Saturday, 30 June 2012

New brain scanner helps paralysed people spell words

                            fMRI is usually used to track brain activity by measuring blood flow

A new brain scanner has been developed to help people who are completely paralysed speak by enabling them to spell words using their thoughts.
It uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to help patients choose between 27 characters - the alphabet and a blank space.
Each character produces a different pattern of blood flow in the brain, and the device interprets these patterns.
The British Neurological Association called the research "exciting".
The study appears in Current Biology journal of Cell Press.
fMRI is normally used to track brain activity by measuring blood flow.
Earlier research
The new technology is based on earlier applications of the technique, which used free-letter spelling to allow people to answer the equivalent of multiple-choice questions with just a few possible answers.
British neuroscientist Adrian Owen, for instance, used fMRI to help a man believed to have been in a vegetative state for five years to answer "yes" and "no" questions by interpreting his brain activity.
But the new scanner uses the entire English alphabet and the blank space.
"This novel spelling device constitutes an alterative approach to motor-independent communication," Bettina Sorger of Maastricht University in The Netherlands, one of the researchers working on the current study, told the BBC.
"The work of Adrian Owen and colleagues led me to wonder whether it might even become possible to use fMRI, mental tasks, and appropriate experimental designs to freely encode thoughts, letter-by-letter, and therewith enable back-and-forth communication in the absence of motor behavior."
The team writes in the paper that because the noninvasive device requires "only little effort and pretraining, it is immediately operational and possesses high potential for clinical applications, both in terms of diagnostics and establishing short-term communication with nonresponsive and severely motor-impaired patients".
Results of the brain scanner studyThe new scanner uses the entire English alphabet and the blank space
Exciting results
Elaine Snell of the British Neuroscience Association told the BBC that the technology could become "a lifeline" for patients in a persistent vegetative state, or suffering from other neurological disorders.
"This means of communication will make a huge difference to the quality of their life and to that of their families.
"This kind of technology can only get better, it's very exciting."
Dr Guy Williams from the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre in Cambridge agreed.
"The technique may need some adaptation to be widely applicable to patients who might have impaired awareness or ability to concentrate on the required task, but it is nonetheless an important demonstration of what these scans can in principle tell us about the functioning of an individual's brain," he told the BBC.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Car insurance: putting telematics to the test

Telematics systems that track driving habits can lower car insurance premiums for safe drivers and have been available since 2008.

Yet this concept has failed to set the insurance world alight. Trading privacy for perks seems to have held people back and stalled a revolution in the sector. But with the claims culture forcing premiums to rise and the EU ruling on gender soon to come into force, could this be the most precise and fair way to lower the cost of car insurance for everyone?

As a young driver who has experienced the horror of massive insurance premiums, I decided to test out the technology for myself to see if my actual individual driving habits could improve the cost of my car insurance.


I generally think I am a good driver so I was happy to take on the challenge from Autosaint to drive around with a telematics tracker in my car for ten days.

Autosaint is a niche insurer which offers provisional, newly-qualified and young drivers low premiums, in return for responsible driving through the use of in-vehicle telematics technology.

Interestingly, Autosaint offer a low premium to this risky age group from the outset, so it is up to the driver to live up to that trust or risk a rise in premium determined at a quarterly review.

Irresponsible driving alters the premium, but alerts and suggestions on how to improve driving are in place through an online dashboard, as well as email/text alerts to avoid that happening.

Autosaint builds a risk profile through a scoring system. Drivers are scored out of 100 and if a number of bad driving incidents occur (categorised into speeding, harsh braking and harsh accelerating) points are deducted.

If a driver scores below 60, the premium will be adjusted in the quarterly review, but those scoring 60 and above will continue to benefit from the cheapest premium offered at the start of the policy and at renewal are offered even larger discounts.

My results

Using my online dashboard, I can see I drove 220 miles on the ten days I was being monitored, consisting of around ten journeys ranging from three to 52 miles.

My overall score for the journeys I had completed was 99 which is a score that is deemed 'EXCELLENT'.

The report that came through in my email told me: "Driving this well means not only that you are driving safely but we won't need to increase your insurance premium at your next quarterly review."

Great news! Because I drove safely for a great proportion of the time if I had a policy with Autosaint I could expect my premium to remain low at the next evaluation.

But what was I doing wrong 1% of the time?

Where I went wrong

Although my score looks as if my driving was near perfect, the little black box did record some bad driving in a number of incidents. In total I had 12 'Events' which the Autosaint Dashboard flags as something to work on and offered advice to help improve my driving habits.
Of the 12 incidents, six were harsh braking events, two harsh acceleration events and four were speeding events.

Did I deserve a lower score?

It is clear from the fact that 12 incidents were recorded against my driving that I am in no way a perfect driver.

