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The year in crowdfunded PCs: Who succeeded? Who failed?

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Planet Computers Gemini PDA

The ever-maturing PC industry hasn’t deterred manufacturers large and small from embracing crowdfunding as a method of bringing new systems to market, whether they need the funds to produce their new product, or just want to gain publicity and guarantee some upfront sales. Not every launch on Kickstarter or one of its rivals is a roaring success, but enough are to keep the campaigns coming.

It was no different in 2017, as several companies offered new devices for crowdfunding, although some of them were clearly drawing inspiration from the past. That includes the Gemini, which answers the question: What would a PDA look like in a world filled with smartphones that have essentially replaced it? That answer is a clam-shell handheld with a physical keyboard, 5.99-inch screen, and Android and Linux dual-boot capability (along with built-in Wi-Fi and 4G option to keep up with the times).

As unlikely as you might think such a device would be attractive in a world of iPhones, tablets, Chromebooks, and other portables, the company behind the Gemini, UK startup Planet Computers, easily surpassed its campaign target on IndieGogo, raising over $1.1 million. If you want to see how the Gemini matches up with one of its inspirations, the 20-year-old Psion Series 5 PDA, check out ZDNet’s Sandra Vogel comparison from last month.

Another tiny computer, the GPD Pocket, doesn’t look all that different from the Gemini, though it doesn’t try to market itself specifically as a PDA. Instead, parent company GamePad Digital (or GPD) defines it as a 7-inch Windows laptop, complete with 8GB of RAM, 128GB solid-state drive, and full HD touchscreen. Like the Gemini, the Pocket ran its campaign on Indiegogo, and also like the Gemini, the Pocket blasted through its target fundraising goal, cashing in to the tune of more than $3.5 million.

While not as successful as the Gemini and the Pocket, French firm Miraxess doubled its campaign goal (again, on Indiegogo) for the Mirabook, which takes your smartphone out of your pocket and places it in a dock that turns it into a laptop. It’s not the first, or the most successful, crowdfunded smartphone dock, but the Mirabook will offer a bigger display and claims higher battery life than the cheaper Sentio Superbook that earned more than $3 million on Kickstarter last year. The Mirabook is about to go into beta, and will have a presence at the upcoming CES, so we’ll see if they can ride that momentum through to a final shipping product.

Actually getting a product into the hands of backers isn’t always a guarantee with crowdfunded campaigns, and there have been some notable vaporware disasters that have burned customers over the years. Even if companies can produce a shipping device, there can be delays or limited supplies that can hamper future growth. One example of being a victim of its own crowdfunded success is Purism, a new laptop maker that raised $2.5 million for its privacy-focused Linux notebooks, the Librem 13 and 15. Its original batches were made to order, which required buyers to patiently wait for their systems to arrive, but 2017 saw Purism being able to stock up on inventory to slice the wait time for a Librem from months to weeks.

Then there’s Tanoshi, which launched a Kickstarter campaign in September for a kid-friendly 2-in-1 Android laptop. By the middle of October, the campaign had raised less than 20 percent of its $50,000 goal and was canceled. That wasn’t the end for the company, however, as its crew of Silicon Valley vets managed to carry on and place an order for its systems anyway, which it’s currently pre-selling through its site.

The Tanoshi experience highlights one of the changes in crowdfunding over the years. Once the vast majority of campaigns required financial backers because the inventors didn’t have access to money to produce, now there are many campaigns that established companies run just as an additional funding source and marketing tactic.

Such is the case with Chuwi, a Chinese PC maker that has turned to Indiegogo to crowdfund laptops, despite being in existence for over a decade. Then again, it’s hard to argue with the success of its SurBook, a budget clone of Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet. It has raised over $1 million since launching its Indiegogo campaign, raising awareness in the U.S. that it probably couldn’t have managed through more conventional means.

