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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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Boeing removes valves from Starliner, delays flight to first half of 2022

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Enlarge / The Boeing Starliner spacecraft to be flown on Orbital Flight Test-2 is seen at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 2, 2021.

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NASA and Boeing officials said Tuesday that they have successfully removed two valves from the Starliner spacecraft and have shipped them to Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama for further analysis.

The forensic examination—the two valves will be inspected with a variety of techniques, including a CT scan—is part of Boeing’s ongoing effort to diagnose the “stuck” valve issue that caused an abort of Starliner’s uncrewed test flight on August 3. With less than five hours remaining in the countdown to launch, during a routine procedure, 13 of the 24 valves that control the flow of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer through the service module of the spacecraft would not cycle between closed and open.

An initial diagnostic effort at the launch pad yielded no results, so the Atlas V rocket and spacecraft were rolled back to an integration facility. After more inspection and testing there, engineers decided to “de-stack” the spacecraft and return it to Boeing’s spacecraft processing building at Kennedy Space Center. This eventually led to further dissection of the vehicle and removal of several valves.

Corrosive humidity

Boeing’s chief engineer for space and launch, Michelle Parker, said during a news conference with reporters Tuesday that the company has a pretty solid hypothesis for what went wrong. At some point during the 46-day period when the vehicle was fueled—and when the valves were found to be stuck—humidity must have gotten into the spacecraft. This moisture combined with the oxidizer and created nitric acid, beginning the process of corrosion.

Parker said dew points at the launch site were high in August, and while the vehicle was designed to operate in Florida’s humidity, there is physical evidence that humidity is nonetheless the culprit. Boeing and NASA engineers now want to try to recreate the corrosive reaction in similar test conditions so that they can be confident of the root cause and any countermeasures they implement.

The company and NASA will press ahead with work in Florida, Alabama, and at Boeing’s test site in White Sands, New Mexico. All of this will take time, acknowledged Boeing’s program manager for commercial crew, John Vollmer. He said Boeing is now targeting the “first half” of 2022 for the uncrewed test flight of Starliner. (One source told Ars the “no earlier than” date is May 2022).

This mission is formally named Orbital Flight Test-2, or OFT-2. The company is flying OFT-2 at its own expense, $410 million, following an uncrewed Starliner mission in December 2019 that went awry due to software issues. The company’s technicians and engineers worked long and hard after the OFT-1 flight to fix the software, only to have these new hardware problems crop up during launch-day checks on the pad in early August.

NASA is hoping that Boeing can get Starliner up and flying so that it can have a second launch system, alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle, to get its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Assuming that Boeing safely completes OFT-2, Vollmer said the company and NASA would like to have about six months to review data and prepare for a crewed test flight. That would put the earliest possible launch date for Starliner’s first mission carrying astronauts toward the end of 2022. More realistically, the mission may not fly until early 2023.

After this flight, NASA will certify that Starliner is ready for regular, operational astronaut flights.

Buying more Dragons

As part of its commercial crew program, NASA ordered six “post-certification” missions from SpaceX and Boeing. SpaceX successfully completed its demonstration crewed mission in 2020 and is set to launch its third certified crew mission, Crew-3, to the International Space Station on October 31. A fourth and fifth mission are scheduled to follow in 2022.

During Tuesday’s news conference, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, Steve Stich, said the agency is negotiating additional flights for SpaceX—and possibly Boeing. He said details about those contract extensions could be announced within the next few months. Given the issues discussed Tuesday, It now seems possible that SpaceX could complete its initial six-mission contract before Boeing flies its first certified mission. But Stich is confident that Boeing will get there.

“I have no reason to believe that Boeing won’t be successful in getting Starliner operational,” Stich said. “We’ll get this problem solved, and then we’ll have two space transportation systems like we want.”

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EPA launches coordinated effort to handle long-lived industrial chemicals

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Enlarge / Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has announced a major effort to handle environmental contamination by chemicals called PFAS.

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced what it called a “comprehensive national strategy” to handle pollution by a group of industrial chemicals that are collectively called PFAS. These chemicals are relatively inert and persist for decades in the environment; as a result, there are many sites where they pollute the ground or water. And there are some indications that they can cause health issues if they accumulate at sufficient levels.

