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Microsoft Store Black Friday ad showcases Surface, Windows laptop deals

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Microsoft Store 2018 Black Friday ad

While we saw a couple of Microsoft Surface deals courtesy of Best Buy’s Black Friday ad, Microsoft itself is offering more options to save with the Black Friday ad for its own store. On top of those, it has several specials on Windows laptops from its PC partners.

Microsoft has six different deals on its various Surface device, from the Surface Go to the Surface Laptop 2. The Go is the 10-inch tablet that most closely competes with the 9.7-inch iPad, and it will see $50 taken off the $399 price for its base model (Intel 4415Y processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB storage). There’s also significant savings on the last-generation Surface Pro, which comes with a seventh-generation Intel Core m3 processor, 4GB of memory, 128GB SSD, and a Platinum Signature Type Cover for $599, $310 off the regular price. (Note, however, that you can obtain this deal right now from the Microsoft Store.)

That price reduction is no doubt related to the introduction of a refreshed Surface Pro 6, which is the Surface device discounted in Best Buy’s ad. The Microsoft Store adds three more deals on the new tablet, starting with the base version with Core i5, 8GB of RAM, 128GB SSD, and Type Cover for $799 ($260 off current price) and then taking $330 off the version with twice the solid-state storage, lowering the price to $999. That same $330 amount is also being slashed from a higher-end Surface Pro 6 stacked with Core i7, 16 gigs of RAM, and 512GB of solid-state storage, which brings the price to a still formidable $1,569. Finally, Microsoft is taking $300 off the new Surface Laptop 2, though it only vaguely says the discount applies to “select” configurations.

Microsoft is also happy to sell you some other manufacturers’ laptops that run its Windows 10 operating system. It has nine specials on Windows notebooks, in fact, from the likes of Dell and HP. At the low end, there’s an HP Stream configuration with Intel Celeron N4000 CPU, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and a 14-inch full HD display for $229 ($70 off current price), or a budget 2-in-1 in the form of an Asus VivoBook Flip with Intel Pentium Silver N5000 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB SSD, and 14-inch full HD touchscreen for $279 ($120 off). A final sub-$300 laptop deal is for an HP 15-DA0071MS with a last-generation Core i3 processor, 8 gigs of RAM, terabyte hard drive, and 15.6-inch touchscreen for $299 ($200 off).

If you want to step up to a Core i5 CPU, you’ll have a half-dozen choices, including the HP 15-DA0073MS for $349 and the HP Pavilion 15-cc610ms for $399, both of which are built around 15.6-inch touchscreen displays and pack 8GB of RAM, but the cheaper model comes with a last-generation Core i5 — albeit with a 2TB hard drive — while the pricier one has an eighth-generation Core i5, terabyte hard drive, and a full HD screen. There are also a pair of systems for $499: a Dell Inspiron 15 with Core i5, 8GB of RAM, 1TB hard drive, and 15.6-inch full HD touchscreen; and a Lenovo Flex 2-in-1 with Core i5, 8GB of memory, 128GB SSD, and 14-inch full HD touchscreen.

Rounding things out is another 2-in-1 in the HP Pavilion x360, which offers ismilar specs as the Lenovo but with a slightly larger 15.6-inch display and $599 price tag. If you’re looking for a gaming laptop on the cheap, Microsoft will be selling the Dell G3 with Core i5, 8GB of RAM, terabyte hard drive, 15.6-inch full HD display, and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics for $599.

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CDC celebrates Biden transition, expects “rebuilding,” more press briefings

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Enlarge / The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters stands in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 14, 2020.

After being muted, sidelined, and disparaged by the Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reportedly reveling in the transition to the Biden administration and eyeing a major comeback amid the still-roaring coronavirus pandemic.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” an unnamed senior CDC official told CNN Tuesday, after the ascertainment declaration from the General Services Administration. With the transition underway, senior officials are eager for Biden’s people to “send their landing team here and set up shop.”

