disclosed how much money is being made or whether a profit is being turned with the app. The firm employs about 30 people. At least one other company, based in North Carolina, is working on similar technology.

Meanwhile, Hammond says Narrative Science is looking to eventually expand into long form news stories.

That’s an idea that’s unsettling to some journalism experts.

Kevin Smith, head of the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee, says he laughed when he heard about the program.

“I can remember sitting there doing high school football games on a Friday night and using three-paragraph formulas,” Smith said. “So it made me laugh, thinking they have made a computer that can do that work.”

Smith says that, ultimately, it’s going to be hard for people to share the uniquely human custom of story telling with a machine.

“I can’t imagine that a machine is going to tell a story and present it in a way that other human beings are going to accept it,” he said. “At least not at this time. I don’t see that happening. And the fact that we’re even attempting to do it — we shouldn’t be doing it.”

Other experts are not as concerned. Greg Bowers, who teaches at the Missouri School of Journalism, says computers don’t have the same capacity for pitch, emotion and story structure.

“I’m not alarmed about it as some people are,” Bowers said. “If you’re writing briefs that can be easily replicated by a computer, then you’re not trying hard enough.”

http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/11/tech/innovation/computer-assisted-writing/index.html?hpt=hp_c2