But the fact that the family of chemicals is so large has made them difficult to study—and their pollution difficult to manage. The EPA’s announcement indicates that the agency has started an expansive program to handle these challenges, from expanding the study of individual PFAS chemicals to tracing contamination and limiting future pollution.

PFAS chemistry and health

“PFAS” stands for both per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. Essentially, they are large hydrocarbon chains in which some or all of the hydrogens are swapped out for fluorines. The fluorines ensure that the chemicals do not interact well with water, making them excellent options for waterproof treatments. They’re also very unreactive, meaning they don’t break down readily in the environment. Thus, PFAS contamination can persist for decades.

This chemical endurance has meant that our PFAS production has resulted in a large range of contaminations; the EPA lists potential sources of PFAS chemicals that include food, food packaging, household and personal care products, industrial sites, the soil, and drinking water.

But studying the results of that exposure has been complicated. The exact chemical composition of a PFAS can vary based on how many carbons are involved and how many hydrogens are replaced by fluorine. So a wide number of chemicals that fall under this label have been produced—in some cases, companies have responded to the regulation of one PFAS by switching to its unregulated chemical relatives. The EPA couches its description of the substances’ potential health effects with plenty of “mays” to reflect the uncertainty.

The agency’s formal Strategic Roadmap is more definitive, saying, “A growing body of scientific evidence shows that exposure at certain levels to specific PFAS can adversely impact human health and other living things.” The document goes on to describe the EPA’s approach to that growing body of evidence.

Study, regulation, and precaution

The document explains how different groups within the EPA will coordinate to provide a more comprehensive picture of PFAS contamination and identify any regulatory action it needs to take based on that information. The report lays out a number of guiding principles for this effort, ensuring that decision-making is guided by science, including information on the life cycle of PFAS chemicals once they enter the environment. There will be a new focus on limiting future contamination by keeping PFAS chemicals from entering the environment in the first place, and polluters who previously contaminated sites will be held accountable for cleanup of the substances.

Finally, the EPA will prioritize the protection of disadvantaged communities, which are often the site of industrial activity and generally lack the political clout to limit their exposure to contamination.

What does that mean in practice? On the research side, the EPA will attempt to identify groups of related PFAS chemicals and establish their toxicity profiles, carving out a middle ground between handling each chemical individually and treating all the chemicals as a single entity. These groups will then be studied to determine their toxicology, how best to eliminate contamination, and how to limit their spread in the environment. This should help avoid the issue of companies simply switching to a closely related chemical if their PFAS of choice ends up subject to regulation.

The agency will also look over existing regulations to determine ones which can be used to limit the release of PFAS chemicals into the environment. The focus here will be on shifting the burden of limiting exposure to the producers and users of the chemicals. Finally, the EPA will work on the contamination that has already resulted from decades of use. Again, part of this effort will involve identifying the parties responsible for the contamination and ensuring they play a role in the cleanup.

Some of these processes have already begun. For example, the EPA indicates that it has started a nationwide monitoring program for PFAS contamination of drinking water, and a national testing strategy is expected to be released later this year. Various toxicity studies for groups of related chemicals should be released starting this year and continuing into the future. Formal rulemaking will take longer, but it’s expected that many key rules will be completed in 2023.

All of that is in keeping with having key regulatory frameworks in place before the end of President Joe Biden’s first term. There will undoubtedly be lawsuits that delay acting on the rules, but the administration is clearly working to have a comprehensive regulatory structure in place, regardless of how the political winds shift in the future.

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COVID vaccines for kids 5-11 up for preorder Wednesday ahead of FDA review

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Enlarge / A thirteen-year-old celebrates getting the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Hartford, Connecticut, on May 13, 2021.

Starting tomorrow, October 20, states and other jurisdictions will be able to preorder doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine formulated for children ages 5 to 11, according to a federal planning document. The orders are in anticipation of a rollout that could begin as early as November 3.

