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Walmart to take on Amazon Fire with trio of cheap Android tablets

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Walmart Onn Android tablet

We’ve known for a couple of months that Walmart was preparing to inject some life into the moribund tablet market by releasing its own branded tablets, but a trio of the devices with the Onn house brand are finally arriving this week, according to Bloomberg.

While Bloomberg surmises that Walmart is looking to chip away at the market share of Apple’s iPad, its pricing strategy suggests that it has another corporate giant in mind. With each new tablet priced under $100, Amazon’s budget Fire tablets seem like a more likely target for Walmart’s new devices.

The lineup comprises three models: an 8-inch slate for $64, a 10.1-inch version for $79, and a second 10.1-inch device that comes with a detachable keyboard. In comparison, the 8-inch Amazon Fire HD runs $79.99 and the 10.1-inch Fire HD is $149.99. Amazon doesn’t offer a Fire tablet that includes a detachable keyboard, but it offers the recently upgraded $49.99 7-inch Fire that Walmart hasn’t matched with its initial tablet offerings.

The specs of the 8-inch Onn tablet, which is already listed on the Walmart website, indicate that it’s not really a challenge to the iPad mini save for the much lower price tag. Whereas the 8-inch iPad sports Apple’s own processor, a Retina display, and 64GB of built-in storage, the Onn features a quad-core processor from an unnamed chip maker, 16 gigs of storage, and screen resolution of 1,280×800 pixels. Given their similarly low price tags, the 10.1-inch Onn tablets are not surprisingly equipped equivalently.

Although Apple continued to grow its share of the tablet market in the first quarter of 2019, according to market research firm Strategy Analytics, Amazon’s year-over-year shipment percentage was even higher, suggesting that its aggressive pricing strategy has yielded dividends even as the overall market has sagged. Is Walmart too late to make its own entry into the budget tablet realm, or can it still take a bite out of Amazon’s share (and maybe a little nibble out of Apple’s as well)?

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Martin Shkreli out of prison over 2 years early, moved to halfway house

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Enlarge / Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing, smirked his way through a congressional hearing.

Infamous ex-pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli has been released from federal prison after serving less than five years of a seven-year sentence for a securities and wire fraud conviction. He is now moving into a US Bureau of Prisons halfway house at an undisclosed location in New York until September 14, 2022.

Shkreli was convicted in August 2017 on two counts of securities fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud in connection to what federal prosecutors called a Ponzi-like scheme involving two hedge funds Shkreli managed. In March 2018, a federal judge sentenced him to seven years, which he was serving in minimum security federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania.

His early release—slightly more than four years after his sentencing—reflects time shaved off for good behavior in prison, plus completion of education and rehabilitation programs, according to CNBC. It also includes a credit for the roughly six months he spent in jail prior to his sentencing.

“I am pleased to report that Martin Shkreli has been released from Allenwood prison and transferred to a BOP halfway house after completing all programs that allowed for his prison sentence to be shortened,” his lawyer, Ben Brafman, said in a statement to The Washington Post and other media.

The statement also noted that Brafman “encouraged Mr. Shkreli to make no further statement, nor will he or I have any additional comments at this time.”

A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson told CNBC that Shkreli was transferred to community confinement overseen by the agency’s Residential Reentry Management Office. “For safety and security reasons, we do not discuss any individual inmate’s conditions of confinement to include transfers or release plans,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

While the hedge fund-related fraud charges were what landed Shkreli behind bars, his infamy dates back to 2015 when he abruptly jacked up the price of lifesaving, decades-old antiparasitic drug Daraprim by more than 4,000 percent. The drug is largely prescribed to babies and people with compromised immune systems, such as HIV patients, and its price hike made Shkreli a poster child of pharmaceutical greed. His subsequent online antics, smugness, and shameless disregard for patients earned him the nickname of “pharma bro” in the press.

