Astronauts are about to launch on a used rocket, inside a used spacecraft

SpaceX and NASA say they are ready for the launch of four astronauts to the International Space Station early on Friday morning.

This Crew-2 mission—comprising NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and European astronaut Thomas Pesquet—is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center at 5:49 am EDT (09:49 UTC) on Friday. Weather conditions appear favorable, but if there is an issue SpaceX has a backup opportunity on Monday at 4:48 am EDT (08:48 UTC).

With this mission, SpaceX will be seeking to fly astronauts into orbit for the third time, following the Demo-2 mission in May 2020 and the Crew-1 mission in November. Notably, this launch will seek to reuse the Falcon 9 rocket first stage (from the Crew-1 launch) and the Crew Dragon spacecraft (from Demo-2).

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Source: Ars Technica – Astronauts are about to launch on a used rocket, inside a used spacecraft

US COVID vaccinations fall nearly 11% in a week as demand wanes

Nurses wait at empty tables for more patients to arrive to receive a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in Gardena, California, on April 17, 2021.

Enlarge / Nurses wait at empty tables for more patients to arrive to receive a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in Gardena, California, on April 17, 2021. (credit: Getty | Patrick Fallon)

Though COVID-19 vaccines are now open to all US adults, vaccinations in the country are on the decline.

In the past week, the rolling seven-day average of daily vaccinations has slipped nearly 11 percent, falling from a high on April 13 of nearly 3.4 million shots per day to the current average of just over 3 million. And scores of counties across the US have begun declining shipments of vaccine doses, according to reporting by The Washington Post.

It’s the first time since the nationwide vaccination effort began last December that the country has seen a sustained decline in vaccinations—except for a brief dip in February which was linked to winter weather-related delays and cancellations.

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Source: Ars Technica – US COVID vaccinations fall nearly 11% in a week as demand wanes

Mortal Kombat film review: Bloody enough, not fun enough

Mortal Kombat‘s third live-action movie, launching this week after over two decades of cinematic silence, is a weird one.

It’s not good. You wouldn’t mistake this for a classic action or martial arts film, and it borrows clumsily from genre giants without building upon their shoulders in any meaningful way.

Most recent Mortal Kombat games (and a pair of Injustice games, starring DC Comics characters in MK-like fights) have impressed largely because they’re a hoot to sit back and watch, full of entertaining, tongue-in-cheek cut scenes. Strip these out and put them on a streaming service as an animated series, and you’d get hours of fatality-filled butt-kicking and silliness—all better than what’s on display in this feature.

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Source: Ars Technica – Mortal Kombat film review: Bloody enough, not fun enough

This miniature version of Starry Night was made with a “laser paintbrush”

Blurring the lines between science and art: researchers used a “laser paintbrush” to create art on metallic canvases.

Researchers at ITMO University in Russia have created a “laser paintbrush” capable of creating localized color on a metallic canvas, using their method to create miniaturized replicas of various works of art—including Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Their technique even makes it possible to change or erase or rewrite the colors several times. They described their work in a new paper published in the journal Optica.

Traditional paints get their colors from various pigments (often derived from minerals), but there are many examples of structural color in nature, like the bright colors in butterfly wings. As we’ve reported previously, those colors don’t come from pigment molecules but from how the wings are structured. The scales of chitin (a polysaccharide common to insects) are arranged like roof tiles. Essentially, they form a diffraction grating, except these naturally occurring photonic crystals only produce certain colors, or wavelengths, of light, while a diffraction grating will produce the entire spectrum, much like a prism. Alter the structure by changing the size of the tiles, and the crystals become sensitive to a different wavelength. And the perception of color doesn’t depend on the viewing angle.

Manmade “nanopillars” can also be used to generate structural colors, for instance, by illuminating nanopillar arrays with white light to produce specific colors (red, blue, and green light), simply by varying the sizes (widths) of the nanopillars. In fact, last year, scientists at the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) used millions of nanopillars in an array to control both the color and intensity of incident light, projecting a faithful reproduction of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring as proof of concept.

