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The best PC deals from Staples Black Friday ad include $150 Chromebook

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Staples Black Friday ad

Potential PC buyers are starting to get more options to consider if they plan to purchase a new system during the upcoming Black Friday shopping weekend. In addition to Dell’s Black Friday ad, we’ve also seen ads leaked from Costco and BJs Wholesale Club — even Walmart — with laptop and desktop deals. Now Staples has released its Black Friday plans, complete with a whole new slate of specials to mull over.

The office superstore has to make up with breadth for being unable to offer prices as dirt cheap as other retailers. For instance, its cheapest Chromebook special is a $149.99 HP with Intel Celeron processor, 4GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and 11.6-inch screen — $50 more than the Samsung Chromebook Walmart is offering. It does have a 14-inch Acer Chromebook on sale, however, for $199.99 if you desire a bigger screen.

But not everyone wants the lowest-priced system, and for those who need more — be it RAM, storage, processing power, or better display — Staples has some intriguing options. For instance, for under $400, there’s an HP Pavilion laptop with Core i5, 8GB of RAM, terabyte hard drive, and 14-inch display for $369.99, or for the same price, a Pavilion desktop tower with a Core i5 and terabyte hard drive but with 12 gigs of memory. For $499.99, you can step up to a Pavilion notebook with a Core i7 CPU, 16GB of Intel Optane memory to complement the terabyte hard drive, and a 15.6-inch full HD display.

Not many laptops have adopted AMD’s Ryzen mobile chips yet, but Staples does have a couple of them as part of its Black Friday plans. There’s a 15.6-inch Acer Aspire with Ryzen 3 processor, 5 gigs of RAM, and terabyte hard drive for $319.99, and a Lenovo 330s that includes a Ryzen 7, 8GB of RAM, 1TB hard drive, and 15.6-inch full HD screen for $469.99.

If you prefer the flexibility of a 2-in-1 portable, there’s an Acer 13.3-inch Chromebook with MediaTek processor, 4 gigs of RAM, and 32 gigs of storage for $309.99, or a Core i3-based Acer Spin 3 with 8GB of RAM, 256GB solid-state drive, 15.6-inch full HD touchscreen, and integrated Amazon Alexa for $469.99. Fore more power (and cash), there’s an HP Pavilion x360 with Core i7, 8GB of memory, terabyte hard drive, and 15.6-inch full HD touch-enabled display for $729.99.

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Shake-up at CDC: Walensky acknowledges pandemic failure, plans big changes

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Enlarge / CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate committee hearing in July 2021.

After persistent and often harsh criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and now the monkeypox emergency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will undergo a significant overhaul, involving cultural and structural changes aimed at realizing its prior reputation as the world’s premier public health agency.

“For 75 years, CDC and public health have been preparing for COVID-19, and in our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in an email to CDC’s 11,000-person staff Wednesday, which was seen by The New York Times and Stat News. “My goal is a new, public health action-oriented culture at CDC that emphasizes accountability, collaboration, communication, and timeliness.”

Though the CDC endured meddling and undermining during the Trump administration, many of the agency’s pandemic misfires were unforced errors—such as the failure to stand up reliable SARS-CoV-2 testing in the early days and muddled messaging on masks. In a meeting with senior staff Wednesday, Walensky made a startling acknowledgement of the failures while outlining the overhaul in broad strokes.

The cultural changes appear aimed at stamping out pedantic data analyses that have slowed and hampered the agency’s public health responses. A briefing document provided to the Times said the goal is for CDC staff to “produce data for action” as opposed to “data for publication.” As such, the agency will cut down on the time allowed to review studies before they’re released. The agency will also change the way it grants promotions to staff, placing more emphasis on public health impact rather than the number of scientific publications.

Public health impact

The CDC will also focus on improving health messaging to the public, which the briefing document described as “confusing and overwhelming” during the pandemic. Future communication will aim to be “plain language, easy to understand.”

