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NASA and Amiga history meet in an eBay listing

Sun, 12/10/2017 - 15:30

eBay seller vrus

If our 11-part series on the history of the Amiga and our (in-progress) seven-part series on the history of the Apollo program don't give it away, we happen to be unabashed fans of a certain computing platform and a certain space program around the Ars Orbital HQ. So this week, a small post at HotHardware inevitably caught our eye: an old NASA-used Amiga evidently ended up for sale on eBay.

Seller vrus currently lists an Amiga 2500 used by NASA's Telemetry Lab for sale. How can anyone be certain this 1980s workhorse came from the US government? Well, the device is emblazoned with NASA property seals that seem to match tags found on other decommissioned NASA hardware. vrus also includes screenshots of programs on the computer that appear to be registered to a Dave Brown (HotHardware notes Brown was a principal programmer at Cape Canaveral's telemetry lab in the 1990s as per a 1999 Q&A with NASA retiree Hal Greenlee and comments from Greenlee in the "Amigas at NASA" video below).

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Energy Secretary Perry agrees to extension on pro-coal, nuclear rulemaking

Sun, 12/10/2017 - 14:30

Enlarge / WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, President-elect Donald Trump's choice as Secretary of Energy, testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Capitol Hill January 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

On Friday afternoon, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the US energy regulator could take an extra 30 days to make a decision on a proposed rule that would boost struggling coal and nuclear power in the US.

Perry proposed a rule in late September that would require grid operators to change how they value “reliability and resilience attributes” in energy generation. Specifically, generation plants with such attributes were defined by the Energy Secretary as plants that could keep a 90-day supply of fuel onsite. Although the proposed rule was written to appear energy-agnostic, it clearly favors coal and nuclear plants. Natural gas tends to be delivered by pipeline and is rarely stored onsite in large quantities, and wind and solar energy have free but variable fuel sources, though pioneers in the field are trying to mitigate this with the help of stationary storage.

Without government intervention, coal has become more expensive to burn compared to natural gas in many areas. It's also a major contributor to climate change, something the president has falsely called a hoax.

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Looks like a rough flu season ahead. Here are answers to ALL your flu questions

Sat, 12/09/2017 - 13:20

Enlarge / Influenza virus. Image produced from an image taken with transmission electron microscopy. Viral diameter ranges from around 80 to 120 nm. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The 2017-2018 flu season is off to an early start, potentially hitting highs during the end-of-year holidays. Data so far suggests it could be a doozy. The predominant virus currently circulating tends to cause more cases of severe disease and death than other seasonal varieties. And the batch of vaccines for this year have some notable weaknesses.

To help you prepare—or just help you brush up on your flu facts—here are answers to every critical flu question you might ever have (well, hopefully). We’ll start off with the basics...

Table of Contents What is the flu?

The flu, or influenza, is a contagious respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus (not to be confused with Haemophilus influenzae, an opportunistic bacterium that can cause secondary infections following sicknesses, such as the flu). Symptoms of the flu include chills, fever, headache, malaise, running nose, sore throat, coughing, tiredness, and muscle aches.

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Bad news: Warmest climate models might also be most accurate

Fri, 12/08/2017 - 16:10

Enlarge / Be cautious out there. (credit: Bill Green)

Some people who reject the conclusions of climate science claim that the existence of any remaining uncertainty means few or no actions need be taken to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. In reality, though, uncertainty is ever-present in science, and it's not necessarily our friend. A new study from Patrick Brown and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science highlights the fact that uncertainty means climate change could just as easily be worse than our best current estimates predict.

The study sought to narrow the range of projected global warming presented in places like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. For each of several scenarios of future greenhouse gas emissions, these reports have simply taken simulations from every climate model available and combined the results—showing the average temperature trajectory and the range they span. For the highest-emissions scenario, for example, the last IPCC report projected about 4.3 degrees Celsius (7.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warming by the late 21st century. But the range of model results stretched from about 3.2 degrees Celsius to 5.4 degrees Celsius.

One strategy for dealing with this variance has been to weight the results of the best-performing models more highly. The difficulty is in confidently assessing which models are the best-performing ones. A handful of studies have used some aspect of cloud behavior as the measuring stick. That work has found that the models best simulating current cloud behavior also happen to simulate more future warming.

