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Apple adding its own co-processors to three Macs in 2018, Bloomberg reports



Apple’s own T2 co-processor inside the iMac Pro desktop.

A new Bloomberg article is reporting that Apple plans to expand the number of Macs using its own co-processor chips this year, a move that could foretell a future where Intel is no longer inside Apple’s computers.

According to the report, Apple is looking to add one of its custom co-processing chips to a pair of MacBook laptops and a Mac desktop to be released later this year. They would join the existing MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and iMac Pro as being Mac systems with Apple-made co-processors. Of course, iPhones and iPads have used the company’s own chips for several years, and the Apple Watch has since its launch in 2015.

For now, Intel remains the provider of the main CPU for Macs, though Bloomberg claims that the recent security woes that have dogged that company’s chips may have provided Apple more ammunition to chart its own course for future Mac processors. Another report today claims Apple is slowing its roll-out of new iOS features in 2018 as it deals with reliability issues, so security — something the company has long touted compared to systems without its “walled garden” approach — is receiving greater attention in Cupertino.

Apple avoids some of the cost issues that other companies have had in the past building their own chips by outsourcing the manufacturing. Designing chips in-house also allows the company to tailor them to new features it’s developing. Abandoning its on-again off-again relationship with Intel would starve the chip maker of its fifth-largest client, according to Bloomberg.

Despite the increasing resources Apple is devoting to chip research and creation, it’s only built computer chips that complement Intel’s primary processor — the T1 co-processor handles the Touch Bar, while the T2 edition offloads some security and power management duties on the iMac Pro. It remains to be seen what a potential T3 co-processor will control, and there’s quite a leap from a chip working on a few tasks to ones that have to power the entire system, potentially including graphics processing to boot.

If Apple decides in the future to produce its own CPUs for Macs, it could drive a great debate among its fanboys. Would Macs (and their users) be better served by Intel, whose high-performance chips have been undermined by security holes, or by Apple, whose chips would be untested in laptops and desktops but could maximize the potential of the Mac OS? It seems unlikely we’ll find out in 2018, but another year of behind-the-scenes work by Apple could make for a very interesting 2019.

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Game on—the most metal of asteroid missions is back on the menu



Enlarge / Artist’s illustration of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, now set to launch in October 2023. The Psyche mission will explore a metal-rich asteroid of the same name that lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.


One year after NASA announced an indefinite delay of a much-anticipated mission to visit a metal-rich asteroid, the agency said Monday that the Psyche spacecraft is back on track. The Psyche mission is now scheduled to launch in four months on a Falcon Heavy rocket, and everyone involved in the project feels good about that date.

“We believe Psyche is on a positive course for an October 2023 launch,” said Thomas Young, who chaired an independent review board that NASA convened last summer after the mission was delayed.

If the mission does launch this fall, the spacecraft will reach asteroid Psyche in August 2029. There, it will go into orbit for 26 months to gain insights into planetary formation, understand the interior of terrestrial planets like Earth, and examine a world that is made largely of metal. The mission is also of interest to the nascent asteroid mining community, which seeks to learn about the potential value harbored by these relatively rare, metallic asteroids.

A lot of problems

Last year, Young and the rest of the board members found a litany of problems with the mission, including serious issues with the flight software and an incomplete process to verify that software and the vehicle’s systems.

In a report published last November, the review board laid much of the blame on management at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which oversaw Psyche’s development and testing. The field center, which leads many of the space agency’s most prestigious science missions, had undertaken an “unprecedented workload” without possessing the resources needed to complete major projects.

These issues were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which came at a key time in the final phase of the Psyche mission’s development and hampered hiring and in-person activities needed to complete testing of the spacecraft.

After that review, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked to respond to the recommendations by the review board to address these issues. For example, the Psyche program added experienced team members, reorganized a large part of its workforce, and used better metrics to monitor progress toward launch and operational readiness.

