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With Ataribox, the legend returns — powered by Linux




Have you played Atari today? Once a jingle’s catchphrase as well as a legitimate query, a resurrected version of the brand is hoping you’ll soon be asking that question again with the forthcoming Ataribox.

Available to pre-order on Thursday for a special price via an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, the Ataribox is shaping up to be an amalgam of retro gaming console and living room PC. Details are mostly sketchy at this point, but we do know that it will be powered by some variant of Linux OS and will include over 100 Atari classic games pre-installed.

Unfortunately for retro gaming fans, the full list of games isn’t known yet, nor do we know other key information like the Ataribox’s shipping date or its pricing (though VentureBeat reports it will sell somewhere between $250 and $300). Atari Interactive has been leaking dribs and drabs through social media, such as the inclusion of titles like Asteroids, Missile Command, and Breakout.

The company has updated the design for its console while retaining touches from the vintage 2600 — in addition to an option with black trim and red glowing Atari logo, you can get the Ataribox with the faux wood trim of the original. The joystick also resembles the 2600’s, but with a revamped look that’s more 2017 than 1980.

But by choosing to build the Ataribox as a Linux-running mini PC, Atari is giving itself the opportunity to stay current with new games, unlike many of the plug-and-play retro consoles. Though we don’t know the precise configuration, we’ve been promised a system with an AMD processor customized for the console and the ability to play mid-range games.

Will the Ataribox be a hit like Nintendo’s SNES Classic mini was? Or will it fizzle out like many other living room PCs that came before it, despite the retro trappings? The price will clearly be an issue — even if it’s technically a PC, it could winding up costing as much as some versions of the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, not to mention that many potential buyers would only want it to play the old Atari games. We’ll get a better idea starting on December 14, as the Indiegogo campaign kicks off and Atari will see how just many people will rush to open their wallets to grab an Ataribox.


Why Nintendo killed the Classic that consumers loved

Popular yet nearly unattainable since its launch, the NES Classic was too successful in sating the hunger of those nostalgic for a vintage Nintendo experience. Its sequel will better ensure Nintendo gets a piece of higher hardware prices and more software opportunities.

As SNES Classic mini sells out, rivals step in

Nintendo may have learned lessons from the NES Classic mini, but it still can’t fulfill demand for its latest throwback. That’s provided opportunities for other serving the classic videogames market.

A retro computer brings touch typing to a smartphone

A scion of UK’s Psion, the Gemini folds a modern smartphone’s internals and display onto the best keyboard ever designed for a pocket device. But it won’t replace a smartphone for many.

Can you name this vintage tech?

From early calculators to WWII cryptography machines, if you can name this old hardware, software and storage media, you really know your stuff.

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Jumping spiders may experience something like REM sleep



Enlarge / This little guy looks too perky to need a nap.

Our sleep is marked by cycles of distinct brain activity. The most well-known of these is probably rapid eye movement, or REM sleep, which is characterized by loss of muscle control leading to twitching and paralysis, along with its eponymous eye movements. REM sleep is widespread in vertebrates, appearing in many mammals and birds; similar periods have also been observed in lizards.

Figuring out what might be going on beyond vertebrates can get a bit challenging, however, as identifying what constitutes sleep isn’t always clear, and many animals don’t have eyes that move in the same way as those of vertebrates. (Flies, for example, must move their entire head to reorient their eyes.) But an international team of researchers identified a group of jumping spiders that can reorient internal portions of their eyes during what appears to be sleep.

And according to this team, the spiders experience all the hallmarks of REM sleep, with periods of rapid eye movements associated with muscle twitching.

Spider napping

Spiders, and specifically jumping spiders, may have more going on mentally than might be assumed based on their tiny size and correspondingly tiny nervous system. But the key to this new study was the discovery that, apparently, they sometimes just need a nap. A year ago, some of the same team members were authors of a publication that reported sleep-like behavior in these spiders. At night, they’d find some overhanging vegetation, attach a single thread to it so they could dangle from it, and then stay there until light returns in the morning. By all appearances, they’re sleeping.

And that gives the researchers a chance to avoid one of the bigger challenges in cross-species sleep studies. The eyes of jumping spiders contain structures called retinal tubes, which can be moved to direct the spider’s vision to specific locations. These tubes aren’t visible in adult spiders due to the pigment in the spider’s cuticle. But newly hatched spiders take some time to develop that pigment, having translucent bodies that allow the movements of the retinal tubes to be tracked.

And so the researchers decided this was the perfect opportunity to see whether spiders might have an REM-like phase to their overnight rests. “The most salient indicator of REM sleep is the movement of eyes during this phase,” they write. “Movable eyes, however, have evolved only in a limited number of lineages—an adaptation notably absent in insects and most terrestrial arthropods—restricting cross-species comparisons.” For these jumping spiders, that restriction doesn’t apply.

