Science X Newsletter Thursday, Jan 14

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Spotlight Stories Headlines

Evolvable neural units that can mimic the brain's synaptic plasticity

Acoustofluidic centrifuge for nanoparticle enrichment and assortment

Model analyzes how viruses escape the immune system

New state of matter in one-dimensional quantum gas

Foraging humans, mammals and birds who live in the same place behave similarly

Sharpening clinical imaging with AI and currently approved contrast dyes

How plants produce defensive toxins without harming themselves

Building a giant 2-D map of the universe to prepare for the largest 3-D map

Concept for a hybrid-electric plane may reduce aviation's air pollution problem

Low cost chlorine dispensing device improves tap water safety in low-resource regions

Scientists discover the secret of Galapagos' rich ecosystem

A climate in crisis calls for investment in direct air capture, news research finds

Honeybees reveal how our floral landscape has changed over the last 65 years

Climate change is hurting children's diets, global study finds

Sexual harassment claims considered more credible if made by 'prototypical' women

Physics news

New state of matter in one-dimensional quantum gas

As the story goes, the Greek mathematician and tinkerer Archimedes came across an invention while traveling through ancient Egypt that would later bear his name. It was a machine consisting of a screw housed inside a hollow tube that trapped and drew water upon rotation. Now, researchers led by Stanford University physicist Benjamin Lev have developed a quantum version of Archimedes' screw that, instead of water, hauls fragile collections of gas atoms to higher and higher energy states without collapsing. Their discovery is detailed in a paper published Jan. 14 in Science.

How aerosols are formed

ETH Zurich researchers conducted an experiment to investigate the initial steps in the formation of aerosols. Their findings are now aiding efforts to better understand and model that process—for example, the formation of clouds in the atmosphere.

Physical virology shows the dynamics of virus reproduction

The reproductive cycle of viruses requires self-assembly, maturation of virus particles and, after infection, the release of genetic material into a host cell. New physics-based technologies allow scientists to study the dynamics of this cycle and may eventually lead to new treatments. In his role as physical virologist, Wouter Roos, a physicist at the University of Groningen, together with two longtime colleagues, has written a review article on these new technologies, which was published in Nature Reviews Physics on 12 January.

Keeping the costs of superconducting magnets down using ultrasound

Superconductivity already has a variety of practical applications, such as medical imaging and levitating transportation like the ever-popular maglev systems. However, to ensure that the benefits of applied superconductors keep spreading further into other technological fields, we need to find ways of not only improving their performance, but also making them more accessible and simpler to fabricate.

Researchers conduct security analysis and improve quantum random number generation

Recently, the research team led by academician GUO Guangcan from the University of Science and Technology of China of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has made security analysis and improvement of source independent quantum random number generators with imperfect devices.

Astronomy and Space news

Building a giant 2-D map of the universe to prepare for the largest 3-D map

Before DESI, the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, can begin its 5-year mission from an Arizona mountaintop to produce the largest 3-D sky map yet, researchers first needed an even bigger 2-D map of the universe.

Students discover bright lensed galaxy in the early universe

The night sky is a natural time machine, used by cosmologists to explore the origins and evolution of the universe. Reaching into the depths of the past, a class of undergraduate students at the University of Chicago sought to do the same—and uncovered an extraordinarily distant galaxy in the early cosmos.

Shining a new light on dark energy

The Dark Energy Survey has released a massive, public collection of astronomical data and calibrated images from six years of work. Containing data on nearly 700 million astronomical objects, this second data release in the Survey's seven-year history is the topic of sessions today and tomorrow at the 237th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Citizen scientists contribute to 3-D map of cosmic neighborhood

Scientists tapped into the worldwide network of volunteers using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 to map dozens of new brown dwarfs, or balls gas not heavy enough to be stars.

Doubling the number of known gravitational lenses

Data from the DESI (Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument) Legacy Imaging Surveys have revealed over 1200 new gravitational lenses, approximately doubling the number of known lenses. Discovered using machine learning trained on real data, these warped and stretched images of distant galaxies provide astronomers with a flood of new targets with which to measure fundamental properties of the Universe such as the Hubble constant, which describes the expanding Universe.

Galaxies hit single, doubles, and triple (growing black holes)

When three galaxies collide, what happens to the huge black holes at the centers of each? A new study using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and several other telescopes reveals new information about how many black holes are furiously growing after these galactic smash ups.

Blue Origin launches capsule to space with astronaut perks

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin company launched a new capsule into space Thursday to test all the astronaut perks before people strap in.

