Monthly Archives: May 2012

Paralyzed, Moving a Robot Their Minds

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Cathy Hutchinson, one of the study’s subjects, uses a robot arm to serve herself a drink, a first for her in 15 years  since a stroke.

By , NY Times
Published: May 16, 2012 (Click here for original article)

Two people who are virtually paralyzed from the neck down have learned to manipulate a robotic arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach out and grab objects. One of them, a woman, was able to retrieve a bottle containing coffee and drink it from a straw — the first time she had served herself since her stroke 15 years earlier, scientists reported on Wednesday.

“She had a smile on her face that I and the research team will never forget,” said Dr. Leigh R. Hochberg of the Department of Veterans Affairs, an author of a study reporting the achievement.

The report, released online by the journal Nature, is the first published demonstration that humans with severe brain injuries can effectively control a prosthetic arm, using tiny brain implants that transmit neural signals to a computer.

Scientists have predicted for years that this brain-computer connection would one day allow people with injuries to the brain and spinal cord to live more independent lives. Previously, researchers had shown that humans could learn to move a computer cursor with their thoughts, and that monkeys could manipulate a robotic arm.

The technology is not yet ready for use outside the lab, experts said, but the new study is an important step forward, providing dramatic evidence that brain-controlled prosthetics are within reach.

“It is a spectacular result, in many respects,” said John Kalaska, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal who was not involved in the study, “and really the logical next step in the development of this technology. This is the kind of work that has to be done, and it’s further confirmation of the feasibility of using this kind of approach to give paralyzed people some degree of autonomy.”

The two people in this study, a 58-year-old woman and a 66-year-old man, are quadriplegic, unable to use their limbs as a result of strokes years ago.

Each had a tiny sensor about the size of a baby aspirin injected just below the skull, in an area of the motor cortex known to be active when people move their arms or hands. They learned to move a robotic arm, mounted at shoulder height on a dolly next to them, by watching the researchers move the arm and imagining they were actually controlling it.

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The sensor — a chip of silicon with 96 pinprick electrodes connecting to a patch of neurons — transmitted those neurons’ firing patterns from this imaginary movement to a computer, through a wire. The computer recorded the patterns, then translated them into an electronic command: Move left, now down, now right.

With a little training, the two participants took control of the arm. It was the first time the man had used a limb of any kind in three years, and the first time in 15 years for the woman. Both were able to move the robotic arm and hand skillfully enough to pick up foam objects.

“It was encouraging to see that, 15 years after the brain was disconnected from the limbs, it was still able to generate all the neural activity necessary to make movements,” John P. Donoghue, a neuroscientist at Brown University and the study’s senior author, said in a conference call on Tuesday.

His co-authors included Dr. Hochberg, who is also affiliated with Brown and with Massachusetts General Hospital, and Patrick van der Smagt, of the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, in Germany.

The researchers still have many hurdles to clear before this technology becomes practical in the real world, experts said. The equipment used in the study is bulky, and the movements made with the robot are still crude. And the silicon implants generally break down over time (though the woman in the study has had hers for more than five years, and it is still effective).

No one has yet demonstrated an effective wireless system, nor perfected one that could bypass the robotics altogether — transmitting brain signals directly to muscles — in a way that allows for complex movements.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Andrew Jackson of the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University wrote that economics might be the largest obstacle: “It remains to be seen whether a neural-interface system that will be of practical use to patients with diverse clinical needs can become a commercially viable proposition.”

But all agree that the new study — and the look on the paralyzed woman’s face when she served herself a sip of coffee — should give researchers the incentive and confidence to solve these problems.

The ultimate goal, Dr. Donoghue said, is to develop a system that is so effective and discreet that people with brain injuries “can interact with the environment without anyone knowing they’re using a brain-machine interface.”

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The South: A Photo Essay (the final part)

A Place Called Home

This is actually the picture that inspired this little project.  It was the beginning of May and I was driving along Highway 82, headed from Cuthbert to Shellman, when I looked over and saw a field that I had seen close to a million times before.  But there was just something about it on that day that made me pull over on the side of the road and snap a picture.

