Researchers completely re-engineer yeast to make more biofuel

Images of white, fuzzy dots on a blue background.

Enlarge / Colonies of genetically modified yeast. (credit: Conor Lawless)

A little while ago, we covered the idea of using photovoltaic materials to drive enzymatic reactions in order to produce specific chemicals. The concept is being considered mostly because doing the same reaction in a cell is often horribly inefficient because everything else in the cell is trying to regulate the enzymes, trying to use the products, trying to convert the byproducts into something toxic, or up to something even more annoying. But in many cases, these reactions rely on chemicals that are only made by cells, leaving some researchers to suspect it still might be easier to use living things in the end.

A new paper in Nature Catalysis may support or contradict this argument, depending on your perspective. In the end, the authors of the new paper re-engineer standard brewer’s yeast to produce molecules that can be used as fuel for internal combustion engines. The full catalog of changes they have to make is a bit mind-numbing and most achieve a small, incremental increase in production. The end result is a large step forward toward biofuel production, but the effort involved is intimidating.

Making fuel

Brewer’s yeast, as the name implies, can already produce a biofuel: alcohol. But ethanol isn’t a drop-in replacement for many current uses, which raises questions about its overall utility. If we have to re-engineer both our engines and our infrastructure in order to use it to replace fossil fuels, then there’s not much space for a smooth transition away from gasoline and other liquid fuels.

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Source: Ars Technica – Researchers completely re-engineer yeast to make more biofuel

Radiohead.com unveils “The Radiohead Library,” an official band repository

On Monday, British rock band Radiohead rolled out arguably the most comprehensive one-stop website for a single band we’ve ever seen—and for an Internet-savvy band like Radiohead, that’s saying something.

The Radiohead Library, which can be found at the sensible URL of radiohead.com/library, includes nearly every official studio release since the band’s debut album Pablo Honey launched in 1993, along with much, much more. Full concerts, TV appearances, CD booklet art, long-lost promotional videos: they’re all here.

Whether you visit the site on a smartphone or desktop browser, it’s formatted to present each Radiohead era as a series of squares and rectangles. The top of the site includes generic, single-colored squares, which each represent a major studio album. Click any of them to reveal the album, its associated EPs and singles, and a scattershot assortment of official music videos, full concert recordings, and other audio and video samples from that album’s era. While you’re picking through each era, you may notice squares with T-shirt logos. Turns out, these link to reprints of classic tour shirts and merchandise from almost every Radiohead album, back on sale for the first time in years.

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Source: Ars Technica – Radiohead.com unveils “The Radiohead Library,” an official band repository

Boeing seeks $10 billion in loans as 737 Max crisis continues

Four Boeing 737 Max planes in the air.

Enlarge / Boeing 737 Max planes. (credit: Boeing)

Boeing is aiming to borrow $10 billion or more to help it get through the 737 Max crisis, CNBC reported today, citing people familiar with the matter.

“The company has secured at least $6 billion from banks so far, the people said, and is talking to other lenders for more contributions,” CNBC wrote. Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan already agreed to loan Boeing money.

A Boeing 737 Max crash killed 189 people in October 2018 and another crash killed 159 people in March 2019. The US Federal Aviation Administration and governments from around the world ordered the grounding of 737 Max planes after the March crash.

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Source: Ars Technica – Boeing seeks billion in loans as 737 Max crisis continues

Outbreak of new virus explodes in China; human-to-human spread confirmed

A person in full, white protective suit, blue face mask, and goggles, helps wheel a patient on a gurney into a hospital. His hand is outstretched as if he is signaling someone not to come near.

Enlarge / Medical staff transfer patients to Jin Yintan hospital on January 17, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei, China. (credit: Getty )

An outbreak of a never-before-seen coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan dramatically worsened over the last few days with the case count more than tripling, cases appearing in new cities, and confirmation that the virus is spreading person-to-person.

The World Health Organization announced Monday that it will convene an emergency meeting on Wednesday, January 22, to assess the outbreak and how best to manage it

On Saturday, January 18, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported 136 newly identified cases of the viral pneumonia and one additional death. On Tuesday, January 21 (local time 4:18am), the commission reported another death. That brings Wuhan’s totals to 198 cases and four deaths. Just one day earlier, on January 17, the health commission had reported just 62 cases and two deaths.