RIP: Mars digger bites the dust after 2 years on red planet

NASA declared the Mars digger dead Thursday after failing to burrow deep into the red planet to take its temperature.

NASA's Juno mission expands into the future

NASA has authorized a mission extension for its Juno spacecraft exploring Jupiter. The agency's most distant planetary orbiter will now continue its investigation of the solar system's largest planet through September 2025, or until the spacecraft's end of life. This expansion tasks Juno with becoming an explorer of the full Jovian system—Jupiter and its rings and moons—with multiple rendezvous planned for three of Jupiter's most intriguing Galilean moons: Ganymede, Europa, and Io.

Mars 2020 Perseverance rover to capture sounds from the red planet

When the Mars Perseverance rover lands on the red planet on Feb. 18, 2021, it will not only collect stunning images and rock samples; the data it returns may also include some recorded sounds from Mars.

NASA's SDO spots first lunar transit of 2021

On Jan. 13, 2021, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, experienced its first lunar transit of the year when the moon crossed its view of the sun. The transit lasted about 30 minutes, between 12:56 and 1:25 a.m. ET. During this time, the moon happened to cover two of the spacecraft's fine-guidance sensors, causing its view of the sun to jitter slightly. SDO recovered a steady view shortly after the transit.

Final data release from DESI Legacy Imaging Surveys issued

Astronomers using images from Kitt Peak National Observatory and Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory have created the largest ever map of the sky, comprising over a billion galaxies. The ninth and final data release from the ambitious DESI Legacy Imaging Surveys sets the stage for a ground-breaking 5-year survey with the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), which aims to provide new insights into the nature of dark energy. The map was released today at the January 2021 meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Asteroids vs. microbes

Inside one of the containers of this 40-cm-across miniature laboratory in orbit, a battle is set to start between asteroid-like fragments and rock-hungry microbes, to probe their use for space mining in the future.

Technology news

Evolvable neural units that can mimic the brain's synaptic plasticity

Machine learning techniques are designed to mathematically emulate the functions and structure of neurons and neural networks in the brain. However, biological neurons are very complex, which makes artificially replicating them particularly challenging.

Concept for a hybrid-electric plane may reduce aviation's air pollution problem

At cruising altitude, airplanes emit a steady stream of nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, where the chemicals can linger to produce ozone and fine particulates. Nitrogen oxides, or NOx, are a major source of air pollution and have been associated with asthma, respiratory disease, and cardiovascular disorders. Previous research has shown that the generation of these chemicals due to global aviation results in 16,000 premature deaths each year.

New method makes better predictions of material properties using low quality data

Advancements in energy technologies, healthcare, semiconductors and food production all have one thing in common: they rely on developing new materials—new combinations of atoms—that have specific properties enabling them to perform a needed function. In the not-too-distant past, the only way to know what properties a material had was by performing experimental measurements or using very expensive computations.

Experts reduce search times for novel high-entropy alloys 13,000-fold using Cuckoo Search

A major roadblock to computational design of high-entropy alloys has been removed, according to scientists at Iowa State University and Lehigh University. Engineers from the Ames Lab and Lehigh University's Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics have developed a process that reduces search time used for predictive design 13,000-fold.

Deep learning outperforms standard machine learning in biomedical research applications, research shows

Compared to standard machine learning models, deep learning models are largely superior at discerning patterns and discriminative features in brain imaging, despite being more complex in their architecture, according to a new study in Nature Communications led by Georgia State University.

AI algorithm over 70% accurate at guessing a person's political orientation

A team of researchers at Stanford University has developed an AI algorithm that proved to be slightly over 70% accurate at guessing a person's political affiliation after studying a single photograph. In their paper published in the journal Scientific Reports, the group describes building and testing their algorithm and how well it worked.

New algorithm mimics electrosensing in fish

While humans may struggle to navigate a murky, turbid underwater environment, weakly electric fish can do so with ease. These aquatic animals are specially adapted to traverse obscured waters without relying on vision; instead, they sense their environment via electric fields. Now, researchers are attempting to adapt these electrosensing techniques to improve underwater robotics.

Impulse Neuro-Controller executes game moves with thoughts instead of mouse clicks

George Will, a political commentator for nearly half a century at The Washington Post, is known to also enjoy weighing in on sports on occasion, most notably baseball. He is fond of repeating the simple but critical observation that these games are a matter of "seconds and inches."

