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Life-size robo-dinosaur and ostrich backpack hint at how first birds got off the ground – TechCrunch

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Everyone knows birds descended from dinosaurs, but exactly how that happened is the subject of much study and debate. To help clear things up, these researchers went all out and just straight up built a robotic dinosaur to test their theory: that these proto-birds flapped their “wings” well before they ever flew.

Now, this isn’t some hyper-controversial position or anything. It’s pretty reasonable when you think about it: natural selection tends to emphasize existing features rather than invent them from scratch. If these critters had, say, moved from being quadrupedal to being bipedal and had some extra limbs up front, it would make sense that over a few million years those limbs would evolve into something useful.

But when did it start, and how? To investigate, Jing-Shan Zhao of Tsinghua University in Beijing looked into an animal called Caudipteryx, a ground-dwelling animal with “feathered forelimbs that could be considered “proto-wings.”

Based on the well-preserved fossil record of this bird-dino crossover, the researchers estimated a number of physiological metrics, such as the creature’s top speed and the rhythm with which it would run. From this they could estimate forces on other parts of the body — just as someone studying a human jogger would be able to say that such and such a joint is under this or that amount of stress.

What they found was that, in theory, these “natural frequencies” and biophysics of the Caudipteryx’s body would cause its little baby wings to flap up and down in a way suggestive of actual flight. Of course they wouldn’t provide any lift, but this natural rhythm and movement may have been the seed which grew over generations into something greater.

To give this theory a bit of practical punch, the researchers then constructed a pair of unusual mechanical items: a pair of replica Caudipteryx wings for a juvenile ostrich to wear, and a robotic dinosaur that imitated the original’s gait. A bit fanciful, sure — but why shouldn’t science get a little crazy now and then?

In the case of the ostrich backpack, they literally just built a replica of the dino-wings and attached it to the bird, then had the bird run. Sensors on board the device verified what the researchers observed: that the wings flapped naturally as a result of the body’s motion and vibrations from the feet impacting the ground.

The robot is a life-size reconstruction based on a complete fossil of the animal, made of 3D-printed parts, to which the ostrich’s fantasy wings could also be affixed. The researchers’ theoretical model predicted that the flapping would be most pronounced as the speed of the bird approached 2.31 meters per second — and that’s just what they observed in the stationary model imitating gaits corresponding to various running speeds.

You can see another gif over at the Nature blog. As the researchers summarize:

These analyses suggest that the impetus of the evolution of powered flight in the theropod lineage that lead to Aves may have been an entirely natural phenomenon produced by bipedal motion in the presence of feathered forelimbs.

Just how legit is this? Well, I’m not a paleontologist. And an ostrich isn’t a Caudipteryx. And the robot isn’t exactly convincing to look at. We’ll let the scholarly community pass judgment on this paper and its evidence (don’t worry, it’s been peer-reviewed), but I think it’s fantastic that the researchers took this route to test their theory. A few years ago this kind of thing would have been far more difficult to do, and although it seems a little silly when you watch it (especially in gif form), there’s a lot to be said for this kind of real-life tinkering when so much of science is occurring in computer simulations.

The paper was published today in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

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Apple doubles down on Fitness+ with new “Time to Walk” Apple Watch content

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Today, Apple launched a new component of its Fitness+ personal health subscription service: “Time to Walk.” With it, users who own an Apple Watch can take a tracked walk exercise while listening to stories or inspiring talks from “influential and interesting people.”

These talks will be automatically downloaded to users’ Apple Watch, provided those users subscribe to Fitness+. When users start listening to one of the 25-40 minute episodes, the Watch will begin tracking a Walk workout. For users in weelchairs, Time to Walk is instead called “Time to Push” and offers up an Outdoor Weelchair Walk Pace workout instead.

The announcement states that “each Time to Walk episode is shaped by the guest’s personal, life-shaping moments and includes lessons learned, meaningful memories, thoughts on purpose and gratitude, moments of levity, and other thought-provoking topics, recorded while walking outside or in locations that are meaningful to them.”

The stories and talks obviously involve audio of the figure speaking, but Apple says this feature will also surface photos on the Apple Watch at specific times during the talks to illustrate the stories or points.

Also, the talks are followed by short playlists composed of songs that gave the speaker “motivation and inspiration.”

The first Time to Walk episodes come from the following guests: country singer Dolly Parton, NBA player Draymond Green, musician Shawn Mendes, and actor Uzo Aduba. New episodes will be released each Monday “through the end of April.”

The announcement came with this statement from Jay Blahnik, Apple’s senior director of Fitness Technologies:

Walking is the most popular physical activity in the world, and one of the healthiest things we can do for our bodies. A walk can often be more than just exercise: It can help clear the mind, solve a problem, or welcome a new perspective… Even throughout this challenging period of time, one activity that has remained available to many is walking. With Time to Walk, we’re bringing weekly original content to Apple Watch in Fitness+ that includes some of the most diverse, fascinating, and celebrated guests offering inspiration and entertainment to help our users keep moving through the power of walking.

Experts and organizations like the United States Department of Health and Human Services advise that people get 150 minutes per week of medium intensity exercise, which for some could include walking—but many Americans don’t get anywhere close to that.

Increasingly, personal tech products like smartphones and smart watches have become parts of the battle against that problem in the United States and elsewhere. Apple launched Apple Fitness+ in December—its first health-oriented subscription. There are also numerous third-party apps on the iOS and Android App Stores that offer similar content and features, and many other big tech companies have been looking to make waves in personal health as well.