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Source: Ars Technica – This miniature version of Starry Night was made with a “laser paintbrush”

Comcast touts 4Gbps cable uploads in lab test, still limits users to 35Mbps

A Comcast modem/router gateway sitting next to a laptop.

Enlarge / Picture of a Comcast router/modem gateway from the company’s website. (credit: Comcast)

Comcast today offered the latest hint of a future in which its cable customers won’t be limited to 35Mbps upload speeds. Announcing a recent lab test, Comcast said its research team “deliver[ed] upstream and downstream throughputs of greater than 4Gbps” and that “future optimization” will allow “even greater capacity.”

This was “the first-ever live lab test” of a Broadcom “system-on-chip (SOC) device that will pave the way for Comcast to deliver multigigabit upload and download speeds over its hybrid-fiber coaxial (HFC) network,” Comcast said. It won’t require installation of more cables because the “technology works using the same types of connections already installed in hundreds of millions of homes worldwide,” Comcast said.

Cable customers have been waiting a long time for upload speeds that aren’t a tiny fraction of download speeds. Comcast’s cable uploads, ranging from 3Mbps to 35Mbps, are so low that Comcast hides them deep within its online ordering system. While cable download speeds of up to 1.2Gbps are prominently displayed, Comcast doesn’t tell customers what upload speeds they’ll get until they enter a valid credit card number.

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Source: Ars Technica – Comcast touts 4Gbps cable uploads in lab test, still limits users to 35Mbps

Cyberpunk 2077 refunds barely dented CD Projekt Red’s bottom line

Back in December, CD Projekt Red made waves by offering full refunds to Cyberpunk 2077 players who were dissatisfied with the game’s poor performance, especially on older consoles. Days later, Sony delisted the game from PSN and made its own refund offer, followed by a similar refund off from Microsoft.

Today, with the release of the CDPR’s Consolidated Financial Statement for the 2020 fiscal year (which ended December 31), we know how much that refund program cost the company last year and how much CDPR expects those refunds and lost sales to cost in 2021. All told, the impact seems like it’s going to be a drop in the bucket in an otherwise record-setting financial year.

Buried in the “Other Provisions” section of the 90-page financial report, CDPR acknowledges about $51.2 million (194.5 million PLN) the company says it “has recognized [as] provisions for returns and expected adjustments of licensing reports related to sales of Cyberpunk 2077 in its release window, in Q4 2020.” Translated into plain English, that seems to include all digital and retail refunds for the game in 2020, as well as expectations for continued refunds and lost sales projected through 2021 (thanks to F-Squared’s Mike Futter for helping me parse the tortured language in the report).

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Source: Ars Technica – Cyberpunk 2077 refunds barely dented CD Projekt Red’s bottom line

An API that can tell your EV when it’s the optimal time to charge

An API that can tell your EV when it’s the optimal time to charge

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

The switch to electric vehicles is going more slowly in the US than in some other parts of the world. EVs reached a higher market share in 2020 than in any year past, but they still only accounted for 1.8 percent of all new cars and trucks. So for now, there’s not really much impact on the grid from people charging their cars at home at the same time. At least not yet. But power consumption due to EV charging will be a growing concern as the country decarbonizes in the coming years, particularly given how fragile the US’s electrical infrastructure is in places.

Just when EV charging will become a problem is something we’ve looked at in the past. A study by Matteo Muratori at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado found that a residential distribution transformer could handle six EVs all charging at once, as long as those EVs were only charging at 120 V. But adding just one 240 V (level 2) charger to the mix was enough to exceed the transformer’s nominal capacity.

Muratori’s proposed solution? Smart charging.

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Source: Ars Technica – An API that can tell your EV when it’s the optimal time to charge

YouTube is now building its own video-transcoding chips

Extreme close-up photograph of computer component.

Enlarge / A Google Argos VCU. It transcodes video very quickly. (credit: Google)

Google has decided that YouTube is such a huge transcoding workload that it needs to build its own server chips. The company detailed its new “Argos” chips in a YouTube blog post, a CNET interview, and in a paper for ASPLOS, the Architectural Support for Programming Languages and Operating Systems Conference. Just as there are GPUs for graphics workloads and Google’s TPU (Tensor processing unit) for AI workloads, the YouTube infrastructure team says it has created the “VCU” or “Video (trans)Coding Unit,” which helps YouTube transcode a single video into over a dozen versions that it needs to provide a smooth, bandwidth-efficient, profitable video site.