As for structural changes, two scientific divisions in the agency will now report directly to Walensky’s office. Walensky will also create a new executive council, which will report to her as well. The council will help set agency priorities and direct spending of the agency’s $12 billion annual budget using a “bias toward public health impact.” The changes will also include the creation of an equity office. Last, the agency will expand emergency response teams and require members to stay in their positions for at least six months. Previously, staff members were allowed to rotate out of teams after just a few months, slowing and confusing a team’s response efforts.

Walensky announced the appointment of Mary Wakefield, an Obama-era health official, to lead a team to implement and oversee the agency’s overhaul. The overhaul may also require the CDC to get more data from states and jurisdictions, which it currently does not have the power to require. Walensky reportedly suggested that she plans to ask Congress to mandate data-sharing with the CDC.

The overhaul comes after Walensky received the results of an external review of the agency, which she ordered in April, conducted by James Macrae, a senior official with the Department of Health and Human Services. Macrae’s review included interviews with 120 CDC staff as well as external experts.

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Solving the rock-hard problem of nuclear waste disposal

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Enlarge / A tunnel in Finland’s nuclear waste repository.

Posiva

Even if all nuclear power plants were shut down today, there’s a mountain of radioactive waste waiting to be disposed of. Yet only Finland has an approved solution for nuclear waste disposal, while projects in the US, UK, and Germany have failed for decades, and progress is also slow in other countries. With growing calls to extend the life of existing nuclear power stations and build new ones, that mountain of radioactive waste sitting in temporary, vulnerable, and expensive storage will keep growing.

The challenge is daunting. “High-level” nuclear waste, which includes spent nuclear fuel, stays radioactive for hundreds of millennia, so a waste facility must keep it safely away from aquifers, violent weather, war, plane crashes, sea level rise, future ice sheets, volcanic activity, and even curious future humans for a time span that dwarfs all of previous human history.

Ultimately, it’s the geology of a proposed disposal site that determines if it’s a safe place to entrust nuclear waste for millennia. We talked to people involved in the Finnish, US, and UK programs about what investigations of the rock and groundwater at those sites revealed about their suitability—or lack thereof.

Burial is best

Worldwide, the consensus is that deep underground disposal is the best way to keep nuclear waste away from water sources and the food chain until its radioactivity has decayed to the normal background.

Radioactive garbage from medical, research, and nuclear facilities, classified as “low-level” or “intermediate-level” waste, is not the problem. This includes things like disposable shoe covers, rags, filters, swabs, syringes, medical radiotherapy sources, and debris from decommissioned nuclear plants, and it is routinely packed into special containers and buried in dedicated shallow landfills.

The real problem is spent nuclear fuel and nuclear reprocessing waste that is classified as “high-level.” It is lethally radioactive and physically hot, and it takes several hundred thousand years for its radioactivity to decline to about the level of natural uranium ore.

The right stuff

Under current disposal plans, this radioactive waste will be sealed in a “multibarrier” system—a series of canisters within canisters, engineered to contain the waste for hundreds of millennia, even if some of the layers fail. The canisters will eventually leak, but if all goes to plan, that will only happen in the distant future, after the radioactive isotopes have mostly decayed.

The canisters will be entombed for millennia in tunnels deep underground, and the space around them will be packed with another barrier in the form of a clay called bentonite, which is impermeable and swells into gaps when it’s wet, sealing off the canisters and giving some support against any collapse of the tunnels.

The rock housing the repository acts as a final barrier.

Its job is to protect the waste canisters and the bentonite so they can do their job. It also serves as the last line of defense when canisters eventually leak or fail sooner than expected. As such, the rock must keep the flow of waste from reaching the biosphere for as long as possible—a million years in Finland’s design. To be the “right stuff” for that job, the rock must be strong enough for tunnels to stay intact, it must be effectively impermeable, and its groundwater must have minimal flow and cannot be corrosive.

Finland has a lot of hard crystalline bedrock and many places that are potentially suitable for a repository. The country eventually chose an island on the Baltic coast for its Onkalo repository, and it hopes to seal off the first tunnel of nuclear waste sometime around 2025.

