[via Nina Reznick]

Researchers Train Minds to Move Matter

Published: July 20, 2009

Learning to move a computer cursor or robotic arm with nothing but thoughts can be no different from learning how to play tennis or ride a bicycle, according to a new study of how brains and machines interact.

GETTING THE SIGNAL In experiments, signals from the brains motor cortex were translated by a decoder into deliberate movements of a computer cursor .

The research, which was carried out in monkeys but is expected to apply to humans, involves a fundamental redesign of brain-machine experiments.

In previous studies, the computer interfaces that translate thoughts into movements are given a new set of instructions each day akin to waking up each morning with a new arm that you have to figure out how to use all over again.

In the new experiments, monkeys learned how to move a computer cursor with their thoughts using just one set of instructions and an unusually small number of brain cells that deliver instructions for performing movements the same way each day.

This is the first demonstration that the brain can form a motor memory to control a disembodied device in a way that mirrors how it controls its own body, said Jose M. Carmena, an assistant professor of computer and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the research.

The experiments were described Monday in the journal PloS Biology.

The results are very dramatic and surprising, said Eberhard E. Fetz, an expert in brain-machine-interface technology at the University of Washington, who was not involved in the research. It goes to show the brain is smarter than we thought.

In this experiment, as in previous ones, electrodes are implanted directly into the brain to record activity from a population of 75 to 100 cells that help guide movement. As animals move a hand or arm, the activity pattern of those cells is recorded.

Later the limb is immobilized, and researchers can predict what the animal wants to do with it by looking at the cells activity; that pattern is then sent to a so-called decoder a computer algorithm that transforms the brain signals into commands that a machine can carry out.

But because of the variability caused by motions of the electrodes and changes in brain cells, researchers have assumed that a new population of cells would be in control of the movements each day. They recalibrated the decoder each day, and the subject had to relearn the task move a cursor, reach with a robot arm every time.

Dr. Carmena wondered what would happen if he kept the decoder constant as it measured the activity of just a few neurons observed to fire reliably with a given task. Could an initially random group of 10 to 15 neurons, with practice, be coaxed into forming a stable motor memory? Could the brain, not the decoder, do the learning?

Dr. Carmenas team trained two monkeys to use a joystick to move a computer cursor to blue targets on a circle and extracted a decoder for the movements. The animals then practiced moving the cursor with their thoughts for 19 days.

In the beginning, the cursor trajectories were hit or miss. But over time the pattern of cell firing stabilized, and the monkeys developed a stable mental model for cursor control.

This is exactly how you learn to ride a bike or play tennis, Dr. Carmena said. At first your movements are uncoordinated. But with time, a motor memory is engraved in your brain.

Dr. Carmena then decided to test the memory in his monkeys. He changed the decoder. Instead of moving the cursor to blue targets, for example, the color changed to yellow.

Within a couple of days, the monkeys learned the new task using the same small group of cells, he said. Moreover, they could switch back and forth between the tasks with ease. They had two mental maps that did not interfere with one another.

This is like learning to play tennis on a clay court and switching to a grass court or like switching between a mountain bike and a road bike, he said. The brain can acquire multiple skills using the same set of neurons to carry out different movements.

If brain machine interfaces can be made safe enough for use in humans a feat that is by no means guaranteed paralyzed people may one day operate prosthetic limbs as naturally as they use their own limbs, Dr. Carmena said.



Imagine waking up on the Socotra Island and taking a good look around you. After a yelp of disbelief, you'd be inclined to think you were transported to another planet - or traveled to another era of Earth's history.

The second would be closer to the truth for this island, which is part of a group of 4 islands, has been geographically isolated from mainland Africa for the last 6 or 7 million years. Like the Galapagos Islands, this island is teeming with 700 extremely rare species of flora and fauna, a full 1/3 of which are endemic, i.e. Found nowhere else on Earth.

The climate is harsh, hot and dry, and yet - the most amazing plant life thrives there. Situated in the Indian Ocean250 km from Somalia and 340 km fromYemen, the wide sandy beaches rise to limestone plateaus full of caves (some 7 kilometers in length) and mountains up to 1525 meters high.

The name Socotra is derived from a Sanskrit name, meaning "The Island of Bliss"... Is it the beaches? The isolation and quiet? Or the strange and crazy botanical allure alien-looking plants: H.. P. Lovecraft's secret inspiration?