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Teaser: Our Apollo celebration continues with part 2, launching Tuesday

Fri, 12/08/2017 - 08:00

Video shot by Joshua Ballinger, edited and produced by Jing Niu and David Minick. (video link)

For the first episode in "The Greatest Leap," we focused on the Apollo 1 fire and NASA's return to flight after that tragic accident. Without that turnaround, the United States might never have landed on the Moon during the 1960s, or at all. Now, we offer a teaser for the second part of the series, which will publish on Tuesday, December 12.

After the successful Apollo 7 mission, NASA had a choice. It could play it safe, or the agency could push its chips into the middle of the table and go all-in on the Moon. This led to perhaps the gutsiest call in spaceflight history: a mission profile that took humans beyond low-Earth orbit and deep into the gravity well of another world—the Moon. Our video and story includes interviews with the flight controllers and engineers who helped make these critical decisions and delivered a key victory in the Space Race.

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We may now be able to engineer the most important lousy enzyme on the planet

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 14:58

Enlarge / To genetically engineer RuBisCo, we'll no longer need all the time and space involved with these plants. (credit: Roy Kaltschmidt)

The single most abundant protein on the planet isn't actually very good at its job. And, unfortunately, its job is important: to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and incorporate it into sugars and other molecules that most of Earth's life depends on. Improving its function could help us in a variety of ways, from boosting crop productivity to cleaning up after our carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, the enzyme is also extremely fussy about how it operates, in part as a result of the evolutionary events that put it in plants in the first place. But now, a team of German scientists has figured out how to get the enzyme to work in the standard lab bacteria, E. coli, opening the door slightly to genetically engineering our way to more efficient plants. But the work also makes it clear that things aren't quite as simple as we'd like.

A key enzyme

The enzyme has the catchy name "ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase," but everyone knows it as "RuBisCo." Its function in the cell is to take the carbon of carbon dioxide, obtained from the air, and link it to a five-carbon sugar. This makes a six carbon sugar, an essential part of the process of photosynthesis. But it also allows the carbon to be used in a variety of other chemical reactions inside a cell that would never work with carbon dioxide. These include creating the building blocks of DNA and proteins. Through these two functions, the enzyme is essential to most life on Earth.

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Boeing: We are going to beat SpaceX to Mars

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 13:05

Enlarge / House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during a town hall with Boeing Company CEO Dennis Muilenburg and Boeing employees in Everett, Washington this year. (credit: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

It was about a year ago that Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg first began saying his company would beat SpaceX to Mars. "I'm convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket," he said during a Boeing-sponsored tech summit in Chicago in October 2016.

On Thursday, Muilenburg repeated that claim on CNBC. Moreover, he added this tidbit about the Space Launch System rocket—for which Boeing is the prime contractor of the core stage—"We’re going to take a first test flight in 2019 and we’re going to do a slingshot mission around the Moon."

Unlike last year, Muilenburg drew a response from SpaceX this time. The company's founder, Elon Musk, offered a pithy response on Twitter: "Do it."

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DeepMind AI needs mere 4 hours of self-training to become a chess overlord

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 11:56

Enlarge / We'd like to imagine AlphaZero playing its chess within a 1980s' style BBS system. (credit: Chris Wilkinson)

We last heard from DeepMind's dominant gaming AI in October. As opposed to earlier sessions of AlphaGo besting the world's best Go players after the DeepMind team trained it on observations of said humans, the company's Go-playing AI (version AlphaGo Zero) started beating pros after three days of playing against itself with no prior knowledge of the game.

On the sentience front, this still qualified as a ways off. To achieve self-training success, the AI had to be limited to a problem in which clear rules limited its actions and clear rules determined the outcome of a game. (Not every problem is so neatly defined, and fortunately, the outcomes of an AI uprising probably fall into the "poorly defined" category.)

