Science X Newsletter Wednesday, Feb 26

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Here is your customized Science X Newsletter for February 26, 2020:

Spotlight Stories Headlines

Building ultrasensitive and ultrathin phototransistors and photonic synapses using hybrid superstructures

A language generation system that can compose creative poetry

Overlooked arch in the foot is key to its evolution and function

Firefox unveils major security upgrade: DoH protocol boosts user privacy

Thermonuclear X-ray bursts and dips detected from the X-ray binary 4U 1323-62

Study identifies a transition in the strong nuclear force that illuminates the structure of a neutron star's core

Complex local conditions keep fields of dunes from going active all at once

Ancient meteorite site on Earth could reveal new clues about Mars' past

New app takes you out of the picture

Method with polarized light can create and measure nonsymmetrical states in a layered material

Parasitic worms have armies, and produce more soldiers when needed

Babies from bilingual homes switch attention faster

Deaf moths evolved noise-cancelling scales to evade predators

Seagulls favor food humans have handled

Scientists develop enzyme produced from agricultural waste for use as laundry detergent

Physics news

Study identifies a transition in the strong nuclear force that illuminates the structure of a neutron star's core

Most ordinary matter is held together by an invisible subatomic glue known as the strong nuclear force—one of the four fundamental forces in nature, along with gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak force. The strong nuclear force is responsible for the push and pull between protons and neutrons in an atom's nucleus, which keeps an atom from collapsing in on itself.

Method with polarized light can create and measure nonsymmetrical states in a layered material

Some molecules, including most of the ones in living organisms, have shapes that can exist in two different mirror-image versions. The right- and left-handed versions can sometimes have different properties, such that only one of them carries out the molecule's functions. Now, a team of physicists has found that a similarly asymmetrical pattern can be induced and measured at will in certain exotic materials, using a special kind of light beam to stimulate the material.

Engineers ensure quantum experiments get off to the right start

The quantum mechanical properties of electrons are beginning to open the door to a new class of sensors and computers with abilities far beyond what their counterparts based in classical physics can accomplish. Quantum states are notoriously difficult to read or write, however, and to make things worse, uncertainty about those states' starting conditions can make experiments more laborious or even impossible.

A possible new way to cool computer chips

A team of researchers at Stanford University has developed a theoretical way to cool down heated objects. In their paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters, the group describes their study of heat radiation and how it might be boosted to cool down a desired object.

Scientists 'film' a quantum measurement

Measuring a quantum system causes it to change—one of the strange but fundamental aspects of quantum mechanics. Researchers at Stockholm University have now been able to demonstrate how this change happens. The results are published in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.

Explained: Why water droplets 'bounce off the walls'

University of Warwick researchers can now explain why some water droplets bounce like a beach ball off surfaces, without ever actually touching them. Now the design and engineering of future droplet technologies can be made more precise and efficient.

Scientists make most sensitive measurements to date of silicon's conductivity

Silicon, the best-known semiconductor, is ubiquitous in electronic devices including cellphones, laptops and the electronics in cars. Now, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have made the most sensitive measurements to date of how quickly electric charge moves in silicon, a gauge of its performance as a semiconductor. Using a novel method, they have discovered how silicon performs under circumstances beyond anything scientists could test before—specifically, at ultralow levels of electric charge. The new results may suggest ways to further improve semiconductor materials and their applications, including solar cells and next-generation high-speed cellular networks. The NIST scientists report their results today in Optics Express.

Researchers report more accurate measurement of neutrons

A research team from Bochum has determined the size of neutrons in a more direct way than ever before, thus correcting previous assumptions.

Glass slides that stand to revolutionize fluorescence microscopy

EPFL scientists have developed a new type of microscope slide that can boost the amount of light in fluorescence microscopy by a factor of up to 25. These new slides can both amplify and direct light, making them ideal for applications ranging from early-stage diagnosis to the rapid archiving of pathology samples.

Isotope movement holds key to the power of fusion reactions

Fusion may be the future of clean energy. The same way the sun forces reactions between light elements, such as hydrogen, to produce heavy elements and heat energy, fusion on Earth can generate electricity by harnessing the power of elemental reactions. The problem is controlling the uniformity of hydrogen isotope density ratio in the fusion plasma—the soup of elements that will fuse and produce energy.

The first quantum orienteering by quantum entangling measurements enhancement

The CAS key lab of quantum information, led by Prof. Guo Guangcan, Li Chuanfeng, Xiang Guoyong and collaborators, reports enhancing the performance of quantum orienteering with entangling measurements via photonic quantum walks. These results were published online by Physical Review Letters on February 13th.