Recently, the review board reconvened to consider this response by NASA, and according to Young, its members were “extraordinarily impressed” by the actions taken. Monday’s teleconference with reporters was to share this feedback publicly and express confidence in the looming launch date.

Staffing up

Laurie Leshin became the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory just weeks before the Psyche mission was put on hold last year. On Monday, she said she welcomed the independent review of Psyche’s problems and the larger issues at the California-based field center so that they could be addressed by her leadership team.

Since then, Leshin said, NASA has been aggressive about hiring from the tech industry—which has undergone significant layoffs—and recruiting back employees who were lost to private space companies in the Los Angeles area. In some ways, she said, NASA is the victim of its own success as it has sought to foster the US commercial space industry.

“There is more competition with the commercial space sector because there is a much more significant commercial space sector,” Leshin said. “As hard as that is for us, it’s really gratifying to see that the investments that we are making, and the partnerships that we are building to help advance the commercial space sector, are really working.”

There was a lot of happy talk on the call Monday from Leshin and other NASA officials, including Nicola Fox, the associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. However, Fox declined to say how much the one-year delay added to the cost of the mission, which was recently pegged at $1.13 billion by the US Government Accountability Office.

Also, NASA has yet to demonstrate that these staffing and management problems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are truly behind it. The proof will come with getting Psyche successfully into space, launching the ambitious Europa Clipper mission next year, and restarting work on the recently paused VERITAS mission to Venus.

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“Dead Duck Day” marks that time a scientist witnessed gay duck necrophilia



Enlarge / This drake mallard duck has ceased to be! And suffered one final post-mortem ignominy by a fellow duck. (credit: C.W. Moeliker, 2001)

On June 5, 1995, a Dutch ornithologist named Kees Moeliker was working quietly in his office in the new wing of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, when there was an unusually loud bang one floor below. The wing’s all-glass facade sometimes took on mirror-like qualities, so there was a regular supply of birds colliding with the glass. In this case, the collision was from a drake mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) lying dead on its belly in the sand.

Things took an unusual turn when Moeliker spotted a second, living male mallard nearby, which began pecking at the back of the dead duck’s head. After a couple of minutes, the living duck “mounted the corpse and started to copulate, with great force,” Moeliker recalled, only stopping for a couple of short breaks. The ornithologist managed to snap some photos of this odd behavior before intervening and collecting the dead duck specimen–over the noisy objections of its living “mate.” It was the first documented case of homosexual necrophilia in the species.

(a) Moeliker's office in new north wing of the Natural History of Rotterdam in 1997. (b) Where the duck hit the glass facade. (c) Where Moeliker observed the "homosexual necrophilia."

(a) Moeliker’s office in new north wing of the Natural History of Rotterdam in 1997. (b) Where the duck hit the glass facade. (c) Where Moeliker observed the “homosexual necrophilia.” (credit: Christian Richters)

Moeliker published his findings in a 2001 paper that would eventually snag him the 2003 Ig Nobel Prize in Biology. It also inspired the annual “Dead Duck Day” celebration, held at the very spot the unfortunate duck perished, marked by a memorial plaque. The brief commemorative ceremony—which also acknowledges “the billions of other birds that die(d) from colliding with glass buildings and challenges people to find solutions to this global problem,” per Moeliker—is typically followed by a six-course duck dinner at a local Chinese restaurant called Tai Wu. The event is co-organized by the museum and the European Bureau of Improbable Research.

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Homo naledi were burying their dead at least 100,000 years before humans



Enlarge / Exploration team members Megan Berger and Rick Hunter navigate the narrow chutes leading to the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave in South Africa, where fossil elements belonging to Homo naledi were discovered.

Robert Clark/National Geographic

Some 25 miles outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, there is a famous paleoanthropological site known as the Cradle of Humankind. So many hominin bones were found in the region that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. Among the many limestone caves in the region is the Rising Star cave, where cavers discovered fossils representing a new hominin species, Homo naledi, in 2015. Only H. naledi remains were found in the cave, suggesting the possibility that the bodies had been placed there deliberately, although this hypothesis proved to be a bit controversial.

