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Thin-and-light Vaio SX14 laptop gets U.S. release, $1,299 starting price tag



Vaio SX14

It’s already been five years since Sony pulled the plug on its Vaio line of PCs, selling the brand to a private equity firm that initially concentrated on the Japanese market. It returned to the U.S. market late in 2015 via a convertible notebook sold via the Microsoft Store, and has kept a low-key presence here since, mostly selling online.

With the new SX14, Vaio hopes to regain some of the cache it once had among computer buyers by continuing the brand’s tradition for sleek and svelte laptops. The new notebook weighs just 2.32 pounds and is a mere 0.59 inches thick, thanks to a carbon fiber chassis available in four color choices (black, red, silver, and brown). The change to carbon fiber from the Vaio S13’s magnesium alloy chassis allows the SX14 to squeeze a 14-inch screen into the same form factor as the 13-inch laptop.

For the $1,299 base configuration (currently sold out on the Vaio site) or the $1,499 model, that screen offers full HD (1,920×1,080) resolution, but you’ll need to step up to the $1,899 or $2,199 edition in order to get Ultra HD 4K instead. Only the cheapest configuration comes with an Intel Core i5-8265U processor, whereas the others upgrade to the Core i7-8565U CPU. If it becomes available again, the base model also comes with 8 gigs of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive, while other versions can have 16GB of memory and up to 1TB of storage.

One notable other SX14 feature is its VAIO TruePerformance technology, which Vaio claims can provide a performance boost of 15 percent for the Core i5 or 25 percent for the Core i7 beyond Intel’s own Turbo Boost Technology 2.0. Vaio claims over 7.5 hours of battery life for the SX14, though conceivably it would be less if you required heavy use of the VAIO TruePerformance feature.

As already mentioned, the base SX14 is currently sold out, but all remaining configurations are available to order from the Vaio site, including a $2,299 red edition with maxed out specs. 

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Our ancestors ate a Paleo diet. It had carbs



Enlarge / A young Hadza bushman making an arrow for a hunting bow.

What did people eat for dinner tens of thousands of years ago? Many advocates of the so-called Paleo diet will tell you that our ancestors’ plates were heavy on meat and low on carbohydrates—and that, as a result, we have evolved to thrive on this type of nutritional regimen.

The diet is named after the Paleolithic era, a period dating from about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago when early humans were hunting and gathering, rather than farming. Herman Pontzer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University and author of Burn, a book about the science of metabolism, says it’s a myth that everyone of this time subsisted on meat-heavy diets. Studies show that rather than a single diet, prehistoric people’s eating habits were remarkably variable and were influenced by a number of factors, such as climate, location and season.

In the 2021 Annual Review of Nutrition, Pontzer and his colleague Brian Wood, of the University of California, Los Angeles, describe what we can learn about the eating habits of our ancestors by studying modern hunter-gatherer populations like the Hadza in northern Tanzania and the Aché in Paraguay. In an interview with Knowable Magazine, Pontzer explains what makes the Hadza’s surprisingly seasonal, diverse diets so different from popular notions of ancient meals.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do today’s Paleo diets look like? How well do they capture our ancestors’ eating habits?

People have developed many different versions, but the original Paleo diet is quite meat-heavy. I would say the same is true of the predominant Paleo diets today—most are very meat-heavy and low-carb, downplaying things like starchy vegetables and fruits that would only have been seasonally available before agriculture. There’s also an even more extreme camp within that, which says that humans used to be almost entirely meat-eating carnivores.

But our ancestors’ diets were really variable. We evolved as hunter-gatherers, so you’re hunting and gathering whatever foods are around in your local environment. Humans are strategic about what foods they go after, but they can target only the foods that are there. So there was a lot of variation in what hunter-gathers ate depending on location and time of year.

The other thing is that, partly due to that variability, but also partly due just to people’s preferences, there’s a lot of carbohydrate in most hunter-gatherer diets. Honey was probably important throughout history and prehistory. A lot of these small-scale societies are also eating root vegetables like tubers, and those are very starch- and carb-heavy. So the idea that ancient diets would be low-carbohydrate just doesn’t fit with any of the available evidence.

So how did “Paleo” come to represent meat-heavy and low-carb eating?