The field had just been plowed, so the red Georgia clay was fresh on the surface.  The pecan trees had sprouted vibrant green leaves, which any Southerner knows, is the final sign that winter is over and spring has arrived.  The dainty wildflowers along the highway were also doing their best to welcome the warmth and sunshine of spring.  And it goes without saying that the Georgia pines were still standing tall and green.  But what I think makes this scene so wonderfully Southern is the old wooden barn.  Who knows what it used to store, or who used to work inside its wooden walls.  Today it sits there, weathered by the sun, wind, and rain, slowly rusting and deteriorating while larger and newer barns house larger and newer machines.  It’s just like a grandfather passing along his place to his son or grandson.

Scenes like this one are the South.  The South is a region with large cities such as Atlanta, Charleston, and New Orleans and it is slowly modernizing, though perhaps reluctant to urbanize.  Rural culture and agriculture have been the heart of Southern culture from the beginning and remain so to this day.  That’s why if you couldn’t ride around and see farmland for as far as the eye could see, scattered with old barns and houses, you wouldn’t be in the South any more.

*****

            I will be the first to admit that the South that I have portrayed in this photo essay is a rather idealized and romanticized version of the actual South that we live in from day to day.  Because I am well aware that the real South also entails racism, homophobia, extreme literalist religious sects, far right wing conservatism, along with the lowest education scores in the nation.  I know all of this, and for these reasons, it sometimes seems that the South doesn’t love me back as much as I love it.

But the South that was shown in the last sixteen pictures – the South of porches, warm smiles, and Family, the South of iron-clad friendships and love that transcends boundaries – also exists, and this is the South that I grew up in.  In all my travels, this is the South that I reminisce about and tell people of.  This is the South that I call Home.

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The South: A Photo Essay (pt. 10)

Room to Roam

Perhaps this aspect is more rural than Southern, but one thing I love about home is having nearly unlimited space to do what you want.  I’ve almost always lived on or near a farm, so there was at least a hundred acres to walk around on or explore.  You can ride four-wheelers, have a bonfire, or even plant a garden if you want to.  One of the things I miss – and maybe it’s a little crude – is being able to pee in my yard without having to worry about getting in some kind of trouble.  Talk about freedom!

I know that having wide-open spaces is Maggie’s favorite part of living in the South!  She has reluctantly adjusted to living within the city limits, but she knows that she gets to ride in the back of the truck whenever possible.  And just look at her face: smiling, wind blowing in her hair; it’s unbridled joy!

I love visiting big cities like Atlanta, or Boston, or Frankfurt – and especially the larger ones like New York City – but after a while, I’m craving the countryside.  Even if it’s only a park, I feel like I can recharge as long as there is some grass underneath me and hopefully a tree or two around.

I’m now living in a city, but at least I do have a miniature backyard and I’ve already scouted out the parks that are near me.  And going to the park may hold me over, but I know that I’ll be glad to visit home for the holidays and be able to drive out into the country where I don’t hear any sirens or cars and don’t see any people.  Then, at least for a few days, I’ll have room to roam and a place to sit and stare off ou’chyonda.

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the South: A Photo Essay (pt. 9)

The Magic of Fire

Picture this:  sitting outside under the night sky with a group of friends.  Besides the silvery luminescence of the universe overhead, there is no light to compete with the dancing fire in front of you.  Maybe you’re laughing your ass off, or maybe you’re all just staring into the fire, listening to the wail of Southern Blues coming from the stereo.  Either way, you probably have to fall into a quick and tense silence in order to hear the coyotes crying nearby.

Sitting around a campfire is one of my favorite things to do in the world.  It’s a perfect place to have a drink and trade tall tales, or as we like to say, “tell stories and listen to lies.”  Time holds no authority around a campfire, and if you’re lucky, you may even get to witness one of Papa’s magic fires that hold you spellbound with all of the colors of the rainbow.  And one of the best parts: you wake up the next morning and you still smell like campfire smoke.