Astronomy & Space news

Thermonuclear X-ray bursts and dips detected from the X-ray binary 4U 1323-62

Using the AstroSat satellite, astronomers have investigated a low-mass X-ray binary (LMXB) known as 4U 1323-62, reporting the detection of thermonuclear X-ray bursts and dips from the source. The discovery was presented in a paper published February 19 on the arXiv pre-print repository.

Ancient meteorite site on Earth could reveal new clues about Mars' past

Scientists have devised new analytical tools to break down the enigmatic history of Mars' atmosphere—and whether life was once possible there.

Turbulent times revealed on Asteroid 4 Vesta

Planetary scientists at Curtin University have shed some light on the tumultuous early days of the largely preserved protoplanet Asteroid 4 Vesta, the second largest asteroid in our Solar System.

Digging into the far side of the moon: Chang'E-4 probes 40 meters into lunar surface

A little over a year after landing, China's spacecraft Chang'E-4 is continuing to unveil secrets from the far side of the Moon. The latest study, published on Feb. 26 in Science Advances, reveals what lurks below the surface.

Virgin Galactic reports high interest in its space flights

Virgin Galactic has received nearly 8,000 online reservations of interest since its first successful test flight into space 14 months ago, the company said Tuesday as it nears commercial operation and prepares to reopen ticket sales.

Suited up: Testing how microgravity affects our ability to grab and manipulate objects in space

When it comes to grasping an object, our eyes, ears and hands are intimately connected. Our brain draws information from different senses, such as sight, sound and touch, to coordinate hand movements.

Gemini South telescope captures exquisite planetary nebula

The latest image from the international Gemini Observatory showcases the striking planetary nebula CVMP 1. This object is the result of the death throes of a giant star and is a glorious but relatively short-lived astronomical spectacle. As the progenitor star of this planetary nebula slowly cools, this celestial hourglass will run out of time and will slowly fade from view over many thousands of years.

Help find the location of newly discovered black holes in the LOFAR Radio Galaxy Zoo project

Scientists are asking for the public's help to find the origin of hundreds of thousands of galaxies that have been discovered by the largest radio telescope ever built: LOFAR. Where do these mysterious objects that extend for thousands of light-years come from? A new citizen science project, LOFAR Radio Galaxy Zoo, gives anyone with a computer the exciting possibility to join the quest to find out where the black holes at the center of these galaxies are located.

Technology news

A language generation system that can compose creative poetry

Over the past few decades, researchers have developed increasingly advanced artificial intelligence (AI) tools and computational techniques that can be applied in a variety of settings. Among these, techniques that can generate written or spoken language have attracted considerable attention, particularly with the introduction of new voice assistants, robots and new interactive devices.

Firefox unveils major security upgrade: DoH protocol boosts user privacy

In a major step to curb eavesdroppers from tapping into users' web browsing habits, Mozilla today launched a major security initiative for all Firefox users in the United States.

New app takes you out of the picture

In a social media era where one can be "ghosted" or "canceled" at the tap of a key, it should come as no surprise that we can now be simply "erased." Call it: the "un-selfie."

Personalization of online services: Helpful customization or furtive manipulation?

Whether we are looking for a restaurant tip, researching health information, or scrolling through social media posts, algorithms use the personal data they gather on us to determine what we are shown online. But how aware are people of the impact algorithms have on their digital environments? A team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the University of Bristol has conducted a survey of 1,065 people in Germany to address these questions.

Protecting sensitive metadata so it can't be used for surveillance

MIT researchers have designed a scalable system that secures the metadata—such as who's corresponding and when—of millions of users in communications networks, to help protect the information against possible state-level surveillance.

A tactile robot finger with no blind spots

Researchers at Columbia Engineering announced today that they have introduced a new type of robotic finger with a sense of touch. Their finger can localize touch with very high precision—

As humanity's relationship with AI grows, experts call for protective framework

Scientists have proposed a new international framework to keep ethics and human wellbeing at the forefront of our relationship with technology.

Sweat sensor detects stress levels; May find use in space exploration

If someone asked you right now how stressed you are, what would you say? A little? A lot? You do not know?

Stretchable, wearable coils may make MRI, other medical tests easier on patients

Anyone who has had a mammogram or an MRI knows how uncomfortable and awkward the tests can be. Now, Purdue University researchers have taken technology used in the defense and aerospace industries to create a novel way of doing some medical imaging.

