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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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Researchers force two mice to hang out and induce FOMO in a third

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Since its advent in 2005, a technique called optogenetics has made it vastly easier to link neural activity with behavior and to understand how neurons and brain regions are connected to each other. Neuroscientists just pick the (animal) neurons they’re interested in, genetically engineer them to express a light-responsive protein, and then stimulate them with the right type of light. This technique can be used to inhibit or excite a select subset of neurons in living, breathing, moving animals, illuminating which neural networks dictate the animals’ behaviors and decisions.

Taking advantage of work done in miniaturizing the optogenetic hardware, researchers have now used optogenetics to alter the activity in parts of the brain that influence social interactions in mice. And they’ve exerted a disturbing level of control over the way the mice interact.

Going small

A big limitation for early optogenetic studies was that the wires and optical fibers required to get light into an animal’s brain also get in the animals’ way, impeding their movements and potentially skewing results. Newer implantable wireless devices were developed about five years ago, but they can only be placed near certain brain regions. They’re also too tiny to accommodate many circuit components and receiver antennas, and they have to be programmed beforehand. Pity the poor would-be mind controllers who have to deal with such limited tools.

Enter John Rogers, founding director of the newly endowed Center on Bio-Integrated Electronics at Northwestern University. His lab recently invented multilateral optogenetic devices that can be implanted into the heads or backs of animals as small as mice. The devices can receive instructions on different channels, so they allow researchers to independently and simultaneously modulate neuronal activity in different brain regions of one mouse or in different mice within the same enclosure. The devices are controlled wirelessly from a PC, and researchers can alter the instructions to them in real time as an experiment is proceeding.

After confirming that the implanted devices neither affected nor were affected by a mouse’s movements and that they didn’t damage any of the mouse’s tissues or physiology, the scientists in Rogers’ group popped a light-responsive protein into some dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental areas of some mice. These regions are linked to reward processing. The researchers then implanted their new device under the skin of the transgenic mouse.

The first tests confirmed results attained in previous optogenetic experiments: implant-affected mice that got a dopamine-fueled reward via a burst of light hovered on the side of the enclosure where the system was programmed to produce light. So far, so good. Next, since the researchers knew that dopamine promotes social behavior, they wanted to see if the light stimulation made the implanted mice choose to hang out near another mouse rather than a toy one. They did.

Getting social

To put the system to use, the researchers tested an idea from a number of earlier studies suggesting that mice that socialize together tend to have synchronized activity in a specific area of their brains. The new optogenetic hardware provided a way to artificially create that synchrony.

So the researchers generated “synchronized interbrain activity” by stimulating two mice with 5-Hz tonic (continuous) stimulation for five minutes and desynchronized activity by stimulating other pairs of mice with 25-Hz bursting stimulation for five minutes. About twice as many of the synchronized mice chose to socialize with each other—grooming, sniffing, etc.—as the desynchronized mice did. When two mice were synchronized into a 5-Hz pair and a third mouse got the 25-Hz burst, the pair shunned the desynchronized third. The researchers conclude that “imposed interbrain synchrony shapes social interaction and social preference in mice.”

The Rogers Research Group’s home page is subtitled “science that brings solutions to society.” The lab has developed wearable wireless devices that seamlessly track vital signs of neonates in the NICU, record electrical activity in the brain, and detect and monitor symptoms of COVID-19. And that was only in the past year.

So before you let your mind go to dark places—about brainwashing and goose-stepping and everyone forever staying sequestered in their ideologically homogeneous Facebook silos—just remember that Dr. Rogers is using his powers for good. Also, this work was done in genetically engineered mice.

Nature Neuroscience, 2021. DOI:  10.1038/s41593-021-00849-x

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Mysterious health incidents rise to 130, US officials confirm

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Enlarge / Picture of the US embassy in Havana, taken on September 29, 2017, after the United States announced it was withdrawing more than half its personnel in response to mysterious “health attacks” targeting its diplomatic staff.

Reports of mysterious health incidents that have led to brain injuries and caused a range of symptoms among government personnel continue to stream in. One of the latest cases occurred just within the last few weeks, and the total number of US personnel affected is now over 130, according to reports.

The New York Times reported earlier this week that at least three CIA officers have suffered serious health effects from enigmatic episodes that occurred overseas since last December, one of them within the last few weeks. All three of the CIA officers required outpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center or other medical facilities, the Times noted.

Officials told the Times that the number of cases is now topping 130, up from the previously reported 60 cases, which were mainly among diplomats and their families stationed in Cuba and Guangzhou, China.

