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

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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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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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Nearly 18,000 airport workers sealed in for testing after 7 cases detected

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Enlarge / This photo taken on November 22, 2020 shows health workers in protective suits waiting to conduct COVID-19 coronavirus tests on staff at Pudong Airport in Shanghai.

Nearly 18,000 workers were sealed into Shanghai’s main airport Sunday and tested for COVID-19 in one night after authorities detected seven cases linked to the cargo unit of the facility.

Social media lit up with dramatic smartphone videos showing large crowds of workers pushing against guards in white hazmat suits in the airport’s parking structure.

By Monday morning, local authorities grabbed hold of the situations, tweeting out videos of the 17,719 workers in orderly lines waiting to get tested, with calm piano music playing in the background. According to The Washington Post, it remained unclear what happened to the workers after that—if they were still being held at the airport, if they were moved to a quarantine facility, or if they were allowed to go home.

Local authorities reported that at least 11,544 have tested negative.

The lock-in and testing blitz was spurred after a seventh cases was identified and linked to the cargo unit. The first identified case was in a cargo worker who tested positive November 9 after checking into a hospital with fever, fatigue, and a nasal congestion. His co-worker tested positive the next day.

In the last three days—two weeks after those first two cases—five other cases have popped up. The five include a cargo screening handler, that worker’s wife, two other co-workers, and the wife of one of those co-workers.

 According to the South China Post, one of the latest cases is an employee at the UPS international transit center at Pudong airport.

Wear your mask

In a news conference Monday, local authorities said they believed the two initial cases became infected while they were cleaning a freight container from North America together, while not wearing masks, on October 30.

“The environment inside the container is humid and that is conducive to the survival of the coronavirus,” Sun Xiaodong, deputy director of the Shanghai Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said. Sun added that authorities had ruled out other transmission risks.

Since testing scramble yesterday, hundreds of flights to the airport have been canceled.

Zhou Junlong, vice president of Shanghai Airport Group said that, moving forward, airport workers will have access to experimental vaccines that have been approved in China for emergency use.

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