Panasonic scraps solar panels partnership with Tesla

Panasonic is pulling out of its partnership with Tesla to produce solar panels at a factory in New York state, the Japanese electronics maker said Wednesday.

Star power: Togo bets on solar energy for its rural poor

Not so long ago, whenever he wanted to watch a football match or recharge his phone, Ousmane Kantcho had to go "into town"—a 15-kilometre ride by bicycle on poor roads in the savannah.

Internet giants fight spread of coronavirus untruths

As the new coronavirus spreads globally, the online battle to keep misinformation about the disease is also stepping up.

How to shop for a low-tech car

New vehicles are more technologically advanced than ever. A car today can mirror your smartphone on its center display screen, warn you of objects in your blind spot, brake on its own in an emergency, adjust the climate control via voice, and much more.

New patented invention stabilizes, rotates satellites

Many satellites are in space to take photos. But a vibrating satellite, like a camera in shaky hands, can't get a sharp image. Pointing it at a precise location to take a photo or perform another task, is another important function that requires accuracy. Vedant, an aerospace engineering doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was working on a way to eliminate vibrations on a satellite when he discovered his invention could also rotate the satellite.

How Tinder is being used for more than just hook-ups

The developers of the dating app Tinder recently announced that new safety features would be added to its app throughout 2020. These updates include a means to connect users with emergency services when they feel unsafe and more safety information provided through the app.

People prefer robots to explain themselves – and a brief summary doesn't cut it

Artificial intelligence is entering our lives in many ways—on our smartphones, in our homes, in our cars. These systems can help people make appointments, drive and even diagnose illnesses. But as AI systems continue to serve important and collaborative roles in people's lives, a natural question is: Can I trust them? How do I know they will do what I expect?

Google pledges new $10 bn investment in US in 2020

Google said Wednesday it would invest more than $10 billion in US offices and data centers in 2020, including its new campus planned for New York City and projects in 10 other states.

Apple and Johnson & Johnson team up on study to reduce stroke risk: How to volunteer

Can the Apple Watch and an app on your iPhone reduce the likelihood you'll have a stroke?

Study analyzes impact of switch from nuclear power to coal, suggests directions for policy

Since incidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, many countries have switched from nuclear power to electricity production fired by fossil fuels, despite the environmental consequences of burning fuels such as coal. A new study used data from the United States to analyze the costs and benefits of electricity production from coal-fired versus nuclear sources. The study's authors conclude that policymakers should look at nuclear power as a low-carbon electricity source, but that utilities will need to have incentives to do so.

Finnish minister: EU needs to establish own OS, web browser

A top Finnish government member wants the European Union to develop its own computer operating system and internet browser to reduce reliance in the 27-nation bloc on tech giants.

French carmaker PSA defies sales slowdown with record profits

French car giant PSA Peugeot-Citroen, currently in the process of merging with rival Fiat Chrysler, said Wednesday it shook off a drop in sales to notch up record profits in 2019.

Air New Zealand tests beds for economy passengers

Air New Zealand on Wednesday announced a proposal to put beds in economy-class, which it claimed could prove a "game changer" for passengers desperate to stretch out on long-haul flights.

Lufthansa says to freeze hiring, cut costs over coronavirus

German airline Lufthansa said Wednesday it would freeze new hires and use unpaid leave and additional short-time work to cut costs to help cushion the economic impact of the novel coronavirus.

Intercepting enemy unmanned aircraft systems midflight

Sandia National Laboratories robotics experts are working on a way to intercept enemy unmanned aircraft systems midflight. They successfully tested their concept indoors with a swarm of four unmanned aircraft systems that flew in unison, each carrying one corner of a net. Acting as a team, they intercepted the flying target, trapped it in air like an insect caught in a web and safely lowered it to the ground.


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▼ Firefox is showing the way to a world that’s private by default again

If Amazon Go cameras seem squiggy, shouldn't online tracking be too?‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ 

One of the nice things about looking at the full scope of tech news for the day is that two stories that you otherwise wouldn't think to connect end up playing off each other perfectly. So it was today with the following pieces of news.

First, Firefox is turning on a controversial new encryption methodology by default in the US. Second, Amazon is expanding its cashierless Go model into a full-blown grocery store.

Here's where I see the connection: both are about companies tracking your activities in order to gather data they could monetize later. Let's take them one by one, starting with Amazon.

...after the links, that is. But while I have you, I want to quickly note that if you'll be in Austin during SXSW, you can come see a live Vergecast with me, plus other panels and events with Nilay Patel, Ashley Carman, and Dani Deahl. A lot of it is happening at The Deep End, Vox Media's space at the conference, which doesn't require a conference pass. It may require a reservation, though, so RSVP here: https://voxmediaevents.com/sxsw.