This week, a new paper (PDF, not yet peer reviewed) details how quickly DeepMind's AI has improved at its self-training in such scenarios. Evolved now to AlphaZero, this latest iteration started from scratch and bested the program that beat the human Go champions after just eight hours of self-training. And when AlphaZero instead decided to teach itself chess, the AI defeated the current world-champion chess program, Stockfish, after a mere four hours of self-training. (For fun, AlphaZero also took two hours to learn shogi—"a Japanese version of chess that’s played on a bigger board," according to The Verge—and then defeated one of the best bots around.) 

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Video: See our full interview with Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 09:00

Video shot by Joshua Ballinger, edited and produced by Jing Niu and David Minick. Transcript will be available shortly. (video link)

Around NASA and its contractors, the phrase "Return to Flight" carries special meaning. It's used very seriously in very specific circumstances: a "Return to Flight" mission is a resumption of normal scheduled missions after an anomaly or accident. Most recently, the phrase was used to refer to the 2005 STS-114 and STS-121 shuttle flights, which were the first missions to take flight from the Kennedy Space Center following the destruction of Columbia in early 2003. Prior to that, STS-26 was the "Return to Flight" mission in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster in 1986.

But the big granddaddy of Returns to Flight was Apollo 7 in October 1968. Mindful of Kennedy's end-of-decade deadline for a lunar landing, NASA's engineers and astronauts had to fight through a complex admixture of both cautiousness and eagerness—they needed to get back into space as soon as possible, but they also needed to make sure they weren't going to kill anyone else. The job of commanding Apollo 7 landed on Mercury veteran Walter "Wally" Schirra and his rookie crew—Donn Eisele and Ronnie Walter Cunningham.

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Man gets gruesome fungal lesion after snipping pimple with dirty wood tools

Wed, 12/06/2017 - 18:40

(credit: Brittgow)

A 23-year-old man in Chicago developed a rare, festering fungal lesion on his lower lip after he reportedly “snipped a pimple” with a woodworking blade.

Doctors at the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County treated the man, who was an otherwise healthy construction worker. In a case report, recently published in The Journal of Emergency Medicine, the doctors described the lesion as a blood-crusted, warty plaque with a hardened boarder. It spanned the width of his mouth and had erupted just below his lips. You can see it here, but warning: it’s really gross.

The man reported that it had developed over the course of seven months, after he took the woodworking tools to what he called a pimple (although it’s possible it was any type of skin lesion, including a canker or cold sore).

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Climate change already costs us all money, and it’s going to get worse

Wed, 12/06/2017 - 17:28

Enlarge (credit: Kari Greer/USFS Gila National Forest)

Tuesday evening, Columbia University's Earth Institute hosted a panel that was meant to focus on an issue we're likely to be facing with increasing frequency: the need to move entire communities that are no longer viable due to rising seas or altered weather. But the discussion ended up shifting to how people in at-risk locations aren't moving, and the entire governmental structure in the US is focused on keeping them right where they are.

As a result, the entire US population is already paying for climate change, whether we accept the science behind it or not. And things will almost certainly get worse.

Staying put

That's not to say that climate-driven migrations aren't an issue. They've happened in a number of countries, and the panel noted that China, in particular, has been fairly aggressive about moving communities that the government feels cost too much to support. It's also happening a bit in the US with coastal villages in Alaska and Louisiana. But the wildfires on the edge of urban areas in California provided the panel with a perfect backdrop: climate risks in areas we're not just going to walk away from.

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Victims of mystery attacks in Cuba left with anomalies in brain tissue

Wed, 12/06/2017 - 14:25

Enlarge / Picture of the US embassy in Havana, taken on October 3, 2017. (credit: Getty | YAMIL LAGE)

American victims of mysterious attacks in Cuba have abnormalities in their brains’ white matter, according to new medical testing reported by the Associated Press. But, so far, it’s unclear how or if the white-matter anomalies seen in the victims relate to their symptoms.

White matter is made up of dense nerve fibers that connect neurons in different areas of the brain, forming networks. It gets its name from the light-colored electrical insulation, myelin, that coats the fibers. Overall, the tissue is essential for rapidly transmitting brain signals critical for learning and cognitive function.

In August, US authorities first acknowledged that American diplomats and their spouses stationed in Havana, Cuba, had been the targets of puzzling attacks for months. The attacks were carried out by unknown agents and for unknown reasons, using a completely baffling weaponry. The attacks were sometimes marked by bizarrely targeted and piercing noises or vibrations, but other times they were completely imperceptible.