The branches spread out into the sky and from below appear to hover over the landscape like so many flying saucers... And from above, they have a distinct mushroom look:

Was the famous Chtulhu myths creator aware of these forbidding mountains with their hauntingly weird flora (think of plant mutations from his "The Color out of Space")? We almost tempted to call Socotra the other "Mountains of Madness" - the trees and plants of this island were preserved thru the long geological isolation, some varieties being 20 million years old...

We begin with the dracena cinnibaris or Dragon's Blood Tree, the source of valuable resin for va rnishes, dyes, and "cure-all" medicine; also (predictably) used in m

edieval ritual magic and alchemy.

here is also the Desert Rose (adenium obesium) which lo

oks like nothing so much as a blooming elephant leg:

Getting around can be a challenge, as there are almost no roads.

Despite the fact that this island has around 40,000 inhabitants, the Yemeni government put in the first roads just 2 years ago - after negotiations with UNESCO, which has declared this island a World Natural Heritage Site. I would prefer a camel ride to what is bound to be a bumpy and slow 4x4 ride... It is a quiet and peaceful enclave in an otherwise troubled world. If you decide to visit there, you can forget about beachfront hotels and restaurants; this island is geared towards Eco-tourism and sustaining the local economy and way of life.

This island is a birder's paradise as well, with 140 different species of birds, 10 of which are not found anywhere else in the world. A unique Socotra warbler, sunbird, starling, bunting, sparrow and cisticola are among the ones found here. There are also Socotra Cormorants:

Want to see some fairy-tale (and possibly haunted) shipwrecks? There are diving tours available...

To give you a glimpse of Socotra's and Yemen 's in general totally unique architecture, check out this place located on the mainland: Al Hajarah, Yemen - Walled city in the mist.

Socotrai is one of those "lost world" islands (separated from the world six million years ago) where intrepid travelers - particularly those seeking exotic nature and wildlife in a remote tropical setting - can go days on end without rubbing shoulders with that less-than-endangered species: tourists.

Known for decades as the Galapagos of the Indian OceanMiddle East 125 kilometers in length and 45 kilometers across. , it's the world's tenth richest island for endemic plant species. And it's the biggest island in the


A Well-Planned Retirement - From The London Times:

Outside the Bristol Zoo, in England , there is a parking

lot for 150 cars and 8 coaches, or buses.

It was manned by a very pleasant attendant with a

ticket machine charging cars £1 (about $1.40) and

coaches £5 (about $7).

This parking attendant worked there solid for all of 25

years. Then, one day, he just didn't turn up for work.

"Oh well", said Bristol Zoo Management - "we'd better

phone up the City Council and get them to send a new

parking attendant . . . "

"Err . . . no", said the Council, "that parking lot is your


"Err . . . no", said Bristol Zoo Management, "the

attendant was employed by the City Council, wasn't


"Err . . . no!" insisted the Council.

Sitting in his villa somewhere on the coast of Spain

(presumably), is a man who had been taking the

parking lot fees, estimated at £400 (about $560) per

day at Bristol Zoo for the last 25 years. Assuming 7

days a week, this amounts to just over £3.6 million

($7 million - or $280,000 every year for 25 years)!

And no one even knows his name.


Northwest Louisiana offers versatile locations, adds soundstages

By Alexandyr Kent • akent@gannett.com • July 8, 2009

On the big and small screens, Shreveport has already doubled for Alaska in "The Guardian," New York in "Factory Girl," New Orleans in "Thief" and Portland in "Mr. Brooks." In the near future, locations in northwest Louisiana will be disguised as Miami in "Harold & Kumar 2," Kansas City in "Mad Money," rural Virginia in "For Sale by Owner" and Maine in "The Mist."

For location manager Ed Lipscomb, there has been only one look he couldn't replicate in northwest Louisiana.

"It's the ocean, that's it," said Lipscomb, who has completed four films here. "From my point of view, this is a gold mine."

Production companies like the fact the urban Shreveport area is surrounded by hills, lakes, rivers and different types of topography.

"It wasn't until the hurricanes that any of the location managers realized all that we had to offer and that we could be Anywhere, USA," said Clare France, director of community outreach at the Robinson Film Center. She also works as a industry liaison for an advocacy group called the Northwest Louisiana Film Alliance.

