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HP launches Chromebook x360 12b, 14b with Universal Stylus Initiative support

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HP Chromebookx x360 12b and 14b

HP yesterday launched a pair of Chromebooks that support the new Universal Stylus Initiative (USI) standard for digital styluses. The Chromebook x360 12b and 14b are among the first devices supporting USI, which allows non-proprietary features to be used across different devices with the same stylus.

The idea behind USI works like this: With the purchase of a USI 1.0 stylus, you can not only use it with multiple USI-compatible devices from different manufacturers, but those devices will also support the use of multiple styluses. Google has built USI support into the Chrome OS, with HP being the first manufacturer to release a Chromebook taking advantage of it.

In terms of the actual laptops, they come with an Intel Celeron N4000 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage. The 12b ships with a 12-inch display with 1,366×912 resolution, while the 14b features a 14-inch 1,366×768 screen. Like other notebooks in the x360 lineup, these come with a 360-degree hinge to flip the screen over to allow tablet-like functionality.

Though USI support is the new Chromebooks’ most notable feature, neither actually comes with a stylus. Instead, you’ll be able to purchase a new HP USI-compatible digital stylus for $70 in November. The laptops will be available later this month, with the Chromebook x360 12b starting at $359 and the 14b at $379.

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Biden administration puts a price on carbon

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On Friday, the Biden administration announced it had fulfilled the requirements of one of the executive orders issued on the very first day of his presidency: determining what’s called the “social cost of carbon.” This figure tries to capture the cumulative economic value achieved by investing in limiting carbon emissions now. As such, carbon’s social cost plays a key role in informing the cost/benefit analysis of any government policy or regulation that influences carbon emissions.

The government is required to attach a value to the social cost of carbon, which typically requires the consideration of extensive economic and climate research. But the Trump administration had ended the process of updating the value after having chosen an artificially low one. Given a 30-day deadline to come up with a new one, the Biden administration has chosen to adjust the last pre-Trump value for inflation and use that until it can do a more detailed analysis of how the research landscape has changed over the last four years.

The net result is a dramatically higher price on carbon that will enable far more aggressive regulatory action for at least the next four years.

Counting costs

The social cost of carbon is difficult to calculate. According to the document that details the new figures, the social cost of carbon should include “the value of all climate change impacts, including (but not limited to) changes in net agricultural productivity, human health effects, property damage from increased flood risk natural disasters, disruption of energy systems, risk of conflict, environmental migration, and the value of ecosystem services.” Obviously, understanding all of these factors requires a lot of research on climate change, human health, the ecosystem’s response, agriculture, and economics, among other considerations.

The US government only got into the process of calculating carbon’s social cost because it had to. In 2008, a court blocked the adoption of fuel-economy rules because they assigned no value to lower carbon emissions. (The new document cites the court as ruling, “While the record shows that there is a range of values, the value of carbon emissions reduction is certainly not zero.”) Since that decision, the government developed and updated this price several times, the most recent being at the end of the Obama administration in 2016.

Two things happened in 2017 that changed the landscape. The first is that the US National Academies of Science issued an expert report that described a process by which the government could ensure that it kept its social cost of carbon updated in line with developing research. The second is that the Trump administration disbanded the group that was tasked with keeping the value up to date and settled on a new, extremely low social cost of carbon.

The administration did so in part by limiting the costs to considering only impacts within the US as opposed to the entire planet—even though the rest of that planet trades with us, receives foreign aid, sends us refugees, and so on.

Costs at a discount

The people who put together the new document clearly want to follow the advice in the National Academies report, and they plan on doing so. But it’s also clear that there’s no way that can be done within the Biden Executive Order’s 30-day time limit. And the administration chose 30 days because so many of the regulations it intends to revise—some already thrown out by courts while others are the subject of lawsuits—will need a value for a social cost of carbon.

So, what the new document does is go back to the last reasonable value derived in 2016, updates it for inflation, and use that. The estimates include the social cost not only of carbon dioxide emissions, but for two other greenhouse gasses as well: methane and nitrous oxide.

To understand the values, there, you have to understand something called the discount rate. This rate is meant to adjust for the fact that the cost of something in the present comes in the form of a currency value that will be worth less in the future. Plus, people have a tendency to value money they have in the present more than money saved in the future. While it’s clear that a lower discount rate means present emissions cost more, there’s significant controversy over exactly what the discount rate should be. This document from the London School of Economics explains it all in more detail, and it indicates that, five years ago, the average economist felt that a discount rate of about 2 percent was appropriate for climate.

