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Costco kicks off Black Friday ad leaks season with $250 iPad, pair of $200 laptops

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Costco Black Friday 2018 ad

Dell has been the first to see its Black Friday ads leaked online in the past couple of years, but its streak comes to an end in 2018, as Costco has just seen its ad posted to Black Friday deal sites. The retailer is known for its massive members-only warehouse locations, but it looks like it is saving some of its best sales for its website this year.

While keeping its stores closed on Thanksgiving, Costco hopes to be doing a lot of business online with a number of turkey day sales, including a sizable discount on Apple’s latest 9.7-inch iPad, which will see its priced shaved by more than 20 percent for the base 32GB model to $249.99. Costco.com will also have a pair of laptops on sale for $199.99 during Thanksgiving: a 14-inch HP Chromebook with Intel Celeron processor and 1080p HD display, and a Dell Inspiron 11 3000 2-in-1 with AMD A6 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage.

Two other laptop deals on Costco’s website on Thanksgiving jump up to $449.99 for a Lenovo Ideapad 330 15.6-inch touchscreen system with Intel Core i5 processor, 12 gigs of RAM, and terabyte hard drive — $150 off the current Costco price and about $125 off the price on Lenovo’s own site — and a much pricier $1,499.99 for a Dell XPS 13 with a 4K touchscreen display, 16GB of RAM, 1TB solid-state drive, and Core i7 CPU. That price is $500 less than Costco’s current price, and even more of a discount off a similarly configured system on Dell’s site.

Another four sales are online exclusives, but continue through the Black Friday weekend. These include an HP 14 laptop with Pentium CPU, 4GB of RAM, and 64 gigs of storage for $224.99 (down from $299.99) and an Acer 2-in-1 Chromebook with a quad-core processor, 4 gigs of RAM, 32GB of storage and 13.3-inch 1080p touchscreen for $289.99 (down $100). A more powerful 2-in-1 comes in the form of the Dell Inspiron 15 7000, with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a 15-inch touchscreen for $599.99 ($150 off), while a conventional HP Pavilion laptop with 16GB of RAM, terabyte hard drive, Core i7 processor, and an Nvidia GeForce MX150 graphics card for $799.99. Though the ad claims a $300 discount off the HP, a very similar configuration is currently available on the Costco site for the same price.

Finally, there are four deals that will be available both online and in brick-and-mortar locations, though again they will get a head start on the website starting on Thanksgiving. One desktop is included among these: a full-featured HP Pavilion all-in-one with Core i5 chip, 12 gigs of memory, terabyte hard drive, and 23.8-inch 1080p touchscreen for $699.99 , or $200 less than the current price. The trio of notebooks starts with a 15.6-inch Dell Inspiron 5000 with Core i3, 12GB of RAM, and 1TB hard drive for $379.99 ($90 off), then shifts gears to an Asus ROG gaming laptop complete with Core i7 processor, 16 gigs of RAM, terabyte hard drive and 256GB SSD, GeForce GTX 1050Ti graphics card, 17.3-inch display, and gaming mouse for $999.99 ($300 savings). A slightly less expensive Dell XPS 13 configuration rounds out the deals — this version comes with half the SSD capacity and a $1,349.99 price tag.

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Martin Shkreli out of prison over 2 years early, moved to halfway house

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Enlarge / Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing, smirked his way through a congressional hearing.

Infamous ex-pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli has been released from federal prison after serving less than five years of a seven-year sentence for a securities and wire fraud conviction. He is now moving into a US Bureau of Prisons halfway house at an undisclosed location in New York until September 14, 2022.

Shkreli was convicted in August 2017 on two counts of securities fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud in connection to what federal prosecutors called a Ponzi-like scheme involving two hedge funds Shkreli managed. In March 2018, a federal judge sentenced him to seven years, which he was serving in minimum security federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania.

His early release—slightly more than four years after his sentencing—reflects time shaved off for good behavior in prison, plus completion of education and rehabilitation programs, according to CNBC. It also includes a credit for the roughly six months he spent in jail prior to his sentencing.

“I am pleased to report that Martin Shkreli has been released from Allenwood prison and transferred to a BOP halfway house after completing all programs that allowed for his prison sentence to be shortened,” his lawyer, Ben Brafman, said in a statement to The Washington Post and other media.

