The Next Step in Robotic Neurosurgery

"The idea of using a robot for neurosurgery seems like a (pardon the pun) no-brainer. At European Robotics Week, currently being held in Brussels, the EU-funded Robocast demonstrated that it’s closer than ever to making robotic neurosurgery a reality.
No matter how steady a surgeon’s hands are, they’re still about 10 times shakier than Robocast’s machine, which was designed by a group of scientists from Israel, the U.K., Germany and Italy. That makes it perfect for delicate “keyhole surgery,” or surgery done through a tiny hole drilled through a patient’s skull called a “burr hole.”
Needles and catheters inserted through the skull can then be moved by a probe operated by a surgeon, who can feel the resistance of the brain thanks to an advanced haptic device which gives tactile feedback to the operator of the machine. In the future, the probe will be used to perform surgical procedures not possible today, such as allowing surgeons to take a curved path from an entry point in the skull to a targeted lesion.
Ultimately, according to Robocast, the goal is to make “treatment quicker, less invasive, and more effective,” especially when it comes to treating tumors, hydrocephalus, Parkinson’s disease, Tourette syndrome and many other neurological diseases.
Of course, surgical robots are nothing new. They’ve been popular for treating prostate cancer for years now (although not everyone agrees on their effectiveness). What’s so special about Robocast is the machine’s level of autonomy.
Basically, the robot factors in the surgeon’s inputs along with other factors such as diagnostic information from the patient as well as data gathered from optical, electromagnetic and ultrasound sensors in the robot. The machine then proposes the most efficient, risk-free path for the procedure, which is then accepted or rejected by the surgeon.
Robocast also has a higher standard for accuracy than most surgical robots, which, considering the margin for error in brain surgery, makes sense. That would explain why, according to a European Commission press release, it’s capable of performing 13 different types of movement at the operating table, nine more than humans can do.
Right now, procedures have only been performed on dummies in a hospital operating room in Verona, Italy and it’s perfectly understandable why it might be a while longer before we see this technology used on human beings.
The real problem, however, isn’t the safety or efficacy of robots like the one developed by Robocast; it’s the cost. Most surgical robots cost anywhere between $1-$2 million and require 150-200 procedures to master, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. That doesn’t even count other expenses such as maintenance and replacing single-use appliances.
For relatively simple procedures, many wonder if surgical robots are worth the cost, especially when you factor in the worry that robotically assisted surgery isn’t any more safe in the long-term than normal laparoscopic surgery. While some of that is offset by the savings associated with shorter hospital stays, hospitals still need to know that they’re going to use a robot enough to justify its cost.
So, will Robocast’s robot be worth it in the eyes of hospital administrators? It’s hard to say, but it certainly seems to take a big step in the field of surgical robotics with its haptic feedback and (eventual) curving probe. When you start talking about a robot performing procedures that no human has ever done before, as opposed to simply assisting a human with a procedure, then the game arguably changes. That’s when robotics’ relationship to medicine is altered forever."

in Time

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Who’s Top of the Google+ Charts? Britney, of Course

"Everyone who’s been hoping and praying for a Britney Spears comeback all these years, you finally have your wish…well, kind of. While the former pop princess may not be back to her days of musical ubiquity just yet–personally, I’ve not liked anything she’s done since “Toxic,” but that’s just me–she has just taken the top spot…of Google+ users.
PCMag has noticed that, through some strange twist of Internet fate, Spears has overtaken Google CEO Larry Page as the most-followed person on Google+, having gathered almost 800,000 followers in just over four months.
If the pairing of Spears and Page seems like an odd combination, the remaining cast filling out Google+’s five most followed accounts further illustrates the weird mix of mainstream and tech celebrity that apparently appeals to the fledgling social network’s userbase: Following Page, the next most followed account belongs to Snoop Dogg, followed by Mark Zuckerberg and then, unexpectedly, Tyra Banks.
Google hasn’t revealed how many active users Google+ currently has–the service passed 40 million sign-ups last month–but judging by this list, I’m much more interested in seeing some kind of demographic study of who’s on there…and whether they actually know that it’s 2011, and not 2001. "

in Time
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Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer accuses the ANC of apartheid-style censorship