Beginning in 2016, diplomats in Havana began experiencing unexplained sounds and sensations that sometimes seemed directional in nature and were accompanied by an abrupt onset of varied symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, headaches, balance problems, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), nosebleeds, difficulty concentrating and recalling words, permanent hearing loss, and speech problems. Doctors who examined some of the diplomats reported troubling data suggesting “injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” While some of those afflicted have recovered, others have been left with long-term debilitating effects.

The condition has been informally dubbed “Havana syndrome,” but it appears it may now be widespread among US personnel.

The new, larger case total includes personnel in the CIA, the State Department, the Defense Department, and elsewhere. The cases also involve more locations in which the mysterious incidents reportedly occurred. In addition to reporting incidents in Cuba and China, personnel have now reported bizarre episodes in Europe, Russia, elsewhere in Asia, and even the US.

As Ars reported last month, US agencies are investigating at least two incidents in which government officials in the Washington, DC, area experienced similar sensational episodes followed by symptoms. In one case, a National Security Council official reported being sickened last November while near the Ellipse, the White House’s large, oval-shaped southern lawn.

“The numbers are definitely increasing,” Mark Zaid, a lawyer representing some of the diplomats sickened in Cuba, told The Guardian.

Accelerating investigation

The Biden administration is now increasing the intensity of its investigation into the growing number of cases. The CIA has formed a targeting cell, similar in rigor to a group the agency formed to hunt Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks, the Times notes. Federal officials are also streamlining medical treatment for victims and trying to standardize incident reports.

It’s clear already that the newly publicized cases are not entirely fresh incidents—some are older cases that were newly reported to officials after publicity of the incidents made US personnel reexamine past episodes and symptoms. It’s possible that some of the cases may be unrelated to the incidents in Havana and elsewhere. Officials are now examining all the reports to identify patterns.

However, some of the newly publicized cases seem clearly connected. The Times outlined a 2019 case, which had not been previously reported, involving a military officer serving overseas.

According to the Times, the military officer was driving in an unnamed location when he:

pulled his vehicle into an intersection, then was overcome by nausea and headaches, according to four current and former officials briefed on the events. His 2-year-old son, sitting in the back seat, began crying. After the officer pulled away from the intersection, his nausea stopped, and the child stopped crying.

Both received medical attention from the government, though it is not clear whether they suffered long-term debilitating effects.

Pentagon officials believe the military officer was targeted, and according to the Times, they believe Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, was behind the incident. The officials also told the Times that there is evidence that Russia is behind other cases as well.

Russia has been a consistent suspect behind the incidents, which have often been described as attacks. However, the Biden administration has not determined whether they constitute attacks, let alone who might be behind them.

“As of now, we have no definitive information about the cause of these incidents, and it is premature and irresponsible to speculate,” Amanda Schoch, the spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Times.

Controversial cause

If the incidents are attacks, it’s still unclear what is causing the sensations, symptoms, and injuries reported by US personnel. One of the leading hypotheses points to a potential covert microwave weapon that beams pulsed radiofrequencies at targets, causing auditory sounds and brain injuries. A committee of experts assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded in a report last year that directed, pulsed RF energy is the “most plausible mechanism” to explain the incidents.

Many doctors and scientists have supported the microwave-attack hypothesis. Among them is Dr. Allan Frey, who in 1961 discovered the “Frey effect,” aka the microwave auditory effect. Frey not only thinks it’s possible that a microwave weapon could explain the cases; he also has reason to think Russia may have developed such technology—or at least tried to.

Shortly after Frey identified the auditory phenomenon, he was invited to visit and lecture at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. “They had me visiting the various labs and discussing the problems,” including the neural impacts of microwaves, Dr. Frey told the Times in a 2018 interview. “I got an inside look at their classified program.”

But Russia wasn’t the only country looking into this type of technology. The US Navy funded the development of a crowd-control device called the MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio), which relied on the Frey effect. The Pentagon developed a related weapon called the Active Denial System, which it touted in a video as a “non-lethal weapon system which disrupts hostile activities.”

Still, some scientists are skeptical that a microwave weapon could explain the mysterious incidents reported by US personnel. Cheryl Rofer, a former chemist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote this week in Foreign Policy that the public evidence backing the hypothesis is “exceedingly weak.” University of Cincinnati neurologist Alberto J. Espay told the Washington Post in 2018 that “microwave weapons is the closest equivalent in science to fake news.”