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Source: Ars Technica – Outbreak of new virus explodes in China; human-to-human spread confirmed

Crytek, Cloud Imperium battle over how to end Star Citizen lawsuit

Screenshot from the video game Star Citizen.

Enlarge / Ships full of lawyers descend on planet Cloud Imperium to deal with the fallout from this trial. (credit: Star Citizen)

Back in late 2017, we told you about Crytek’s lawsuit against Star Citizen developer Cloud Imperium Games, over an “exclusive” license to use CryEngine in its titles. Now, over two years (and one failed settlement attempt) later, the two companies are fighting over how, exactly, that lawsuit should be dismissed.

The actual allegations and counter-allegations between Crytek and Cloud Imperium get pretty labyrinthine pretty quickly. But a core part of Crytek’s argument is that its original agreement with Cloud Imperium only covered the use of CryEngine in Star Citizen and not the single-player Squadron 42 spin-off (Cloud Imperium disputes this characterization of the original license).

Technically, though, any supposed breach of Crytek’s license won’t actually take place until and unless Squadron 42 is actually released. And with that game’s “staggered development” beta test recently pushed back to the third quarter of 2020, Crytek this month filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss its own lawsuit “without prejudice to re-filing those claims upon the actual release of Squadron 42.” In essence, this “dismissal” would just delay the trial from its currently planned June start date to October 13 (if Squadron 42 has indeed come out by then).

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Source: Ars Technica – Crytek, Cloud Imperium battle over how to end Star Citizen lawsuit

As attacks begin, Citrix ships patch for VPN vulnerability

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Source: Ars Technica – As attacks begin, Citrix ships patch for VPN vulnerability

Astronomers find an oddball asteroid entirely inside the orbit of Venus

The Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory in California.

Enlarge / The Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory in California. (credit: Caltech Optical Observatories)

Astronomers have found nearly 1 million asteroids in our Solar System, with the vast majority located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

It is far rarer to find asteroids with orbits closer to the Sun, and especially inside the orbit of Earth, due to Jupiter’s gravitational influence. There are only about 20 known asteroids with orbits entirely inside that of Earth’s. They are called Atira asteroids.

Many of these Atira asteroids have orbits that are substantially tilted away from the plane of the Solar System, suggesting past encounters with Mercury or Venus.

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Source: Ars Technica – Astronomers find an oddball asteroid entirely inside the orbit of Venus

Frontier, an ISP in 29 states, plans to file for bankruptcy

A Frontier Communications service van parked in a snowy area.

Enlarge / A Frontier Communications service van. (credit: Mike Mozart)

Frontier Communications is planning to file for bankruptcy within two months, Bloomberg reported last week.

The telco “is asking creditors to help craft a turnaround deal that includes filing for bankruptcy by the middle of March, according to people with knowledge of the matter,” Bloomberg wrote.

Frontier CEO Bernie Han and other company executives “met with creditors and advisers Thursday and told them the company wants to negotiate a pre-packaged agreement before $356 million of debt payments come due March 15,” the report said. The move would likely involve Chapter 11 bankruptcy to let Frontier “keep operating without interruption of telephone and broadband service to its customers.”

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Source: Ars Technica – Frontier, an ISP in 29 states, plans to file for bankruptcy

Study finds that the popular rubber hand illusion could be used to treat OCD

Fictional detective Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) famously suffered from OCD, with a powerful germ phobia, among many others. Perhaps "multi sensory stimulation therapy" would have helped.

Enlarge / Fictional detective Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub) famously suffered from OCD, with a powerful germ phobia, among many others. Perhaps “multi sensory stimulation therapy” would have helped. (credit: USA Network)

Chances are good that you’ve seen entertaining footage of the so-called “rubber hand illusion,” where someone becomes convinced that a fake rubber hand is actually their own. It’s more than a clever party trick, however. Not only does the illusion shed light on how the brain “maps” our physical bodies, it could also prove to be an effective treatment for patients suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), according to a recent paper published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger introduced the notion of “ready-to-hand” in the 1930s to describe how the body can incorporate our most familiar functional tools into its concept of the self, much like a blind person who regularly uses a cane to navigate his or her surroundings. As far as the brain is concerned, the cane becomes an extension of the physical body.