If you can make it, please come say hi. I love meeting readers in the real world!

- Dieter

More from The Verge

┏ Bob Iger steps down as Disney CEO, replaced by Bob Chapek. We'll have much more on this completely surprising story, but for now Julia Alexander's writeup covers the state of things quite well. The whole mood of media Twitter when this news broke was bafflement, intrigue, and a lot of concern that there's some bad-news reason for Bob Iger's sudden decision.

┏ Tesla ignored safety board's Autopilot recommendations, chairman says. Sean O'Kane reports from Washington, DC.

"What struck me most about the circumstances of this crash was the lack of system safeguards to prevent foreseeable misuses of technology," Sumwalt said in his prepared remarks on Tuesday. "Instead, industry keeps implementing technology in such a way that people can get injured or killed, ignoring this Board's recommendations intended to help them prevent such tragedies."

┏ Tesla Autopilot, distracted driving to blame in deadly 2018 crash. Sean went to DC primarily to report on this finding, which is a gut punch for Tesla. And to me, the most important part is this quote from NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt: "It's time to stop enabling drivers in any partially automated vehicle to pretend that they have driverless cars." Amen.

┏ Uber and Lyft generate 70 percent more pollution than trips they displace: study. Lyft disputes the claims, which from a city-planning perspective are quite damning.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, ride-hailing trips today result in an estimated 69 percent more climate pollution on average than the trips they displace. In cities, ride-hailing trips typically displace low-carbon trips, such as public transportation, biking, or walking.

Verge Deal of the day 

This Ring Video Doorbell Pro bundle is $110 off

At Best Buy, you can get Ring's Video Doorbell Pro bundled with a Chime Pro amplifier/extender for $190. The doorbell alone usually costs $250 (and $300 for the bundle). Note that this doorbell requires a wired connection to power it. If you're good to go with that, just log in with your Best Buy account and add it to your cart.


Coronavirus

┏ CDC flu pandemic plans hint at the playbook for a new coronavirus outbreak.

┏ Trump's reckless coronavirus statements put the entire US at risk. Russell Brandom explains why it's so dangerous for people in positions of authority to play fast and loose with the facts.

This is not a good time to be spreading confusion about public health. Once confined to Wuhan, then to China, the new virus is now spreading internationally, with hundreds infected in Italy, South Korea, and Japan. Preparing for a US outbreak is going to require ample medical resources, robust communication, and, most importantly, the public trust. Instead, Trump has minimized the threat and spread bizarre lies, making it hard for the average citizen to know what to expect. When a US outbreak does happen, that confusion could encourage panic — a panic that could amplify the damage from the disease itself.

Gadget news

┏ Nest cameras were down for 17 hours because of failed server update.

┏ Oppo's Find X2 flagship phone will be announced next week. Honest admission: I find it increasingly hard to know how to talk about resolution for phone screens. In many cases I don't care about what the pixel count is, just so long as it crosses Apple's so-called Retina threshold where you can't discern pixels at arm's length.

I bring it up because there's a small drama with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, which can't maintain both 120Hz refresh rates and its full 1440-wide resolution at the same time (likely a battery consideration more than a horsepower one). But as I will note in my review later this week, even with a huge 6.9-inch screen I find 1080p totally fine — or at least worth the trade off for the higher refresh rate.

Maybe Oppo's schtick with this phone will be having both high refresh rate and high resolution enabled at the same time. That'll be important for Oppo's bragging rights, but I am not sure it'll be important for users.

┏ The HyperBoom is Ultimate Ears' first speaker suited for big parties. Cameron Faulkner has a good look at this party speaker, which is brave of him because it's a party speaker with an understated design and our editor in chief Nilay Patel has made it editorial policy that we should mostly cover party speakers with bombastic design, neon lights, and ideally cupholders

┏ Microsoft's new Xbox One dashboard now available with updated home screen. My colleague Sam Byford mentioned that this is the first non-baffling Xbox One interface in a long time, maybe ever. Totally agree.

┏ How to make a seamless Instagram panorama. Vjeran Pavic has been doing these great panoramas on Instagram forever and they've always made me jealous. He finally wrote up instructions for how to do it.


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Firefox is showing the way to a world that's private by default again

You likely already know the story with Amazon Go stores: you can walk in and browse around, putting stuff in your cart as you like. Instead of checking out, you just leave. It all works because cameras track your every move and determine what you've picked up to charge you later. You can even pick something up, walk around the store with it, then put it back and leave and Amazon will figure that out. I know this because I've done it several times just to see.