In addition to microwaves, scientists have speculated that the cases could be explained by mass psychogenic illness—essentially a collective delusion—as well as irritating noises from crickets, malfunctioning surveillance equipment, or overexposure to pesticides.

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Mount Vesuvius victims died just moments away from rescue

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armi del soldato

When Mount Vesuvius destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii in 79 CE, the eruption also killed hundreds of people huddled on the shores of nearby Herculaneum. A recent study of the remains of one victim, who died on the beach not far from a small naval vessel, suggests that he might have been a senior naval officer. If so, archaeological director Francesco Sirano and his colleagues suggest, the man may have been a rescue mission leader who arrived just in time to die with the people he was trying to save.

An untimely rescue

Pliny the Elder was a Roman naturalist and author who also found time to command the imperial fleet in the port city of Misenum, across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii and Herculaneum. During the height of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption, Pliny the Elder sent boats to rescue survivors from the beach at Herculaneum, which lies northwest of Pompeii and almost due west of the volcano. At least 300 people had fled for the shore, only to find themselves trapped between the volcano’s wrath and the sea. Some sought shelter in nearby boat sheds while others gathered on the beach to wait for help.

They never made it off the beach. A towering plume of material that had blasted skyward from the volcano finally collapsed under its own weight and sent a deadly wave of hot gas and debris, called a pyroclastic flow, flooding down the mountain’s slopes at nearly 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour). Like the pyroclastic flows that struck Pompeii, this one brought instant, searing death.

Archaeologists unearthed the remains of the Herculaneum victims in the 1980s. Now it appears that the 300 victims massed on the shore may have been tantalizingly close to being saved. If Sirano and his colleagues are correct about one victim—now known to the world only as Skeleton Number 26—then the deadly pyroclastic flow struck Herculaneum just as its desperately awaited rescue arrived.

A Roman naval officer?

Just like at nearby Pompeii, layers of volcanic ash quickly buried the victims at Herculaneum. The same eruption that killed them also helped preserve detailed evidence about their lives and the moment of their deaths. For nearly 2,000 years, Skeleton Number 26 lay facedown, with one arm stretched out as if to break his fall. He was probably knocked down by the blast that killed him and everyone else on the beach. Parts of Skeleton Number 26’s armor, along with weapons and a leather knapsack, survived nearly 2,000 years of burial.

Sirano and his colleagues recently took a second look at the skeleton and his belongings, and based on his high-end weapons and gear, the archaeologists suggest that he was probably a high-ranking officer in Pliny the Elder’s imperial fleet from Misenum.

The man, who was between 40 and 45 years old when he died, wore a leather belt decorated with plates of gold and silver. He carried a finely crafted sword with an ornate ivory hilt and a correspondingly elegant dagger. And mingled with his bones, archaeologists found 12 silver and two gold Roman denarii, which would have added up to three or four times the monthly pay of an average enlisted soldier in Rome’s Legions. All together, those accouterments mark him as a military officer with rank and status—and the wealth to show it off.

In a leather knapsack, the man carried a set of carpenter’s tools. That detail seems to clash with the sword, dagger, and armor, unless the dead man was a faber navalis, or master carpenter. If so, he would have been something like engineering officers aboard modern naval vessels, both a naval leader and a highly advanced technical specialist.

And if that’s the case, then it’s probably not a coincidence that he died not far from a Roman naval vessel beached nearby. “He may be an officer of the fleet that took part in the rescue mission launched by Pliny the Elder to help the people in the towns and villas nestled on this part of the Bay of Naples,” Sirano told Italian news agency Ansa.

Although the artifacts and their context lend support to that idea, there’s not enough evidence to say for certain that Skeleton Number 26 died in the line of duty. It’s a reasonable conclusion, though—much less of a stretch than last year’s sensational claim, by a different team of researchers, that a skull unearthed near Stabiae belonged to the Pliny the Elder.

The fleet commander set sail himself during the eruption to rescue a friend’s wife near the town of Stabiae, and he died on the beach not far from the friend’s villa. Based on his nephew’s secondhand description of events, written years later, the great naturalist and admiral probably died of either a heart attack or respiratory damage from inhaling too much volcanic gas and dust. His remains weren’t recovered, and identifying them definitively today would be nearly impossible.

Pliny the Elder, and at least some of the men he sent into harm’s way as their commander, died doing the same thing: trying to save lives. And 2,000 years later, it’s hard not to respect that.

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