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Dell Black Friday ad features $120 Inspiron laptop, $500 gaming desktop

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Dell Black Friday 2018 ad

Costco may have beaten Dell to the punch with its Black Friday ad this year as a major retailer selling PCs, but the computer manufacturer reliably releases its ad around November 1 — and this year is no exception. As usual, it features the full breadth of Dell’s product line, with the best deals usually coming as “doorbusters” that are only available for a limited time.

The biggest doorbuster will no doubt be the Inspiron 11 3000 laptop, which will sell for just $119.99. Of course, its specs are basic — AMD E2-9000e processor, 4GB of RAM, 32GB of storage — and the timing of the sale is a bit awkward, coming on Thanksgiving at 6 p.m. right when many people will be sitting down for turkey dinner. But a deal’s a deal, so expect the advertised limited quantities to be snapped up quickly.

If you prefer a dirt-cheap desktop instead, the next hour’s doorbuster is an Inspiron Small Desktop for $249.99, which does include an Intel Core i3 CPU along with 4 gigs of memory and a terabyte hard drive. For another budget laptop deal, you can wake up early on Black Friday instead for an 8 a.m. doorbuster of aa 2-in-1 version of the Inspiron 11 3000, coming with the same amount of RAM and storage as the $120 model, but with a slightly different AMD processor (A6-9220e).

Dell is also advertising two other sub-$200 laptop doorbusters (each $199.99): one at 10 a.m. on Black Friday for an Inspiron 15 3000 with Intel Celeron chip, 4GB of RAM, 500GB hard drive, and 15.6-inch display; the other the day before at the same hour for an Inspiron Chromebook 11 2-in-1 with Celeron processor, 4GB of memory, and 32GB of storage. For a little more you can upgrade to an Inspiron 15 3000 edition with a Pentium processor instead of a Celeron — $229.99 as a doorbuster at 2 p.m. on Black Friday — or pay $329.99 at the same to get one with a Core i3 CPU and double the RAM and storage.

Other desktop doorbusters include an Inspiron 22 3000 Touch all-in-one that comes with an AMD E2-9000e processor, 4GB of RAM, 1TB hard drive, and a 21.5-inch 1080p HD touchscreen for $299.99 starting at noon on Black Friday. For more power, you can step up to an Inspiron tower with Core i5, 8 gigs of RAM, and terabyte hard drive for either $399.99 at 6 p.m. on Black Friday or for $499.99 with a bundled 24-inch monitor at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

Dell is touting its $499.99 doorbuster for its Inspiron Gaming Desktop (10 p.m. on Thanksgiving) as the lowest price ever on the system, though expect compromises for that low price. In particular, you only get a Core i3 processor in addition to 8 gigs of RAM, 1TB hard drive, and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 graphics. If you’re willing to pay for a faster processor, a non-doorbuster deal for the Inspiron Gaming Desktop features a Core i5 as well as a more powerful GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card for $749.99. Gamers on the go might be interested in the G5 15 gaming laptop (Core i7, 16GB of RAM, terabyte hard drive plus 256GB SSD, GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card, 15.6-inch display) that’s available for $999.99 on Thanksgiving at 8 p.m.

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The ancient origins of glass

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Enlarge / This glass fish was found in a fairly modest private house in Amarna, buried under a plaster floor along with a few other objects. It may once have contained ointment.

Trustees of the British Museum

Today, glass is ordinary, on-the-kitchen-shelf stuff. But early in its history, glass was bling for kings.

Thousands of years ago, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt surrounded themselves with the stuff, even in death, leaving stunning specimens for archaeologists to uncover. King Tutankhamen’s tomb housed a decorative writing palette and two blue-hued headrests made of solid glass that may once have supported the head of sleeping royals. His funerary mask sports blue glass inlays that alternate with gold to frame the king’s face.

In a world filled with the buff, brown, and sand hues of more utilitarian Late Bronze Age materials, glass—saturated with blue, purple, turquoise, yellow, red, and white—would have afforded the most striking colors other than gemstones, says Andrew Shortland, an archaeological scientist at Cranfield University in Shrivenham, England. In a hierarchy of materials, glass would have sat slightly beneath silver and gold and would have been valued as much as precious stones were.

But many questions remain about the prized material. Where was glass first fashioned? How was it worked and colored and passed around the ancient world? Though much is still mysterious, in the last few decades materials science techniques and a reanalysis of artifacts excavated in the past have begun to fill in details.

This analysis, in turn, opens a window onto the lives of Bronze Age artisans, traders, and kings as well as the international connections between them.