Now the same expedition team has announced the discovery of H. naledi bodies deposited in fetal positions, indicating intentional burials. This predates the earliest known burials by Homo sapiens by at least 100,000 years, suggesting that brain size might not be the definitive factor behind such complex behavior. The team also found crosshatched symbols engraved on the walls of the cave that could date as far back as 241,000–335,000 years, although testing is still ongoing.

Taken together, the discoveries provide evidence of a major cognitive step in human evolution in terms of mortuary practices and meaning-making. The team described these new findings during a virtual press conference and in three new preprints posted to the BioRxiv, which will be published later this year in the journal eLife.

“I think we are facing a remarkable discovery here of hominids with brains a third the size of living humans, and slightly larger than chimpanzees, burying their dead—something previously only found in large-brained hominids—as well as etching meaning-making symbols on the wall,” said Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence who leads the Rising Star Project. “This would mean not only are humans not unique in the development of symbolic practices, but [they] may not even have invented such behaviors.”

Naturally, there are skeptics. For instance, María Martinón-Torres, director of Spain’s National Research Center on Human Evolution, told the New York Times that such speculations were premature based on the evidence presented so far, suggesting that funerary caching was a more likely scenario than burials. “Hypotheses need to be built on what we have, not what we guess,” she said. “Still, I think the possibility of having funerary caching with this antiquity is already stunning.”

3D virtual tour beginning in the Hill Antechamber at the base of the ladder where explorers enter, through the passage linking to the Dinaledi Chamber where two burial features were found. Credit: Corey Jaskolski/National Geographic.

The story of Homo naledi technically begins millions of years ago, when the cradle’s network of limestone caves first formed. As Lydia Pyne wrote for Ars in 2018:

Caves in that area of South Africa form as water percolates through the cracks and fissures of the region’s dolomite rock and slowly erodes the rock away, forming underground caverns of all shapes and sizes. As water flows through these caves, it leaves behind deposits of calcium carbonates—easily recognizable as concrete-hard breccias or sheet-like deposits of flowstone found along cave walls. In the Rising Star cave system, this resulted in a network of chambers, including those where researchers have recovered Homo naledi fossils.

Recreational cavers had been exploring parts of the Rising Star system since the 1960s. But Berger hired a team of cavers in 2013 to survey the cave more thoroughly to map out any chambers with potentially significant fossils. That team included Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, who used a 1985 map to guide their explorations. The duo managed to worm their way through a previously unmapped slot just 18 centimeters (7 inches) wide and found themselves in one of the cave chambers. There, they saw a treasure trove of fossilized bones. “When we first saw the mandible, we thought, ‘Maybe this was the last guy that came down to the chamber and didn’t make it out,'” Hunter told Ars in 2018.

The reality was potentially much more significant. Excited by the discovery, Berger hired an additional team of six women with both scientific and caving experience to excavate the site (using toothpicks and sometimes porcupine quills, among other tools). The entire three-week excavation played out live on Twitter.

These are not easy sites to access. In fact, the chute labyrinth along one portion of the route to the Dinaledi Chamber is known as “Superman’s Crawl” because most cavers can only manage to squeeze through by extending one arm above the head while holding the other tight against the body. It’s basically a narrow, vertical 12-meter (39-foot) long “chimney” with an average width of 20 cm (7.9 inches).

“You have to crawl on your belly because there’s not enough space for you to be on your hands and knees,” said Keneiloe Molopyane, an archaeologist and biological anthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand and one of the team’s “underground astronauts.” Berger lost 55 pounds to finally make his way into the Dinaledi Chamber for the first time last year, describing the journey as “the most awful and wonderful experience in my life.” That chute opens into the so-called “Dragon’s Back Chamber,” in which cavers must navigate a treacherous 15-meter (49-foot) dolomite ridge.

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