"Nobel prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer has spoken out against her government's controversial new secrecy legislation, suggesting it is a move back towards the harsh censorship that existed under apartheid.
In an article written for the Observer Gordimer said freedom of expression had been "struck out as a danger to the state", under the harsh Protection of State Information Bill, which may become law in South Africa by the end of the year. Leading commentators, editors and opposition parties dubbed the day the bill was passed in the South African parliament last week "Black Tuesday".
The bill bans the publication of classified documents – even if the information could be in the public interest – and allows the government to class almost any category of information as secret. Anyone involved in whistleblowing or any journalist or editor involved in publishing such information could face 25 years in prison. The bill is also seen as a way of the government controlling how it is represented, and there are worries that its provisions are so all-encompassing that it could even curtail freedom of expression in literature.
Gordimer argues that the attack on media freedom is an attack on everyone's "right to know and think", which would affect the work of all writers. ANC politicians have said the laws are necessary because the country is under threat from "spies" and foreign invasion, while state security minister Siyabonga Cwele has claimed that groups opposing the bill were "local proxies of foreign spies".
President Jacob Zuma has been accused of having too close a relationship with his country's security services and of conducting a personal vendetta against South African media who have been putting his party and his leadership under ever increasing scrutiny. Raymond Louw, veteran former anti-apartheid editor and media activist, has told reporters the law is a betrayal of the ANC's commitment to press freedom.
"The intention of this bill is to stop the media from disclosing corruption, malpractice and misgovernance, and inefficiencies," he said. "It is a betrayal of the commitment to a free press and the constitutional commitment to a free press because it is so wide-ranging. And it is not reasonable for them to want to cover up secrets beyond those which are absolutely necessary for protection of national security."
Gordimer's attack is likely to embarrass the ANC ruling party, especially those who are already uncomfortable with the bill, which has two further stages to go through before it is signed into law by Zuma.
The author pours scorn on the idea that South Africa might be under any kind of threat from outside forces, saying: "Is Cuba going to send an invasive force to bring to power our small communist party?"
She writes that the bill would not just affect the press but also poets, novelists and playwrights: "Workers in all literary modes will be subject to the bill through our fictional characters' actions and opinions, alive in our books."
The author has long links with the struggle against black oppression. She had three books banned under the infamous apartheid regime's censorship laws, along with an anthology of poetry by black South African writers that she collected and had published. (...)"

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Microsoft signs confidentiality pact with Yahoo

"Microsoft Corp has signed a confidentiality agreement with Yahoo Inc, allowing the software giant to take a closer look at Yahoo's business, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Microsoft joins several private equity firms that are also poring over Yahoo's books and operations, as they explore various options for striking a deal with the struggling Internet company.
Yahoo, which fired its chief executive in September, is undergoing a "strategic review," to revamp its business and its stagnant revenue growth.
Private equity firms KKR and TPG Capital have also signed confidentiality agreements with Yahoo, people familiar with the matter previously told Reuters. The firms are looking to potentially buy minority stakes in Yahoo of up to 20 percent, with an eye toward eventually taking over the whole company, the people said.
Silver Lake, another private equity firm, has also signed an nondisclosure agreement with Yahoo, according to the technology blog AllThingsD.
Some private equity firms have balked at signing Yahoo's NDA because of restrictions that would prevent them from forming consortiums, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Reuters reported last month that Microsoft, which has a cash pile of $57 billion, was considering a joint bid for Yahoo.
Microsoft's signing of a nondisclosure agreement with Yahoo occurred "recently," according to the source. The confidentiality agreement between the two companies was earlier reported by the New York Times on Wednesday.
Yahoo and Microsoft declined to comment.
Microsoft last tried buying Yahoo in 2008, offering to pay as much as $47.5 billion, or $33 per share. But Yahoo rebuffed the offer.
After that failed bid, Microsoft struck a 10-year search deal with Yahoo in 2009, that allows Microsoft's technology to power Yahoo's search results and gives Microsoft a 12 percent cut of advertising revenue on Yahoo.
Shares of Yahoo were up 1 cent at $14.98 in early afternoon trading on Wednesday. Microsoft shares were down 0.9 percent at $24.58."