Google’s Jeff Calow said the Argos chip has brought “up to 20-33x improvements in compute efficiency compared to our previous optimized system, which was running software on traditional servers.” The VCU package is a full-length PCI-E card and looks a lot like a graphics card. A board has two Argos ASIC chips buried under a gigantic, passively cooled aluminum heat sink. There’s even what looks like an 8-pin power connector on the end, because PCI-E just isn’t enough power. Google also provided a lovely chip diagram, listing 10 “encoder cores” on each chip, with Google’s white paper adding that “all other elements are off-the-shelf IP blocks.” Google says that “each encoder core can encode 2160p in realtime, up to 60 FPS (frames per second) using three reference frames.”

The cards are specifically designed to slot into Google’s warehouse-scale computing system. Each compute cluster in YouTube’s system will have a section of dedicated “VCU machines” loaded with the new cards, saving Google from having to crack open every server and load it with a new card. Google says the cards resemble GPUs because that’s what fits in its existing accelerator trays. CNET reports that “thousands of the chips are running in Google data centers right now” and, thanks to the cards, individual video workloads like 4K video “can be available to watch in hours instead of the days it previously took.”

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Source: Ars Technica – YouTube is now building its own video-transcoding chips

iOS and iPadOS 15 will feature major changes to notifications, home screen

A blue iPhone 12 lying flat on a table

Enlarge / The iPhone 12. (credit: Samuel Axon)

Yet another report from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman has emerged with details of Apple’s future product plans. Citing “people with knowledge of the matter,” the article broadly describes some of the key upcoming features in iOS 15 for iPhones and iPadOS 15 for iPads.

Apple is likely to reveal iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 at its annual developer conference, WWDC, which kicks off on June 7 in an online-only format this year. Typically, Apple then releases these updates in September or thereabouts—timed closely with the annual release of new flagship iPhones. Something close to that same timeline is likely again this year.

Bloomberg’s sources say the upcoming OS updates will allow users to set different notification rules based on their status—”status,” in this case, means some predefined buckets like working, sleeping, or driving, as well as custom statuses that users can define themselves.

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Source: Ars Technica – iOS and iPadOS 15 will feature major changes to notifications, home screen

Consumer Reports shows Tesla Autopilot works with no one in the driver’s seat

Consumer Reports shows Tesla Autopilot works with no one in the driver’s seat

Enlarge (credit: Sjo / Getty)

Last Saturday, two men died when a Tesla Model S crashed into a tree in a residential neighborhood. Authorities said they found no one in the driver’s seat—one man was in the front passenger seat, while the other was in the back. That led to speculation that the car might have been under the control of Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assistance system at the time of the crash.

Elon Musk has tweeted that “data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled.” Tesla defenders also insisted that Autopilot couldn’t have been active because the technology doesn’t operate unless someone is in the driver’s seat. Consumer Reports decided to test this latter claim by seeing if it could get Autopilot to activate without anyone in the driver’s seat.

It turned out not to be very difficult.

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Source: Ars Technica – Consumer Reports shows Tesla Autopilot works with no one in the driver’s seat

John Legere got $137 million severance for completing T-Mobile/Sprint merger

Then-T-Mobile CEO John Legere testifying at a Congressional committee hearing.

Enlarge / Then-T-Mobile CEO John Legere testifies before the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee on March 12, 2019 in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images | Chip Somodevilla )

T-Mobile paid then-CEO John Legere $137.2 million in 2020, a year in which he worked three months and then left on the day he completed T-Mobile’s purchase of Sprint.

Legere’s 2020 compensation was revealed yesterday in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (see pages 49 and 50). Legere was previously paid $27.8 million in the full year of 2019 and $66.5 million in 2018, mostly in the form of stock awards. His 2020 compensation of $137.2 million did not include any stock awards—instead, it consisted of a $136.55 million severance payment, $600,000 in salary, and $50,000 in reimbursement for legal fees.

