Science X Newsletter Tuesday, Dec 10

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Here is your customized Science X Newsletter for December 10, 2019:

Spotlight Stories Headlines

Study gathers the first observation of leptonic decay D+→τ+ντ

Shaped like a cone: The configuration of 'virulence factors' that allow TB to invade the lungs

A new memristor-based neural network inspired by the notion of associative memory

Chiton mollusk provides model for new armor design

Greenland ice losses rising faster than expected

New understanding of charge transport reveals an exotic quantum mechanical regime

Breathing new life into the rise of oxygen debate

Tiny magnetic particles enable new material to bend, twist, and grab

When penguins ruled after dinosaurs died

Calculating genetic links between diseases, without the genetic data

Research shows ramping up carbon capture could be key to mitigating climate change

Stretchy and squeezy soft sensors one step closer thanks to new bonding method

Could dark carbon be hiding the true scale of ocean 'dead zones'?

Revving up to a new speed record in the Kalahari

MIT CSAIL: Revealing hidden video from shadows

Physics news

Study gathers the first observation of leptonic decay D+→τ+ντ

The Beijing Spectrometer III (BESIII) collaboration, a large team of researchers from universities worldwide conducting particle physics studies has recently reported the first observation of the leptonic decay D+→τ+ντ. This observation, presented in a paper published in Physical Review Letters, opens up the possibility of additional tests of mu/tau universality in D decays.

New understanding of charge transport reveals an exotic quantum mechanical regime

In work that may have broad implications for the development of new materials for electronics, Caltech scientists for the first time have developed a way to predict how electrons interacting strongly with atomic motions will flow through a complex material. To do so, they relied only on principles from quantum mechanics and developed an accurate new computational method.

Communications device offers huge bandwidth potential

Scientists at the University of Illinois have created sugar cube-sized blocks of an electromagnetic material with potential to transform communication networks.

Insects' drag-based flight mechanism could improve tiny flying robots

Thrips are tiny insects 2 millimeters long, about as long as four human hairs are thick. Thrips are known for their unwelcome ability to devour garden plants and, lately, to inform the design of microrobotics.

The X17 factor: A particle new to physics might solve the dark matter mystery

A team of scientists in Hungary recently published a paper that hints at the existence of a previously unknown subatomic particle. The team first reported finding traces of the particle in 2016, and they now report more traces in a different experiment.

Physicists image electrons flowing like water for the first time

Physicists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have imaged electrons flowing viscously through a nanodevice, just like water flowing through a pipe. Long predicted but only now visualized for the first time, this curious new behavior for electrons has important implications for future electronic devices.

New laser technique images quantum world in a trillionth of a second

For the first time, researchers have been able to record, frame-by-frame, how an electron interacts with certain atomic vibrations in a solid. The technique captures a process that commonly causes electrical resistance in materials while, in others, can cause the exact opposite—the absence of resistance, or superconductivity.

Scientists are designing accelerators that one day could help clean the environment

It's been 30 years since a pilot project in Miami-Dade County found that blasting wastewater with electrons could clean it up, removing all kinds of nasty stuff, from mircroorganisms to harsh chemicals.

Astronomy & Space news

Stardust from red giants

Some of the Earth's building material was stardust from red giants, researchers from ETH Zurich have established. They have also explained why the Earth contains more of this stardust than the asteroids or the planet Mars, which are farther from the sun.

Technology news

A new memristor-based neural network inspired by the notion of associative memory

Classical conditioning is a psychological process through which animals or humans pair desired or unpleasant stimuli (e.g., food or a painful experiences) with a seemingly neutral stimulus (e.g., the sound of a bell, the flash of a light, etc.) after these two stimuli are repeatedly presented together. Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov studied classical conditioning in great depth and introduced the idea of "associative memory," which entails building strong associations between the pleasant/unpleasant and neutral stimuli.

Revving up to a new speed record in the Kalahari

A loud hiss rips through the stillness of southern Africa's Kalahari Desert.

MIT CSAIL: Revealing hidden video from shadows

A team of researchers showed they can recover a video of motion taking place in a hidden scene by observing changes in illumination in a nearby visible region. They looked at the indirect effect on shadows and shading in an observed region.

Intel Introduces cryogenic control chip 'Horse Ridge' to enable control of multiple quantum bits

Intel has announced the development of a cryogenic control chip it calls "Horse Ridge." The chip is can control multiple qubits in a quantum computer. In its announcement, Intel claims that development of the chip represents a major milestone on the path toward a truly viable quantum computer. Also, as part of its announcement, Intel claims that other players in the quantum computer development world have neglected an important part of any such computer—a way to control many qubits at the same time. Intel reports that they developed the new chip in collaboration with TU Delft and TNO using technology developed in-house. They suggest the new chip will dramatically increase the potential for development of truly useful quantum computers.

