Full face transplant lets firefighter finally feel like a ‘normal guy’ again

August 25, 2016

Just one year after receiving the world’s most extensive face transplant, a firefighter in Mississippi says he feels like a ’normal guy’ for the first time since a burning building collapsed on top of him 15 years ago, the Guardian reported this week.

Speaking to reporters at NYU Langone Medical Center, Patrick Hardison, 42, said, “I’m here today because I want others to see that there is hope beyond the injury.”

As a result of the surgery performed in August, 2015, he reported that he can now see, hear, eat and breathe normally. Moreover, he no longer worries about, “people pointing and staring or kids running away crying.”

Back in 2001, Patrick Hardison was a volunteer firefighter in Senatoba, Mississippi, when a burning building came crashing down on top of him.

In the years following, he underwent 71 reconstructive surgeries before receiving the transplant. 

According to a BBC News article, the history of face transplants is very recent, only dating back eleven years.

In 2005, a French woman received a partial face transplant to replace her nose, lips and chin. Since then, there have apparently been just under 40 face transplant surgeries conducted around the world.

Yet what set’s the surgery conducted on Hardison apart is that it is said to be the first transplant to include a scalp and functioning eyelids, the Guardian informs us.

Since the transplant, doctors have also apparently removed Hardison’s breathing and feeding tubes, and made a few adjustments to his features.

In terms of his appearance, the Mississippi firefighter now looks much like he once did. There are no scars on his face, and he once again has a mop of sandy brown hair. Only now his face is rounder and his eyes smaller than before.

The transplant has also made huge practical changes on his daily life.

Prior to the surgery, his field of vision was severely restricted, he said, because doctors had partially sewn shut his eyelids to protect his eyes. 

This has changed thanks to the transplant, as he is once again able to drive and live independently. 

According to Hardison, the effect on his emotional wellbeing has also been dramatic. 

“Before the transplant, every day I had to wake up and get myself motivated to face the world,” he said. 

Now, he said, “I’m pretty much back to being a normal guy doing normal activities. My life has changed, and it has been renewed.”

Back in June, on a trip to Disney World, he said, “I swam in the pool with my children for the first time in 15 years.”

At the news conference, Hardison was joined by four of his five children. His daughter Allison, 21, also noticed a marked difference in her father.

“After the injury he wasn’t normal on the inside. He was very unhappy.” She said. “Now he’s happy with himself and happy with life.”

The Mississippi firefighter, whose donor was a 26 year old artist said to have died in a bike accident in Brooklyn, has been lucky not to have faced any issues with his body rejecting the transplant. 

Eduardo Rodriguez, chairman of the plastic surgery department at Langone, puts this down to the medication, Hardison’s children, as well as his own strength. 

Rodriguez described the man as a “remarkable individual.”

Hardison said he hopes to meet with his donor’s family in the autumn.

 

Sources include: BBC News, Guardian

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South Korea accuses North of hacking official emails

August 3, 2016
shutterstock_313805942

(Photo: Shutterstock)

According to prosecutors in Seoul, a significant number of South Korean government officials had their email accounts hacked by North Korea last year.

An article in Asahi Shimbun reports that investigations into the cyber-attack found that between January and June 2015, a “North Korean operated group” stole the email passwords of 56 people. This included officials in South Korea’s Defence, Foreign and Unification ministries. 

The story was first reported by Yonhap news agency.

In order to obtain email passwords, Yonhap informs us that in January North Korean hackers used a free web-hosting server to create 27 phishing sites, which pretended to be portal sites run by the South Korean Foreign Ministry, universities or companies related to defence, for example.

As yet it is unknown whether any confidential information was leaked, but an investigation is underway.

This is by no means the first time that Pyongyang has been accused of involvement in cyber-attacks. 

Just a few days previously South Korean police accused the regime of stealing personal data of over 10 million customers of South Korea’s online shopping mall Interpark, Asahi Shimbun reported.

Interpark only became aware that their customer data bank had been hacked on the 11th July, when the company was blackmailed to the sum of 3 billion won ($2.6 million or €2.3 million) in return for not publicising this private information. 