The vaccine is not yet authorized by the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not yet given the green light for its administration. But US officials are wasting no time in preparing to vaccinate as many children as possible as quickly as possible. There are an estimated 28 million children in the US between the ages of 5 to 11, and the US government says it has enough vaccine doses for all of them. Vaccine doses are planned to roll out at pediatricians’ offices, pharmacies, health centers, and rural clinics when the time comes.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is currently available for people ages 12 and up. In late September, Pfizer and BioNTech submitted data to the FDA indicating that small doses of their vaccine—a third of the dose used for adults—could safely and robustly protect children ages 5 to 11 from COVID-19. On October 7, the companies formally requested that the FDA grant an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the use of their vaccine in those youngsters.

The process

Now, the FDA’s committee of independent vaccine experts—the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC)—is scheduled to meet to discuss the EUA on Tuesday, October 26. In the meeting, the advisers will review the companies’ data and the FDA’s own assessment, then vote on whether the FDA should grant the EUA. If they vote in favor, the FDA will likely sign off on the EUA within days. Once an EUA is issued, the federal government can begin shipping the preordered doses to states and jurisdictions.

Next, the CDC will convene its committee of independent vaccine experts to set official recommendations for the vaccine’s use. Vaccine providers are required to follow official CDC guidance on vaccine administration because all of the COVID-19 vaccines are purchased and distributed through the US government—with provider agreements attached. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) is expected to discuss the pediatric vaccines in a meeting scheduled for November 2 and 3. If the ACIP votes to recommend the vaccine’s use, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky will likely sign off on the committee’s recommendation quickly. Once that happens, vaccine doses that have been shipped out to states can then be administered to children. So if all of that goes smoothly, doses could start going into little arms as early as November 3.

Although it’s widely anticipated that children will get the green light to get vaccinated, VRBPAC and ACIP will carefully weigh the risks and benefits for children and the people around them. Data submitted by Pfizer and BioNTech suggest that the smaller doses for 5- to 11-year-olds led to similar side effects—like injection-site pain and fatigue—as those seen in teens and young adults already cleared to get the vaccines.

But young males are at higher risk of developing myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), a concerning complication linked to the vaccines. Based on extensive vaccine safety monitoring data, the condition appears to be rare, mild, and resolve on its own, though it’s unclear if there are long-term effects. Males between the ages of 12 to 17 seem to have the highest risk. Some estimates suggest there will be seven cases or so from 100,000 vaccine doses administered to males ages 12 to 17. Such a rate is too small to show up in modestly sized trials, so VRBPAC and ACIP members will have little data to go on in assessing the risk in children 5 to 11.

Risks, benefits, and urgency

That said, the risk of myocarditis is clearly highest in those who become infected with COVID-19, not in those who are vaccinated. In a study involving more than 880,000 people ages 16 and up, researchers found that getting the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine led to 2.7 more myocarditis cases in 100,000 people than if they had not been vaccinated. But cases of COVID-19 led to an extra 11 cases of myocarditis. The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month.

According to data updated on October 18 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, roughly 6.2 million children in the US have reported cases of COVID-19 so far in the pandemic. And children are making up a larger and larger share of cases. In the week ending on October 14, children represented 25.5 percent of all COVID-19 cases reported, even though they make up just 22.2 percent of the US population.

VRBPAC and ACIP will review such data and more as they decide if the benefits of the vaccines outweigh the risks for younger children. Typically, the FDA and CDC follow the advice of their advisers. But the agencies do have the ability to overrule them. Just last month, CDC Director Walensky overruled the ACIP’s recommendations on Pfizer-BioNTech booster doses. Walensky opened boosters up to people with occupational or institutional exposures, such as health workers and teachers. That’s despite the fact that ACIP members had voted nine to six against offering boosters to that group.

In general, the Biden administration has been anxious to get as many people vaccinated as possible to try to bring the pandemic to an end. The preparation for a rollout to children has the same sense of urgency. While preordering will begin tomorrow for pediatric doses, it is just one of three waves of preordering. States and jurisdictions will have 48-hour windows to put in capped orders on October 20, October 22, and October 24. After that, the government will ready orders for shipping following VRBPAC’s meeting on October 26, according to the federal planning document. In addition, to support the massive effort of getting millions of children vaccinated, the government will suspend the distribution of adult Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for a few days so that it can put all of its efforts into pushing out the pediatric doses.

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