I am sure there were a few cases that were just plain bad driving on my part as many of the journeys I did were familiar routes, but having this technology has made me really think about these incidents and why they may have occurred. Generally, I found that my preoccupation with driving carefully (as I knew I was being tested) was thwarted by the behaviour of other road users.
The fact I tested the technology for a week probably explains my score. Given three months I am sure the score would have come down to account for speeding incidents and the harsh braking, but not so low that it would be under 60 and thus affect any premium offered by Autosaint.

Potential game changer

My car is a 2003 Vauxhall Corsa Sxi three door hatchback. Using the example of a 24-year-old driver, with a full license and one month's experience, car insurance premiums from other insurers could be as high as £4,317 for a year's comprehensive cover (from Fresh). However, with Autosaint, that premium drops all the way down to £2,488, a saving of almost £2,000, thanks to the telematics box.

Obviously, Autosaint is not going to be an option for many of us as they only deal with very new drivers. But similar technology is employed by a number of other insurers (the Cooperative, the AA, Insurethebox, I-kube) for drivers of all ages. So the potential benefits of telematics are open to all, if we are willing to take the plunge.

Is it the future?

I think if more people used telematics it would bring unprecedented transparency to car insurance rates, benefiting good drivers and forcing bad drivers into making changes.

Of course with this particular system from Autosaint, there are only three determining factors deciding whether you are a good driver; speeding, braking and accelerating. Many would argue that the true measure of a good driver involves far more information than a tracking system can provide and I would agree. However, for now, the system is useful for pinpointing any existing bad habits and suggesting steps to improve which may be invaluable for a less experienced driver.

The obvious downsides to these sorts of policies is that some don't allow you to drive at night (as this is when a lot of accidents occur), the low mileage limits are not beneficial to a driver that needs to travel great distances for work or college and of course the privacy issues.

Would you consider this technology to help lower your car insurance premiums? Or is this Big Brother monitoring gone mad? Share your thoughts in the comment boxes below.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Using the internet to buy a home: Websites and apps

The boom in smartphone use means apps are increasingly used to find information

Spring is upon us and so is the traditional start of the house-buying season.
Estate agents have come out of hibernation and are busy preparing for the busy Easter selling period.
Most people now start their search for a new home online.
So it is worth looking at the help you can get on the internet and, more frequently these days, via your mobile phone.
Looking for a new property is easier than ever as the big property portals like Rightmove, FindaProperty andGlobrix have a huge inventory of homes to buy and to let.
But technology does not stand still.
New entrants like Adzuna make it even easier by bringing the listings together from lots of different sites into one convenient place.
They could even help you find a new job once you have found the right house.
Having found some potential homes to see, you will want to check out if you could afford any of them.
The first handy "app" you can use is the mortgage calculator from London & Country mortgage brokers.
Like similar offerings from price comparison websites, this should only be used as a guide, but it is quite sophisticated.
If you want help finding the area you can commute from, then for Londoners the handy Commute website will show you.
Standing outside the house of your dreams armed with your smartphone, Londoners may want to know which way the nearest tube station is.
Checking for problems
You may tempted by a vast range of websites and apps from individual estate agents.
But you will want to check if the home of your dreams is in a flood plain, how good the local services are, what results local schools are getting or what risks there might be from pollution.
Sad to say, it may also be worth checking what local crime rates are.
The government publishes a range of little-known but incredibly helpful apps with maps that show you everything from the nearest chemist to the nearest post box.
One of the most helpful will summarise much of what you might want to know about an area before you move there.
When it comes to negotiating a deal, then if you are buying a home you might be interested to learn what similar homes have sold for.
You can search Land Registry data via a number of third-party web sites like Zoopla or download the cleverMouseprice app to your smartphone.
This show you details of sold prices around you while you are looking - if you use the built-in location option.
Monitoring the market
If you know where you want to live but want to wait for the right property to come available, then most of the property portals provide email alerts.
You can monitor individual properties for when the price is changed or monitor whole areas using the Mouseprice website.
Many people only start to consider what their own home is worth once they have found a new property.
Getting the views of two or three estate agents is very helpful and free.
However there are resources online including the Rightmove guide to what your home might be worth.
It can tell you how many people are looking in a particular postcode, how many properties are available, what has sold and, importantly, what is to let.
Remember that what rent you might get is a very helpful way to establish what a property might be worth, as the rental "yield" will allow you to compare it with other commodities.
Whilst you may be buying a house to live in, you will also want to be confident that you are not overpaying.
Calculate the cost
To deal with the conveyancing you could use one of the online businesses now popular with both buyers and sellers.
MyHomeMove is one of the biggest.
Removal companies provide helpful guides to the cost of moving, HMRC will show you how much stamp duty land tax you will have to pay.
Before you move you might want to order up the first delivery of groceries from Tesco Direct or Ocado, who will deliver the bare necessities for your first night.
Looking for and renting or buying a new home has never been easier.
Those who do not like dealing with estate agents now have a huge array of helpful websites and apps to use instead.
"Knowledge is power," as Sir Francis Bacon, the 17th Century English philosopher and one-time lord chancellor, is credited with saying.
And prospective buyers and tenants have never had so much knowledge at their fingertips.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

