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Acer launches two new Chromebooks for the enterprise starting at $499



Acer Chromebook 714

Though not generating the fanfare that its new ConceptD computers have, Acer also introduced a pair of new Chromebooks at its press event this week. Unlike its numerous education models, however, these new laptops are designed to appeal to enterprises that want to add Chromebooks to their mobile fleet.

The Chromebook 714 and 715 may include some of the same durability features that schools rely on from education Chromebooks (such as drop resistance up to four feet), but otherwise come with a more polished feature set for business users. The 14-inch 714 and the 15.6-inch 715 come with full HD IPS displays (with optional touch-screen capabilities) as well as Gorilla Glass touchpads. They also integrate fingerprint readers to deliver an extra layer of corporate security, while the 715 is the first Acer Chromebook that comes with a numeric keypad for employees who perform number-crunching tasks 

Inside, the new Chromebooks can be powered by up to Intel’s eighth-generation Core i3 or i5 processors, 8GB or 16GB of RAM, and either 32GB, 64GB, or 128GB of built-in storage. They also sport a pair of USB 3.1 Type-C ports along with dual-band Wi-Fi and an optional USB Type-C dock to connect to an external display, keyboard, and other input and output devices. Acer claims up to 12 hours of battery life from the Chromebook 714 and 715 between charges.

The new Chromebooks are certified Citrix Ready to be compatible with that company’s apps and services, and Acer says they will “work well” with Google’s Chrome Enterprise cloud-based work environment platform. Google’s service is also designed to ease IT deployment of software updates and to secure a fleet of devices.

Not surprisingly, more full-featured Chromebooks mean higher-priced Chromebooks. The Acer Chromeboook 714 and 715 will each have a starting price of $499 when they become available in July, which puts them squarely in competition with similarly configured laptops running Windows. It remains to be seen if enterprises will find the Chromebook experience to be preferable at a similar price point for their mobile workers to abandon the dominant Windows platform. 

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Russian module suddenly fires thrusters after docking with space station



Enlarge / Russian “Nauka” module approaches the International Space Station.

Flight controllers at NASA and Roscosmos averted a disaster on Thursday after a large Russian module docked with the International Space Station and began to “inadvertently” fire its thrusters.

The Russian “Nauka” module linked to the space station at 8:30 am CT (13:30 UTC), local time in Houston, where NASA’s Mission Control is based. After that, Russian cosmonauts aboard the station began preparing to open the hatches leading to Nauka, but at 11:34 am Houston time, Nauka unexpectedly started to fire its movement thrusters.

Within minutes, the space station began to lose attitude control. This was a problem for several reasons. First of all, the station requires a certain attitude to maintain signal with geostationary satellites and talk to Mission Control on the ground. Also, solar arrays are positioned to collect power based upon this predetermined attitude.

Another concern is G forces on the station’s structure. The various components of the extensive space station were assembled in microgravity and designed to operate at zero-G. So even small stresses on the vehicle can induce small cracks or other problems with the station’s structure.

For all of these reasons, space station flight controllers in Houston and Moscow acted quickly after the station started to drift. Attitude control was fully lost at 11:42 am, and engines on the space station’s service module were fired. This was followed by a handover to the Russian Progress vehicle attached to the station, which began to fire its thrusters. This tug-of-war offset the Nauka module thruster activity, which eventually stopped after fuel supplies were exhausted. By 12:29 pm on Thursday, attitude control was restored. It made for quite an hour on the ground and in space.

“Yeehaw!” tweeted Zebulon Scoville, lead flight director in Houston during Thursday’s space station activities, after his shift ended. “That. Was. A. Day.”

By late Thursday afternoon, when NASA officials held a teleconference to brief reporters, the situation appeared to be well in hand. Officials, however, declined to say how serious the situation got in Mission Control before the station returned to its proper attitude.

“Until you exhaust all your contingency plans, you’re not really starting to worry,” said NASA’s space station program manager Joel Montalbano. “And we didn’t do that today.”

Already, Montalbano said, a team of NASA engineers was studying the effect of Thursday’s loss of control on the station’s structure. Meanwhile, Russian engineers were assessing the health of the Nauka module. Both groups should complete preliminary assessments by the end of the day Friday.

For NASA, this meant delaying the launch of a Starliner spacecraft planned for Friday. This long-awaited mission comes 19 months after an initial test flight in December 2019 went awry due to software problems. Because Starliner was not able to dock with the space station during this first test flight, Boeing agreed to fly a second test mission of Starliner before a crewed flight.

NASA moved the Starliner launch to no-earlier-than Tuesday at 1:20 pm EDT from Florida (17:20 UTC) on its Atlas V rocket. If the spacecraft launches next Tuesday and all goes well, Starliner will dock with the space station next Wednesday.