Self-driving microrobots

Most synthetic materials, including those in battery electrodes, polymer membranes, and catalysts, degrade over time because they don't have internal repair mechanisms. If you could distribute autonomous microrobots within these materials, then you could use the microrobots to continuously make repairs from the inside. A new study from the lab of Kyle Bishop, associate professor of chemical engineering, proposes a strategy for microscale robots that can sense symptoms of a material defect and navigate autonomously to the defect site, where corrective actions could be performed. The study was published in Physical Review Research December 2, 2019.

Deep learning helps tease out gene interactions

Carnegie Mellon University computer scientists have taken a deep learning method that has revolutionized face recognition and other image-based applications in recent years and redirected its power to explore the relationship between genes.

Child's play: Coding booms among Chinese children

Wearing a pair of black-rimmed glasses and a red T-shirt, an eight-year-old Chinese boy is logged in for an online coding lesson—as the teacher.

Canada to follow France lead in taxing digital giants

Canada will impose a levy on internet giants such as Amazon, Google and Facebook similar to France's digital services tax that created tensions with Washington, two ministers said Monday.

Your data has been sold to websites like MyLife and WhitePages. Here's how to remove it

If you think your privacy is at risk when it comes to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, they're nothing compared to the "people search engines." We're talking WhitePages, MyLife.com, BeenVerified and the like.

Unlawful metadata access is easy when we're flogging a dead law

After watching this year's media raids and the prosecution of lawyers and whistleblowers, it's not hard to see why Australians wonder about excessive police power and dwindling journalistic freedom.

Bridge protection during catastrophic earthquakes

More than 1 million people have died in the 1800 magnitude 5+ earthquakes recorded worldwide since 2000.

Intelligent camera automatically detects roadside bombs

Roadside bombs are sneaky and effective killers. They are easy to manufacture and hide, making it the weapon of choice for insurgents and terrorists across the world. Finding and disabling these lethal devices is very difficult. Electrical engineer Dennis van de Wouw of Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) has, in close collaboration with industry and experts of the Netherlands Ministry of Defence, developed a real-time early-warning system. When mounted on a military vehicle, it can automatically detect the presence of those bombs by registering suspicious changes in the environment. He will defend his PHD thesis on December 11th at TU/e.

Up to 30 percent more capacity for lithium-ion batteries

Researchers of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and cooperating institutions studied structural changes during the synthesis of cathode materials for future high-energy lithium-ion batteries and obtained new major findings about degradation mechanisms. These findings might contribute to the development of batteries of far higher capacity, which would then increase the range of electric vehicles. The results are reported in Nature Communications.

Offshore wind still looks to get a foothold in California

There may be a literal energy windfall off the coast of California but it is still unclear whether the federal government will give approval to specific sites and how long it will take before tall turbines are bobbing on the Pacific, sending electricity to customers across the Golden State.

Researchers preserve and release trove of public, low-frequency radio data

At AGU's Fall Meeting, the preeminent international Earth and space science meeting, researchers unveiled the world's largest database of Extremely Low Frequency (ELF)/Very Low Frequency (VLF) data. The open-access database is named WALDO, which stands for Worldwide Archive of Low-frequency Data and Observations. Researchers will be able to access nearly 1000 terabytes (TB) of data to further scientific efforts in fields like space weather, ionospheric remote sensing, earthquake forecasting, and subterranean prospecting. Space weather effects can produce anything from beautiful auroras in the night sky to destructive effects on power grids and satellites, so both scientists and engineers are motivated to understand them and ultimately predict them.

Amazon lawsuit will not delay $10 bn JEDI contract: Pentagon

The lawsuit filed by Amazon challenging a $10 billion US military cloud computing contract awarded to Microsoft will not delay implementation of the project, a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday.

Project adapts basic tech to give voice to patients in Africa

Some problems are best solved with new tech or a flashy app. But sometimes adapting existing technology works best of all.

Facebook firm on message encryption despite pressure

Facebook said Tuesday it plans to move ahead with strong encryption for all its messaging applications, claiming that allowing law enforcement special access would end up being "a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes."

George Laurer, inventor of ubiquitous UPC, dies at 94

George J. Laurer, whose invention of the Universal Product Code at IBM transformed retail and other industries around the world, has died. He was 94.