I think there are a couple of reasons for that. You have a kind of romanticizing of what hunting and gathering was like. There is a sort of macho caveman view of the past that permeates a lot of what I read when I look at Paleo diet websites.

There are also inherent biases in a lot of the available archaeological and ethnographic data. In the early 1900s, and even before, a lot of the ethnographic reports were written by men who focused on men’s work. We know that traditionally that’s going to focus more on hunting than on gathering because of the way a lot of these small-scale societies divide their work: Men hunt and women gather.

On top of that, the available ethnographic data is heavily skewed toward very northern cultures, such as Arctic cultures—since the warm-weather cultures were the first ones to get pushed out by farmers—and they do tend to eat more meat. But our ancestors’ diets were variable. Populations that lived near the ocean and moving rivers ate a lot of fish and seafood. Populations that lived in forested areas or in places rich in vegetation focused on eating plants.

There is also a bias toward hunting in the archaeological record. Stone tools and cut-marked bones—evidence of hunting—preserve very well. Wooden sticks and plant remains don’t.

The human diet is much broader than that of our ancestors or great apes such as orangutans, gorillas or chimps. Depending on circumstances, hunter-gatherer populations can eat diets ranging from heavily plant-based to heavily animal-based. The development of agriculture pushed diets more firmly toward plants for farmers and animal products for pastoralists. (Adapted from H. Pontzer & B.M. Wood/ AR Nutrition 2021)
Enlarge / The human diet is much broader than that of our ancestors or great apes such as orangutans, gorillas or chimps. Depending on circumstances, hunter-gatherer populations can eat diets ranging from heavily plant-based to heavily animal-based. The development of agriculture pushed diets more firmly toward plants for farmers and animal products for pastoralists. (Adapted from H. Pontzer & B.M. Wood/ AR Nutrition 2021)
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The era of fast, cheap genome sequencing is here



Enlarge / Illumina says its NovaSeq X machine will get the price of sequencing down to $200 per human genome.


The human genome is made of more than 6 billion letters, and each person has a unique configuration of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts—the molecular building blocks that make up DNA. Determining the sequence of all those letters used to take vast amounts of money, time, and effort. The Human Genome Project took 13 years and thousands of researchers. The final cost: $2.7 billion.

That 1990 project kicked off the age of genomics, helping scientists unravel genetic drivers of cancer and many inherited diseases while spurring the development of at-home DNA tests, among other advances. Next, researchers started sequencing more genomes: from animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses. Ten years ago, it cost about $10,000 for researchers to sequence a human genome. A few years ago, that fell to $1,000. Today, it’s about $600.

Now, sequencing is about to get even cheaper. At an industry event in San Diego today, genomics behemoth Illumina unveiled what it calls its fastest, most cost-efficient sequencing machines yet, the NovaSeq X series. The company, which controls around 80 percent of the DNA sequencing market globally, believes its new technology will slash the cost to just $200 per human genome while providing a readout at twice the speed. Francis deSouza, Illumina’s CEO, says the more powerful model will be able to sequence 20,000 genomes per year; its current machines can do about 7,500. Illumina will start selling the new machines today and ship them next year.

“As we look to the next decade, we believe we’re entering the era of genomic medicine going mainstream. To do that requires the next generation of sequencers,” deSouza says. “We need price points to keep coming down to make genomic medicine and genomic tests available much more broadly.”

Reagents and buffer cartridges.
Enlarge / Reagents and buffer cartridges.


Sequencing has led to genetically targeted drugs, blood tests that can detect cancer early, and diagnoses for people with rare diseases who have long sought answers. We can also thank sequencing for the COVID-19 vaccines, which scientists started developing in January 2020 as soon as the first blueprint of the virus’s genome was produced. In research labs, the technology has become essential for better understanding pathogens and human evolution. But it still isn’t ubiquitous in medicine. That’s in part because of the price tag. While it costs around $600 for scientists to perform sequencing, clinical interpretation and genetic counseling can drive the price to a few thousand dollars for patients—and insurance doesn’t always cover it.

Another reason is that for healthy people, there’s not yet enough evidence of benefits to prove that genome sequencing will be worth the cost. Currently, the test is mostly limited to people with certain cancers or undiagnosed illnesses—although in two recent studies, around 12 to 15 percent of healthy people whose genomes were sequenced ended up having a genetic variation that showed they had an elevated risk of a treatable or preventable disease, indicating that sequencing may provide an early warning.