How to write a successful CV before applying for a job

Getting a CV up to scratch is an important part of the job searching process

A good curriculum vitae - or CV - is vital when looking for work, especially when there are numerous candidates for the same job, so what should it contain?
There is no perfect template, and each sector may require a different emphasis on a different aspect of the content, such as career history or qualifications.
However, experts suggest there are some basic rules on how a CV should be written and the information that should be included.
Overall, a CV should be neat and typed if possible. Most libraries now have public computers, if you do not have your own.
It should also be short, usually no more than two sides of A4. It should be positive, stressing achievements and strengths, and make a good impression in a clear and positive way.
The basic format for a CV includes:
  • Personal details, including name, address, phone number, email address and possibly any professional social media presence. You no longer need to include your date of birth, owing to age discrimination rules
  • Career history, starting with your most recent job first. Include dates and temporary or voluntary jobs if appropriate
  • A personal profile which sells yourself and your qualities, tailored towards the job you are applying for
  • Achievements from previous jobs that are relevant
  • Qualifications and training from previous jobs, with the most recent first
  • Interests, if they are relevant and especially if the skills or teamwork concerned are relevant for the job
  • Any extra information, such as reasons for a career change or reasons for gaps in career history, such as caring duties
  • References, ideally two or more and including a recent employer
Corinne Mills is managing director of Personal Career Management, which offers careers coaching. She says that a straightforward font and formatting is required - and the spelling must be checked and checked again.
"Poor spelling is the quickest way of getting a rejection," she says.
She adds that people should check five or six adverts for a particular job and then use the common requirements to mould their CV.
"Many people think that one CV will fit all applications, but it needs to be a very targeted document for the role they are going for. Do some research so you understand what employers are looking for."
Global tips
CVs can be produced in a different format for job applications outside of the UK.
For example, the equivalent of the CV in the US is the "resume".
This has much the same aims by outlining job talents, work history, education and career goals, as well as how a candidate's experience and skills would be suited to the job being advertised.
One guide to writing resumes and cover letters is on the New York State Department of Labor's website.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Diamond Jubilee: River Thames pageant to honour Queen

Around 20 members of the royal family will travel in the luxurious red and gold royal barge

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee weekend will reach its peak later on Sunday with a colourful River Thames pageant.
Hundreds of thousands of people will line the banks of the river to watch the Queen cruise past on a royal barge escorted by a 1,000-strong flotilla.
The event to mark 60 years of her reign promises to be the most spectacular nautical event in London for 350 years.
Millions more Britons are expected to take part in Jubilee parties, outdoor concerts and fairs across the country.
The Queen, Duke of Edinburgh and other senior royals will travel from Albert Bridge to Tower Bridge aboard a lavishly adapted royal barge - the Spirit of Chartwell - decorated with almost 1,000 cut flowers.
Dunkirk small ships
As the pageant begins at 11:30 BST with mustering at Hammersmith and Battersea bridges, the Thames barrier will be lowered to slow the river's flow.
The spectacle, along a seven-mile stretch, will end some six hours later when the last boat passes Tower Bridge.
Adam Kerr, the skipper of a restored 19th Century Cornish fishing lugger, the Barnabas, sailed 400 nautical miles to take part.
"It's going to be wonderful, I think it's going to be a pretty colourful spectacle," he told the BBC.
"I'm sure they're very worried about the security of boats crashing into each other, I think we'll be okay - we're a pretty well controlled boat, good crew and nice engine to drive us along."
Campers explain why they chose to stay out overnight in the rain
The £10m cost of the event has been met by private donations but the security costs will be paid for by the taxpayer.
The anti-monarchy group, Republic, has said it will hold a demonstration against what they call an unelected, unaccountable monarch.
BBC weather forecaster John Hammond said pageant watchers should wrap up with waterproofs and wind proofs amid temperatures of around 11C.
He said party-goers in most of England and Wales should expect cloud and the threat of rain, whilst Scotland and Northern Ireland would be dry with some sunshine.
A collection of small ships used to rescue stranded troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 will also take part in the river event.
It will be led by the Motor Torpedo boat 102, the flagship of the officer who co-ordinated the evacuation on the scene.
A boat carrying eight specially cast Jubilee bells will lead the water-borne procession, and churches along the river bank will return the peel as it passes.
Later on Sunday, Prime Minister David Cameron will attend a Jubilee party in Downing Street.
And around the country, a community initiative called the Big Jubilee Lunch will encourage people to share food with neighbours and friends in street parties or at picnics.
On Monday, a concert will be held in front of Buckingham Palace in the area surrounding the Queen Victoria Memorial, with performances from artists including Dame Shirley Bassey, Sir Elton John, Jessie J, JLS and Ed Sheeran.
When it ends at 22:00 BST, more than 4,000 beacons are due to be lit in the UK and around the world.
The Queen will light the UK's last beacon - the National Beacon - at about 22:30 BST, to be followed by a firework display at Buckingham Palace.