Google celebrates the beloved Mexican card game Lotería with an interactive Doodle

Google has added another interactive game to its search page.

Nissan faces $22 million fine for misreporting Ghosn pay

Nissan should be fined $22 million for filing documents that under-reported the compensation of former chief Carlos Ghosn, Japanese regulators recommended Tuesday, with troubled the firm saying it would not dispute the penalty.

When a happy birthday wish on Facebook turns into a request for donations

As if you needed another way for technology to feed guilt.

All Bitcoin mining should be environmentally friendly

The rise in popularity of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin has the potential to change how we view money. At the same time, governments and societies are worried that the anonymity of these cashless transactions could allow criminal activities to flourish. Another less remarked upon issue is the energy demands needed to mint new coins for these cryptocurrencies. A new report by Associate Professor Naoki Shibata of Nara Institute of Science and Technology presents a blockchain algorithm, which he calls "proof-of-search" (PoS), that retains the attractive features of most cryptocurrencies at a lower cost to the environment.

US arrests three in alleged $722 mn cryptocurrency fraud

US authorities arrested three men in an alleged fraud that raised $722 million from investors lured by fake bitcoin mining earnings, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.


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▼ Google Pixel will get software updates you might actually remember

Yesterday, Google unveiled a new part of its strategy with Pixel phones: the so-called "feature drop." Google has bundled a bunch of software features that are exclusive (at least for now) to the Pixel line and is releasing them in one larger update instead of trickling them out whenever they're ready. It's a new way for Google to release software updates, based on something that it isn't historically very good at:

Planning.

"We're targeting a quarterly cadence [for the feature drops]," vice president of product management Sabrina Ellis says, adding that "setting that type of structure up front is helping our teams understand how they can set their development timelines."

The feature drops are a way for Google to make the Pixel software updates more tangible to potential customers. It's a clever name: "drops" are ways to create hype around new products in the fashion world — and Google very much needs to find a way to build more hype around the Pixel 4.

More after the links.

- Dieter

News from The Verge

+ Google is under federal investigation for labor practices

I'm glad this investigation is happening.

The NLRB's investigation will focus on whether Google violated any labor laws by firing those activist employees and if it discouraged its employees from unionizing. When employees file a charge with the NLRB, the agency must open an investigation to determine if it should take formal action and file its own complaint. The agency's Oakland staff will be spearheading the investigation that's expected to take about 90 days to complete.

Waymo's driverless car: ghost-riding in the back seat of a robot taxi

The Apple TV remote is so bad that a Swiss TV company developed a normal replacement

Where can I buy one? I am not even kidding.

Google says it won't grant Fortnite an exemption to the Play Store's 30 percent cut

Apple also charges this cut — though in some cases it drops to 15 percent for subscriptions after a year. Look: this is a stunt from Epic, but it's a stunt that calls attention to the rent-seeking both Apple and Google engage in on their app stores. I will grant that these platform owners should get more than a credit card company gets, but 30 percent is too much.

Epic is accused of stealing a Fortnite dance from 'Dancing Pumpkin Man'

Epic: fighting the good fight on app store rent-seeking.

Also Epic: fighting the bad fight on appropriating the creative work of others.

Even if the law is technically on Epic's side here (if only because copyright law is wildly arcane), this is not a great look, especially for a company that expresses (justified!) moral outrage in other quarters.

Amazon's Echo Flex is a smart speaker for very specific needs

As Dan Seifert writes, think of this thing as a little Alexa mic you can plug in anywhere, not as a little smart speaker.

Overall, the Flex is best for those who want a voice control access point (and perhaps a motion detector) in a specific place where you can't put a more traditional speaker. If you fit that narrow use case, then the Flex will probably work well for your needs. But most people looking for an inexpensive smart speaker should stick with an Echo Dot or Nest Mini.

Elon Musk is driving Tesla's Cybertruck prototype around Los Angeles

The Cybertruck prototype is missing a number of features it will eventually need to become street legal when it ships around the end of 2021, like a driver's side mirror, windshield wipers, and more dedicated headlights and brake lights. But just like other automakers do with their prototypes, Tesla has outfitted the Cybertruck with a manufacturer license plate, which gives companies some wiggle room to test vehicles on public roads even if they don't meet the US federal motor vehicle safety standards.

Microsoft to kill off Wunderlist in favor of To Do in May 2020

Away replaces CEO Steph Korey after Verge investigation

Well that's a way to deal with the situation.