The National Police Agency of South Korea asserts that North Korea’s main spy agency, The Reconnaissance General Bureau, is behind the latest attack. They said that the same codes and internet protocol addresses had previously been used in cyber-attacks carried out by Pyongyang.

According to the Japan Times, Seoul believes that military institutions, banks, various state agencies, TV broadcasters, media websites and a nuclear power plant have also been targeted by North Korean hackers in recent years. 

The South Korean Police Agency believes that the North Korean regime is seeking means of obtaining foreign currency. 

According to the South’s spy agency, Pyongyang has an army of over 1,000 hackers intent on targeting Seoul’s top institutions and officials.

Meanwhile accusations of North Korean involvement in cyber-attacks have also come from beyond the Korean Peninsula

Last year, for example, Pyongyang was accused by the FBI of being behind a major cyber-attack on Sony Pictures. This attack happened to occur as the company was preparing to release The Interview, a comedy film featuring a plot to kill the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

In November of last year, the Sony system was hacked and embarrassing emails and personal information subsequently published. Later, a group calling themselves “Guardians of Peace” threatened cinemas showing the film with attacks in the vein of 9/11. 

According to BBC News, while the North Korean leadership praised the cyber-attack calling it a “righteous deed,” they also called claims of their involvement absurd and denied any responsibility.

Even before this incident, the US government had sanctions in place over North Korea’s nuclear programme. BBC News reported that in response to the attack on Sony, Washington added further sanctions.

This is thought to be the first time the US has punished another country for a cyber-attack on a US company. 

This year, meanwhile, there has been increased tension in the region following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test carried out in January and the series of ballistic missile tests which followed. 

These events provoked an escalation of sanctions imposed by the United Nations, as well as individually by countries including the United States, South Korea and Japan

Sources include: Asahi ShimbunBBC News and Japan Times

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Warmer ocean threatens California sea lion population

July 25, 2016
Photos of California sea lions

California sea lion harem at San Miguel Island rookery. Taken by Tony Orr (NOAA)

According to a recent Reuters article, biologists have reported worrying trends in the California sea lion population resulting from a warming ocean. This has seen both lower birth rates, and an alarming increase in young sea lions starving and being stranded on the beaches.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), since January this year, already over 2,000, mostly young sea lions have been found either dead or dying on the southern and central coasts of California.

This is apparently over twice the average number of stranded animals considered normal, yet comes nowhere near the record 4,600 beached sea lions found in 2015, predominantly in the first half of that year. (Of those animals beached in 2015, rescue teams were able to rehabilitate and release 1,300. The rest were already dead when found or died during rehabilitation.)

Rather than seeing this year’s reduction in stranded sea lions as a positive sign, however, NOAA biologists have proposed that this fall may in fact be a consequence of the declining birthrate. Both phenomena are thought to be due to rising ocean temperatures along the Pacific Coast, which has caused increasing scarcity in the sea lion’s food supply of sardines, anchovy and squid.

The California sea lion population has been estimated to be around 300,000; however this was prior to the dramatic rise in beached animals which began in 2013, the overall impact of which has not yet been calculated.

In contrast to other sea lion populations, California sea lions are not yet considered too be a species at risk. Nevertheless, if continued for a decade or more, this trend could pose “pretty dire consequences,” said NOAA’s Jeff Laake. 

According to Laake, “It’s all nutrition-based.” 

Scarcity of food around the island rookeries off Southern California has lead nursing mothers to venture further afield to feed their pups, which in turn has meant young sea lions being left on their own for greater periods of time. 

Normally, the pups fast for several days while their mothers are away, however, with longer to wait, many malnourished pups and juveniles stray from the islands in search of food, before being caught up in currents and washed up on mainland beaches.

The reproductive cycle of these marine mammals has also been severely affected. NOAA figures from the Santa Barbara coast in the Channel Islands show a 40 percent fall in sea lion births between 2014 and 2015. According to Reuters, this is also due to food-related stresses on adult female sea lions. The more energy required to find prey, the harder it is for them to successfully breed or carry their pups to term.