The Amarna Letters, clay tablets carrying the cuneiform correspondence of ancient kings and excavated at Tell el-Amarna in modern-day Egypt, include references to glass. A number from the Canaanite ruler Yidya of Ashkelon (like these shown) include one that comments on an order of glass for Pharaoh: "As to the king, my lord's, having ordered some glass, I herewith send to the king, my lord, 30 ('pieces') of glass. Moreover, who is the dog that would not obey the orders of the king, my lord, the Sun from the sky, the son of the Sun, whom the Sun loves?"
Enlarge / The Amarna Letters, clay tablets carrying the cuneiform correspondence of ancient kings and excavated at Tell el-Amarna in modern-day Egypt, include references to glass. A number from the Canaanite ruler Yidya of Ashkelon (like these shown) include one that comments on an order of glass for Pharaoh: “As to the king, my lord’s, having ordered some glass, I herewith send to the king, my lord, 30 (‘pieces’) of glass. Moreover, who is the dog that would not obey the orders of the king, my lord, the Sun from the sky, the son of the Sun, whom the Sun loves?”

Trustees of the British Museum

Glass from the past

Glass, both ancient and modern, is a material usually made of silicon dioxide, or silica, that is characterized by its disorderly atoms. In crystalline quartz, atoms are pinned to regularly spaced positions in a repeating pattern. But in glass, the same building blocks—a silicon atom buddied up with oxygens—are arranged topsy-turvy.

Archaeologists have found glass beads dating to as early as the third millennium BCE. Glazes based on the same materials and technology date earlier still. But it was in the Late Bronze Age—1600 to 1200 BCE—that the use of glass seems to have really taken off, in Egypt, Mycenaean Greece, and Mesopotamia, also called the Near East (located in what’s now Syria and Iraq).

Unlike today, glass of those times was often opaque and saturated with color, and the source of the silica was crushed quartz pebbles, not sand. Clever ancients figured out how to lower the melting temperature of the crushed quartz to what could be reached in Bronze Age furnaces: they used the ash of desert plants, which contain high levels of salts such as sodium carbonate or bicarbonates. The plants also contain lime—calcium oxide—that made the glass more stable. Ancient glassmakers also added materials that impart color to glass, such as cobalt for dark blue or lead antimonate for yellow. The ingredients melded in the melt, contributing chemical clues that researchers look for today.

“We can start to parse the raw materials that went into the production of the glass and then suggest where in the world it came from,” says materials scientist Marc Walton of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, co-author of an article about materials science and archaeological artifacts and artwork in the 2021 Annual Review of Materials Research.

But those clues have taken researchers only so far. When Shortland and colleagues were investigating glass’s origins around 20 years ago, glass from Egypt, the Near East, and Greece appeared to be chemical lookalikes, difficult to distinguish based on the techniques available at the time.

The exception was blue glass, thanks to work by Polish-born chemist Alexander Kaczmarczyk who in the 1980s discovered that elements such as aluminum, manganese, nickel, and zinc tag along with the cobalt that gives glass an abyssal blue hue. By examining the relative amounts of these, Kaczmarczyk’s team even tracked the cobalt ore used for blue coloring to its mineral source in specific Egyptian oases.

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This decorated mammoth ivory pendant is 41,500 years old

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Talamo et al. 2021

While our species was spreading across Eurasia and briefly sharing a continent with the last of the Neanderthals, someone took the time to carefully shape an oval pendant out of mammoth ivory, then decorated it with a looping dotted line. The pendant, unearthed at Stajnia Cave in Poland, was recently radiocarbon dated to around 41,500 years old. That makes it the oldest known example of a Paleolithic fashion that reached from France to Siberia between 42,000 and 30,000 years ago.

An ancient ivory pendant

Archaeologists excavating the cave found the ivory pendant broken into two pieces. When reassembled, the fragments form most of an oval, with one end still broken and missing. About 50 puncture marks dot its surface, forming a sharply curved, looping shape. The pendant’s edges are smooth and rounded, and although its surface is cracked and weathered after tens of thousands of years in the ground, it’s easy to see that it must once have been an elaborate, lovely piece of jewelry—or, as archaeologists say, “portable art.”

Today, we have no way to know what the dotted curving lines on the mammoth ivory pendant meant to the people who made and wore the object. Those details are lost to us, but University of Bologna paleoanthropologist Sahra Talamo and her colleagues suggest hunting tallies or notations about the passing of lunar phases or cycles.