The statement also noted that Brafman “encouraged Mr. Shkreli to make no further statement, nor will he or I have any additional comments at this time.”

A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson told CNBC that Shkreli was transferred to community confinement overseen by the agency’s Residential Reentry Management Office. “For safety and security reasons, we do not discuss any individual inmate’s conditions of confinement to include transfers or release plans,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

While the hedge fund-related fraud charges were what landed Shkreli behind bars, his infamy dates back to 2015 when he abruptly jacked up the price of lifesaving, decades-old antiparasitic drug Daraprim by more than 4,000 percent. The drug is largely prescribed to babies and people with compromised immune systems, such as HIV patients, and its price hike made Shkreli a poster child of pharmaceutical greed. His subsequent online antics, smugness, and shameless disregard for patients earned him the nickname of “pharma bro” in the press.

In January of this year, a federal court issued Shkreli a lifetime ban from working in the pharmaceutical industry in any capacity. He was also ordered to pay back $64.6 million in profits from the Daraprim scheme.

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FDA obliterates formula maker’s defense of contamination linked to baby deaths

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Enlarge / The Abbott manufacturing facility in Sturgis, Michigan, on May 13, 2022.

Formula maker Abbott continues to firmly deny that its infant formulas sickened four babies, killing two. The denial is despite the same dangerous bacteria that sickened the infants—Cronobacter sakazakii—being found at the company’s formula factory in Sturgis, Michigan, which the Food and Drug Administration alleges was producing formula “under insanitary conditions.” And at least one container of Abbott’s formula tested positive for the same Cronobacter sakazakii strain found infecting one of the infants.

Still, Abbott argues that the link hasn’t been confirmed, and its formula isn’t to blame. In a lengthy Twitter thread on May 13, the company made the blunt assertion: “The formula from this plant did not cause these infant illnesses.”

But that is a brazen and misleading claim, according to the Food and Drug Administration. In a press briefing Monday evening, agency officials thoroughly dismantled Abbott’s defense.

The company’s unwavering denial will likely exacerbate frustration from US parents who are forced to navigate a dire shortage of infant and specialty formulas. The shortage is partly due to a recall of Abbott’s formulas and a shutdown of its Sturgis facility, which the FDA determined had numerous problems. Parents have seen empty shelves at store after store as they desperately tried to secure sustenance for their children, some of whom require specialized formulas due to metabolic conditions. Parents have faced purchasing limits, escalating prices, and scams in places where there is availability. Even if parents can obtain the formula, Abbott’s denials may raise safety questions.

Abbott’s claims

Abbott’s defense is indeed questionable. In last week’s Twitter thread, the company reiterated that the link between its formulas and the four infant illnesses had not been confirmed—which is true. But, the company suggested that massive data gaps somehow support the company’s assertion that its formula is not the cause of illnesses.

Overall, the company argues that scant testing of its finished formula found no contamination before leaving its factory. The contamination found in the facility was present in “non-product contact areas.” Additionally, genetic sequencing of the strains found in the facility did not match strains found in two of the sick infants (no genetic information was available for the other two babies).

Opened formula containers from three of the four sick infants were tested, and only one tested positive for Cronobacter sakazakii. While the contamination in the one positive formula container matched the strain of C. sakazakii infecting the infant, it did not match any strains identified in the Sturgis facility. Lastly, Abbott notes that the four sick infants all consumed different types of formula produced in its Sturgis plant, and their illnesses occurred at different times in separate states. It’s unclear why that matters, but Abbott concluded that contamination at the plant did not cause the illnesses.

In the press briefing Monday, FDA officials all but called that reasoning nonsense. Most importantly, the lack of a genetic match is not proof that the formula is not the source of the infant’s bacterial infections.

FDA response

C. sakazakii is not a reportable disease in this country, Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, emphasized in the press briefing. That means when cases occur, outbreak investigations are not quickly initiated, and health officials don’t spring to collect bacterial isolates, begin genetic sequencing, and identify clinical clusters as they do for other concerning pathogens. As a result, the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only have genetic sequences from two of the four sick infants. And overall, there are only about 238 genetic sequences of C. sakazakii strains in the CDC’s database, which is an extremely small number compared with other pathogens, such as E.coli, making genetic investigations difficult.

“Right from the get-go we were limited in our ability to determine with a causal link whether or not the consumption of the product from the Abbott Sturgis plant was linked to these four cases,” Mayne said.