So, they shut the lab lights off, let the spiders enter their sleep-like state, and then tracked any movement using an infrared camera.

Are rapid eye movements REM?

Just as you might see in a mammal, the spiders experienced periodic periods of rapid eye movement—albeit involving the movement of retinal tubes. Although these events varied a bit from instance to instance and between individuals, they generally lasted similar amounts of time, and they repeated with a period that was similarly consistent.

Perhaps more significantly, the retinal tube movements were frequently associated with twitching or curling of the spiders’ legs. Only about 40 percent of the periods of eye movement were associated with leg twitching, but every leg twitching that happened over the sleep period was associated with eye movement.

It’s not clear that this behavior represents REM because it performs the same function as REM sleep does in humans (something we’re still working to understand). But physically, the hallmarks seem to be there, which has some significant implications. “That these characteristic REM sleep-like behaviors exist in a highly visual, long-diverged lineage further challenges our understanding of this sleep state,” the researchers note. This is especially true given that other researchers have published findings of REM-like behavior in distantly related animals like cuttlefish.

But the spiders at issue here provide a distinct possibility of testing how deep the parallels go. People have proposed that the eye movements of REM are a product of replaying visual memories during sleep. In a lab environment, it’s possible to expose these spiders to visual stimuli that force them to perform specific patterns of eye movements. After which, you can shut the lights off and see whether the same pattern is repeated during sleep.

PNAS, 2022. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2204754119  (About DOIs).

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Scientists hid encryption key for Wizard of Oz text in plastic molecules



Enlarge / Scientists from the University of Texas at Austin encrypted the key to decode text of the The Wizard of Oz in polymers.

S.D. Dahlhauser et al., 2022

Scientists from the University of Texas at Austin sent a letter to colleagues in Massachusetts with a secret message: an encryption key to unlock a text file of L. Frank Baum’s classic novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The twist: The encryption key was hidden in a special ink laced with polymers, They described their work in a recent paper published in the journal ACS Central Science.

When it comes to alternative means for data storage and retrieval, the goal is to store data in the smallest amount of space in a durable and readable format. Among polymers, DNA has long been the front runner in that regard. As we’ve reported previously, DNA has four chemical building blocks—adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C)—which constitute a type of code. Information can be stored in DNA by converting the data from binary code to a base-4 code and assigning it one of the four letters. A single gram of DNA can represent nearly 1 billion terabytes (1 zettabyte) of data. And the stored data can be preserved for long periods—decades, or even centuries.

There have been some inventive twists on the basic method for DNA storage in recent years. For instance, in 2019, scientists successfully fabricated a 3D-printed version of the Stanford bunny—a common test model in 3D computer graphics—that stored the printing instructions to reproduce the bunny. The bunny holds about 100 kilobytes of data, thanks to the addition of DNA-containing nanobeads to the plastic used to 3D print it. And scientists at the University of Washington recently recorded K-Pop lyrics directly onto living cells using a “DNA typewriter.”

But using DNA as a storage medium also presents challenges, so there is also great interest in coming up with other alternatives. Last year, Harvard University scientists developed a data-storage approach based on mixtures of fluorescent dyes printed onto an epoxy surface in tiny spots. The mixture of dyes at each spot encodes information that is then read with a fluorescent microscope. The researchers tested their method by storing one of 19th-century physicist Michael Faraday’s seminal papers on electromagnetism and chemistry, as well as a JPEG image of Faraday.

Other scientists have explored the possibility of using nonbiological polymers for molecular data storage, decoding (or reading) the stored information by sequencing the polymers with tandem mass spectrometry. In 2019, Harvard scientists successfully demonstrated the storage of information in a mixture of commercially available oligopeptides on a metal surface, with no need for time-consuming and expensive synthesis techniques.

A molecular encryption key was embedded in ink (left image) of a letter (right image), which was mailed and analyzed to decrypt a file.
Enlarge / A molecular encryption key was embedded in ink (left image) of a letter (right image), which was mailed and analyzed to decrypt a file.

ACS Central Science 2022/CC BY-NC-ND

This latest paper focused on the use of sequence-defined polymers (SDPs)  as a storage medium for encrypting a large data set. SDPs are basically long chains of monomers, each of which corresponds to one of 16 symbols. “Because they’re a polymer with a very specific sequence, the units along that sequence can carry a sequence of information, just like any sentence carries information in the sequence of letters,” co-author Eric Anslyn of UT told New Scientist.

But these macromolecules can’t store as much information as DNA, per the authors, since the process of storing more data with each additional monomer becomes increasingly inefficient, making it extremely difficult to retrieve the information with the current crop of analytic instruments available. So short SDPs must be used, limiting how much data can be stored per molecule. Anslyn and his co-authors figured out a way to improve that storage capacity and tested the viability of their method.