For now, researchers—not patients—will likely benefit most from cheap sequencing. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” says Stacey Gabriel, chief genomics officer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, of the new improvements. “With greatly reduced costs and greatly increased speed of sequencing, we can sequence way more samples.” Gabriel is not affiliated with Illumina, but the Broad Institute is something of an Illumina power user. The institute has 32 of the company’s existing machines and has sequenced more than 486,000 genomes since it was established in 2004.

Gabriel says there are a number of ways that researchers will be able to apply added sequencing power. One is to increase the diversity of genomic datasets, given that the vast majority of DNA data has come from people of European descent. That’s a problem for medicine, because different populations might have different disease-causing genetic variations that are more or less prevalent. “There’s really an incomplete picture and a hampered ability to translate and apply those learnings to the full population diversity in the world,” Gabriel says.

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COVID may have pushed a leading seasonal flu strain to extinction



Enlarge / A bottle of influenza vaccine at a CVS pharmacy and MinuteClinic on September 10, 2021, in Miami.

The pandemic coronavirus’ debut wrought universal havoc—not even seasonal flu viruses were spared. Amid travel restrictions, quarantines, closures, physical distancing, masking, enhanced hand washing, and disinfection, the 2020-2021 flu season was all but canceled. That meant not just an unprecedented global decrease in the number of people sick with the flu but also a dramatic collapse in the genetic diversity of circulating flu strains. Many subtypes of the virus all but vanished. But most notably, one entire lineage—one of only four flu groups targeted by seasonal influenza vaccines—went completely dark, seemingly extinct.

Researchers noted the absence last year as the flu was still struggling to recover from its pandemic knockout. But now, the flu has come roaring back and threatens to cause a particularly nasty season in the Northern Hemisphere. Still, the influenza B/Yamagata lineage remains missing, according to a study published this week in the journal Eurosurveillance. It has not been definitively detected since April 2020. And the question of whether it’s truly gone extinct lingers.

What B/Yamagata’s absence might mean for future flu seasons and flu shots also remains an open question. For a quick refresher: Four main types of seasonal flu have been circulating globally among humans in recent years. Two are influenza type A viruses: subtypes of H1N1 viruses and H3N2 viruses. The other two are influenza type B viruses: offshoots of the Victoria and Yamagata lineages. (For a more detailed explanation of influenza, check out our explainer here.) Current quadrivalent vaccines target season-specific versions of each of these four types of flu viruses.

Having fewer flu viruses around means it could be easier to match future vaccines to circulating viruses, making seasonal shots more effective. On the other hand, a surprise re-emergence of B/Yamagata could become more dangerous as time passes and people lose immunity. But, before health experts can game out future influenza seasons, they’d like to know if B/Yamagata is truly gone.

Vanished virus

In an article published this week in the journal Eurosurveillance, researchers in the Netherlands sifted through the latest global influenza surveillance data up to August 31, 2022, looking for the missing strain. They note that GISAID, a global database of influenza virus genetic sequences that typically gets thousands of flu sequences each year, has not received a single B/Yamagata sequence with specimen collection data after March 2020.

The World Health Organization’s FluNet surveillance data has had a small number of reports of the missing lineage—43 in 2021, mostly from China, and eight sporadic cases from four countries in 2022. For comparison, there were more than 51,000 detections of B/Yamagata in 2018.

The authors suggest the small number of cases in the last two years may be erroneous detections. Rather than circulating viruses, they may simply be detecting signatures of B/Yamagata from vaccines that carry live-attenuated influenza viruses. Or, they could be genetic contamination from inactivated-virus vaccines. This isn’t just a hypothetical. The authors note that a number of B/Yamagata detections in the US and Scotland were found to be from live-attenuated influenza vaccines rather than real cases of circulating virus.

The researchers call for flu surveillance laboratories to increase efforts to detect any Yamagata cases to determine if it’s truly gone or just lying low. “From a laboratory perspective, we think it would be advisable to increase the capability and capacity to determine the lineage of all detected influenza B viruses around the world as this is critical to determine the absence of B/Yamagata lineage viruses,” they conclude. They also propose that the World Health Organization set up criteria to define when the lineage could be declared “extinct” and what the consequences of what that declaration might be.

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