Studies have shown a similar effect when we regularly use a computer mouse. It might even be true of our avatars in virtual space. Virtual reality guru Jaron Lanier introduced the concept of “homuncular flexibility” in the 1980s to describe how the brain could become unable to distinguish between our real and virtual bodies over time. If something bad happens to you in the virtual world, the same neural circuitry is activated that would be engaged if it happened to you in the “real” world.

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Source: Ars Technica – Study finds that the popular rubber hand illusion could be used to treat OCD

Uber and Hyundai’s plan to develop air taxis hinges on mass production

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Source: Ars Technica – Uber and Hyundai’s plan to develop air taxis hinges on mass production

Are bioplastics all hype or the future of textiles?

Spilled garbage on the beach off the Black Sea in Bulgaria.

Enlarge / Spilled garbage on the beach off the Black Sea in Bulgaria. (credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The English metallurgist Alexander Parkes never saw the widespread realization of his spectacular 19th-century invention, celluloid, the first plastic. While a revolutionary breakthrough, Parkesine, as it was called, was expensive and brittle. It was used in objects like buttons and combs, but ultimately quality control issues led Parkes’ company to bankruptcy in 1868 just 12 years after the discovery.

Parkesine, however, was also the first bioplastic—a plastic made from renewable plant material instead of fossil fuels. And today with the environmental impact of plastics increasingly on the public mind, bioplastics are making a big comeback. They’re proposed by some as the solution to beaches deluged with plastic and fish bellies stuffed with bottle caps. And perhaps bioplastics can replace oil-based polymers that commonly trash oceans with materials that can break down more easily and would protect a planet already smothered in these resilient substances.

Bioplastic items already exist, of course, but whether they’re actually better for the environment or can truly compete with traditional plastics is complicated. Some bioplastics aren’t much better than fossil fuel-based polymers. And for the few that are less injurious to the planet, cost and social acceptance may stand in the way. Even if widespread adoption of bioplastics occurs down the line, it won’t be a quick or cheap fix. In the meantime, there is also some pollution caused by bioplastics themselves to consider. Even if bioplastics are often less damaging than the status quo, they aren’t a flawless solution.

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Source: Ars Technica – Are bioplastics all hype or the future of textiles?

We test AI Dungeon 2, a text adventure that creates itself with your help

A child with TV for a head wields a toy sword

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

In February 2019, we at Ars Technica learned about the Generative Pre-trained Transformer-2 (GPT-2) toolset, a freakish machine-learning algorithm that was trained on roughly 40GB of human-written text. Its ability to generate unique, seemingly human text scared its creators (the non-profit research group OpenAI) enough for them to temporarily lock the tools up for public consumption. (Despite those fears, we at Ars got to access and play with the results two weeks later.)

Since then, GPT-2’s public availability has exploded with tons of experiments, and the one that has arguably made the rounds more than any other is AI Dungeon, a freely available “text adventure” that is designed to create a seemingly endless interactive narrative experience. That experience received a formal “sequel” in December, and we’ve finally tested the results as a staff.

According to its creators, the game combines GPT-2 with roughly 30MB of stories lifted from ChooseYourStory.com, a community-driven hub for interactive fiction. The resulting database is served to users in a funnel of one of four story prompts: fantasy, mystery, apocalyptic, or zombie. (A fifth option lets users write their own one- or two-sentence prompt to describe their own ideal setting.) From there, users are given some sort of verbose prompt, then left to type out whatever action, description, or rumination they imagine doing in that fictional universe.

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Source: Ars Technica – We test AI Dungeon 2, a text adventure that creates itself with your help

Tremors turns 30, the most perfect B movie creature feature ever made

It’s been 30 years since the release of Tremors, an unabashed love letter to the B-movie creature features of the 1950s that remains as fresh today as it was three decades ago. The film is sheer perfection, and ranks among my personal favorite films of all time. As Ars’ own Nathan Matisse wrote last year, “If B-movie horror with flashes of comedic brilliance and a few edge-of-your-seat scares interests you, viewers likely can’t do much better than Tremors.”

(Major spoilers below, because it’s been 30 years.)

Writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock came up with the initial idea for Tremors in the early 1980s while making educational safety videos for the U.S. Navy. They climbed a desert boulder for a shot, and pondered what they would do if, for some reason, they were stuck there due to some outside force they eventually dubbed “Land Sharks.” A friend of theirs, Ron Underwood, was a documentary director for National Geographic, and helped them develop a believable creature for what would become the script for Tremors. Wilson and Maddock hit the big time with their 1986 film Short Circuit (directed by John Badham), which enabled them to finally bring Tremors to the silver screen.

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Source: Ars Technica – Tremors turns 30, the most perfect B movie creature feature ever made

SpaceX successfully completes its Dragon abort test

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Source: Ars Technica – SpaceX successfully completes its Dragon abort test

Apple TV+: Can it be saved before everyone’s free trials run out?

When Apple TV+ landed on November 1, it did not include all of these original series, thanks to its "soft launch."

Enlarge / When Apple TV+ landed on November 1, it did not include all of these original series, thanks to its “soft launch.” (credit: Apple)

When Apple TV+ launched in November 2019, it was the first of four major video-streaming services that would launch between then and May of the next year. It was also one of the riskiest of the set, coming from a company that had zero experience in creating entertainment. With the service’s 90-day mark fast approaching, it’s time to take Apple TV+’s temperature.

And, yes, it’s ice-cold. But is Apple TV+ really as dead in the water as it appears? And what do we expect for the rest of its first year?

So many devices, so little excitement

From the jump, Apple seemed an odd addition to a lineup of players, all of whom were already in the content-creation business. Apple has never been interested in producing its own fare so much as using others’ content to promote its closed hardware ecosystem. But that hardware component was Apple’s claim to enter the derby. The company boasts two billion devices in pockets around the world. If just 10 percent of those users signed up after getting a free year of Apple TV+ with the purchase of a device, it would give the company 200 million subscribers worldwide, dwarfing Netflix’s 158 million.

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Source: Ars Technica – Apple TV+: Can it be saved before everyone’s free trials run out?

Neanderthals may have been shallow free divers, suggests a new study

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Source: Ars Technica – Neanderthals may have been shallow free divers, suggests a new study

Real or fake: New NBC Peacock shows

NBCUniversal kicks off its new Peacock streaming service on TODAY at 30 Rockefeller Plaza

Enlarge / NBCUniversal kicks off its new Peacock streaming service on TODAY at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (credit: Nathan Congleton | Getty Images)

This July, NBCUniversal and Comcast will launch a new streaming service, Peacock. (Xfinity cable customers will get an advanced version in April.) It will house NBC classics like Parks and Recreation, Frasier, and Law and Order: SVU, as well as a wide array of movies, reality shows, and current programming, including live events from the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. It will offer reboots of nostalgia-triggering shows like Saved by the Bell, Punky Brewster, and Battlestar Galactica. And of course, as there are now a ton of streaming television services competing for eyeballs in the US, NBC is also planning to roll out an ambitious lineup of originals to compete with rivals like Disney+, CBS All Access, and Quibi.

To that end, it has ordered dozens of pilots and several full seasons of new shows to lure viewers into adding yet another paid subscription into their monthly budget. (There will be a free version of Peacock, but it will have a limited roster.) Some of the shows sound great. Some of the shows sound questionable. A large number have summaries that sound like they came from a robot programmed to spit out Hollywood development Mad Libs. And thus, a challenge: Can you tell the difference between the 100 percent real upcoming Peacock offerings and the 100 percent fake shows WIRED made up? Let’s find out.