WhatsApp growth slumps as rivals Signal, Telegram rise

Encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram are seeing huge upticks in downloads from Apple and Google's app stores. Facebook-owned WhatsApp, by contrast, is seeing its growth decline following a fiasco that forced the company to clarify a privacy update it had sent to users.

Tech show offers transport solutions for COVID-changed world

The global pandemic has put the brakes on a number of mobility trends, prompting the transportation industry to rethink strategy.

US regulator asks Tesla to recall 158,000 cars over safety-related defect

US regulators asked Tesla Wednesday to recall 158,000 cars in the United States because of a safety-related defect.

Researchers explore how to share data and keep privacy

A new book from researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) outlines how we can improve the way we share sensitive data and preserve people's privacy.

What does a rock climbing belay device have in common with a subsea cable installation vessel?

,What does a rock climbing belay device have in common with a subsea cable installation vessel?

Solar panels capture more sunlight with capsaicin, the chemical that makes chili peppers spicy

Here's some news hot off the press. Researchers have found a secret ingredient for making solar panels that absorb the sun's energy more efficiently. Depending on what you like to eat, there's a good chance you can find it at home. Capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili peppers their spicy sting, also improves perovskite solar cells—the devices that make up solar panels.

Samsung promises new phones will deliver more for less money

Samsung's next crop of smartphones will boast bigger screens, better cameras, and longer-lasting batteries at lower prices than last year's lineup that came out just before the pandemic toppled the economy.

Renault draws on past in aiming for profitable e-future

French automaker Renault on Thursday unveiled an electric revamp of a beloved hatchback from the 70s to spearhead a new revival plan after years of turmoil, hoping to move upmarket as the industry races to make a clean-energy shift.

Toyota to pay $180 mln to settle US emissions violations: govt

Toyota will pay $180 million to settle charges it failed to comply with rules mandating that auto companies report problems with vehicle emissions to authorities, the US Department of Justice said on Thursday.

For first time in 5 years, US gas mileage down, emissions up

A new government report says gas mileage for new vehicles dropped and pollution increased in model year 2019 for the first time in five years.

Google muscles up with Fitbit deal amid antitrust concerns

Google has completed its $2.1 billion acquisition of fitness-gadget maker Fitbit, a deal that could help the internet company grow even stronger while U.S. government regulators pursue an antitrust case aimed at undermining its power.

US agency updating auto safety ratings for new technology

The U.S. government's road safety agency wants to update its ratings system for vehicle safety to include testing of some new advanced driver-assist systems as it tries to keep up with changing technology.

Zapping Covid: Tech sector takes aim at virus with new gadgetry

From virus-zapping drones to smart masks to disease-predicting wearables, the tech sector is showcasing ways to detect and mitigate the coronavirus outbreak.

Twitter CEO defends Trump ban, warns of dangerous precedent

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey banned Trump entirely, then smacked down the president's attempts to tweet using other accounts.

Brexit adds to airline virus woes in Britain

Already grounded by the coronavirus pandemic, airlines operating in the UK are facing post-Brexit obstacles to flying across the European Union, and their shareholders are paying the price.

Hong Kong internet firm blocked website over security law

A Hong Kong internet service provider on Thursday said it had blocked access to a pro-democracy website to comply with the city's national security law.

Norwegian Air to end long-haul flights, focus on Europe

Low-cost carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle said Thursday it will focus on European destinations and close its long-haul operations as it struggles with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and debt restructuring.

Social media giants mishandled Trump: Wikipedia founder

Twitter and Facebook repeatedly mishandled Donald Trump as he pushed baseless claims, including his assertion that US presidential election he lost was rigged, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales told AFP.

Connecticut probing Amazon's e-book deals with publishers

Connecticut authorities are investigating whether Amazon's e-book deals with certain publishers are anticompetitive and violate antitrust laws, state Attorney General William Tong said Thursday.

Snapchat permanently suspends Trump, saying it is "in the interest of public safety" after Capitol riots

A week after indefinitely suspending President Donald Trump's Snapchat account, the social network has confirmed it has permanently banned him.

Delta Air Lines reports huge annual loss but eyes better 2021

Delta Air Lines reported a massive loss Thursday for 2020 following the devastating impact of the coronavirus on air travel, but said it expects to return to profitability later this year.

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▼ With the Samsung Galaxy S21, it’s time for Bixby to put up or shut up

Bixby is a dog that wears shoes and is also a butler ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌

Today, Samsung will unveil the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21 Plus, and Galaxy S21 Ultra (I'll take the Zune-inspired brown one thanks). It's happening a couple months earlier than usual for the S line of phones, but otherwise the script will remain the same.