Verge Deal of the day 

Save $50 on Bose's new Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

If you were shopping for noise-canceling headphones during Black Friday or Cyber Monday, you might have noticed that Bose's newest model was conspicuously missing from the sales. Well, now that it has the spotlight, Bose has knocked $50 off its Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 at Target, Walmart, Amazon, and Best Buy. This is the first time we've seen an official discount.


The Google Pixel will get bigger, more regular software updates you might actually remember

After the camera, the best reason to get a Google Pixel phone instead of another Android phone is that the Pixel is guaranteed to be the first out of the gate with Android software updates. But that benefit really only feels tangible once a year — when the new version of Android comes out and Pixel owners get a three to six month jump on the new software.

This year, the Pixel 4 has gotten a muted reception — battery life on the smaller model especially is really disappointing and video quality is not keeping up with the competition. And therein lies the problem: whatever software story Google has to tell about the Pixel is going to get overshadowed by the hardware story, year after year.

This first feature drop includes a lot of updates that may or may not make their way to other Android phones, Ellis calls them "Pixel-first." One interesting thing about this new way of working is that one of the features launching this month on the Pixel 4 — improved memory management for backgrounded apps — should make its way to other Android phones, but perhaps not until the next version of Android.

That means that not only is the Pixel getting software features a few months ahead of other phones, it's potentially getting them more than a year earlier.

That system-level feature (which, for the Pixel line, is much-needed) will come via a traditional system-level OS update. But most of the rest of the features Google is shipping to Pixel phones are coming within apps. In some ways, holding some of these app updates could actually mean a delay for some features, with teams holding their releases for the next feature drop. But the tradeoff is that more users will actually know those features exist in the first place — which often didn't happen before.

I wrote earlier this year that Google can't fix the Android update problem, but those infrastructural issues don't really apply to the Pixel. But there is another hassle that Pixel owners aren't likely to get away from anytime soon: they won't arrive for everybody all at once.

Google firmly believes in rolling updates, which is a "more responsible" way to send out updates. A small group gets them first, just to ensure there aren't unforeseen problems, then ever-larger percentages of users receive the update.

That methodology is stupendous for reliably pushing out stable software updates to huge numbers of users (not that the Pixel has huge numbers but still), but it's absolutely atrocious for building hype. It undercuts the entire concept of the "feature drop."

If you are one of the precious few Pixel 4 owners, here was your experience yesterday: Oh hey, a neat software update with new features. I should go get it. Oh I don't have it. Well, okay. I'll check one more time. Well. That was disappointing. That experience, by the way, is exactly what happened to me with my Pixel 4 XL.

Ellis admits it's not ideal: "I would like to be where you get that drop, you get that notification, and everything will be [available]. We are working towards that."

To mitigate it, Google is using whatever tools it can within Android to provide users with that moment of new feature excitement, without the dread of an update screwing up their phone. There will be a notification that has more context than usual about what's new and Google will lean heavily on the Pixel Tips app to help people find the new features.

The other thing I hope Google does is the thing that's been my hobby horse for several years now for several years now: take the cap off the marketing budget. Samsung didn't win the Android world by making the best phone — though its phones were and are very good, arguably the best. It won by unleashing a bombastic, hilariously large and expensive multi-year ad campaign that spanned Super Bowls, brand activations, and deals to ensure its phones are prioritized by carrier employees.

I don't see Google unleashing campaigns like that — either because it lacks confidence in the product or because institutionally it just doesn't want to. Maybe the company believes the Pixel should win on its merits, maybe it doesn't want to offend partners like Samsung, or maybe it just thinks the kind of shenanigans you have to play to get the likes of AT&T and Verizon to push your product are just too icky. Probably all of the above.

I digress, sorry. Like I said, it's a hobby horse.

One thing that's unsaid in all of this that when it comes to feature updates — especially those within apps — Google actually has a much better track record than Apple. Apple tends to ship all its new features in one big, yearly monolithic update.

Ask yourself the last time Apple updated, say, the Mail app between major iOS releases. Almost never. Ask yourself the last time Google updated Gmail? Likely it was within the past week or two.

But that cadence of near-constant app updates means that most of those features get lost. Google is trying to fix that problem by packaging some of the Pixel-specific stuff into bigger moments with more impact. This month's feature drop is a first attempt. The more important feature drops will come in three and six months. They'll prove that Google is actually committed to this plan and give it a chance to tighten up the infrastructure for releasing them in shorter time windows.

Ultimately, here's the problem feature drops are designed to solve: Google's app updates are like getting hit with a squirt gun while Apple's are like getting hit with a water balloon. Both contain an equal amount of water, but one of them has much more impact.

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