Global Org Turns Up Heat, But No Easy Answers For Apple
Written by NewsFactor Tuesday, 31 January 2012 23:55 No Comments
The iPhone 5 isn't close to being released yet, but if the past is any guide, its production may be well under way. So, after a New York Times report about "labor in harsh conditions" at the Chengdu, China, plant that assembles Apple products, including iPhones and Pads, a global organization that calls for fair labor conditions is gathering an online petition calling for improvements.
"Every day, tens of millions of people will swipe the screens of their iPhones to unlock them," reads the petition by SumOfUs. "On the other side of the world, a young girl is also swiping those screens. In fact, every day, during her 12+ hour shifts, six days a week, she repetitively swipes tens of thousands of them. She spends those hours inhaling n-hexane, a potent neurotoxin used to clean iPhone glass, because it dries a few seconds faster than a safe alternative."
Heat's on Cook
While the group wants Apple to make all its products ethically, it says it chose this time for the petition because the iPhone 5, the first product to be launched by new CEO Tim Cook, is due later this year and "he can't afford for anything to go wrong."
The Times reported on explosions at the Chengdu plant attributed to aluminum dust, which killed four workers and injured 77. The group says it garnered 35,000 signatures in the first 24 hours but updated figures were not available. The Times report cited unnamed Apple sources saying the company could improve conditions if it wanted to.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. MSNBC.com reported that Cook sent an e-mail to employees in response to the Times story, saying, "We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain....Any accident is deeply troubling, and any issue with working conditions is...
Translating Brain Waves to Reconstruct Sounds and Conversations You’ve Heard
Written by Rebecca Boyle Tuesday, 31 January 2012 22:09 No Comments
Reconstructing Words The top shows a spectrogram of six isolated words (deep, jazz, cause) and pseudo-words (fook, ors, nim) presented to an individual participant. At the bottom, the speech segments have been reconstructed based on readings from a set of electrodes attached to the patient's brain. PLoS Biology
Researchers see a way to eavesdrop on our brains
As you listened to your colleagues' conversations at work today, or to a podcast on the train home, or to your personal trainer shouting lift, your brain completed some complex tasks. The frequencies of syllables and whole words were decoded and given meaning, and you could make sense of the language-filled world we live in without actively thinking about it. Now a team of researchers from the University of California at Berkeley has figured out how to map some of these cortical computations. It's a major step toward understanding how we hear - and a possible step toward hearing what we think.
By decoding patterns of activity in the brain, doctors may one day be able to play back the imagined conversations in our heads, or to communicate with a person who can think and hear but cannot speak.
Brian Pasley and colleagues at UCB worked with 15 volunteer patients who were being treated for epilepsy. The team also included researchers from UCB, UC San Francisco, the University of Maryland and The Johns Hopkins University. To diagnose the seizures' places of origin, surgeons implanted electrodes directly onto the patients' brains, providing a rare opportunity to study electrical signals in various brain regions. Pasley said the research team visited patients in their hospital rooms and played them recorded words while monitoring activity in the superior temporal gyrus, a region of the auditory cortex.
"We're looking at which brain sites become active. Because we can determine some association between those brain sites and different frequencies, we can watch what brain sites are turning on and off for these recordings, and that lets us map back to the sound," he said.
Since neurologists can know the frequencies of certain phonemes - specific language sounds - this cortical spectroscopy can decode which sounds, and then perhaps which words, a person is hearing. Pasley compared it to piano playing: "If you're an expert pianist, you know what musical notes are associated with each piano key, and you understand that relationship between the key and the sound," he said. "If you turn the sound off, and have the pianist watch which piano keys are being pressed, this expert would have an idea what sound is being played even though they can't hear anything."
The patients would hear a single word or a single sentence that would fall in the range of normal speech, between 1 and 8,000 Hz, Pasley said. Words were spoken by people of both genders and a wide range of voice frequencies. As they listened, the patients' brain activity was recorded. Then Pasley developed two computational models that crunched the electrode recordings and would predict the word being heard. One of the two methods could create a reproduced sound so close to the original word that Pasley and his colleagues could guess what it was 90 percent of the time, he said.
"It's not intelligible, but you can identify some similarities," he said. Watch the video below to hear what he means.
Neuroscientists have long been trying to decode the inner workings of the brain, associating neurons in the sensory cortices with stimuli that fire up those neurons. But the newest research, along with this paper, peers more deeply into the recesses of our minds, promising to illuminate thoughts so they can be seen and shared with others.
In December, Boston University researchers published research explaining how they stimulated patients' visual cortices and induced brain patterns to create a learned behavior, even when the subjects did not know what they were supposed to be learning. Last fall, Jack Gallant - also at UCB - published a paper describing the reconstruction of video images by tapping the visual cortices of people who watched the videos.
This form of mind-reading, which neurologists prefer to call "decoding," is a long way from everyday use. And there are clearly some ethical questions surrounding its use (although it would be hard to implant electrodes to peep in on an unwilling person). But there are some practical, medically motivated reasons to do these things, like communicating with locked-in patients, or those who have lost the ability to speak because of a stroke or a degenerative muscle disease. That depends on some other vagaries of the brain that are still not well understood, Pasley said. Development of neural prostheses depends on the assumption that brain activity is the same during real experiences and imagined ones.