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Video: See our full interview with NASA legend Christopher C. Kraft

Wed, 12/06/2017 - 09:00

Video shot by Joshua Ballinger, edited and produced by Jing Niu and David Minick. Transcript will be available shortly. (video link)

We've just kicked off our celebration of 50 years of Apollo, "The Greatest Leap," with the first of a seven-part series on the people and technology that put 12 humans on the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first part, which we ran yesterday, examined the accident that claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee—a tragedy known within NASA simply as "the Fire." The piece is based around dozens of hours of interviews with the men and women who were at NASA and witnessed the events as they happened.

It's the nature of documentary filmmaking that you always end up with more miles of footage than you can ever realistically use, and it felt like a tragic waste to let so much historically important discussion sit unseen in an archive somewhere. So, starting today and continuing over the next few weeks, we're publishing the full interviews with all of our Apollo stars. Think of 'em as DVD special features. The interviews are un-redacted and complete, though they have been cleaned up and very lightly edited to remove stuff like lighting changes, equipment adjustments, and bathroom breaks.

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Bitcoin’s insane energy consumption, explained

Wed, 12/06/2017 - 07:30

(credit: Felix König)

The skyrocketing value of Bitcoin is leading to soaring energy consumption. According to one widely cited website that tracks the subject, the Bitcoin network is consuming power at an annual rate of 32TWh—about as much as Denmark. By the site's calculations, each Bitcoin transaction consumes 250kWh, enough to power homes for nine days.

Naturally, this is leading to concerns about sustainability. Eric Holthaus, a writer for Grist, projects that, at current growth rates, the Bitcoin network will "use as much electricity as the entire world does today" by early 2020. "This is an unsustainable trajectory," he writes.

Global energy production obviously can't double in two years, and it would be an environmental disaster if it did. Fortunately, while the Bitcoin network consumes a ridiculous amount of energy, particularly on a per-transaction basis, the situation isn't as dire as critics like Holthaus claim.

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Accused of medical malpractice—a lot? The VA may be the place for you

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 17:18

Enlarge (credit: Getty | KAREN BLEIER )

The Department of Veterans Affairs has knowingly hired doctors with trails of misconduct allegations, licensing problems, malpractice accusations, and patient settlements, according to a recent USA Today investigation.

In fact, the newspaper suggests that the VA may actually attract troubled doctors and clinicians because it doesn’t require that they have their own malpractice insurance. Thus, doctors dubbed too risky for private malpractice insurance based on problematic pasts may find relief at the VA, where malpractice claims are paid out using taxpayer money.

In their investigation, USA Today dug up 15 prior malpractice complaints and settlements against neurosurgeon John Henry Schneider, who was hired in April by the Veterans Affairs hospital in Iowa City, Iowa, with an annual salary of $385,000.

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The mission to learn everything we always wanted to know about the Universe

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 13:00

Enlarge (credit: NASA)

The Cosmic Microwave Background was created as the first atoms formed hundreds of thousands of years after the Big Bang, and it retains information about the formation of the Universe. Discovering it existed confirmed a key prediction of the Big Bang Model and won its discoverers a Nobel Prize. Another Nobel went to the team behind the Cosmic Background Explorer, which gave us our first look at some of the details of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), providing support for the idea that the Universe underwent a period of inflation.

In some ways, these were baby steps on the route to understanding the Universe. The real leap came from lesser-known hardware with an awkward name: the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP. By giving us the first detailed look at the CMB, WMAP answered everything: the age of the Universe, what it's made of, its geometry, and more.

Over the weekend, the team behind WMAP was honored with the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, which gave us the opportunity to talk to one of its lead scientists, Princeton's David Spergel.