The new document calculates the social cost of carbon at three different discount rates, for 5 percent, 3 percent, and 2.5 percent—all of them higher (and thus cheaper) than the 2 percent rate suggested by the survey of economists. But even the 5 percent value produces a social cost of carbon of $14 per metric ton of emissions, which is roughly triple the value that the Trump administration had used. At the high end, the 2.5 percent figure is $76, or over 10 times what the Trump administration.

Real-world impacts

To get a sense of what this means, we can take burning enough coal to produce a megawatt-hour of power, which the Energy Information Agency indicates will produce about a metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions. For domestic energy users, the typical price of that electricity would be about $128.00. Under the middle-of-the-road 3 percent discount figure, the social cost of carbon from those emissions would add $51.00 to that price, an increase of 40 percent.

Even given that moderate value, the social cost of carbon means that most reasonable steps to limit coal use will pass any economic tests you can throw at them. Notably, this doesn’t include all the health costs from the other emissions associated with burning coal, and so it is an underestimate of the full societal burden. The use of coal is simply exporting far too many future costs on society; its current use is only economical because we pretend those costs don’t exist.

The costs also go up over time, as calculated at 5-year intervals. This is because the intervening time will see further emissions locked in, meaning each further metric ton of emissions in the future will take us further away from a desirable climate. So, the 3 percent discount rate sees the social cost of carbon hit $85.00 by 2050.

Methane and nitrous oxide are far more potent greenhouse gasses, and their current social costs are astronomical in comparison. At the same 3 percent discount rate, a metric ton of methane emissions has a social cost of $1,500.00p; nitrous oxide hits $18,000.00.

Limit methane!

Again, this means that nearly any regulation meant to limit methane leaks—like the one issued by Obama and then rescinded by Trump—would easily pass an economic test. This may also have a heavy influence on the Biden administration’s plan to re-evaluate the price paid for drilling for gas on federal lands, which is expected to include the environmental costs of the fuel extracted.

None of this means that society will suddenly start to pay the social costs of fossil fuels in their electric bills, as emissions regulations do just that: limit emissions. Instead, regulations generally leave it to private industry to find economic ways of ensuring those limits are met. In many cases, however, the regulations themselves have to be justified via a cost-benefit analysis, and those often end up the subject of court action. These values for the social cost of carbon, in addition to being more realistic, will likely make it harder to challenge Biden’s impending regulatory moves on economic grounds.

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Archaeologists discover “Lamborghini” of chariots near ruins of Pompeii

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Enlarge / A four-wheeled ceremonial chariot discovered by archaeologists near the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

Archaeologists in Italy have unearthed an elaborately decorated, intact four-wheeled ceremonial chariot near the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, famously destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius catastrophically erupted in 79 CE, BBC News reports. The archaeologists believe the chariot was likely used in festivities and parades—possibly even for wedding rituals like transporting the bride to her new home, given the erotic nature of some of the decorative motifs.

The find is extraordinary both for its remarkable preservation and because it is a relatively rare object. “I was astounded,” Eric Poehler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is an expert on traffic in Pompeii, told NPR. “Many of the vehicles [previously discovered] are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car. This is precisely the kind of find that one wants to find at Pompeii, the really well-articulated, very well-preserved moments in time.”

Other archaeologists weighed in on Twitter. “My jaw is on the floor just now!” tweeted Jane Draycott of the University of Glasgow. “Still wrapping my head around the latest incredible discovery,” Sophie Hay of the University of Cambridge tweeted in an extensive thread about the surprising find. “The details are extraordinary.”

As we’ve previously reported, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius released thermal energy roughly equivalent to 100,000 times the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, spewing molten rock, pumice, and hot ash over the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in particular. The vast majority of the victims died of asphyxiation, choking to death on the thick clouds of noxious gas and ash. But there is also some evidence that the heat was so extreme in some places that it vaporized body fluids and exploded the skulls of several inhabitants unable to flee in time.