First, Anslyn et al. used a 256-bit encryption key to encode Baum’s novel into a polymer material made up of commercially available amino acids. The sequences were comprised of eight oligourethanes, each 10 monomers long. The middle eight monomers held the key, while the monomers on either end of a sequence served as placeholders for synthesis and decoding. The placeholders were “fingerprinted” using different isotope labels, such as halogen tags, indicating where each polymer’s encoded information fit within the order of the final digital key,

Then they jumbled all the polymers together and used depolymerization and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC/MS) to “decode” the original structure and encryption key. The final independent test: They mixed the polymers into a special ink made of isopropanol, glycerol, and soot. They used the ink to write a letter to James Reuther at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Reuther’s lab then extracted the ink from the paper and used the same sequential analysis to retrieve the binary encryption key, revealing the text file of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

In other words, Anslyn’s lab wrote a message (the letter) containing another secret message (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) hidden in the molecular structure of the ink. There might be more pragmatic ways to accomplish the feat, but they successfully stored 256 bits in the SDPs, without using long strands. “This is the first time this much information has been stored in a polymer of this type,” Anslyn said, adding that the breakthrough represents “a revolutionary scientific advance in the area of molecular data storage and cryptography.”

Anslyn and his colleagues believe their method is robust enough for real-world encryption applications. Going forward, they hope to figure out how to robotically automate the writing and reading processes.

DOI: ACS Central Science, 2022. 10.1021/acscentsci.2c00460  (About DOIs).

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Locked-in syndrome and the misplaced presumption of misery



In 1993, Julio Lopes was sipping a coffee at a bar when he had a stroke. He fell into a coma, and two months later, when he regained consciousness, his body was fully paralyzed.

Doctors said the young man’s future was bleak: Save for his eyes, he would never be able to move again. Lopes would have to live with locked-in syndrome, a rare condition characterized by near-total paralysis of the body and a totally lucid mind. LIS is predominantly caused by strokes in specific brain regions; it can also be caused by traumatic brain injury, tumors, and progressive diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Yet almost 30 years later, Lopes now lives in a small Paris apartment near the Seine. He goes to the theater, watches movies at the cinema, and roams the local park in his wheelchair, accompanied by a caregiver. A small piece of black, red, and green fabric with the word “Portugal” dangles from his wheelchair. On a warm afternoon this past June, his birth country was slated to play against Spain in a soccer match, and he was excited.

In an interview at his home, Lopes communicated through the use of a specialized computer camera that tracks a sensor on the lens of his glasses. He made slight movements with his head, selecting letters on a virtual keyboard that appeared on the computer’s screen. “Even if it’s hard at the beginning, you acquire a kind of philosophy of life,” he said in French. People in his condition may enjoy things others find insignificant, he suggested, and they often develop a capacity to see the bigger picture. That’s not to say daily living is always easy, Lopes added, but overall, he’s happier than he ever thought was possible in his situation.

While research into LIS patients’ quality of life is limited, the data that has been gathered paints a picture that is often at odds with popular presumptions. To be sure, well-being evaluations conducted to date do suggest that up to a third of LIS patients report being severely unhappy. For them, loss of mobility and speech make life truly miserable—and family members and caregivers, as well as the broader public, tend to identify with this perspective. And yet, the majority of LIS patients, the data suggest, are much more like Lopes: They report being relatively happy and that they want very much to live. Indeed, in surveys of well-being, most people with LIS score as high as those without it, suggesting that many people underestimate locked-in patients’ quality of life while overestimating their rates of depression. And this mismatch has implications for clinical care, say brain scientists who study wellbeing in LIS patients.

Eleven US states and several European countries, for example, have legalized various forms of assisted dying, also known as physician-assisted suicide or medical aid in dying. In these places, families and clinicians are often involved in fraught decisions about whether to actively end a person’s life or pursue life-extending interventions such as mechanical ventilation. Advocates for the right to die, a movement that dates back to the 1970s, have historically raised concerns about the potentially dehumanizing nature of these interventions, which can lengthen a person’s life without improving its quality. They specifically argue that LIS patients should be able to decide whether to end their lives or stop life-extending treatment.

Brain scientists do not disagree, but they worry that inaccurate and negatively-skewed ideas about what it means to live with LIS could unduly tip the scales. “It’s important to not project our thoughts and feelings” onto others, said Steven Laureys, a neurologist and research director of the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research. While non-disabled individuals might say, “‘this is not a life worth living,'” he added, the evidence doesn’t necessarily bear this out.

He and his colleagues want to ensure that their research is shared with LIS patients, their families, and physicians. The researchers are also trying to better understand which factors contribute to a patient’s overall sense of satisfaction.

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