The rise in sea temperatures has been linked to a decline in winds which help bring cooler, nutrition-rich water from the depths of the Pacific up closer to the surface. It is unclear how long these conditions will persist and experts have postulated that this situation may have been exacerbated by the recent El Niño impact. 

In 1983, another El Niño year, California sea lion pup numbers on all rookery islands in the Channel Islands declined between 30 – 71 percent, according to the NOAA, and it took another 6 years before the recorded total born and that survived equalled those recorded in 1982. 

Sources include: Reuters and NOAA

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Neuroscientists publish most detailed human brain map yet

July 21, 2016

In a new paper published in Nature, neuroscientists have set out the most comprehensive brain atlas to date.

Over the centuries, countless attempts have been made to classify the regions of the brain, however, this research is the most advanced to date, BBC News has reported. 

Specifically, the authors of the paper have demarcated 180 compartments of the cortex, 97 of which have been identified for the first time.

Image by David Shattuck, PhD. and Paul M. Thompson, PhD. http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/gallery/

Behind this paper is the Human Connectome Project, a US-led collaboration which aims to demystify both the wiring of the brain and how this affects our behaviour. 

According to Dr Emma Robinson, co-author of the paper and a member of the Oxford University team behind the software used to analyse the project’s massive amount of data, “This is the culmination of the entire HCP project that we’ve been working towards,”

“This paper is really a mammoth effort by Matthew Glasser and David Van Essen (of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri) – manually labelling brain regions, but also pulling together all the streams that we’ve been working on, trying to collect incredibly high quality images and state of the art imaging processing techniques.”

 In order to procure this data, the HCP team initially held long scanning sessions of the brains of 210 individuals.

One part of the research consisted of observing the physical properties of the brain. For example, variations in the folds and thickness of the cortex; and within the cortex, the amount of myelin, a substance which enfolds nerve fibres, that could be detected throughout.

The researchers also examined brain activity, looking specifically at which parts of the brain were triggered by particular activities, and the degree to which activity levels in different parts of the brain correlated and coordinated with one another. 

The 180 areas of the brain were distinguished using automatic computational tools, which the HCP team then tested and confirmed through 210 fresh brain scans. 

Prof Tim Behrens, who is involved in the HCP but who did not have a hand in the paper said, “Every one of those 180 areas in this paper is described in detail – its relation to the previous literature, its functional properties, its anatomical properties… Nobody will do as good a job as this for a long time.”

“It will now be the parcellation that is used by all of neuroscience, I would think.”

Prof Simon Eickhoff of the University of Dusseldorf in Germany, who was not involved in the research,meanwhile described the research as “a really big step forward”.

At the same time, he sought to put the paper in context. 

“If you look at the classical brain maps, even from the 19th century – they were whole-brain maps; they had a label for every spot on the cortex. Any part of the brain has already been looked at.

“[This work] certainly defines something clearly, where knowledge has been imprecise and maybe contradictory. But ‘new’ is a tricky term.”

Nevertheless, Prof Behrens proposed that this new map “conceptually changes things.”

“Brain areas are not coarsely divided with, say, 50 pieces that we need to figure out what they’re doing.”

“As you get more and better data, you can subdivide it further and further – and we should be thinking about the brain in this much more granular way.”

Sources: BBC News and humanconnectomeproject.org

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Pokémon a go go

July 19, 2016

Since the launch of Pokémon GO on the 6th July, Japan’s Nintendo Co has seen a 14% jump in share value, with its market capitalisation rocketing to 4.5 trillion yen ($42.5 billion, €38 billion) by Tuesday, Reuters has reported.

Much to the frustration of fans around the world, the release of this smartphone game was staggered, initially being limited to just the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Now, however, Pokémon GO is available to download on iPhones and Android phones in a total of 35, mostly European, countries, and has become a worldwide smash hit.

According to data collected by app analytics firm SimilarWeb, on the 7th July, one day after it’s official release in the United States, the game had already been installed onto more US Android phones than Tinder.