Locations that can't be "doubled" within northwest Louisiana are recreated on soundstages. There are three soundstages in Shreveport, one wave tank and more production facilities on the way.

StageWorks of Louisiana

StageWorks of Louisiana completed $2 million worth of upgrades in December. It offers two large soundproof soundstages and lots of office space.

The facility has been used by "Mr. Brooks," "The Year Without a Santa Claus," "The Mist" and "Mad Money."

StageWorks used to be Expo Hall. In April 2006, the city of Shreveport leased the building to a group of private investors for the purpose of converting it into a soundstage.

"We feel like the facility turned out very well," said managing partner Mike Moorhead. "We feel like we are going to continue to attract a slate of TV and film projects."

Stage West

Stage West has kept a low profile but has actually attracted five projects — "Factory Girl," "Initiation of Sarah," "Blonde Ambition," "Cleaner" and "Mad Money."

It's owner, Teri McGuire, has poured $3 million into the repurposed warehouse so far and is planning $2 million in upgrades.

In addition to offering soundstages, offices and storage space, Stage West has partnered with TurnKey Louisiana, a consortium of equipment vendors, to make its facility more attractive.

TurnKey offers lighting, camera, sound and grip equipment for rent and sale from Hollywood vendors. Also added are post-production editing suites.

"For a filmmaker, having all the tools under one site make it a hell of a lot easier," said Gary Strangis of TurnKey Louisiana.

Mansfield Studios

"Harold & Kumar 2" and "The Better Man" have shot at Mansfield Studios, and "The Mist" used it for storage.

Mansfield Studios used to be the AT&T plant, but a big part of the one million square-foot building has been set aside for film production.

"Because it's extremely large, we're fairly nimble," said Lampton Enochs. His company, Louisiana Production Consultants, manages the facility.

Louisiana Wave Studio

Many scenes from The Guardian, starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, are being filmed in a giant water tank that was built especially for the production in Shreveport. Val Horvath/The Times

Northwest Louisiana also offers the Louisiana Wave Studio, a 750,000-gallon wave tank, which was constructed for the making of "The Guardian," a Touchstone Pictures feature about the U.S. Coast Guard.

"We hope to have our first clients in there by early July or August, but nothing is quite nailed down," said facility partner Ken Atchity. "We want to rent it to studios. The question is, 'When does a major studio have a major water picture about to roll?'"

Atchity believes Hollywood makes five major water pictures per year.

"If we can get one or two of those five, we'll be great," Atchity said.

More facilities to come

All the buildings have been retrofitted to accommodate the industry.

Millennium Films and RiverDream Productions, which are producing movies here, have said they are building or establishing production facilities.

Millennium Films executive producer Michael Flannigan said his company is in negotiations to build a 100,000-square-foot facility valued at $7 million to $10 million.

"We plan on doing probably six pictures a year," Flannigan said.



For those of you that didn't see the show, Celine Dion appeared to walk out and stood next to Elvis as the two sang a duet of the classic "If I can Dream." It was like he was raised from the dead. Everyone was asking how it was done. ET said it was a hologram. Estimated cost of this was said to have cost between $50,000 to $100,000, and it is said it took months and months to create. Prior to the performance, Celine practiced with an Elvis impersonator. She sounded great singing with Elvis. Celine Dion was in front of a LIVE studio audience. This is absolutely unbelievable how they have done this. It really - really does look for all the world that Elvis is actually standing there live on stage singing along side Celine Dion in front of the live American Idol audience. Watch and listen to the audience going berserk, as they themselves think they are actually seeing Elvis right there in front of them. A truly amazing use of modern day technology brings Elvis Presley back to life in front of your own eye's.

Da' End is Near [via Danny Aguillard]

Reverend Boudreaux was the part-time pastor of the local Cajun Baptist Church and Pastor Thibodaux was the minister of the Covenant Church across the road.
They were both standing by the road, pounding a sign into the ground, that read:
'Da End is Near
Turn Yo Sef 'Roun Now
Afore It Be Too Late!'
As a car sped past them, the driver leaned out his window and yelled, 'You religious nuts!'
From the curve they heard screeching tires, and a big splash...
Boudreaux turns to Thibodaux and asks, 'Do ya tink maybe da sign should jussay.....'Bridge Out?'