  1. Expecting: One woman. One gay best friend. One … baby? From Mindy Kaling, this comedy looks at what happens when your GBF becomes your GSD (gay sperm donor).
  2. Brave New World: An adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s famed 1932 dystopian novel, starring Alden Ehrenreich for some reason.
  3. The Adventure Zone: A comedy based on a wildly popular Dungeons & Dragons podcast run by a tight-knit but quirky family.
  4. Clean Slate: A comedy about an Alabama car wash owner who is thrilled when his long-lost child decides to return home, but is flummoxed when he finds out his child is a trans woman, played by Laverne Cox. (Executive producer: Norman Lear.)
  5. Moby-Dick: An animated dramedy based on the classic novel, with Chris Kattan as the titular whale. Three words: Female Captain Ahab.
  6. The Brothers Bongo: Two brothers find unexpected fame as a bongo drumming duo. Turns out success is easy, but keeping the rhythm of family life on the road? That’stough. With Topher Grace as the boys’ manager.
  7. Making It Work: Christina Aguilera in her first lead television role—and her second, as she plays identical twins who inherit a bed and breakfast in Louisiana.
  8. Hatching Twitter: Literally a television show about Twitter.
  9. Girls5Eva: Former ‘90s girl group Girls5Eva decide to reunite and give teenybopper stardom one last shot … even though they’re closer to menopause than puberty!
  10. Pod Save This TV Show: Based on the podcast of the same name, the Pod Save America boys host a humorous but insightful talk show.
  11. Dr. Death: Based on the podcast of the same name, Jamie Dornan smolders as a doctor who is bad at his job—lethally bad.
  12. Intelligence: David Schwimmer stars as a brash maverick NSA agent who moves to England and clashes with his dweeby British colleagues.
  13. Becker 2: Back to Beckin’: Ted Danson reprises his role as Becker from Becker, who is up to his old tricks.
  14. Psych 2: Lassie Come Home: The gang from the show Psych are back, and this time they will explore the topic of marriage in a made-for-television movie.
  15. Law and Order: Oz The latest addition to the Dick Wolf library, Law and Order: Ozsees a familiar face, Finn (Ice-T), begin a new chapter of his career in Sydney, Australia. They do things a little differently Down Under!

Answers: 1: Real, 2: Real, 3: Real, 4: Real, 5: Fake, 6: Fake, 7: Fake, 8: Real, 9: Real, 10: Fake, 11: Real, 12: Real, 13: Fake, 14: Real, 15: Fake.

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Source: Ars Technica – Real or fake: New NBC Peacock shows

A Georgia election server was vulnerable to Shellshock and may have been hacked

Closeup photograph of a Georgia voter access card.

(credit: Jason Riedy / Flickr)

Forensic evidence shows signs that a Georgia election server may have been hacked ahead of the 2016 and 2018 elections by someone who exploited Shellshock, a critical flaw that gives attackers full control over vulnerable systems, a computer security expert said in a court filing on Thursday.

Shellshock came to light in September 2014 and was immediately identified as one of the most severe vulnerabilities to be disclosed in years. The reasons: it (a) was easy to exploit, (b) gave attackers the ability to remotely run commands and code of their choice, and (c) opened most Linux and Unix systems to attack. As a result, the flaw received widespread news coverage for months.

Patching on the sly

Despite the severity of the vulnerability, it remained unpatched for three months on a server operated by the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, the group that was responsible for programming Georgia election machines. The flaw wasn’t fixed until December 2, 2014, when an account with the username shellshock patched the critical vulnerability, the expert’s analysis of a forensic image shows. The shellshock account had been created only 19 minutes earlier. Before patching the vulnerability, the shellshock user deleted a file titled shellsh0ck. A little more than a half hour after patching, the shellshock user was disabled.

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Source: Ars Technica – A Georgia election server was vulnerable to Shellshock and may have been hacked

Nemesis brings alien impregnation horror to your tabletop—and it works

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Source: Ars Technica – Nemesis brings alien impregnation horror to your tabletop—and it works

“Living concrete” is an interesting first step

Small flasks of green liquid on a lab bench near a sand-colored arch.

Enlarge / The cyanobacteria in flasks contribute to the structure at right. (credit: Cell Press)

It seems like every week, I can do an article on some interesting science that ended up buried under hyperbolic headlines and overly credible coverage. This week’s victim is “living concrete.” It only sort of exists, in that the material can either be living or concrete, but not really both. It doesn’t heal itself either. But none of that means the publication has no merit, as it does show that the concept more or less works, and it identifies a number of areas that need further study in order for “living concrete” to actually become useful.

La vida concrete

The idea of mixing living things and concrete isn’t quite as strange as it sounds. Part of concrete’s strength comes from carbonates that are formed during the curing process. Lots of living things also produce structures made of carbonates; these include some very robust structures that are a mix of proteins and carbonates, like the shells of many aquatic animals.

As such, there’s been a lot of research around the periphery of structural concrete that’s involved biology. This has mostly involved lots of work on trying to figure out how the shells of living creatures get some of their impressive properties. But it’s also included the idea that living things could form structural carbonates, including a few attempts to make concrete that self-heals thanks to the presence of carbonate-producing microbes embedded in it.

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Source: Ars Technica – “Living concrete” is an interesting first step