“I’m not saying that there is something special in the Onkalo geology,” said Antti Mustonen, research manager with Posiva, the organization in charge of the Finnish repository. “It meets the requirements.”

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Rocket Lab will self-fund a mission to search for life in the clouds of Venus

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Enlarge / An artist’s impression of Rocket Lab’s proposed mission to Venus.

MDPI Aerospace/Rocket Lab

Never let it be said that Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck lacks a flamboyant streak.

Although his Electron launch vehicle is one of the smallest orbital rockets in the world, Beck gleans every bit of performance from the booster he can. On just the rocket’s second launch, in January 2018, he added a disco-ball like geodesic sphere called “Humanity Star” to give humans a small and bright shining object to, however briefly, gaze upon in the night sky.

“The whole point of the program is to get everybody looking up at the star, but also past the star into the Universe, and reflect about the fact that we’re one species, on one planet,” he said at the time.

In interviews since then Beck has made no secret of his love for humanity’s next-closest world, Venus. The surface of that hell-planet is a miasma of carbon dioxide, crushing pressures, and fiery temperatures. But scientists believe that high above that terrible surface, in the clouds of Venus, there are air pressures not dissimilar to those found on Earth, where conditions might be conducive for some forms of life.

And so Peter Beck wants to use his small Electron rocket, which stands but 18 meters tall and can throw all of about 300 kg into low Earth orbit, to find out.

Venus, next

On Tuesday evening Rocket Lab announced that it will self-fund the development of a small spacecraft, and its launch, that will send a tiny probe flying through the clouds of Venus for about 5 minutes, at an altitude of 48 to 60 km. Beck has joined up with several noted planetary scientists, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sara Seager, to design this mission.

Electron will deliver the spacecraft into a 165 km orbit above Earth, where the rocket’s high-energy Photon upper stage will perform a number of burns to raise the spacecraft’s orbit and reach escape velocity. Assuming a May 2023 launch—there is a backup opportunity in January 2025—the spacecraft would reach Venus in October 2023. Once there, Photon would deploy a small, approximately 20 kg probe into the Venusian atmosphere.

The spacecraft will be tiny, as deep-space probes go, containing a 1 kg scientific payload consisting of an autofluorescing nephelometer, which is an instrument to detect suspended particles in the clouds. The goal is to search for organic chemicals in the clouds and explore their habitability. The probe will spend about 5 minutes and 30 seconds falling through the upper atmosphere, and then ideally continue transmitting data as it descends further toward the surface.

“The mission is the first opportunity to probe the Venus cloud particles directly in nearly four decades,” states a paper, published this week, describing the mission architecture. “Even with the mass and data rate constraints and the limited time in the Venus atmosphere, breakthrough science is possible.”

Smaller rockets, cheaper missions

In recent years scientists and engineers at NASA, as well as in academia and industry, have been looking toward the miniaturization of satellite technology, and profusion of smaller, less expensive rockets, to broaden the possibilities for robotic exploration of the Solar System. NASA achieved a significant milestone in 2018 when a pair of CubeSats built by the space agency launched along with the InSight mission. In space, the small MarCO-A and MarCO-B satellites deployed their own solar arrays, stabilized themselves, pivoted toward the Sun, and then journeyed to Mars.

However, a privately developed and launched small mission to Venus would represent another step entirely. No private company has ever sent a spacecraft directly to another world in the Solar System beyond the Moon. This highly ambitious effort may fail. But what not try? That seems to be Beck’s attitude.

Rocket Lab is currently funding the launch and spacecraft directly, which likely costs a few tens of millions of dollars. “There is some philanthropic funding in the works for different mission aspects, but too early to discuss this in detail at the moment,” said Morgan Bailey, a spokeswoman for the company.

So this is a big, game-changing bet by Beck on his small Electron rocket. Earlier this year, he and his company already sent the CAPSTONE mission to the Moon for NASA and Advanced Space. If Beck succeeds with a Venus mission, he’ll certainly catch the attention of scientists, NASA, and others interested in what would be a promising new era of low-cost, more rapid exploration of the Solar System.

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