Nick Statt visited Amazon's new expansion of that concept and reported an excellent story about how it works as a full grocery store. He also interviewed executives on the details of how it's all being positioned. Notably, this is an "Amazon Go" store and not just a Whole Foods. For Amazon, they're two distinct retail models (for now).

Nick explains:

That complexity inherent to the grocery market is why Amazon chose to brand its new store as a Go one, instead of choosing to bring its cashier-less Go model to an existing Whole Foods location. Amazon wants the freedom to sell people products from major brands they might find at a city bodega, a neighborhood CVS, or a Kroger store, and not just the organic and high-end ones Whole Foods sells today. That sets up Amazon to service a wider variety of customers: Go stores for the office lunch crowd, Go Grocery for the everyday residential shopper, and Whole Foods for the organic-minded and more affluent.

But as you are thinking about this whole model I suspect that Amazon's go to market strategy isn't top of mind. Instead, there's either an alarm klaxon going off in your head or — at the very least — a quiet voice saying this: it seems super creepy for cameras to watch your every move as you walk around a store. The follow-up thought is that the convenience of not having to check out is perhaps not worth the tradeoff for the surveillance that's happening inside these stores.

I hear the same alarm. But I also visited Amazon dot com this week and shopped for all sorts of things. If you think that the surveillance and data collection that happens at an Amazon Go retail location is creepy, well friend, it's got nothing on what Amazon can glean from what happens on its website.

Keep that tension in your mind as we turn to Mozilla and Firefox. The core thing that Mozilla is doing is trying to encrypt DNS, which stands for Domain Name Service. When you visit a website like www.theverge.com, what you're actually visiting is a much less descriptive series of numbers. DNS is the address lookup that tells your browser that the human-readable domain — theverge.com — is located at a particular IP address.

For most browsers, that address lookup isn't encrypted, which means your internet service provider (or anybody else interested enough to snoop on it) could see what websites you're visiting. Putting DNS behind a secure connection means that it's less likely that snoops could see where you're going.

The decision is controversial on a number of fronts. There's the ever-present concern about protecting kids form predators, of course, but there's also a large group of security experts who think it's not actually all that effective.

On the whole, I think that Mozilla's decision is fundamentally good, even with the above caveats. That's because it shifts the Overton Window for privacy, just a bit. Whatever you think of its efficacy, the shift helps to change our default assumptions about privacy, Specifically, browsing should be fully private.

If you haven't connected the DNS story with the Amazon story on your own, let me lay it out more explicitly.

I don't think we've fully grappled with the idea that by default there's not an expectation of privacy with what we do online. Think about it in other contexts: would you recoil at the idea of a company knowing what books you casually browsed at the library or bookstore? Probably you would, which is why the Amazon Go concept seems so squiggy (technical term).

Until we got on the web, our browsing habits were private by default. Now, they're not.

For web browsing, I admit that there are contexts where trusted people like parents (or less trusted but still in power over your time, like the company you work for) might have a legitimate reason for gathering information on the websites you visit. But for the most part, what we choose to look at should be our business — whether that happens online, in a library, or in a grocery store. And yet the default assumption online is that certain companies get to gather and use that information.

Specifically your ISP, the company that provides your web browser, or even any company that manages to drop a cookie on a website you happen to visit can all gather data on your web browsing habits.

In a different world, one where we made different choices about how to construct and pay for the web in the early days, the online tradeoffs we've all agreed to would seem as bizarre as Amazon Go cameras tracking our every move in a grocery store. In this world, though, why have we accepted one online trade as normal while finding the trade of cameras in a store to be weird?

When it comes to the online world, Mozilla's solution may not be perfect. But it seems like a step in the right direction to me. As do all the other changes that are coming to web browsers — even Google Chrome is coming around to reducing tracking, as I've written about before.

For the past twenty years at least, we've been living in a world where the default assumption is that it's okay for companies to track our browsing habits because we get something in exchange. But if you're squigged out by having your real-world store browsing habits tracked, sit with that feeling and ask yourself: should you feel differently about online browsing?

You are reading Processor, a newsletter about computers by Dieter Bohn. Dieter writes about consumer tech, software, and the most important news of the day from The Verge. This newsletter delivers about four times a week, at least a couple of which include longer essays.

If you enjoyed this email, please feel free to forward to a friend. You can subscribe to Processor and our other newsletters by clicking right here and here is an RSS feed. You can also follow Dieter on Twitter: @backlon.

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