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Shepard Fairey Unveils New Hope Poster to Support Occupy Movement

"The artist behind the iconic Barack Obama Hope poster has designed a new version in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This time around, Shepard Fairey has replaced – or covered – the President’s face with the Guy Fawkes mask synonymous with the protests, reports the Washington Post.
The 31-year-old, who rose to fame following the 2008 frenzy over his image of candidate Obama, said the latest offering is a statement of support to both the man and the cause.
“As flawed as the system is,” he wrote on his blog last week, “I see Obama as a potential ally of the Occupy movement if the energy of the movement is perceived as constructive, not destructive. I still see Obama as the closest thing to ‘a man on the inside’ that we have presently.”
Fairey also shared his thoughts on the relationship between the President and the anticapitalism protests sweeping the U.S. and other countries – and called on doubters to stick with Obama.
“Change is not about one election, one rally, one leader, it is about a constant dedication to progress and a constant push in the right direction. Let’s be the people doing the right thing as outsiders and simultaneously push the insiders to do the right thing for the people.”

in Time
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Celebrities turn spotlight on press at UK inquiry

"Hollywood stars and other high-profile figures will try to turn the tables on Britain's celebrity-obsessed press this week when they put newspapers under the spotlight at a public inquiry into media standards.
The likes of "Notting Hill" actor Hugh Grant will join parents of murder victims to spell out how they and their families have suffered from a ruthless hunt for stories to boost flagging paper sales and sate a public's clamor for gossip about the rich and famous.
From a phone-hacking scandal which has engulfed Rupert Murdoch's News Corp empire to the use of "chequebook journalism," the tactics of Britain's notoriously aggressive press will be exposed in detail.
Stewart Purvis, professor of television journalism at London's City University said it would be "a trial of the British popular press."
"What we're going to hear next week are almost the prosecution witnesses. It's going to be very powerful television," he told Sky News.
Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the inquiry in July after revelations that journalists from the News of the World, part of Murdoch's British stable, had hacked the phone of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler who was later found murdered.
Dowler's parents, who were also hacked, will be the first to give evidence on Monday. Grant, actress Sienna Miller and "Harry Potter" author JK Rowling will be among those appearing this week.
Last Wednesday, the lawyer representing 51 clients who say they have suffered at the hands of the press delivered a withering critique of newspapers which he said had resorted to unacceptable, "tawdry" tactics to find exclusives.
Three of those he represents say they believed papers' hounding had contributed to family members committing suicide or attempting to kill themselves.
"When people talk of public interest in exposing the private lives of well-known people or those close to them, this is the real, brutally real impact which this kind of journalism has," lawyer David Sherborne said.
All were targeted to get stories to make money for the papers, he told the inquiry. "That's why it was done: to sell newspapers. Not to detect crime or to expose wrongdoing, not to protect society or for the public good."
Most of the focus of the inquiry so far has fallen on News International, the British arm of News Corp, whose lawyer has admitted that phone-hacking was widespread until 2007, when one reporter was jailed, and possibly beyond. (...)"

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Gaddafi's son captured by Zintan fighters

"Muammar Gaddafi's son and once heir apparent Saif al-Islam has been captured in the southern Libyan desert by fighters who vowed to hold him in their mountain town of Zintan until there was an administration to hand him over to.
The fighters claimed his capture as gunfire and car horns expressed jubilation across Libya at the seizure of the British-educated 39-year-old who a year ago seemed set for a dynastic succession to rule the oil-producing African desert state.
Saif al-Islam and three armed companions were taken without a fight overnight, officials said, and he was not injured -- unlike his father, who was killed a month ago on Sunday after being captured in his home town.
"We have arrested Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in (the) Obari area," Justice Minister Mohammed al-Alagy told Reuters, adding that the younger Gaddafi, wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court at The Hague, was not injured.
A photograph of Saif al-Islam showed him lying on what appeared to be a reclining sofa with his fingers wrapped in bandages and his legs covered with a thick, brown blanket. The wounds were apparently sustained earlier.
The Zintan fighters, who make up one of the powerful militia factions holding ultimate power in a country still without a government, said they planned to keep him in Zintan, until they could hand him over to the authorities.
Prime minister-designate Abdurrahim El-Keib is scheduled to form a government by Tuesday, and the fate of Saif al-Islam, whom Libyans want to try at home before, possibly, handing him over to The ICC, will be an early test of its authority. (...)"