Finally, a highly anticipated crowdfunding campaign didn’t wind up materializing in 2017. The resurrected Atari brand announced with great fanfare that it would be accepting preorders of its new Ataribox living room device, which combines retro console gaming with a Linux-based PC, via Indiegogo starting on December 14. However, the campaign was a no-show on that date, with the company blaming an unspecified snafu for the delay. Atari promises an updated launch plan soon, but the incident highlights the risks inherent with hitching your PC launch to a crowdfunding campaign. Expect more of the same — smashing successes and puzzling stumbles — in the year to come.

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Egyptologists translate the oldest-known mummification manual

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Egyptologists have recently translated the oldest-known mummification manual. Translating it required solving a literal puzzle; the medical text that includes the manual is currently in pieces, with half of what remains in the Louvre Museum in France and half at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. A few sections are completely missing, but what’s left is a treatise on medicinal herbs and skin diseases, especially the ones that cause swelling. Surprisingly, one section of that text includes a short manual on embalming.

For the text’s ancient audience, that combination might have made sense. The manual includes recipes for resins and unguents used to dry and preserve the body after death, along with explanations for how and when to use bandages of different shapes and materials. Those recipes probably used some of the same ingredients as ointments for living skin, because plants with antimicrobial compounds would have been useful for preventing both infection and decay.

New Kingdom embalming: More complicated than it used to be

The Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg, as the ancient medical text is now called, is the oldest mummification manual known so far, and it’s one of just three that Egyptologists have ever found. Based on the style of the characters used to write the text, it probably dates to about 1450 BCE, which makes it more than 1,000 years older than the other two known mummification texts. But the embalming compounds it describes are remarkably similar to the ones embalmers used 2,000 years earlier in pre-Dynastic Egypt: a mixture of plant oil, an aromatic plant extract, a gum or sugar, and heated conifer resin.

Although the basic principles of embalming survived for thousands of years in Egypt, the details varied over time. By the New Kingdom, when the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg was written, the art of mummification had evolved into an extremely complicated 70-day-long process that might have bemused or even shocked its pre-Dynastic practitioners. And this short manual seems to be written for people who already had a working knowledge of embalming and just needed a handy reference.

“The text reads like a memory aid, so the intended readers must have been specialists who needed to be reminded of these details,” said University of Copenhagen Egyptologist Sofie Schiødt, who recently translated and edited the manual. Some of the most basic steps—like using natron to dry out the body—were skipped entirely, maybe because they would have been so obvious to working embalmers.

On the other hand, the manual includes detailed instructions for embalming techniques that aren’t included in the other two known texts. It lists ingredients for a liquid mixture—mostly aromatic plant substances like resin, along with some binding agents—which is supposed to coat a piece of red linen placed on the dead person’s face. Mummified remains from the same time period have cloth and resin covering their faces in a way that seems to match the description.

Royal treatment

“This process was repeated at four-day intervals,” said Schiødt. In fact, the manual divides the whole embalming process into four-day intervals, with two extra days for rituals afterward. After the first flurry of activity, when embalmers spent a solid four days of work cleaning the body and removing the organs, most of the actual work of embalming happened only every fourth day, with lots of waiting in between. The deceased spent most of that time lying covered in cloth piled with layers of straw and aromatic, insect-repelling plants.

For the first half of the process, the embalmers’ goal was to dry the body with natron, which would have been packed around the outside of the corpse and inside the body cavities. The second half included wrapping the body in bandages, resins, and unguents meant to help prevent decay.

The manual calls for a ritual procession of the mummy every four days to celebrate “restoring the deceased’s corporeal integrity,” as Schiødt put it. That’s a total of 17 processions spread over 68 days, with two solid days of rituals at the end. Of course, most Egyptians didn’t get such elaborate preparation for the afterlife. The full 70-day process described in the Papyrus Louvre-Carlsberg would have been mostly reserved for royalty or extremely wealthy nobles and officials.

A full translation of the papyrus is scheduled for publication in 2022.

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Programmable optical quantum computer arrives late, steals the show

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Excuse me a moment—I am going to be bombastic, overexcited, and possibly annoying. The race is run, and we have a winner in the future of quantum computing. IBM, Google, and everyone else can turn in their quantum computing cards and take up knitting.