Here's the script. Samsung will be the first major Android maker out of the gate with Qualcomm's newest chips, this time with the Snapdragon 888. Samsung will use its unseemingly immense marketing budget and longstanding carrier relationships to ensure it will be seen as the default option if you want a premium Android phone — especially if you are making that purchase in a US carrier store.

Other parts of the script are not necessarily guaranteed but are safe bets. They will probably be excellent phones, well-balanced and capable. Samsung will make big camera claims that will require rigorous testing to verify. And of course the ever-swinging pendulum of Samsung's OneUI software will continue its current arc towards being overloaded.

And the character in that script that threatens to turn this whole thing into a tragedy? Bixby. More after the links.

- Dieter

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The last of CES

Are all of these technically CES announcements or are some of them merely CES-adjacent? When CES is all virtual is it an event where things happen or merely a mood, a state of mind? Am I using jokes about philosophical quandaries as a smoke screen to cover up my inability to determine whether or not these things technically are a part of CES or not?

Sometimes questions don't have answers. All we can really know in this world is that laser projectors are still really cool.

┏ Asus' latte dispenses movies instead of coffee and milk. I have an Anker/Nebula version of one of these mini projector/speaker things and it's one of the best things I throw in my suitcase when I travel (er, when I traveled). You really do need a dark room for it to be any good, but you'd be surprised how much more convenient it is to just plug an HDMI cable into the projector you've got than it is dealing with whatever TV might be at the hotel or Airbnb. I might be interested in switching to this, as the Nebula's version of Android TV is old, buggy, and poorly supported.

┏ LG's latest 4K laser projector supports AirPlay 2 for $2,999.

┏ LG's new batch of gaming monitors includes 4K / 144Hz panel with HDMI 2.1.

┏ But wait, Asus has even more gaming monitors equipped with HDMI 2.1 ports.

┏ Asus' new Chromebook CX9 offers military-grade durability.

┏ Asus' 2021 laptop line includes two new dual-screen ZenBooks. A new member joins the Keyboard In The Front club!

If you're new to the ZenBook Duo line, the laptops have a primary screen (the regular one) as well as a secondary screen (the ScreenPad Plus) that's built into the top half of the keyboard deck. It's not really big enough to do anything on, but you can load your distractions (Twitter, Discord, etc.) onto it to keep them out of your main workspace. Some programs, including Adobe's, also offer ScreenPad-specific interfaces.

┏ MSI's 2021 gaming laptops get Nvidia's RTX 3000 series mobile graphics cards and Wi-Fi 6E support. Monica Chin

MSI has introduced its early 2021 lineup of portable gaming laptops during CES on Wednesday. The big news is that all the new releases have been outfitted with Nvidia's brand-new GeForce RTX 3000 series graphics cards. In addition to improved frame rates and ray tracing, these chips will deliver Nvidia's latest features, including its resizable BAR technology. They're also getting support for Wi-Fi 6E.

┏ MSI's new Creator 15 comes with RTX 3000 graphics. Monica Chin

The Creator 15 is just the latest of the dump of gaming- and creator-focused laptops to adopt Nvidia's new RTX 3000 graphics, following their release at CES 2021. These laptops will use the third generation of Nvidia's Max-Q design, which is engineered for thin gaming and content laptops. The new GPUs also include a new Dynamic Boost 2.0 technology that leverages AI to balance power between CPU, GPU, and GPU memory in real time.

┏ MSI's new GE76 Raider Dragon Edition Tiamat is a tribute to an ancient goddess. 10-year-old me playing 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons would have lost it if he knew someday there'd be a Tiamat-themed gaming laptop.

┏ The best tech of CES 2020: Where are they now?

More from The Verge

┏ Chill imbibes: inside the booming business of relaxation drinks. Great feature from Liz Lopatto. I've been seeing ads for these drinks everywhere and wondering what the deal really was. Here's the answer.

┏ Apple's first major racial equity investments include a Detroit developer center and HBCU tech hub.

┏ Intel is replacing its CEO next month.

┏ Ring adds end-to-end encryption to protect your video streams.

┏ Google says a fix for Android coronavirus tracking delays is on the way.

┏ Nvidia and AMD address the great GPU shortage.