Russia's Nauka module is seen attached to the International Space Station.
Enlarge / Russia’s Nauka module is seen attached to the International Space Station.


Meanwhile, the Russians will continue to work toward integrating Nauka with the space station. This is a sizable module that includes crew quarters, an airlock for scientific experiments, and much more. With a mass of about 24 metric tons, it is roughly 20 percent larger than the biggest Russian segment of the station, the Zvezda service module.

Nauka has had a long and, so far, inglorious history. Its launch eight days ago came after more than a decade of delays due to lack of funds and technical problems. Shortly after reaching orbit, Russia had difficulties with Nauka’s main propulsion system, and docking with the space station was delayed. After using backup thrusters to raise its altitude and reach the station, Nauka docked. It’s not clear what role the propulsion system issues experienced shortly after the launch may have played in Thursday’s difficulties.

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Second lab worker with deadly prion disease prompts research pause in France



Enlarge / A pathologist examines brain tissue of a diseased deer. The white circular shapes are the sponge-like holes found with prion-related diseases called transmissable spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs).

Five public research institutions in France announced a three-month moratorium on prion research this week, following a newly identified case of prion disease in a retired lab worker.

If the case is found to be linked to a laboratory exposure, it would be the second such case identified in France. In 2019, another lab worker in the country died of a prion disease at the age of 33. Her death came around nine years after she accidentally jabbed herself in the thumb with forceps used to handle frozen slices of humanized mouse brains infected with prions.

Prions and disease

Prions are misfolded, misshapen forms of normal proteins, called prion proteins, which are commonly found in human and other animal cells. What prion proteins do normally is still unclear, but they’re readily found in the human brain. When a misfolded prion enters the mix, it can corrupt the normal prion proteins around them, prompting them to misfold as well, clump together, and corrupt others. As the corruption ripples through the brain, it leads to brain tissue damage, eventually causing little holes to form. This gives the brain a sponge-like appearance and is the reason prion diseases are also called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs).

Outward symptoms of TSEs can include rapidly developing dementia, painful nerve damage, confusion, psychiatric symptoms, difficulty moving and/or speaking, and hallucinations. There are no vaccines or treatments for TSEs. They often progress rapidly and are always fatal.

The most common type of TSE in humans is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), which has two forms: “classic” and “variant.” The classic form strikes about one person in a million in the US and other countries, and patients typically die within a year of the onset of symptoms. In roughly 85 percent of classic CJD patients, the disease is found to be sporadic. That is, there’s no clear explanation of what sparked the protein misfolding. In about 5 percent to 15 percent of cases, the disease is determined to be hereditary, linked to a family history of CJD or a mutation in a prion protein that’s linked to misfolding. In extremely rare cases, classic CJD can also be acquired, usually through prion-contaminated medical procedures, such as a cornea transplant.

Variant CJD, on the other hand, is an infectious type, and it’s often associated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), aka “mad cow” disease. People can contract variant CJD by eating prion-contaminated meat, which appeared to be the case in a large outbreak of BSE among cattle and variant CJD among people in the United Kingdom during the 1980s and 1990s. It also seems possible to develop variant CJD through prion-infected wounds, and prions may even be able to spread in aerosols—at least researchers have shown that it’s possible in mice. Once an exposure occurs, variant CJD tends to incubate for around 10 years. That is, symptoms show up around a decade after the prion exposure.

Émilie Jaumain

Importantly, the classic and variant forms of CJD have distinct clinical and pathological features. For one thing, classic CJD tends to afflict older adults (median age of death is 68), while the variant form tends to strike earlier (median age at death is 28). Classic CJD may start with memory problems and confusion, while variant CJD may start with psychiatric symptoms and painful nerve damage.

Variant CJD was the clear cause of the 2019 prion disease in the young lab worker, named Émilie Jaumain. In May of 2010, a 24-year-old Jaumain was working in a prion lab in Frances’ National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE) when she tragically stabbed her thumb, piercing through a double-layer of latex gloves and drawing blood. “Émilie started worrying about the accident as soon as it had happened, and mentioned it to every doctor she saw,” her widower, Armel Houel, told Science Magazine.

According to a case report of her disease and death published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year, Jaumain first developed symptoms in November 2017, about 7.5 years after the accident. The symptoms started as burning pain in her right shoulder and neck, which worsened and spread to the right half of her body over the next six months. In January 2019, she became depressed and anxious and had memory impairment and visual hallucinations. The muscles on the right side of her body stiffened. According to an association set up in Jaumain’s name to promote lab safety, she was diagnosed with variant CJD in April 2019, and, before her death in June, lost the ability to move and speak. Postmortem analysis included in the NEJM case report confirmed the diagnosis of variant CJD.