When asked if Tuesday’s news lifted the mood among other senior leaders at the agency, the official emphatically replied: “Yes!” Senior leaders expect the transition to bring a “rebuilding of the agency,” the official added

Though rebuilding, to some extent, is standard in any transition, the CDC has a lot of ground to regain in the aftermath of the Trump era. The administration has spent the pandemic censoring CDC officials and nearly halting once-regular press briefings held by agency officials. Trump appointees also meddled with the agency’s scientific reports and watered-down critical public health guidance aimed at defeating the worst public health crisis of our time. Perhaps the most prominent examples of the administration’s interference was making alarming changes to the agency’s guidance on COVID-19 testing and school reopening.

Despite the CDC’s diminished standing, a federal health official emphasized to CNN that the agency has continued its diligent public health work in the background, including monitoring of schools amid the pandemic.

“The CDC continues to analyze school data and if necessary, it will refine or build on the guidance out there when it comes to schools,” the official said.

Like the CDC official, the federal health official also noted that the Biden transition has boosted enthusiasm around the agency. When asked if the CDC will return to a more visible role in the pandemic response, the official said: “”Man oh man, I hope so.”

In a currently rare press briefing last week, a CDC official told reporters: “We’re happy to be able to do this briefing. I would like to have these briefings on a regular basis.”

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A successful liftoff for China’s most ambitious Moon mission to date

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Enlarge / China’s heavy lift vehicle, the Long March 5, starting its liftoff with the Chang’e 5 mission.

On Monday, China successfully sent the latest in its Chang’e missions on its way to the Moon. Chang’e 5 is the most ambitious to date and, if successful, will make China just the third country to return samples from the lunar surface (after the Soviet Union and the US). While the mission is quite complex with lots of potential for things to go wrong, it’s also happening on a short schedule, so we’ll have a good idea of how things are going within three weeks.

There and back again

China’s Chang’e program, named after a goddess of the Moon, started back in 2007 with the launch of the Chang’e 1 orbiter. Over time, the missions have gotten increasingly complex. Chang’e 3 saw the deployment of a rover on the lunar surface, and Chang’e 4 made history with the first landing on the far side of the Moon. Already, the missions have produced exciting scientific data and lots of photos of previously unexplored areas of the Moon.

Now, China plans to get something back from the Moon that can’t be distilled down to a string of ones and zeroes. As with two earlier missions, once Chang’e 5 reaches lunar orbit, it will deploy a lander to the surface. But this time, the lander will be accompanied by a sample return vehicle. After using a drill and scoop to load that up with up to two kilograms of material, the sample return vehicle will lift off from the lunar surface and rendezvous with the vehicle that brought it to the Moon.

Once the sample return vehicle and orbiter are reunited, the samples will be transferred to a re-entry capsule, and the orbiter will return to Earth. The re-entry capsule will then separate from the rest of the hardware, and the samples will touch down in the Inner Mongolia region.

All told, the mission is impressively complex. It will require a soft landing, successful rover deployment, sample gathering and storage, a liftoff from the Moon, in-orbit rendezvous, and safe return to Earth—all of them managed remotely. That means multiple steps for things to go wrong, with the mission terminating unless everything goes right. If handled successfully, it will provide yet another indication that China has become a major player in Solar System exploration.

A tight schedule

In any case, we’ll know soon. China’s National Space Agency expects that the entire mission will last 23 days, although the rover has imaging capabilities and will remain active after it’s done collecting samples.

If it’s successful, the lunar samples will be the first returned to Earth since the 1970s. The Chinese National Space Agency already has guidelines ready for the scientific use of any samples that successfully make it back to our planet, and it plans to grant the international community access.

For now, however, all of the hardware is on its way to the Moon after yesterday’s successful launch. The landing isn’t expected for several days, with the sample liftoff from the lunar surface two days after that.

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Rock art in a California cave was a visual guide to hallucinogenic plants

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Enlarge / This red pinwheel image (left), which is around 500 years old, may depict the unfurling petals of a datura flower (right).

Rick Bury and Melissa Dabulamanzi

At a cave in Southern California, archaeologists recently found centuries-old bundles of hallucinogenic plants tucked into crevices in the low ceiling, near a painting that may depict a flower from the same plant, called datura. The painted images may have been a visual aid to help people understand the rituals they experienced in the cave.