In January of this year, a federal court issued Shkreli a lifetime ban from working in the pharmaceutical industry in any capacity. He was also ordered to pay back $64.6 million in profits from the Daraprim scheme.

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FDA obliterates formula maker’s defense of contamination linked to baby deaths

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Enlarge / The Abbott manufacturing facility in Sturgis, Michigan, on May 13, 2022.

Formula maker Abbott continues to firmly deny that its infant formulas sickened four babies, killing two. The denial is despite the same dangerous bacteria that sickened the infants—Cronobacter sakazakii—being found at the company’s formula factory in Sturgis, Michigan, which the Food and Drug Administration alleges was producing formula “under insanitary conditions.” And at least one container of Abbott’s formula tested positive for the same Cronobacter sakazakii strain found infecting one of the infants.

Still, Abbott argues that the link hasn’t been confirmed, and its formula isn’t to blame. In a lengthy Twitter thread on May 13, the company made the blunt assertion: “The formula from this plant did not cause these infant illnesses.”

But that is a brazen and misleading claim, according to the Food and Drug Administration. In a press briefing Monday evening, agency officials thoroughly dismantled Abbott’s defense.

The company’s unwavering denial will likely exacerbate frustration from US parents who are forced to navigate a dire shortage of infant and specialty formulas. The shortage is partly due to a recall of Abbott’s formulas and a shutdown of its Sturgis facility, which the FDA determined had numerous problems. Parents have seen empty shelves at store after store as they desperately tried to secure sustenance for their children, some of whom require specialized formulas due to metabolic conditions. Parents have faced purchasing limits, escalating prices, and scams in places where there is availability. Even if parents can obtain the formula, Abbott’s denials may raise safety questions.

Abbott’s claims

Abbott’s defense is indeed questionable. In last week’s Twitter thread, the company reiterated that the link between its formulas and the four infant illnesses had not been confirmed—which is true. But, the company suggested that massive data gaps somehow support the company’s assertion that its formula is not the cause of illnesses.

Overall, the company argues that scant testing of its finished formula found no contamination before leaving its factory. The contamination found in the facility was present in “non-product contact areas.” Additionally, genetic sequencing of the strains found in the facility did not match strains found in two of the sick infants (no genetic information was available for the other two babies).

Opened formula containers from three of the four sick infants were tested, and only one tested positive for Cronobacter sakazakii. While the contamination in the one positive formula container matched the strain of C. sakazakii infecting the infant, it did not match any strains identified in the Sturgis facility. Lastly, Abbott notes that the four sick infants all consumed different types of formula produced in its Sturgis plant, and their illnesses occurred at different times in separate states. It’s unclear why that matters, but Abbott concluded that contamination at the plant did not cause the illnesses.

In the press briefing Monday, FDA officials all but called that reasoning nonsense. Most importantly, the lack of a genetic match is not proof that the formula is not the source of the infant’s bacterial infections.

FDA response

C. sakazakii is not a reportable disease in this country, Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, emphasized in the press briefing. That means when cases occur, outbreak investigations are not quickly initiated, and health officials don’t spring to collect bacterial isolates, begin genetic sequencing, and identify clinical clusters as they do for other concerning pathogens. As a result, the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only have genetic sequences from two of the four sick infants. And overall, there are only about 238 genetic sequences of C. sakazakii strains in the CDC’s database, which is an extremely small number compared with other pathogens, such as E.coli, making genetic investigations difficult.

“Right from the get-go we were limited in our ability to determine with a causal link whether or not the consumption of the product from the Abbott Sturgis plant was linked to these four cases,” Mayne said.

Mayne also pointed out that the FDA isolated multiple strains of C. sakazakii from the environment inside the Sturgis plant when they were doing testing, which was after the cases were identified. “There certainly is the possibility that other strains that we didn’t detect at the time we were in the plant for the inspection certainly could have been in there.”

Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for Food Policy and Response, echoed the point, saying that the genetic data for C. sakazakii in this outbreak and overall is minimal. “It’s hard to read too much into that,” he said. He also highlighted that there was a diversity of strains at the plant—five different lineages—and noted there are examples in the scientific literature of multi-strain outbreaks over time from one source.

“The other thing we’ve heard emphasized quite a bit is that these products have been tested” and most tested negative for C. sakazakii, Yiannas said. But that also is not meaningful. Some of the end batches of formula are 400,000 to 500,000 pounds, but the end-product testing plans only involve a series of 30 samples that are 10 grams each, collectively less than a pound, Yiannas said. “The probability of detecting low levels of contamination through an end-product testing plan—it’s almost never going to happen,” he said. “Some statisticians calculate there’s a 97 percent chance that you won’t find low levels of contamination using that type of sampling plan.”

Overall, he said, “an over-reliance on end-product testing is not really the best way to assure food safety; it’s really about process control.”

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NASA reveals launch dates for Artemis I through the first half of 2023

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Enlarge / NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is seen on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in April.

Trevor Mahlmann

NASA has published a list of potential launch dates for the Artemis I mission (see PDF), starting as early as July 26 and running through June of next year. During this time period, due to various constraints, the space agency has preliminarily identified 158 launch opportunities.

The Artemis I mission will encompass the debut launch for NASA’s large Space Launch System rocket and the second orbital flight of its Orion spacecraft. Depending on when the uncrewed demonstration mission launches, it could last from 26 to 42 days as Orion flies into a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon.

In its news release, NASA helpfully explains the various constraints behind these dates, including orbital mechanics. For example, NASA says, “The resulting trajectory for a given day must ensure Orion is not in darkness for more than 90 minutes at a time so that the solar array wings can receive and convert sunlight to electricity and the spacecraft can maintain an optimal temperature range. Mission planners eliminate potential launch dates that would send Orion into extended eclipses during the flight.”

These launch windows are subject to slight changes as mission planning is refined. However, the inclusion of dates through the first half of 2023 does raise an obvious question: Does NASA think the Artemis I mission—which was originally supposed to launch in 2016—could be delayed once again and slip into next year?

“The range of dates is not meant to convey anything about the probability of launching in 2022 or 2023,” Kathryn Hambleton, a NASA spokeswoman, told Ars. “All launch dates more than about two months out are preliminary. It is standard for the team to have a preliminary outlook several months ahead. We’ll set a more specific target after we complete wet dress rehearsal testing.”

If all goes well with final preparations before the Artemis I mission, it seems possible that NASA could launch in late August. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson appeared to confirm this during a US House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday when he said, “We’re going to launch it in August.”

However, an August launch remains speculative, with September or later this year being the more likely bet, considering the work NASA has left to complete.

During a call with the media on May 6, NASA’s chief of human exploration, Jim Free, said the space agency wanted to roll the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft out to the launch pad in late May and would target “early or mid” June for a wet dress rehearsal test. During this test, the rocket will be fully fueled and brought to within 10 seconds of engine ignition to work the pre-launch kinks out of the vehicle and its ground systems.

NASA has already attempted to complete this “wet dress” rehearsal three times this spring. Finally, engineers decided to roll the vehicle back to a hangar at Kennedy Space Center for modifications and repairs after the third attempt failed. So far, during these three tests, NASA has managed to load about half of the rocket’s liquid oxygen and just a small fraction of the liquid hydrogen.

This week, NASASpaceflight.com reported that the space agency and its contractors continue to work on a number of issues encountered during the three previous attempts—particularly a leak in the purge line leading to the rocket’s upper stage, known as the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage. A NASA official said design modifications were likely to be needed.

Due to the ongoing nature of this work, it no longer seems likely that the large rocket will roll out of the Vehicle Assembly Building this month, which probably would push the start of the next wet dress attempt into late June at the earliest. Following a successful conclusion of this test, the rocket will still need to be rolled back to the assembly building to arm the flight termination system before it is finally wheeled back out to the launch site for a liftoff attempt.

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