Moreover, the figures for app usage have also been astonishing. SimilarWeb reported on the 10th July that over 60 percent of those who downloaded the Android app in the US were daily users, which means roughly 3 percent of the entire US population were playing Pokémon GO on a daily basis.

The firm also reported that daily usage among players averaged 43 minutes 23 seconds, which puts its daily user activity higher than those of Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat or Messenger.

Meanwhile BBC News reported that in its initial week, Pokémon Go was more heavily tweeted than Brexit in the first week of the referendum (15.3 million tweets in comparison to 11.7) and twice as popular as the Euro 2016 football championships in its first week.

Even on the day of the UK referendum vote, there were almost as many Google searches for the game as there were for Brexit, and after it’s release, searches for the game even overtook those for that internet staple, pornography, reported the BBC.

For Nintendo, the runaway success of this game has provoked immense buying of their shares, on a scale that has surprised many.

Takashi Oba, senior strategist at Okasan Securities, said, “I’ve never seen the trend of such a big company’s shares changing so quickly in such a short period of time.” 

In fact, on Tuesday, trading in shares in Nintendo accounted for almost a quarter of all trading on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s main board, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile the turnover of Nintendo shares reached 703.6 billion yen ($6.6 billion, €5.9 billion) by the end of Tuesday, thereby surpassing the 476 billion yen ($4.5 billion, €4 billion) record it set on Friday for trading turnover in individual shares.

Until now Nintendo has not been a contender in the virtual reality and augmented reality market, yet there has been speculation that the company may seek to capitalise on the success of Pokémon GO, for example with other popular characters such as Super Mario and Zelda following down the same path.

Sources include: Reuters, BBC News, SimilarWeb

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US engineers build self-folding origami robot

August 15, 2014

A group of engineers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have succeeded in creating a self-assembling robot.

The robot’s assembly process relies upon origami, a traditional Japanese paper-folding craft.

Made from a composite sheet of paper, polystyrene and a circuit board, the machine can fold itself up from a flat sheet into a four-legged beetle-like form, and crawl away autonomously. The design also includes two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller. Hinges were programmed to fold at specific angles. Each hinge contained embedded circuits that produce heat on command from the microcontroller. The heat triggers the composite to self-fold in a series of steps.

When the hinges cool after about four minutes, the polystyrene hardens – making the robot stiff – and the microcontroller then signals the robot to crawl away at a speed of about one-tenth of a mile per hour.

“We were originally inspired by making robots as quickly and cheaply as possible,” says Sam Felton, doctoral student at Harvard and lead author of the paper described in Science. “The long-term plan is printable manufacturing; the short-term plan is building robots that can go into places where people can’t go.”

The robot is controlled by a timer which means that 10 seconds after the battery is inserted it will begin assembly.

Felton came upon the final design after testing around 40 prototypes. He fabricated the sheet using a solid ink printer, a laser machine, and his hands. Assembly took around 2 hours.

As the pre-stretched polystyrene hardens after assembly, the robot cannot yet unfold itself and return to a flat sheet form.

‘There is a great deal that we can improve based on this foundational step,’ said Felton. He plans to experiment with different kinds of shape memory polymers, including those that are stronger and require less heat to activate.

The potential applications of this type of machine are wide-ranging, stretching beyond the cheap manufacturing of robots.

‘Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there – they could take images, collect data, and more,’  said Felton.

Source: The Engineer; Bloomberg Businessweek 

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Hydrogen cars have the edge on Electric

June 5, 2014

Toyota Motor Corp will next year launch a hydrogen-powered car in the United States, Japan and Europe. For now, people at Toyota are calling it the 2015 FC car, for fuel-cell.

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars will cost significantly more than conventional cars and there are currently few refuelling stations. But Toyota believes that when they are compared to the other zero-emissions alternative, battery-powered electric vehicles, or EVs, fuel cells suddenly don’t look so bad.

Fuel-cell cars use a “stack” of cells that electro-chemically combine hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity that helps propel the car. Their only emission, apart from heat, is water vapor, they can run five times longer than battery electric cars, and it takes just minutes to fill the tank with hydrogen – far quicker than even the most rapid charger can recharge a battery electric car.