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Facebook hit with unsolicited porn, violent videos

"Facebook Inc said on Tuesday that it is investigating a rash of unsolicited graphic images that hit some users' accounts this week.
The images, Internet links and videos depicting pornography and violence have hit some people's Facebook newsfeeds in recent days.
"We experienced a coordinated spam attack that exploited a browser vulnerability," Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said in a statement emailed to Reuters. "Our efforts have drastically limited the damage caused by this attack, and we are now in the process of investigating to identify those responsible."
Facebook does not know yet who was behind the attack and a motive was not clear, Noyes added during an interview with Reuters.
Facebook users were tricked into pasting and executing "malicious" javascript in their browser URL bar, which led to them unknowingly sharing the content, Noyes explained.
Facebook engineers have been working to reduce this browser vulnerability, he added.
Facebook and other "Web 2.0" sites are easy targets for such attacks because they pull in a lot of content from outside sources, according to Paul Ferguson, senior threat researcher at Trend Micro Inc.
"It seems every other day there is some new Facebook 'threat,' but this is just the new reality of Web 2.0 and social networking," Ferguson said. "It is 'low-hanging fruit' for criminals."

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Pets Are Getting Killed for the Insurance Money

"Insurance fraud has reached a new low in the U.K., where authorities have discovered a rise in claims on pet insurance policies.
According to the Association of British Insurers, last year £1,929,900 ($3 million) was collected in pet insurance compared to £420,000 ($667, 842) in 2009, the Telegraph reports. In 2010, 2.3 million cats and dogs were insured, and since almost any type of animal can be insured, experts are bracing for an even bigger influx in dishonest claims.
The new scheme includes pet owners selling or killing their own pets to claim insurance money, as well as staging “fake accidents” to conceal previous injuries or conditions not covered by the policy. Some insurers believe people go as far as to deliberately lose animals or make up their existence.
Experts are also questioning the involvement of veterinarians, who might prescribe unnecessary and expensive medicine or treat animals who are not actually sick in order to collect money.  Carys Clarke, a solicitor who works as an insurance fraud investigator, told Daily Mail that vets are not required to use the cheapest drugs available and can charge up to double the price for treatment. “These are particularly worrying types of fraud because it often requires the help of a vet,” she said."
in Time
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New payment app aims to make shopping easier

"Ready to ditch your wallet, cash and credit cards? A mobile payment app lets users make purchases with their smartphone without taking the device out of their pocket or purse.
Developed by electronic payment startup Square, the app called Card Case allows customers to pay for products and services at local merchants automatically by simply providing their name to complete the transaction.
"You walk in, say your name, and walk out. It's a seamless payment experience," said Megan Quinn, director of products for Square.
The app automatically opens a tab when it detects that a customer is within 100 meters (328 feet) of a business, as long as they've enabled the functionality in the app and approved the business.
The user's arrival, along with their name and photo, is announced on the merchant's app giving them the ability to charge products and services to the customer's credit card.
"You can pay without ever reaching for your purse, taking out your wallet, or even your phone," said Quinn. "It requires no new or unusual customer behavior -- you don't have to wave your phone, or preload money."
By giving the merchant access to customers' names up front, and removing the transactional aspect, the company hopes to provide a personal touch, helping customers feel like regulars even at unexplored shops.
"We've removed the mechanics of the transaction and brought it back to the relationship and conversation between the merchant and their customer," Quinn explained, adding customers tend to return to places where they feel comfortable.
Over 20,000 merchants have signed up for the app across the United States in eight weeks, including coffee shops, bakers, barbers and even farmers market stalls.
Although other companies have announced mobile payment apps, many have implemented Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, which uses a chip in smartphones to send encrypted payment data when the phone is waved in front of the merchant's reader.
Last week, PayPal announced an update to their Android app that uses this technology to allow users to swap payments between each other by tapping their phones together. The Google Wallet app available for the Nexus S, uses the technology to allow payments anywhere MasterCard PayPass is accepted.
"NFC is an interesting technology that has the potential to power many interesting new applications," said Quinn. "We just don't think it's necessary to help small businesses grow."
There is currently no NFC chip included in iPhones, and NFC equipment amongst merchants is not yet mainstream.
Card Case, available for iOS and Android smartphones is only available in the United States, but the company plans to expand to international markets in 2012."