OK, the situation isn’t that cut and dried yet, but a recent paper has described a fully programmable chip-based optical quantum computer. That idea presses all my buttons, and until someone restarts me, I will talk of nothing else.

Love the light

There is no question that quantum computing has come a long way in 20 years. Two decades ago, optical quantum technology looked to be the way forward. Storing information in a photon’s quantum states (as an optical qubit) was easy. Manipulating those states with standard optical elements was also easy, and measuring the outcome was relatively trivial. Quantum computing was just a new application of existing quantum experiments, and those experiments had shown the ease of use of the systems and gave optical technologies the early advantage.

But one key to quantum computing (or any computation, really) is the ability to change a qubit’s state depending on the state of another qubit. This turned out to be doable but cumbersome in optical quantum computing. Typically, a two- (or more) qubit operation is a nonlinear operation, and optical nonlinear processes are very inefficient. Linear two-qubit operations are possible, but they are probabilistic, so you need to repeat your calculation many times to be sure you know which answer is correct.

A second critical feature is programmability. It is not desirable to have to create a new computer for every computation you wish to perform. Here, optical quantum computers really seemed to fall down. An optical quantum computer could be easy to set up and measure, or it could be programmable—but not both.

In the meantime, private companies bet on being able to overcome the challenges faced by superconducting transmon qubits and trapped ion qubits. In the first case, engineers could make use of all their experience from printed circuit board layout and radio-frequency engineering to scale the number and quality of the qubits. In the second, engineers banked on being able to scale the number of qubits, already knowing that the qubits were high-quality and long-lived.

Optical quantum computers seemed doomed.

Future’s so bright

So, what has changed to suddenly make optical quantum computers viable? The last decade has seen a number of developments. One is the appearance of detectors that can resolve the number of photons they receive. All the original work relied on single-photon detectors, which could detect light/not light. It was up to you to ensure that what you were detecting was a single photon and not a whole stream of them.

Because single-photon detectors can’t distinguish between one, two, three, or more photons, quantum computers were limited to single-photon states. Complicated computations would require many single photons that all need to be controlled, set, and read. As the number of operations goes up, the chance of success goes down dramatically. Thus, the same computation would have to be run many many times before you could be sure of the right answer.

By using photon-number-resolving detectors, scientists are no longer limited to states encoded in a single photon. Now, they can make use of states that make use of the photon number. In other words, a single qubit can be in a superposition state of containing a different number of photons zero, one, two and so on, up to some maximum number. Hence, fewer qubits can be used for a computation.

A second key development was integrated optical circuits. Integrated optics have been around for a while, but they have not exactly had the precision and reliability of their electronic counterparts. That has changed. As engineers got more experience in working with the fabrication techniques and with the design requirements for optical circuits, performance has gotten much, much better. Integrated optics are now commonly used in telecommunications industry, with the scale and reliability that that implies.

As a result of these developments, the researchers were simply able to design and order their quantum optical chip from a fab, something unthinkable less than a decade ago. So, in a sense, this is a story that is 20 years in the making of the underlying technology.

Putting the puzzle together

The researchers, from a startup called Xanadu and the National Institute of Standards, have pulled together these technology developments to produce a single integrated optical chip that generates eight qubits. Calculations are performed by passing the photons through a complex circuit made up of Mach-Zehnder interferometers. In the circuit, each qubit interferes with itself and some of the other qubits at each interferometer.

As each qubit exits an interferometer, the direction it takes is determined by the its state and the internal setting of the interferometer. The direction it takes will determine which interferometer it moves to next and, ultimately, where it exits the device.

The internal setting of the interferometer is the knob that the programmer uses to control the computation. In practice, the knob just changes the temperature of individual waveguide segments. But the programmer doesn’t have to worry about these details. Instead, they have an application programming interface (Strawberry Fields Python Library) that takes very normal-looking Python code. This code is then translated by a control system that maintains the correct temperature differentials on the chip.

The company’s description of its technology.