Under a scanning electron microscope, the little puncture marks have V-shaped cross-sections, and their width and depth varies a bit. The result looks as if the ancient artisan who poked the dotted lines onto the ivory used a sharp flint tool with a slightly irregular edge, according to Talamo and her colleagues. And a drill, probably bone, helped make two round holes all the way through the slice of ivory, one near the center of each the long side of the oval.

Archaeologists found the ivory pendant in the same layer of sediment as a broken awl made of horse bone, which dated to 42,200 years old; mass spectrometry helped identify the species of bone in each artifact. Talamo and her colleagues say the people who made and used these objects lived at the cave only ephemerally. But the pendant suggests they shared at least some cultural connection with people who lived as far away as Siberia.

Paleolithic fashion trends

At a cave in Germany, a similar pattern of curving dotted lines adorns the back side of a human figurine carved between 38,800 and 40,200 years ago. A small handful of French sites have artifacts with similar motifs as old as 40,700 years and as recent as 30,800 years ago. Ivory beads and a baton from a site east of Moscow were decorated with similar patterns of puncture marks between 34,800 and 33,500 years ago. And the same motif adorns ivory headpieces and bone needles at a 32,400 to 30,800-year-old site in Siberia.

The Stajnia pendant is the oldest example so far of ivory decorated with dotted curves, by about 2,000 years. Talamo and her colleagues suggest that its presence could shed a bit more light on cultural innovations—like new decorative motifs, new kinds of tools, and other ideas—spread across vast swaths of Eurasia during the period called the Initial Upper Paleolithic. At the very least, the Stajnia pendant’s age may give archaeologists a reason to rethink the idea that the mountains of southwestern Germany were the hotbed of new Eurasian culture at the time.

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Why Omicron quickly became a variant of concern

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Enlarge / That’s a lot of mutations.

On Friday, the World Health Organization officially named a new version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus a variant of concern, and attached the Greek letter omicron to the designation. The Omicron variant is notable for the sheer number of mutations in the spike protein of the virus. While Omicron appears to have started spreading in Africa, it has already appeared in European countries like Belgium and the UK, which are working to limit its spread through surveillance and contact tracing.

As of now, the data on the variant is very limited; we don’t currently know how readily it spreads compared to other variants, nor do we understand the degree of protection against Omicron offered by vaccines or past infections. The new designation, however, will likely help focus resources on studying Omicron’s behavior and tracing its spread.

Many changes

While the Delta variant’s version of spike has nine changes compared to the virus that started the pandemic, Omicron has 30 differences. While many of these haven’t been identified previously, a number of these have been seen in other strains, where they have a variety of effects. These include increasing infectiveness of the virus, as a number of the changes increase the affinity between the spike protein and the protein on human cells that it targets when starting a new infection.

Others changes in the spike occur in areas of the protein that are frequently targeted by antibodies that neutralize the virus. Changes here can mean that an immune response generated to vaccines or earlier versions of the virus are less able to target Omicron.

While these mutations are suggestive, understanding how they and the previously undescribed mutations in Omicron alter its behavior will depend on getting real-world data on its spread. Right now, however, we just don’t have much of that.

We are lucky in the sense that it’s relatively easy to detect Omicron. According to the WHO, some of the large collection of mutations in the gene that encodes the spike protein interfere with the gene’s recognition by common versions of PCR tests. Those tests continue to recognize the presence of the virus by also targeting other areas of the genome. So a PCR test that comes back spike-negative but virus-positive is suggestive of the presence of Omicron, which can then be confirmed by genome sequencing.

These tests have shown Omicron is spreading rapidly within a number of countries in southern Africa, although the total cases in Botswana and South Africa remain relatively low at the moment, so the significance of this spread is unclear. Vaccination rates in these countries also remain low, making it difficult to determine how much of a risk Omicron poses to those who have been immunized.

Some constants

The cases identified outside of southern Africa so far have all been in travelers who spent time in this region. Public health authorities in those countries are currently engaged in contact tracing to try to limit the variant’s spread outside of those already infected. and a number of countries (including the US) have already limited travel from countries in the region.

Testing and contact tracing are part of the now-familiar suite of public health measures that can limit the impact of Omicron while we’re learning more about it. A statement from the CDC provides a reminder of the rest: social distance, mask when indoors, and get a vaccine if you are eligible. While we remain uncertain how much protection vaccines provide against Omicron, it’s quite certain that their effectiveness against it is considerably greater than zero.

Listing image by Aurich Lawson / Getty

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