Mike Sievert, who replaced Legere as CEO, received $54.9 million in stock awards, salary, bonuses, and incentives in 2020, up from $16.4 million in 2019 and $35.6 million in 2018. He was previously the COO.

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Source: Ars Technica – John Legere got 7 million severance for completing T-Mobile/Sprint merger

Secrets of the Whales explores language, social structure of giants of the deep

National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry spent three years documenting the cultural lives of whales. His journey is the subject of a new four-part documentary series on Disney+, Secrets of the Whales.

Intrepid film crews tracked various species of whales all over the world, capturing their unique hunting strategies, communication skills, and social structures for Secrets of the Whales, a new four-part documentary series from National Geographic, now streaming on Disney+.

The project started with National Geographic Explorer and photographer Brian Skerry, who spent three years traveling around the globe documenting the culture of five different species of whale: orcas, humpbacks (aka “the singing sensation of the ocean”), belugas, narwhals, and sperm whales. The Massachusetts-born Skerry recalls visiting the beaches of New England as a child and being fascinating by nature documentaries about the ocean. “There was something especially awe-inspiring about whales,” he told Ars. “There are so many secrets. If I spent the rest of my life just [filming] whales, I would be very happy.”

Skerry pitched a one-hour documentary to National Geographic about his project, which turned into four hours when producer, writer, and director Brian Armstrong (Red Rock Films) signed on, along with Oscar-winning director James Cameron as executive producer. “It started off as a photographer profile [of Skerry], but the scope became so big,” Armstrong told Ars. “[We realized] it’s about the whales and their culture—a big breakthrough topic. It’s subtle, but you’ll notice when we do introduce human characters, you’re usually looking out from the whale’s point of view as we get into their world.”

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Source: Ars Technica – Secrets of the Whales explores language, social structure of giants of the deep

Meet Thistle, the startup that wants to secure billions of IoT devices

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Source: Ars Technica – Meet Thistle, the startup that wants to secure billions of IoT devices

Analyst: Nintendo says Microsoft’s xCloud streaming isn’t coming to Switch

That Android Note Ultra 20 (with removable controller) at the top of the image is the closest you're gonna get to a Switch-like xCloud streaming experience.

Enlarge / That Android Note Ultra 20 (with removable controller) at the top of the image is the closest you’re gonna get to a Switch-like xCloud streaming experience. (credit: Reddit / AS Empire)

For years now, there have been rumors that Microsoft and Nintendo were planning a major partnership to bring the xCloud game streaming features of Xbox Game Pass to the Nintendo Switch. But now an analyst is citing Nintendo itself as saying that rumored team-up won’t be happening.

Game industry analyst and Astris Advisory Japan founder David Gibson tweeted yesterday that while a Switch/xCloud partnership “would make a lot of sense… I have had Nintendo tell me directly they would not put other streaming services on the Switch.” With Nintendo not offering a comment on the matter to Ars Technica, that kind of secondhand sourcing from an analyst in a position to know might be the best information we get for the time being.

Gibson’s tweet came in response to more speculative tweets from NPD analyst Mat Piscatella explaining why he thought such a partnership would be a good idea. “Nintendo would get a massive content gain and sell millions of incremental Switch, [and] Xbox Cloud would be in front of millions of new potential subscribers,” Piscatella said. In the same tweet, though, Piscatella noted that “none of this means that Xbox Cloud will actually ever make it to Switch… there is a list of reasons why it wouldn’t.” (And no, a Switch in the background of an Xbox livestream probably doesn’t point to any of those reasons in either direction.)

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Source: Ars Technica – Analyst: Nintendo says Microsoft’s xCloud streaming isn’t coming to Switch

Biden says US will halve carbon emissions by 2030

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Source: Ars Technica – Biden says US will halve carbon emissions by 2030

Apple to boost ads business as iPhone changes hurt Facebook

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Source: Ars Technica – Apple to boost ads business as iPhone changes hurt Facebook

Contractor that ruined 15M doses of J&J vaccine hiked price of another by 800%

The Emergent BioSolutions plant, a manufacturing partner for Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine, in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 9, 2021.