Campfires are by no means a solely Southern thing; they light up the darkness and draw people together in the countryside all throughout this nation and the world.  There’s something about staring into the liquid flames, something about knowing that our most distant ancestors ended their days by staring into the same flames.  Fire to them was life; it provided both light and warmth; it gave them a place to congregate at night, to mingle and trade ideas, to grow.

Fire is a powerful force, both devastating and beautiful.  It gives life and it destroys.  It was here before humans walked the earth and it will be here long after we are gone.  Fire is nature’s magic.

(Part 9 of 11)

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the South: A Photo Essay (pt. 8)

Where the Gods Live

You will see that the Southern sky (okay, the sky in general) holds my attention like almost nothing else.  To me, it is where the gods live, where Nature unfolds and shows herself to us, her children.  The sky harbors sunrises, sunsets, brilliant shades of blue, and terrifying storms.

One thing I missed about Home while I was living in Germany was the clouds.  I don’t know the atmospheric science behind it, but the clouds in Marburg were never big enough to take up the entire sky like they do here.  Once I returned, I was again shown just how gigantic and impressive the clouds in a Southern sky can be.  They may start small and wispy and then build to be huge, billowing and white.  In the heat of the afternoon, they’ll turn black and unleash a torrent of lightning and thunder that will stop you in your tracks.  And then at the end of the day, the clouds will work in tandem with the sun to provide a radiant and spectacular sunset.

Standing under clouds that seem to stretch for thirty miles or under a clear and pristine sky that has no end, one receives the humbling and necessary reminder of how small we are.

I hold the Sky in reverence, and it holds me in awe.

A Florida Sunrise 

Some may say that Florida is part of the South, and others may not.  While it may lie further south than even Georgia, I have to argue that Florida is not really part of “the South.”  Its culture is simply too different.  Perhaps it’s because Florida was settled by a different group of Europeans, or – more probable – because Florida is the retirement destination for our nation’s northern Yankees.  Whatever the reason, Florida’s culture differs from that of the South, though it does share some similarities.

Florida is a land where cowboys still exist, waking up hours before the sun rises to saddle their horses and ride out to round up the cattle.  Florida is still very agricultural, competing with California to provide the best citrus fruit to the rest of the nation, while at the same time providing places like Miami Beach, Disney World, and the University of Florida, one of the largest research universities in the world.

So, Florida may not be part of the South, but it does share some Southern characteristics: conservative values, focus on family, food & fellowship, and a large agricultural base.  Florida is where I was born and I still have a lot of family there, so it’s definitely helped shape this little Southern boy.

Scenes like the one depicted in this picture are common for central Florida: the sun rising slowly in the morning over a pasture, casting light on the livestock, the palmettos, the oaks & Spanish moss, and the sandy soil.  It’s a beautiful sight, but you better get your work done before noon; once the sun burns off the Florida morning fog, the temperature will rise just as high as and faster than the sun itself.

A Sunset Gives Way to the Southern Night Sky

Sunsets around the world are magnificent; from the beach shores to the mountaintops, and from the vast deserts to the sprawling rainforests of the globe, sunsets inspire us to stop and take in the natural beauty.  Southern skies are no different.  When the sun meets the horizon, it may throw an array of color into the sky, or simply slip gracefully out of sight.

Once the last trace of light has faded, you can really appreciate a rural Southern night sky.  Seeing the “big stars” is never a problem, but on a clear night when the full moon isn’t bathing everything in its silver light, you can count every single star of the Milky Way.  Lord knows you’ve got the time.

Fire in the Sky

Sometimes you may look out your window at the end of the day and have to catch your breath.

The sky is on fire.

 Calm Eternity 

Sometimes sunsets may not be fiery or billowing or extravagant at all.

They may be subtle, smooth and soothing.