“With the 2015 FC car we think we’ve achieved a degree of dominance over our rivals,” Satoshi Ogiso, a Toyota managing director, said in a recent interview at the group’s global headquarters. “With the car, we make a first giant step” toward making fuel-cell vehicles practical for everyday use.

What’s more, executives and engineers say Toyota is willing to sell the car at a loss for a long while to popularize the new technology – just as it did with the Prius, which, with other hybrids, now accounts for 14 percent of Toyota’s annual sales, excluding group companies, of around 9 million vehicles.

As a result, drivers in key “green” markets such as California may be able to buy the car for a little more than $30,000-$40,000, after government subsidies – if management approves a pricing strategy put forward by a group of managers and engineers. General Motors Co’s Chevrolet Volt, a near-all-electric plug-in hybrid, for comparison, starts at around $35,000 in the United States.

“It really provides all the benefits of a plug-in EV without the range anxiety and without the time it takes to recharge it,” says Bill Fay, group vice president of the Toyota division, in a interview at the Chicago Auto Show.

Since most battery-powered cars are limited to about 100 miles per charge, the term “range anxiety” has come to mean the worries that owners face about running out of juice before they can limp home or to a public charging station. Hydrogen cars can go hundreds of miles on a fillup, and the fillup only takes about five minutes, Fay points out.

Takeshi Uchiyamada, the 67-year-old “father of the Prius” whose success catapulted him from mid-level engineer to Toyota board chairman, says technology inefficiencies will make the battery electric car little more than an “errands car” – a small run-around for shopping, dropping the kids at school and other short-haul chores.

As with battery electric cars, a major challenge for fuel-cell automakers is a lack of infrastructure, with few hydrogen fuel stations in the world. Estimates vary, but it costs about $2 million to build a single hydrogen fuel station in the United States, according to Toyota executives.

At present, California, the state that once had planned a “hydrogen highway” of stations, has nine. But the state has plans to vastly increase the network, says Bob Carter, a senior vice president for Toyota.

Studies have shown, he says, that fewer stations than might be expected can support the needs of a lot of drivers. As few as 68 is enough to meet the needs of drivers of 10,000 cars.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars, Carter says, will “fundamentally change” how America thinks about alternative fuel vehicles.

However, many automobile manufacturers are staking their future on battery electric cars including Nissan Motor Co, Tesla Motors Inc, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG,GM, Ford Motor Co and Chinese automakers backed by the country’s industrial policymakers. China offers generous purchase incentives for those buying battery electric cars and aims to have 5 million “new energy” vehicles – mostly all-electric and near all-electric plug-in hybrids – on the road by 2020.

Tesla chief Elon Musk has said hydrogen is an unsuitable fuel for cars. In a videotaped speech last year to employees and others at a new Tesla service center in Germany, Musk said: “Fuel-cell is so bullshit. Hydrogen is a quite dangerous gas. It’s suitable for the upper-stage rocket, but not for cars.”

Even Toyota only expects tens of thousands of fuel-cell cars to be sold each year a decade from now as the new technology will need time to gain traction. Ogiso says Toyota has cut the platinum use per car by more than two-thirds through nanotechnology and stack-design improvements, and he expects to trim that further. Engineer Hitoshi Nomasa said a hydrogen-powered Toyota SUV now uses around 30 grams of platinum in the fuel-cell, down from 100 grams previously. Platinum currently costs $1,437 an ounce (28 grams) on world markets.

Toyota has also borrowed spare parts from the Prius and other gasoline-electric hybrids it sells around the world. While the fuel-cell car uses hydrogen as fuel, it otherwise resembles the hybrid models as both use electricity to power their motors.

While costs have come down significantly, Toyota says a hydrogen car’s fuel-cell propulsion system alone still costs it close to $50,000 to produce. That’s partly why some Toyota money managers want a more conservative pricing strategy – of $50,000-$100,000 – said one individual on the 2015 FC car launch team.

“It might be tough to price it below $50,000,” Ogiso said. “But anything is possible at this point.”

 

Sources: USA Today, Business Insider, Toyota Co.

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