Listing image by Apple

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Google Maps will soon show COVID vaccine locations

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Enlarge / Vaccine info in Google search.

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The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine means a ton of people are soon going to be looking for vaccination sites. As usual, Google wants to be at the center of getting people where they’re going, and in a new blog post Google says it will start loading Search and Maps with information on vaccination sites. “In the coming weeks,” the company writes, “COVID-19 vaccination locations will be available in Google Search and Maps, starting with Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, with more states and countries to come.”

Soon you’ll be able to search “COVID vaccine” and get location results showing access requirements, appointment information, and if a site has a drive-through. Google says it is partnering with the Boston Children’s Hospital’s VaccineFinder.org, government agencies, and retail pharmacies for the data.

Elsewhere in the Google Empire, the company says it will open up various Google facilities as vaccine sites.

To help with vaccination efforts, starting in the United States, we’ll make select Google facilities—such as buildings, parking lots and open spaces—available as needed. These sites will be open to anyone eligible for the vaccine based on state and local guidelines. We’ll start by partnering with health care provider One Medical and public health authorities to open sites in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area in California; Kirkland, Washington; and New York City, with plans to expand nationally. We’re working with local officials to determine when sites can open based on local vaccine availability.

Google also says it plans on launching a “Get the Facts” campaign across its services, probably to counter the conspiracy theories the company is often caught promoting via the YouTube algorithm. The post says the initiative will run across Google and YouTube to “get authoritative information out to the public about vaccines.”

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How desperate are you for GPUs, CPUs, consoles? Newegg tests with new lottery

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Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

Over the past 12 months, electronics retailers have been under increased fire and scrutiny for mishandling how they sell brand-new consoles and high-end PC components. This week, online retailer Newegg has moved forward with a new, peculiar system for selling high-demand, low-supply electronics: the Newegg Shuffle. (Or, as the site’s metadata calls it, the Newegg Popular Product Lottery Queue.)

If you catch this article early enough on Friday, January 22, consider this a drop-everything suggestion to rush to the site by 5 pm ET and place a product-purchase request. Really: Do that right now if you’re interested in recent AMD CPUs, Nvidia GPUs, or the all-digital PlayStation 5. It’s free to try. We’ll wait.

OK, so, that process might have been a bit confusing. What’s going on with the Newegg Shuffle?

Shuffling into a forced bundle? Not necessarily, but likely

The Newegg Shuffle buzz began earlier this week when savvy shoppers noticed a limited-time lottery event under the same name in messages sent to a limited pool of Newegg customers. It advertised a variety of CPUs and graphics cards, and the lead-in page included a sales pitch: Pick what you want to buy, sign into your established Newegg customer profile, and submit a request. Do this by a certain time, and within a few hours, you’d get notified if your account was selected to purchase any of the products you picked. (Meaning, you could try to sign up for every listing, or just one, without the choices apparently changing your odds of being randomly selected.)

The problems with that early test, however, came in the form of furious customers sharing images of what the shopping interface actually looked like. After clicking a shiny new AMD processor, or an Nvidia RTX 3080 graphics card, you’d be shown the real shopping option: a forced bundle. Every single option appeared to require purchasing a brand new motherboard, even if you didn’t need one. That was particularly egregious in the case of Nvidia’s graphics cards, which are compatible with the common PCI-e 3.0 standard and thus don’t necessitate a new motherboard for interested PC gamers.

When pressed by PC Mag about this anti-consumer, forced-bundle promotion, Newegg clarified that its Shuffle feature was still in “beta.” The promotion would cut down on forced bundles once it rolled out to all customers. Friday’s Newegg Shuffle launch has confirmed this—but a few forced bundles remain.

Both of today’s available AMD CPUs, the Ryzen 5 5600X and Ryzen 7 5800X, can be purchased as standalone options. They’re additionally listed with bundles, however, and that means you essentially have a better shot at purchasing them from Newegg if you’re willing to attach a motherboard purchase to the CPU. The same goes for one of the promotion’s GPUs, an ASUS flavor of the RTX 3070, which can either be purchased a la carte or with a bundled ASUS motherboard.

Three other GPUs appear in the promotion; two of them can only be purchased a la carte, and one, the ASUS RTX 3080, can only be purchased with a bundled ASUS motherboard (for a whopping combined price of $1179.98).

And the all-digital PlayStation 5 on offer can only be purchased as part of a bundle, adding a staggering $160 to its normal $399 price with an extra controller (sure), a 1080p webcam (meh), and a media remote (ugh). Them’s some serious Gamestop vibes, and not in a good way.

Microsoft taking leadership in the space

The worst part about Newegg Shuffle is that it’s arguably the best system currently on the market for interested PC-parts shoppers. Otherwise, your best bet is following in-the-know Twitter accounts and online-shopping guides to learn exactly when high-end computer components and consoles are in stock—since retailers seem completely disinterested in, you know, letting us pre-order these things and enter a purchase queue.

The sole exception in this madness seems to be Xbox Series X/S. Microsoft has developed a somewhat scalper-proof purchasing system in the form of Xbox All Access. Combine a monthly subscription price with a dedicated Xbox account (and associated mailing address), and you can get your hands on a shiny new Xbox. Such systems are a pain for scalpers to transfer account ownership with. (As a bonus, buying a Series X/S this way may save you money compared to buying the hardware and attached subscription rates at retail prices.)

Until we see more retailers embrace customer verification systems, purchase limits, and anti-scalper efforts, we’re likely going to see more funky “lottery” systems like Newegg’s, complete with predatory bundle-enticement offers.

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