With the Samsung Galaxy S21, it's time for Bixby to put up or shut up

Samsung's digital assistant launched in 2017 with the Galaxy S8. Bixby was yet another digital assistant, but as Dan Seifert wrote at the time it had a very clear and very good remit that helped to distinguish it from Alexa, Siri, and Google. Samsung wasn't trying to turn Bixby into a general-purpose, know-and-do-everything assistant. It had focus:

Samsung knows it can't compete with Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and others when it comes to raw machine learning power and putting vast amounts of information at your fingertips, so it's using Bixby to solve a simpler task, one that those companies have largely ignored. Bixby isn't going to try to be the everything-assistant. Instead, it will be that "bright sidekick" that complements those other services. It's a new user interface, not a new way to ask how tall the Eiffel Tower is.

Bixby was to be an interface, not an assistant. Was that really a viable strategy? Who knows! Certainly not Samsung, which very quickly did what Samsung tends to do with software: give in to feature creep. Over the last few years, Bixby has turned into the thing it originally was designed not to be: a worse version of the Google Assistant.

Samsung tried to push Bixby. It created a dedicated button for it. It later dropped that button but assigned it to a long press of the power button. It built out Bixby routines (which was related to Bixby's original purpose). But then it associated Bixby with a chum-feed of content that lived left-of-homescreen. And it announced independent smart Bixby speakers that never really shipped.

On The Vergecast we have a running joke that Bixby is a dog that wears shoes and is also a butler. It's well-meaning and eager to please, but ultimately stumbles around a lot and doesn't do a very good job serving drinks or answering the door because it is a dog, wearing shoes.

Speaking of shoes, put yourself in Samsung's. Why does it continue to develop Bixby? I can only think of two reasons, one good and one bad.

The good reason: a hedge against Google and Android. It's always possible Google might do something egregious and Samsung would want to bail and do without Google's services (or even Android itself). It's not a terrible idea to have your own digital assistant percolating just in case. If nothing else, it might serve as a signal to Google that Samsung is, in fact, willing to just walk away and do Tizen and Bixby in certain negotiations.

That's the good reason — or at least as close to a good reason as I can come up with — but I don't know if it's the real reason. I suspect the real reason is one and the same as the bad reason: Samsung is still, after all these years and after all its successes, trying to be Apple.

Being Apple is shorthand for having an end-to-end ecosystem where your users live and breathe your services and are thereby locked into your products. If you're going to have an holistic, all-encompassing ecosystem you need to cover all the bases, and so: Bixby.

And also: your own fitness service. And your own health app and ecosystem of connections. Your own family of Bluetooth headphones. Your own tracker tag (before Apple even announces its tracker tag). Your own tablets. Your own music service. Your own news service. And so on.

All of these are things that Samsung has either tried or is actively trying to do now. Some of them are really successful! Samsung's Galaxy Buds line will today consist of three different variants of earbuds, each with its own clear reason for being and each quite good (presuming the new Galaxy Buds Pro don't whiff).

Samsung has always had aspirations to build up a whole world (or, er, Galaxy) for its users to live in, just like Apple. What's frustrating is that Samsung is very good at so many things and if it would just lean a little more into those things, it could chart a more innovative and interesting path.

Take Samsung DeX, for just one example. It's the thing that allows you to connect your phone to a bigger screen like a TV or a monitor and get a full desktop interface. It's genuinely cool but, I suspect, more of a tech demo than an oft-used feature. But the Snapdragon 888 that will be in these S21 phones will in many ways be just as powerful as the chips that are going to be running Arm-based Windows laptops this year.

There's untapped potential with DeX that Apple couldn't match for years if Samsung could figure it out. Instead, it's putting effort into getting Tile-esque tracking tags out the door before Apple can.

If Samsung would focus a little more on where it's already ahead and a little less on where it's woefully behind, it would make much more exciting products.

That's why I'm calling it: I've had it with Bixby. If Samsung can't either bring it up to snuff with Siri (a low bar!) or find a way to bring it back to its more focused roots, it's time to send it to the farm. Or at least give users the option to remap the power button to the Google Assistant (without needing third-party hacks).

There is a tiny glimmer of hope. Jimmy is Promo's leak of the new version of Samsung's OneUI version of Android shows that users will be able to choose between the Google feed or Samsung Free feed on their home screens.

Samsung's user interface on top of Android has swung like a pendulum between two poles. It becomes overloaded with features and weird UI for a few years, then the pendulum hovers there at the end of its arc before swinging back to a cleaner, simpler UI. It's time for the pendulum to swing back. And that means it's time to let Bixby go.

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