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A long history in Penn State child abuse case

"Until a few days ago, Jerry Sandusky's face smiled down on students from a mural in downtown State College, the home of Penn State University, where football players and coaches are treated like royalty.
On Wednesday, the creator of the mural painted over Sandusky. The former assistant football coach was charged a few days earlier with sexually abusing eight boys over more than a decade.
"I got an email yesterday from one of the victim's mothers saying simply, 'Michael, can you please take Sandusky off the mural,'" said Michael Pilato, a local painter who created the "Inspiration" mural in 2001.
It will not be so easy to wipe out the stain on Penn State's reputation from the alleged abuse and what critics see as a cover-up by university officials who were told that Sandusky was seen raping a young boy in a shower in 2002.
Sandusky, who played football at Penn State and then coached for 32 years at the school, has denied the charges and has been released on bail.
The case has drawn comparisons to the child abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church, whose top officials are also accused of covering up child abuse over decades.
In this tight-knit town where the university is everything, Sandusky was known as a church-going family man and a philanthropist. "Jerry was just held in very high regard. It's definitely a shock to hear something like this. This has kind of blindsided everyone in town. He was the definition of Penn State," said Nick Savereno, who grew up in the university town, attended Penn State and now owns a sandwich shop near campus.
That the alleged abuse continued even after university officials were alerted to specific allegations has raised questions about the power and influence of the football program and its coaches -- especially Joe Paterno, one of the most revered figures in American sports.
The football program at Penn State was so sacrosanct as to be almost untouchable. "We just had this empire all by itself, reporting to nobody," said one member of the university's board of trustees.
Pennsylvania State University used to be a sleepy engineering school, but it was turned into a national powerhouse with the money raised by its marquee football program. In 2008, the last year for which data is available, Penn State was one of the 20 largest recipients of federal research dollars in the country. It has fostered what is now the world's largest dues-paying alumni association. (...)"

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Sex Change Surgery Is Now Tax Deductible

"The Internal Revenue Service isn’t going to fight people any longer who want to deduct the cost of gender reassignment surgery from their taxes.
According to a so-called acquiescence filed earlier this month, IRS officials notified the Tax Court that it would abide by a 2010 decision that held that some medical expenses from such surgeries could be deducted. It also ends the nearly decade-long battle that Rhiannon O’Donnabhain, who was born male and fathered three children, waged against the IRS to deduct $5,000 in expenses she incurred to bring her anatomy in line with her gender identity. The IRS at first denied her request claiming the procedure was entirely cosmetic.
O’Donnabhain’s victory highlights the struggle that people with Gender Identification Disorders face as they undergo the long, painful and potentially costly treatment to contour the bodies that they were born with into what they think they ought to be. Each year more than 1,000 people undergo the surgery, which costs tens of thousands of dollars and often isn’t covered by insurance, according to the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association.
“There is something to be said when a federal court recognizes general identity disorder as a serious medical condition,” says Karen Loewy, an attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the non-profit that represented O’Donnabhain, in an interview. The IRS is saying that it’s going to do what the Tax Court tells them to do, Loewy says.
The case was not a complete victory for O’Donnabhain. Her request to deduct expenses for her breast augmentation were not allowed because it was directed at improving her appearance and not to treat disease as construed by the tax code.
Anthony Infanti, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who followed the case, tells TIME Moneyland that the court didn’t explicitly rule that out for future cases. “It was more fact-specific to that situation,” he says.
The Tax Court’s panel of judges could hardly be accused of bending over backwards to accommodate O’Donnabhain. Even in his concurring opinion, Tax Court Judge Mark V. Holmes lamented that making gender identity disorder a tax-deductible medical expense drafts “our court into culture wars in which tax lawyers have heretofore claimed noncombatant status.”
And some of the court’s language disturbed Infanti.  “It clearly showed how political tax law can be,” he said.  “Some of the dissenting opinions were clearly hostile to the taxpayer.”

in Time
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Professor Resigns After Students Complain She Never Taught

"Who says college students never go to class? For one George Washington University course, it was the professor who didn’t show up.
Now, professor Venetia Orcutt is resigning from her position as chair of GWU’s physician assistant department following repeated complaints that she never showed up to teach her two courses.
Orcutt didn’t let her bad attendance affect her students’ grades, though — she gave all students enrolled in her “Evidence Based Medicine” courses As in 2010.
The course is required for all pre-med students, who (thankfully, considering they could operate on us someday) were angry about not not receiving proper instruction in spite of the high letter grades.
GWU has awarded Orcutt’s students credit for taking the class and is also giving them refunds."
in Time
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