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Morals behind anti-vaccination: Vigilance against tyrannical, impure shots

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 11:32

Enlarge / Los Angeles, California—April 14, 2015: Anna Audis, 10, and Monica Van Stelton with her children join other parents and teachers who oppose efforts to end the personal belief exemption on vaccinations rally. (credit: Getty | Irfan Khan)

For years, doctors and health experts have tried in vain to douse the modern anti-vaccine movement with data and science. They’ve showered vaccine-hesitant parents with data on the safety and efficacy of the life-saving injections, plus information on herd immunity and the dangers of otherwise bygone diseases, such as measles. Nevertheless, the efforts largely fail. In some cases, they even backfire; mind-boggling studies have found that repeating myths and misinformation in the process of debunking them can actually reinforce them.

For a new tactic, public health researchers have turned away from facts and reason and toward morals and values. They hypothesized that if they can pitch vaccines in a way that gives anti-vaccine parents all the right feels, they may finally quench the insidious and deadly movement. And indeed, in a preliminary study, they found evidence that vaccine-averse parents have differing moral foundations than those who embrace vaccines.

In the initial study of 1,007 parents, researchers found that the most vaccine-hesitant parents were twice as likely as low-hesitancy parents to place high value on ideals of "purity" and "liberty." Those are two of six value categories in the Moral Foundation Theory, which social psychologists developed years ago to untangle people’s moral judgments and decisions based on emotional or intuitive processes—not data and science.

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The Greatest Leap, Part 1: How the Apollo fire propelled NASA to the Moon

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 08:00

Video shot by Joshua Ballinger, edited and produced by Jing Niu and David Minick. Click here for transcript. (video link)

Seated in Mission Control, Chris Kraft neared the end of a tedious Friday afternoon as he monitored a seemingly interminable ground test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft. It was January 1967, and communications between frustrated astronauts inside the capsule on its Florida launch pad and the test conductors in Houston sputtered periodically through his headset. His mind drifted.

Sudden shouts snapped him to attention. In frantic calls coming from the Apollo cockpit, fear had replaced frustration. Amid the cacophony, Kraft heard the Apollo program’s most capable astronaut, Gus Grissom, exclaim a single word.

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Big Ag + Big Pharma = Big Problems

Sun, 12/03/2017 - 10:00


If you enjoy a good roasted chicken and would like to continue to do so, you might want to stop reading now.

Because chicken as we know it—breasts cut up on onto a Caesar salad, nuggets fried in pieces in a bucket, drumsticks wrapped in plastic in the supermarket—is hardly the Little Red Hen of the children's tale, free to peck around the farmyard as she goes through the steps of baking her own bread. Chicken is now a commodity, protein to be delivered in the form of white meat as cheaply as possible to consumers. And the cost of that system is considerable, as Maryn McKenna outlines in her book Big Chicken.

Ag vs. antibiotics

McKenna’s crusade is against the rising threat of antibiotic resistance, and it is a worthwhile endeavor. Her description of a post-antibiotic world looks a lot like the pre-antibiotic world, in which roughly a quarter of children died of infectious diseases before their fifth birthday, surgery and chemotherapy were impossible, and a skinned knee could be fatal—and often was. It was a horrifying time to be alive.

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SpaceX will attempt to launch a red Tesla Roadster to the red planet

Fri, 12/01/2017 - 22:25

Enlarge / SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveils the Falcon Heavy rocket at the National Press Club in Washington,DC on April 5, 2011. (credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Previously, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said he intends to launch the "silliest thing we can imagine" on the maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy. This is partly because the rocket is experimental—there is a non-trivial chance the rocket will explode on the launch pad, or shortly after launch. It is also partly because Musk is a master showman who knows how to grab attention.

On Friday evening, Musk tweeted what that payload would be—his "midnight cherry Tesla Roadster." And the car will be playing Space Oddity, by David Bowie; the song which begins, "Ground Control to Major Tom." Oh, and the powerful Falcon Heavy rocket will send the Tesla into orbit around Mars. "Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent," Musk added. Ars was able to confirm Friday night from a company source that this is definitely a legitimate payload.

Earlier on Friday, Musk also said the Falcon Heavy launch would come "next month" from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, meaning in January. The company may attempt a "static fire" test of the rocket's three cores, and 27 engines, on the launch pad this month. As the Falcon Heavy rocket has been oft-delayed, launch dates should not be taken too literally, but it does seem like the rocket and associated hardware are close to ready to fly.

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