Researchers cannot entirely rule out the possibility that Jaumain developed variant CJD after eating contaminated meat. However, the authors of the NEJM report noted that the last similar case of variant CJD in France died in 2014. The authors concluded that the risk of developing variant CJD in France in 2019 was “negligible or nonexistent.”

Lab safety

The authors also note that the occupational cases of variant CJD are not unheard of. “The last known Italian patient with variant CJD, who died in 2016, had had occupational contact with BSE-infected brain tissues, although subsequent investigation did not disclose a laboratory accident,” the authors wrote.

So far, little is known about the new case in France that prompted the moratorium this week. In a joint statement announcing the moratorium, the research institutions said that it was not yet known if the retired researcher, who also worked at the INRAE, had variant or classic CJD.

“The suspension period put in place as of this day will make it possible to study the possibility of a link between the observed case and the person’s former professional activity and to adapt, if necessary, the preventive measures in force in the research laboratories,” the joint statement, released Tuesday, reads.

According to reporting by Science magazine, Jaumain’s family has filed both criminal charges and an administrative lawsuit against the INRAE. The family’s lawyer told the magazine that she had not been properly trained to safely handle dangerous prions, did not wear metal mesh or surgical gloves, and did not immediately soak the thumb in bleach, which the lawyer said should have been done.

Prion decontamination is notoriously difficult. The World Health Organization recommends decontaminating waste materials by soaking them in a high concentration of bleach for an hour, then putting them in an autoclave (a steam- and pressure-based sterilization machine) at or above 121° Celsius (~250° Fahrenheit) for an hour. That said, for skin punctures, the WHO suggests people should “gently encourage bleeding” and wash the wound with soap and water.

French investigators identified 17 other lab accidents involving prions in the past decade in the country, five of which involved cuts or stabs, Science noted. Some labs have said they had improved safety in light of Jaumain’s death, such as by using plastic tools that are less sharp than metal ones and using cut-resistant gloves.

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Over half the deer in Michigan seem to have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2



Enlarge / Plague-bearing Bambi?

On Wednesday, the US Department of Agriculture released some rather disturbing news: a survey of wild deer populations has found that large numbers of the animals seem to have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The finding indicates that there’s a very large population of wild animals in North America that could serve as a reservoir for the virus, even if we were to get its circulation within the human population under control.

Probably not an error

Why check deer in the first place? It turns out that the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is studying a variety of species “to identify species that may serve as reservoirs or hosts for the virus, as well as understand the origin of the virus, and predict its impacts on wildlife and the risks of cross-species transmission.” This is the same group that identified the spread of the virus to a wild mink in 2020.

Using a captive deer population, the USDA had already determined that deer can be infected by the virus, although the animals display no symptoms. So although direct interactions between deer and humans are relatively limited, checking the wild populations made sense. The USDA checked populations in a total of 32 counties in four different states, obtaining blood samples to look for antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2.

The antibodies were quite common, ranging from a low of 7 percent of the samples in Illinois to a high of 60 percent in Michigan. All told, a third of the deer tested had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

The USDA also took reasonable precautions to make sure the data was accurate. Agency scientists tested samples that were around prior to the pandemic to confirm that the rate of false positives was low (it was). The researchers also ran antibody tests using two different machines to make sure the conclusion wasn’t due to some sort of hardware problem (it wasn’t). So in all likelihood, a large number of deer have been exposed to the virus.

What does that mean?

By now, we’ve spent a lot of time studying how SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and prolonged exposure to respiratory droplets is the most efficient method. There aren’t many contexts in which this kind of exposure is likely to be happening between humans and wild deer. It’s possible that these numbers are generated by a rare transmission to deer that is followed by extensive spread within the population. Or another species, possibly a domesticated one, is carrying the virus between humans and deer.

Understanding how the transmission takes place will be critical to determining whether the existence of a large viral reservoir in deer poses a threat to humans. While there’s been no indication of a human picking up an infection from deer, the virus is so common in the US population that it would be difficult to rule out human-to-human transmission as an alternative explanation for any cases. Still, if the US ever does manage to control the spread of the virus, being aware of any alternative routes of infection would be a good idea.

Another issue is that the virus can pick up mutations that help it adapt to deer as a host and prove dangerous to humans if the virus jumps back to humans. So far, the one case where this has been studied with SARS-CoV-2 is a strain that is adapting to mink. That virus is becoming less efficient at infecting human cells, but it’s also changing in ways that make it less susceptible to the immune response generated by vaccines or prior infections. There is, of course, no reason to think that a deer-adapted SARS-CoV-2 would follow a similar trajectory.

In any case, both of these issues—the presence of a difficult-to-control reservoir and the prospect for further evolution of the virus—means that it will be important to understand how the virus is reaching the deer population and whether it’s spreading between deer.

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