Mayne also pointed out that the FDA isolated multiple strains of C. sakazakii from the environment inside the Sturgis plant when they were doing testing, which was after the cases were identified. “There certainly is the possibility that other strains that we didn’t detect at the time we were in the plant for the inspection certainly could have been in there.”

Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for Food Policy and Response, echoed the point, saying that the genetic data for C. sakazakii in this outbreak and overall is minimal. “It’s hard to read too much into that,” he said. He also highlighted that there was a diversity of strains at the plant—five different lineages—and noted there are examples in the scientific literature of multi-strain outbreaks over time from one source.

“The other thing we’ve heard emphasized quite a bit is that these products have been tested” and most tested negative for C. sakazakii, Yiannas said. But that also is not meaningful. Some of the end batches of formula are 400,000 to 500,000 pounds, but the end-product testing plans only involve a series of 30 samples that are 10 grams each, collectively less than a pound, Yiannas said. “The probability of detecting low levels of contamination through an end-product testing plan—it’s almost never going to happen,” he said. “Some statisticians calculate there’s a 97 percent chance that you won’t find low levels of contamination using that type of sampling plan.”

Overall, he said, “an over-reliance on end-product testing is not really the best way to assure food safety; it’s really about process control.”

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NASA reveals launch dates for Artemis I through the first half of 2023

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Enlarge / NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is seen on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in April.

Trevor Mahlmann

NASA has published a list of potential launch dates for the Artemis I mission (see PDF), starting as early as July 26 and running through June of next year. During this time period, due to various constraints, the space agency has preliminarily identified 158 launch opportunities.

The Artemis I mission will encompass the debut launch for NASA’s large Space Launch System rocket and the second orbital flight of its Orion spacecraft. Depending on when the uncrewed demonstration mission launches, it could last from 26 to 42 days as Orion flies into a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon.

In its news release, NASA helpfully explains the various constraints behind these dates, including orbital mechanics. For example, NASA says, “The resulting trajectory for a given day must ensure Orion is not in darkness for more than 90 minutes at a time so that the solar array wings can receive and convert sunlight to electricity and the spacecraft can maintain an optimal temperature range. Mission planners eliminate potential launch dates that would send Orion into extended eclipses during the flight.”

These launch windows are subject to slight changes as mission planning is refined. However, the inclusion of dates through the first half of 2023 does raise an obvious question: Does NASA think the Artemis I mission—which was originally supposed to launch in 2016—could be delayed once again and slip into next year?

“The range of dates is not meant to convey anything about the probability of launching in 2022 or 2023,” Kathryn Hambleton, a NASA spokeswoman, told Ars. “All launch dates more than about two months out are preliminary. It is standard for the team to have a preliminary outlook several months ahead. We’ll set a more specific target after we complete wet dress rehearsal testing.”

If all goes well with final preparations before the Artemis I mission, it seems possible that NASA could launch in late August. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson appeared to confirm this during a US House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday when he said, “We’re going to launch it in August.”

However, an August launch remains speculative, with September or later this year being the more likely bet, considering the work NASA has left to complete.

During a call with the media on May 6, NASA’s chief of human exploration, Jim Free, said the space agency wanted to roll the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft out to the launch pad in late May and would target “early or mid” June for a wet dress rehearsal test. During this test, the rocket will be fully fueled and brought to within 10 seconds of engine ignition to work the pre-launch kinks out of the vehicle and its ground systems.

NASA has already attempted to complete this “wet dress” rehearsal three times this spring. Finally, engineers decided to roll the vehicle back to a hangar at Kennedy Space Center for modifications and repairs after the third attempt failed. So far, during these three tests, NASA has managed to load about half of the rocket’s liquid oxygen and just a small fraction of the liquid hydrogen.

This week, NASASpaceflight.com reported that the space agency and its contractors continue to work on a number of issues encountered during the three previous attempts—particularly a leak in the purge line leading to the rocket’s upper stage, known as the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage. A NASA official said design modifications were likely to be needed.

Due to the ongoing nature of this work, it no longer seems likely that the large rocket will roll out of the Vehicle Assembly Building this month, which probably would push the start of the next wet dress attempt into late June at the earliest. Following a successful conclusion of this test, the rocket will still need to be rolled back to the assembly building to arm the flight termination system before it is finally wheeled back out to the launch site for a liftoff attempt.

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