Thunda’ Head Rollin’ In

There’s almost nothing more awe-inspiring to me than a good thunderstorm, or a “thunda’ head” as Southerners call them.  In the summer months, there is no shortage of them.  I love the way the temperature rises, as if in anticipation, and then suddenly drops as the storm’s winds arrive with a howl.  I love witnessing the majesty of Lightning that can penetrate even the darkest of nights, and hearing the growing rumble of Thunder as it approaches from the heavens and then explodes, shaking the very foundations of the Earth.

Mother Nature has many sides.  She has gentle, rolling hills and breathtaking landscapes that can be blanketed with the pure white of snow.  But with a spark of distant lightning, she can announce the arrival of her other side.  She’ll forcefully, yet humbly, display her energy and raw power, her frightening beauty.  Within minutes, however, she’ll provide the gentle and calming sound of rain to reassure the Earth of her care and replenish the soul of anyone who would but listen.

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The South: A Photo Essay (pt. 7)

Throughout the South, mansions and plantation homes, old tobacco barns and dilapidated slave houses still stand as a reminder of the South’s decadent and checkered past.  Some of these homes are in irreparable decay; others have been restored to their original splendor.

This is my house in Cuthbert.  If its haunted-looking walls could talk, they would tell stories of hot summers with the curtains blowing in the scarce breeze; of dark desolate nights when only the crickets break the silence; of parties, dancing, and music; of standing tall while the Confederacy declared its independence and then lost in America’s bloodiest war.  Yes, if this house could tell us of its past, it would recount tales of children laughing and playing in the yard; it would tell about Christmas mornings, huddling around the fireplaces; but it would probably also mention the slave bell ringing, signaling that the mistress of the house required warm water.

This house acts as a perfect symbol of the South’s mixed past: built high and mighty in the era of Southern affluence, the foundation is still strong, but the chipped paint and patchwork reflect the modern time of economic downturn that hits the South particularly hard.  But like many Southerners themselves who may seem a little worn or rough around the edges, it stands as a reminder of what once was and what could be again.

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The South: A Photo Essay (pt. 6)

Down that Red Dirt Road

There is nothing quite like the mixture of these colors: the red Georgia clay, the springtime green of the pines, and the dreamy blue and white of a perfect, wished-for sky.  This scenery isn’t particular to one spot; dirt roads intertwine all throughout the South.  This specific dirt road is special, however; it leads to the Farm.  The road from Cuthbert leaves town, weaves through the country, and then…it simply ends.  There is no warning, no sign urging caution.  The pavement simply stops, giving way to this red dirt road.  That is how you know when you’ve arrived in “the middle of nowhere.”

You keep on going, deep into the pine forests, feeling that you have suddenly slipped back in time.  You look up in the rearview mirror and the cloud of dust traps the worries of the world back with the asphalt.  You drive on, winding around the curves, up and down the steep hills, cross the bridge, and then finally get your first glimpse of the Farmhouse.  Now, it’s just time to go and sit on that porch I was talking about!

Some people think “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go” is just a nursery rhyme…

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The South: A Photo Essay (pt. 5)

Friday Night Lights 

Baseball may be America’s Pastime, but in the South, Football is King.  Every community, town, or city has a field – and it doesn’t matter if you’re playing next to a cornfield or in a big stadium, as long as you’re playing.  Once football season kicks off in the fall, Friday nights are owned by high school games; Saturdays belong to the college series; and Sundays are reserved for the NFL.

On College campuses throughout Dixieland, quarterbacks are revered as demigods; the field is their dominion.  Coaches are escorted in and out of stadiums with as much security as the US President.  It is no coincidence that the South Eastern Conference dominates college football each year and almost always has a team playing in the National Championship.

Yes, football reigns supreme here, and though I’ve never lived in any other Southern state, I can’t imagine anyone taking football (high school, at least) more seriously than the Georgians…except maybe the Texans.