Enlarge / The Emergent BioSolutions plant, a manufacturing partner for Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 9, 2021. (credit: Getty | Saul Loeb)

Things are not looking good for Emergent BioSolutions, the contract manufacturer that ruined 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine and millions more doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine at its production facility in Baltimore.

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday released a searing inspection report of the facility, finding a slew of significant violations and failings.

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers have opened a multi-pronged investigation into whether Emergent used ties to the Trump administration to get billions of dollars in federal contracts despite a history of failing to complete contracts, inadequately training staff, persistent quality-control issues, and an “unjustified” 800% price increase for an anthrax vaccine.

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Source: Ars Technica – Contractor that ruined 15M doses of J&J vaccine hiked price of another by 800%

Mini-PC review: The Ryzen 5 Pro 2500U-powered Minisforum UM250

This tiny PC's Ryzen 5 Pro 2500U is a couple generations out of date—but it's inexpensive, and it still packs a serious punch.

Enlarge / This tiny PC’s Ryzen 5 Pro 2500U is a couple generations out of date—but it’s inexpensive, and it still packs a serious punch. (credit: Jim Salter)

Minisforum’s UM250 is a very small form factor PC with the power and the ports to take on a lot of tasks. And due to its choice of an older CPU, it’s pretty cheap, too.

A couple of months ago, we reviewed Minisforum’s Comet Lake i5-powered U850. The UM250 we’re looking at today is cut largely from the same cloth—it’s got 16GiB RAM, flagship Intel Wi-Fi 6, a 256GB SSD, two wired Ethernet ports, and an attractive VESA-mountable case that’s easy to work on (and in).

The biggest real-world difference between the two models is price: $430 for the fully loaded, AMD-powered UM250 versus $700 for the Intel-powered U850.

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Source: Ars Technica – Mini-PC review: The Ryzen 5 Pro 2500U-powered Minisforum UM250

Garmin’s 2 new smartwatches want to make the casual athlete more advanced

The family of Garmin Venu 2 and 2S smartwatches.

Enlarge (credit: Garmin)

Garmin has just launched its latest pair of smartwatches, the Garmin Venu 2 and Venu 2S, aimed at those who feel Apple Watches and typical Android smartwatches just don’t give enough health and fitness data. Garmin has a seemingly bottomless roster of smartwatches, and most cater to those who train rather than just exercise casually.

The Venu 2 and 2S seem suited best for somewhat serious to moderately serious trainers who want data informed by all of the latest wearable sensors (SpO2, GPS, HR). At the same time, it covers its smartwatch bases quite well with a vibrant AMOLED touchscreen, onboard music storage, smartphone notifications for iPhone and Android devices (including texts you can reply to on Android), and 11-day battery life.

Add in rapid recharging, which gives you a day of smartwatch use from a 10-minute charge (or 1 hour of GPS with music playback) and all of this should add up to quick-and-easy, everyday integration into your life and routines. Garmin wants to help this along with a revamped UI aesthetic to match the sharper, more colorful AMOLED display and a series of new aggregated metrics that explain what all the data it’s gathering actually means for your health.

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Source: Ars Technica – Garmin’s 2 new smartwatches want to make the casual athlete more advanced

Here are the updates that didn’t make it in Apple’s livestream yesterday

Apple presents the new iPad Pro at its April 20, 2021 event.

Enlarge / Apple presents the new iPad Pro at its April 20, 2021 event. (credit: Apple)

Apple crammed quite a few announcements into a short, one-hour presentation yesterday: new iPad Pros, new iMacs, a new Apple TV 4K, and the long-rumored launch of AirTags, to name a few. But for everything Apple executives and product managers said onstage, there was something else that didn’t get mentioned (or got passed over quickly, perhaps).

Many of these smaller details were hidden on product, specs, or support pages after Apple updated its website with the event’s new products. This isn’t a comprehensive list of everything that changed on Apple’s website, but we’re picking some of the most interesting ones.

Let’s start with OS updates.

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Source: Ars Technica – Here are the updates that didn’t make it in Apple’s livestream yesterday