Chew on this

University of Central Lancashire archaeologist David Robinson and his colleagues describe the bundles of leaves and stems tucked into the domed ceiling of California’s Pinwheel Cave. The five-armed pinwheel that gives the cave its name is painted in red nearby, attended by a bizarre-looking figure with antennae, eyes pointed in different directions, and a long body. Archaeologists have dubbed it the Transmorph, perhaps because it wouldn’t answer to anything else they tried. Based on radiocarbon dates of the bundles, people placed them in the room’s nooks and crannies over several centuries, from about 1530 to 1890.

That matches the age of charcoal from nearby chambers in the cave, where people left behind traces of more mundane activities: cooking meat, grinding seeds and nuts, and making stone projectile points. Whatever rituals happened in Pinwheel Cave, they weren’t hidden away or separate from everyday life.

Using a technique called mass spectrometry, Robinson and his colleagues studied the chemical composition of four of the bundles and found the compounds scopolamine and atropine—the same chemical mixture that’s found in datura. The Chumash people of California call the plant Momay and see it as the embodiment of a supernatural grandmother figure. To the Tübatulabal, it’s Mo mo ht, a man who later transformed into the flowering plant.

Datura can be a deadly poison if you eat too much of it; take in just the right amount, though, and you’ll experience vivid hallucinations and a trance-like state. Under a scanning electron microscope, the plant fibers in 14 of the Pinwheel Cave bundles matched other samples from the genus Datura. (Robinson and his colleagues examined one other bundle, which turned out to contain yucca, an edible desert plant.)

The microscopic examination also revealed that the ends of the bundles had been crushed and matted together, and some even had tooth marks still pressed into them. Clearly, people had chewed on these bundles of datura leaves and stems before tucking them away into nooks and crannies in the chamber. That matches historical descriptions of Chumash and Tübatulabal people occasionally eating parts of the datura plant for other rituals. Sometimes the goal might be to heal a physical wound; other times it could be supernatural protection, help finding a lost object or looking into the future, or an extra burst of strength for a hunt.

And at Pinwheel Cave, it seems that people chewed the datura bundles beneath a painted image of the plant itself.

Under the influence

For the record, when people use a hallucinogen as part of a religious or spiritual ritual (as opposed to just for fun), anthropologists call the substance an entheogen. Datura has been a popular entheogen in a lot of cultures on several continents, including groups of people across what is now the Western United States, from California to Texas. And across the Western US, datura flowers have turned up in several cultures’ artwork, along with images of hawkmoths, which pollinate the hallucinogenic flowers.

Prior to the discovery in Pinwheel Cave, archaeologists hadn’t found any clear evidence that people actually used datura at any of the sites where that artwork was preserved on cave walls or beneath rock shelters. That’s part of what makes the Pinwheel find so interesting. The cave paintings, combined with the datura bundles, suggest that art played a role in some of the rituals in which people used datura for trances and visions.

When a datura bud opens into a flower, its five petals unfold in a spiral that looks almost exactly like the five-armed pinwheel in Pinwheel Cave. And Robinson and colleagues suggest that the Transmorph, with its antennae and its strange bug-like eyes, may actually be a hawkmoth, the insect that does most of the work of pollinating datura plants.

Groups like the Chumash and the Tübatulabal, and their ancestors, had traditional stories to explain why datura had the power to cause visions, but they also understood the more pragmatic realities of the plant’s life cycle.

Of course, pollination is slightly hazardous work when your food of choice is laced with scopolamine. As Robinson and his colleagues explained, the moth “consumes nectar from the datura flower before coming under the influence of its effects, thus exhibiting behavior analogous to those consuming datura in the cave.” In other words, the illustration on the cave ceiling may have served as a visual guide to help people understand how the rituals worked and what they were about to experience.

A story of survival

What’s really important about Pinwheel Cave, however, is what it tells us about resilience. People were living, and practicing datura rituals, at the cave well before the first European colonizers arrived in the area. The evidence suggests that life and ritual at the site continued for several centuries during Spanish colonization, through Mexican rule, and finally incorporation into America. That’s a huge amount of cultural and political upheaval in a fairly short time.

Robinson and his colleagues used portable X-ray fluorescence to study the layers of paint on the ceiling of Pinwheel Cave. They found that the pinwheel—the datura flower, probably—had been repainted and touched up many times over the centuries. Generations of people had maintained it, and generations of people had looked up at it as they chewed bundles of datura and slipped into the world of visions.

PNAS, 2020 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2014529117  (About DOIs).

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