The sudden eruption covered the remains of the city in a thick layer of ash, preserving many of the buildings and daily ephemera of the doomed city—and the bodies of its former inhabitants. There have been several exciting archaeological finds among the excavated ruins in recent years. Last December, for instance, archaeologists unearthed a termopolium, or “hot drinks counter” that served up ancient Roman street food—and plenty of wine—to the people of northeast Pompeii in the days before Mount Vesuvius erupted. Painted bright yellow and decorated with detailed frescoes, the counter would have been a quick stop for hot, ready-made food and drinks. And the small shop still held the remains of its proprietor and perhaps one of its last customers.

Late in 2018, the remains of a horse—saddled up and still in its harness—were uncovered in a stable at the Villa of the Mysteries just outside Pompeii’s walls. Previous finds at the site include wine presses, ovens, and frescoes. The remains of two additional horses were also discovered, although archaeologists were unable to make casts to preserve the scene, thanks to all the damage caused by looters. After the initial excavation of the site in the 20th century, it was reburied for the sake of preservation. But the looters dug an elaborate network of tunnels around the area—running some 80 meters and over five meters deep—to illegally gain access and remove artifacts.

The ceremonial chariot was found in the ruins of the two-level portico facing the stable where the horse remains were found in 2018. Archaeologists had carefully removed the carbonized wood ceiling and determined that it had been constructed from oak, while the carbonized door had been made of beechwood. On January 7 of this year, archaeologists found an iron artifact in the volcanic material filling the portico, followed by the ceremonial chariot, which was remarkably well-preserved, given that the walls and ceiling of the room had collapsed and the looters had dug tunnels on either side of it.

The archaeological team spent the next several weeks meticulously unearthing the find, making plaster casts of any voids to preserve the imprint of any organic material that may have once been there—including the chariot’s shaft and ropes. The chariot has since been removed to the Archaeological Park of Pompeii’s laboratory to complete its restoration.

“What we have is a ceremonial chariot, probably the Pilentum referred to by some sources, which was employed not for everyday use or for agricultural transport but to accompany community festivities, parades and processions,” Massimo Osanna, the park’s outgoing director, said in a statement. “This type of chariot, which has never before emerged from Italian soil, bears comparison with finds uncovered around fifteen years ago inside a burial mound in Thrace (in northern Greece, near the Bulgarian border). One of the Thracian chariots is particularly similar to ours, even if it lacks the extraordinary figurative decorations that accompany the Pompeian find.”

As for the looters, authorities were able to trace the tunnel network back to a modern dwelling on the site of another plundered Roman villa, belonging to the masterminds behind the looting. According to chief prosecutor Nunzio Fragliasso, they are now standing trial for their crimes before the Court of Torre Annunziata. He said that he considers “the fight against the looting of archaeological sites, both inside and outside the urban area of ancient Pompeii” to be one of his office’s primary objectives.

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So what really happened with Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket?

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Enlarge / Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, speaks during the 32nd Space Symposium in 2016. A few months later, the company would formally announce development of the huge New Glenn rocket.

In the fall of 2017, shortly after he became chief executive officer of Blue Origin, Bob Smith received an extensive briefing on the state of the New Glenn rocket program. The projected launch date for the massive, reusable rocket was 2020, he was told.

As Smith assessed the progress on New Glenn to date and drew upon his long experience at Honeywell Aerospace, he soon came to the conclusion that this launch date was unreasonable. “This is not a 2020 launch program,” he said at this meeting. “This is a 2022 program, at best.”

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos was not present for this, but his response afterward was that he would absolutely not accept any revision to the launch date for the large orbital rocket. Blue Origin should be optimistic with its projections, Bezos said. And then they should meet those projections.

Bezos’ rocket company, of course, did not meet those projections. Not only did New Glenn not launch in 2020, last week Blue Origin said it would not launch until the fourth quarter of 2022, at the earliest. As part of its announcement, Blue Origin also did not take much blame for the rocket’s delay—instead, the company blamed the delay mostly on a potential customer, the US Department of Defense.

“Who does that?” asked one former employee of the company. “That excuse makes no sense.”

Blue Origin’s New Glenn project is incredibly ambitious. If successfully developed, it would offer a revolutionary heavy-lift service to low Earth orbit, geostationary space, and even the Moon. So what really has gone wrong? Ars spoke with several former employees and industry officials familiar with the company for this story.

A fateful decision

As part of his overall space strategy, Bezos has been thinking about building a large, reusable orbital rocket for a long time. Step one was to learn how to reuse rockets with the much smaller New Shepard launch system, which consists of a single-engine booster and capsule. And the company’s engineers have—over the last five years, New Shepard successfully completed more than a dozen suborbital missions with picture-perfect rocket landings.