"There is some evidence that when people imagine visual stimuli or sound stimuli, some of the same brain areas do seem to activate as when you are actually looking at something or hearing something," he said. "But we didn't have a good idea at all, even if the same areas are activating, if they are processing the same way, and using the same rules, as during perception."
In this study, the researchers only focused on English words and phonemes, but Pasley would like to study other languages too, he said. The paper appears in the journal PLoS Biology.
Startup America Gets a Do-Over
Written by Entrepreneur Update Tuesday, 31 January 2012 21:54 No Comments
On the one-year anniversary of "Startup America," the White House's sweeping public-private effort to bolster high-growth companies, President Barack Obama has issued a new call to give entrepreneurs a leg up -- but some critics suggest that the effort is all but useless.
The President today sent Congress a new batch of small-business enhancing measures -- collectively called the Startup America Legislative Agenda -- which he hopes will expand tax relief and shore up capital for startups and small businesses that are creating jobs. The roughly $48 billion agenda would also seek to attract and retain foreign-born entrepreneurs and skilled immigrants to the U.S.
"I urge Congress to send me a common-sense bipartisan bill that does even more to expand access to capital and cut taxes for America's entrepreneurs and small businesses," the President said in a statement.
Among other things, Obama would give small businesses that hire or boost wages in 2012 a 10 percent tax credit on new wages. He also called on Congress to permanently double the amount of start-up expenses entrepreneurs can deduct from their taxes to $10,000 from $5,000 and extend to 100 percent the first-year depreciation for the purchase of qualified property placed in service before Jan. 1, 2013.
The President would also expand the Small Business Investment Company program to allow for up to $4 billion in annual support. And he called for what's being referred to as an "IPO on-ramp" program, which would change how current securities laws and regulations are phased in for small companies and startups in their first years after going public. Obama also proposed creating a national framework for entrepreneurs and small businesses to raise capital through "crowdfunding," a type of investment regime that asks for typically small amounts of capital from strangers.
Although a number of the President's proposals have already won bipartisan support in the past, some critics suggest that passage is unlikely in an election year. "Given the opposition to the payroll-tax cut, obviously [the President] doesn't have the cooperation of Congress," says Dean Baker, co-director of the nonpartisan Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He added that this latest announcement is nothing more than a wish list. "Republicans don't want to give him any key victories before the election."
What's more, a number of last year's more prominent measures still haven't won approval -- or they're being held up for one reason or another. The U.S. Small Business Administration's $1 billion early-stage investment fund, which aims to invest in businesses that need between $1 million and $4 million in financing won't begin until later this year. And while the SBA has dedicated $1 billion toward new state funds aimed at helping improve capital access, the agency has so far launched only one Impact Investment Fund in Michigan, providing just $130 million in capital to high-growth businesses.
And at least one of the measures contained in today's legislative agenda was also included in last year's Startup America package and still hasn't received a green light. The permanent elimination of the capital-gains tax on certain small-business stock held for more than five years needs Congressional approval to proceed. A similar capital-gains tax provision was passed in 2010 but expired last year.
"It is the case that there are individual provisions that have moved in one House [of Congress] or another," says Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council. "What the President was doing by putting forward this legislation is to put together a core of small business and capital access programs… into one package to gain bipartisan support."
To be sure, many of last year's Startup America provisions have not only gone forward but are also informing these latest proposals. For instance, the Treasury Department was charged with hosting a conference last year that looked into small businesses' access to capital. And the ideas stemming from that conference helped construct the President's current proposal on easing small and young companies' entrance into the public markets, according to Mary Miller, the Treasury's assistant secretary for financial markets.
Further, the private side of last year's Startup America package seems to be making progress even though the chief private initiative -- dubbed the Startup America Partnership -- launched only in September. In 2011, a number of initiatives rolled out to aid small businesses, including mentorship programs and entrepreneurship courses provided by nonprofits and corporations.
And despite the slow start, the Startup America Partnership -- which is aimed at spotlighting entrepreneurs, helping them connect with resources and supporting regional startup ecosystems -- has attracted nearly 3,000 high-growth firms and more than 50 business partners like Hewlett-Packard and Intuit. To date, those companies have collectively made more than $1.2 billion in in-kind commitments to the program, which is chaired by Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL. And just today, nine new regional chapters have signed on -- bringing the tally to 17.
Entrepreneur Charlotte Creech called her experience with the Startup America Partnership instrumental. As the CEO and co-founder of Combat2Career, a West Simsbury, Conn.-based online service that connects veterans with higher-education opportunities, she reached out to one of the regional divisions of Startup America. The director of the Connecticut program arranged not only for Creech and her business partner to attend vital networking events, but also make connections to high-level government officials. "These connections have been instrumental in helping us spread the word, gain support and establish credibility," says Creech, who has so far raised more than $225,000 in funding to develop the web portal.
Only time will tell how effective the program overall will be for entrepreneurs, Steve Case told Entrepreneur.com from the New York Stock Exchange where he and startup founders participating in the program rang the opening bell yesterday. "I think for the first year, we made great progress."