*****

“The utter darkness of a rural southern sky is pierced by the lights shining down on the field.  I’m down and set on the line of scrimmage.  The night air is so hot and humid that my vision is blurred by the sweat dripping down my face.  All I can hear are the short, deep gasps coming from my teammates.  The roar of the crowd has been pushed from my head.  I take a deep breath through my nose.  I smell the familiar odors of football:  the grass of the field, the stench of sweat.  But most of all I feel the tension.  The air is thick with it.  I can hardly remain still; my adrenaline won’t allow it.  Finally, my quarterback steps up.  “Red!  Set!  Hut!” and the ball is snapped…

…I fire off the line and plow into the man in front of me.  Our pads clash and we are engaged in yet another ten second battle of strength.  My quarterback receives the ball and shoots forward.  He dives right up the middle and…SCORE!  There seems to be an eerie silence, a second that lasts forever.  But then, the crowd erupts into an explosion of cheering.  I laugh.  I can’t believe it.  Randolph Southern just scored its first touchdown! “

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The South: A Photo Essay (pt. 4)

Round the Supper Table

I love everything about food: the way it looks, the way it’s prepared, the way it smells, the way it brings people together, and of course, the way it tastes.  Then it’s no wonder that I’m happy that food is a central aspect of Southern culture.  Food is naturally important to every culture; it sustains its people and how it’s prepared and enjoyed says a lot about the culture itself.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet people from all over the world, and when discussing a variety of things, we’ve all agreed on one thing:  there is a huge difference between “food” and “meal.”  Food is something that you eat to survive; a meal is an experience, centered around food, that is shared by people.

Growing up in the South, we had a home-cooked meal almost every night and unless there was something special on, we all sat around the supper table to eat it, not in front of the TV.  Kitchens back home are loud and always seem to be busy.  A Southern kitchen is still traditionally a woman’s domain and it’s where your Mama, your Nanny, your Auntie, or your Grandmama turn food into the best meals of your life.  You may have heard of the saying “Food so good, it’ll make you want to slap yo’ mama!”  Well, I think Southern food is so good, your mama will want to slap herself!

The Southern smorgasbord of food includes all of the classics: fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, grits, tomato sandwiches, and cornbread, just to name a few.  And no self-respecting Southern pantry is complete without hot sauce.  But there is also some stuff that’s only for the more adventurous folks, like chittlins, neck bone, and pigs’ feet.

Which fresh vegetables you have depends on the season and recipes are never in “cups” or “ounces,” but instead call for “a pinch,” “a bit,” or “a lot.”  A lot is usually meant for the oil, because we’ll eat most anything fried, from chicken, to pork chops, to ribs, to steak.  Some of the best cornbread is fried, and I’ve even heard of someone frying an Oreo.

So, no, Southern food isn’t the healthiest (a Southern breakfast with pancakes, eggs, and sausage probably has about 5,000 calories…per bite), but whether it is home cookin-soul food, real Southern barbeque, or a fresh hunk of meat hot off the grill, it’ll be some of the best tasting food you’ve ever put in your mouth.

Having fresh-squeezed lemonade on the porch may be a little romanticized, but you can bet that every Southern refrigerator has a gallon of tea sitting in it.  And “tea” in the South, mind you, isn’t hot or served in a dainty little cup.  It’s sweetened, served cold with plenty of ice, and we drink it from glass cups, mason jars, or red solo cups.  I don’t have to tell any of you that there’s nothing more refreshing when you’ve been working out in the yard than a cold glass of sweet tea.

Like I mentioned before, it’s not just the food that’s special; it’s how it is served, shared and eaten that adds the Southern flair.  Sure, we know how to set a table with all the fancy silverware and fine China, but I’d much rather pile my food high on a paper plate and eat it out on the porch step.  We usually eat together anyway, but when there’s any type of special occasion – if someone got good news at work, or if the semester ended well, or if you have company – you better watch out.  We’ll call all of the immediate family and there’ll be a sure ‘nough get together.  I love it when there’s such a gathering.  The table doesn’t fit all of the chairs, so you’ve got chairs pulled up to the corners and squeezed in between people.  Everyone’s reaching over everybody else trying to fix their plate, and between the clinking of the forks on the plates and the “pass me the peas” and “hand me a piece of cornbread,” you can hear stories (of the day or of times gone past) and laughter.  That is a meal.