To demonstrate that their chip was flexible, the researchers performed a series of different calculations. The first calculation basically let the computer simulate itself—how many different states can we generate in a given time. (This is the sort of calculation that causes me to grind my teeth because any quantum device can efficiently calculate itself.) However, after that, the researchers got down to business. They calculated the vibrational states of ethylene—two carbon atoms and two hydrogen atoms—and the more complicated phenylvinylacetylene—the favorite child’s name for 2021—successfully. These carefully chosen examples fit beautifully within the eight-qubit space of the quantum computer.

The third computation involved computing graph similarity. I must admit to not understanding graph similarity, but I think it is a pattern-matching exercise, like facial recognition. These graphs were, of course, quite simple, but again, the machine performed well. According to the authors, this was the first such demonstration of graph similarity on a quantum computer.

Is it really done and dusted?

All right, as I warned you, my introduction was exaggerated. However, this is a big step. There are no large barriers to scaling this same computer to a bigger number of qubits. The researchers will have to reduce photon losses in their waveguides, and they will have to reduce the amount of leakage from the laser that drives everything (currently it leaks some light into the computation circuit, which is very undesirable). The thermal management will also have to be scaled. But, unlike previous examples of optical quantum computers, none of these are “new technology goes here” barriers.

What is more, the scaling does not present huge amounts of increased complexity. In superconducting qubits, each qubit is a current loop in a magnetic field. Each qubit generates a field that talks to all the other qubits all the time. Engineers have to take a great deal of trouble to decouple and couple qubits from each other at the right moment. The larger the system, the trickier that task becomes. Ion qubit computers face an analogous problem in their trap modes. There isn’t really an analogous problem in optical systems, and that is their key advantage.

Nature, 2020, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03202-1(About DOIs)

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Fully vaccinated Americans can safely visit unvaccinated family, CDC says

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People who are fully vaccinated can safely have private visits with unvaccinated people who have a low risk for severe COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced today in highly anticipated guidance for vaccinated people.

In the guidance, the CDC considers people fully vaccinated once they have waited two weeks after their second dose of either the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine or the Moderna vaccine, or two weeks after a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Though it may still be possible for fully vaccinated people to contract the pandemic coronavirus, have an asymptomatic or mild infection, and possibly spread the virus, the risk is considered low.

As such, once people are fully vaccinated, they can meet in private indoor settings—such as a home—with other fully vaccinated people without masks and without physical distancing.

Fully vaccinated people can also meet in private indoor settings with unvaccinated people without masks and without physical distancing—if those unvaccinated people are from a single household and they do NOT have an increased risk of severe COVID-19. That means unvaccinated people who are under age 65 and do not have any underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk, such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes.

“Here’s an example,” CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky said in a White House press briefing Monday. “If grandparents have been vaccinated, they can visit their daughter and her family even if they have not been vaccinated, so long as the daughter and her family are not at risk for severe disease.”

If an unvaccinated person with high risk of severe disease enters the mix at any point (if they are present for the visit or absent during the visit, but living in an involved household) then everyone—including the fully vaccinated people—needs to keep wearing masks, stay physically distanced, and meet in a well-ventilated outdoor space.

Similarly, when fully vaccinated people are meeting with unvaccinated people from multiple households—regardless of risk status—everyone should be masked, distanced, and meet outdoors in a well-ventilated space to prevent spread among the unvaccinated.

Lastly, fully vaccinated people do not need to quarantine or be tested for COVID-19 if they have a known exposure to an infected person but do not have any symptoms of COVID-19.

While the new guidance loosens the restrictions in these specific private settings, the CDC held onto restrictions on travel and in public settings. That means fully vaccinated people should still avoid gatherings, non-essential travel, and still wear masks and stay physically distanced in public places.

“COVID-19 continues to exact a tremendous toll on our nation,” Walensky said. “Like you, I want to be able to return to everyday activities and engage with our friends, families, and communities.”

Though many families will rejoice in today’s guidance, “it is not our final destination,” she added. “As more people get vaccinated, levels of COVID-19 infection decline in communities, and as our understanding of COVID immunity improves, we look forward to updating these recommendations to the public.”

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