But long before New Shepard took its first flight, Bezos was already deep into planning his next rocket. During a meeting in December 2011 with then-NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, Bezos discussed an orbital rocket capable of challenging SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster. As Christian Davenport recounts in his book The Space Barons, Bezos told Garver at the time, “I want to tell you about my big rocket.”

The “big rocket” at the time—which would become known publicly as New Glenn more than half a decade later—was not quite so big as New Glenn is envisioned today. Rather than being powered by seven BE-4 engines and towering nearly as tall as NASA’s famed Saturn V rocket, Bezos originally envisioned a more modest-sized rocket comparable to the Falcon 9 or United Launch Alliance’s single-stick Delta IV. In some iterations, New Glenn had just three main engines.

This would have represented a more incremental step for a launch company that has yet to put a gram of material into orbit. But instead of offering a waypoint between New Shepard and a massive orbital rocket, Bezos ultimately opted to jump right to the massive, 313-foot-tall version. “It’s like if NASA had gone straight from Alan Shepard to the Saturn V rocket, but then also had to make the Saturn V reusable,” one former Blue Origin employee said.

Instead of crawl-walk-run, Bezos asked his engineering team to begin sprinting toward the launch pad. The engineering challenges of building such a large rocket are big enough. But because New Glenn is so expensive to build, the company needs to recover it from the outset. SpaceX enjoyed a learning curve with the Falcon 9, only successfully recovering the first stage on the rocket’s 20th launch. Blue Origin engineers will be expected to bring New Glenn back safely on its very first mission.

The decision to skip the “walk” part of the company’s development has cost Blue Origin dearly, sources say. The company’s engineering teams, composed of smart and talented people, are struggling with mighty technical challenges. And there are so many lessons that can be learned from New Shepard—the smaller rocket has 110,000 pounds of thrust, and New Glenn will have very nearly 4 million.

Competing priorities

It’s not just the challenging engineering. Since Smith arrived in the fall of 2017, some employees have struggled with his leadership style and complained that he’s acted too slowly, pushing Blue Origin to become more like a traditional aerospace company than a nimble new-space startup. But from Smith’s perspective, he’s trying to implement a culture transformation, from a hobby-shop atmosphere to that of major aerospace contractor that can go out and win major NASA and Defense Department contracts.

As a result, Blue Origin is now juggling a number of other major projects in addition to New Glenn. There is the ongoing effort to put humans onto suborbital New Shepard flights, which may happen as soon as late spring or early summer. This has been a long slog, as Bezos once suggested humans may fly on the suborbital launch system as early as 2017.

There is work on the BE-4 engine itself, which will ultimately power New Glenn. As part of its development process, Blue Origin engineers pushed through significant turbopump issues. Technicians and engineers are working hard to deliver flight-ready BE-4 rocket engines to United Launch Alliance, an important customer, by this summer. This is probably Blue Origin’s most immediate priority.

Blue Origin is also leading the “National Team,” which includes industry heavyweights such as Lockheed Martin Northrop Grumman, that seeks to build a lander for human missions to the Moon. This is a heated, high-profile competition with two others bidders, SpaceX and a Dynetics-led team, and the prize is billions of dollars in contracts and enormous prestige in carrying astronauts down to the surface of the Moon. NASA is expected to pick one or two finalists in April to move forward. Bezos desperately wants to prevail here.

So how does Bob Smith manage these programs internally? Clearly, for now, New Glenn has taken a back seat. The vehicle’s delay to the fourth quarter of 2022—and let’s be honest, that means at least 2023—comes down to a combination of two things. First, there is the enormity of the engineering challenge, which is due to Bezos’ decision to opt for a larger New Glenn design. Secondly, Blue Origin simply has higher priorities right now.

The sources for this article agreed that none of this reflects a diminution of interest in space by Jeff Bezos, who remains the world’s richest person. He is a true believer in exploring the cosmos and feels as though it is his role to lay down the infrastructure that will allow humans to build factories in space, develop artificial worlds known as O’Neill cylinders, and to preserve Earth.

Bezos’ vision is compelling. He recently announced a decision to step away from Amazon, which will give him more time to work on Blue Origin and perhaps allow him to bring this vision into better focus.

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