Eventually comes a point when all plates are clean (though you already passed the point of being full a drumstick and a helping of tomato gravy ago), but no one gets up just yet.  More stories have to be told first.

Then comes the dessert.  And as far as I’m concerned, banana puddin’ is the South’s gift to the world.  But if sweet, banana, sent-straight-from-heaven, custardy goodness isn’t your thing, there’s probably a cake sitting around somewhere.  I’ve come to discover that being able to bake a good pound cake or a good three-layered cake is like a right of passage for a Southern lady.  Now, judging someone’s status based on their baking ability may be a little harsh, but you won’t hear me complaining when the competition produces an eight pound caramel cake or a red velvet cake that’s recipe has been carefully guarded for over fifty years.

So, as you can see, food is a passion of mine.  Luckily, both sides of my family know how to cook.  I love Sunday morning pancakes, the taste of a steak right off the grill, my Grandma’s homemade lasagna and vegetable soup, and “Farm gourmet” suppers.  But more than the food itself, I love sharing a meal with family and friends.  Whether it’s my family from down the road, or my friends from half way across the globe, I love that we can share a common table, a common experience, a common friendship.

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The South: A Photo Essay (pt. 3)

On the Porch 

This is probably my favorite spot in the whole world: sitting on the porch at the Farm.  It may not be as exciting as sitting on the wall of a 1,000-year-old castle in Germany, but I love it nonetheless.  Whenever I have too much to do, or whenever the world or people are getting on my nerves, or even when I’m just missing home, I close my eyes and picture myself rocking on the Farm’s back porch.

There, you can have a hot cup of coffee in the morning, a cup of sweet tea in the afternoon, and a cold beer in the evening.  You can sit and watch the hummingbirds feed, check out the flowers’ growth, and see the occasional deer at the wood line.  And a car won’t drive by for days.

In my own personal opinion, a porch epitomizes life in the South.  Sure, the particular foods, and family, and accents, and politics – all of that is important, but the Porch is the nexus, the meeting point of all those things.  All Southern houses have one, most have one on the front and out back, and if you’re lucky, you live in one of those old houses that has a porch all the way around.

All good Southern food can be enjoyed on a porch, whether in a chair or down on the porch step, and the cooler is never more than an arm’s length away (whether it’s your own arm, or the arm of someone down at the other end).  Every good dog loves a porch because that’s where their world of the yard meets your world of the house.

On the porch is where lifelong friends and strangers alike can sit and tell stories about the good old days, or pass on little tid-bits of wisdom.  And let’s face it; the porch is one of the best places to catch up on a little gossip.  But, just a little.

But the porch is the absolute best place to simply sit and stare off ou’chyonda (and for any of you poor souls who have never stared off ou’chyonda – bless your hearts – or aren’t fluent enough in Southern to understand what I’m saying, I’m talking about simply sitting on the porch and staring off out into the distance and not saying a word).

Of course, you better choose wisely when you want to sit on the porch.  If you try to do some porch sittin’ in the middle of a Southern summer day, you’ll probably regret it very quickly.  The Dog Days of summer belong to unbearable temperatures, the gnats, and the ‘skeeters’ (more commonly known as mosquitoes) and if you don’t keep up your guard, they’ll eat you alive and carry away your corpse in pieces.

And let’s get one thing straight: Hollywood and Northern authors like to speak of “sultry Southern nights” or “sultry Southern summer afternoons” as if they’re something dreams are made of.  But any honest Southerner will tell you that “sultry” is just a glamorized and romanticized way of saying “hotter than hell and so humid that you can’t stand outside for one minute without being covered in sweat from head to toe.”  But, I guess “sultry” does make it sound better.

So, the porch is a place for meeting and greeting; it’s a place for listening and talking, sippin’ and drankin’.  The porch can be loaded with the members of your family, all of your friends, or it’s a perfect place to sit alone and think (or NOT think).  Time on a porch – like the pace of life in most Southern towns – seems to go much slower.

You’re always welcome on the porch, and when you leave, there’s one thing you will always hear:  “Ya’ll come back!”

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