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Richard Branson just flew to the edge of space. Here’s what it means for space travel.

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Richard Branson just flew to the edge of space. Here’s what it means for space travel.


Virgin Galactic already has 650 people signed up to fly on its vehicle, including musician Justin Bieber and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, but while only accessible to the rich and famous for now, there is hope such flights may one day be more affordable for the general public.

Yesterday’s flight wasn’t only about bragging rights. Suborbital flights also allow for important scientific work to be done too. “Researchers flying with their own science is very , very valuable,” says Laura Forczyk from the space consulting firm Astralytical. On this first flight was an experiment from the University of Florida to see how plants respond to microgravity. Future missions will study how dust behaves on asteroids, and practice techniques for performing surgery in space.

Crucially that can be led by the researchers themselves, such as Alan Stern from the Southwest Research Institute in Texas and the lead on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, rather than relying on remote systems or astronauts on the International Space Station. Stern, for example, will test an astronomical imaging system previously used on the Space Shuttle that could perform useful observations of the solar system.

“For 150 years there’s been a theorised population of [asteroids] inside the orbit of Mercury,” says Stern. “The best way to look at them is at twilight from space. On the space station, the twilight phenomenon only lasts 30 seconds as you’re traveling at 18,000 miles per hour. But on SpaceShipTwo or New Shepard, the phenomenon persists for minutes.”

There are, of course, plenty of valid criticisms of two billionaires racing to space amid a pandemic—and it’s unlikely many of us will ever be able to afford the trip for years to come. But the childish Branson/Bezos competition should still pave the way for more people to get up there than ever before, scientists included.

“This is not just billionaires and rich people,” says Forczyk. “This could be the dawn of really true commercial space tourism.”

“It shows that commercial space is ready for primetime,” adds Williams.

Correction: We amended the location of Spaceport America. It is in New Mexico, not California.

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Ring’s new TV show is a brilliant but ominous viral marketing ploy

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Ring’s new TV show is a brilliant but ominous viral marketing ploy


Its market domination came, in no small part, as a result of Ring’s efforts, starting in 2016, to partner with law enforcement agencies. 

At various points, the company offered free cameras to individual officers, as well as entire departments, often in exchange for promoting Ring cameras in the officers’ jurisdictions. For a time, they also offered police partners a special portal to access community videos—stopping only after multiple media outlets reported on the process, which was followed by public outcry. And yet, that didn’t stop Ring’s policing problem; earlier this summer—in a response to a 2019 request for information from Senator Ed Markey, the company admitted to handing over video content to law enforcement without the video owner’s consent at least 11 times this year.  

“Everything Amazon does prioritizes growth, expansion, and reach,” says Chris Gilliard, a visiting scholar at Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center and vocal critic of surveillance technologies. In that sense, “Ring Nation is best located along a continuum…this new initiative looks like an attempt to cement societal acceptance of Ring,” he adds. 

So now, Gilliard explains, it’s not surprising that the company is turning to a new strategy to further normalize surveillance.  

All in good “fun”

But these darker sides of surveillance technology will not form part of Ring Nation’s narrative. After all, they don’t exactly fit in with the show’s mission to give “friends and family a fun new way to enjoy time with one another,” as Ring founder, Jamie Siminoff, described in a press statement.  

Instead, in a self-enforcing cycle, the show will significantly expand the audience for Ring videos, the pool of potential Ring video creators, and then (and most importantly) the number of Ring cameras out in the wild. And many of these new customers likely won’t think twice about what their new Ring camera is really doing. 

“Ring prides itself on being incredibly accessible, [but] it’s still kind of a techie thing,” explains Guariglia of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “But if you park your very non-techie relatives in front of the television all day, and they see the Funniest Home Videos from Ring Cameras, Ring might spread to an audience that perhaps Amazon has had a slower time getting on board.”

In other words, if the company has its way, Ring Nation, the television show, will bring us one step closer to a Ring nation, IRL. 

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How the idea of a “transgender contagion” went viral—and caused untold harm

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How the idea of a “transgender contagion” went viral—and caused untold harm


The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions.

The results were in line with what one might expect given those sources: 76.5% of parents surveyed “believed their child was incorrect in their belief of being transgender.” More than 85% said their child had increased their internet use and/or had trans friends before identifying as trans. The youths themselves had no say in the study, and there’s no telling if they had simply kept their parents in the dark for months or years before coming out. (Littman acknowledges that “parent-child conflict may also explain some of the findings.”) 

Arjee Restar, now an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, didn’t mince words in her 2020 methodological critique of the paper. Restar noted that Littman chose to describe the “social and peer contagion” hypothesis in the consent document she shared with parents, opening the door for biases in who chose to respond to the survey and how they did so. She also highlighted that Littman asked parents to offer “diagnoses” of their child’s gender dysphoria, which they were unqualified to do without professional training. It’s even possible that Littman’s data could contain multiple responses from the same parent, Restar wrote. Littman told MIT Technology Review that “targeted recruitment [to studies] is a really common practice.” She also called attention to the corrected ROGD paper, which notes that a pro-gender-­affirming parents’ Facebook group with 8,000 members posted the study’s recruitment information on its page—although Littman’s study was not designed to be able to discern whether any of them responded.

But politics is blind to nuances in methodology. And the paper was quickly seized by those who were already pushing back against increasing acceptance of trans people. In 2014, a few years before Littman published her ROGD paper, Time magazine had put Laverne Cox, the trans actress from Orange Is the New Black, on its cover and declared a “transgender tipping point.” By 2016, bills across the country that aimed to bar trans people from bathrooms that fit their gender identity failed, and one that succeeded, in North Carolina, cost its Republican governor, Pat McCrory, his job.  

Yet by 2018 a renewed backlash was well underway—one that zeroed in on trans youth. The debate about trans youth competing in sports went national, as did a heavily publicized Texas custody battle between a mother who supported her trans child and a father who didn’t. Groups working to further marginalize trans people, like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, began “printing off bills and introducing them to state legislators,” says Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions. The paper “laundered what had previously been the rantings of online conspiracy theorists and gave it the resemblance of serious scientific study,” Branstetter says. She believes that if Littman’s paper had not been published, a similar argument would have been made by someone else. Despite its limitations, it has become a crucial weapon in the fight against trans people, largely through online dissemination. “It is astonishing that such a blatantly bad-faith effort has been taken so seriously,” Branstetter says.

Littman plainly rejects that characterization, saying her goal was simply to “find out what’s going on.” “This was a very good-faith attempt,” she says. “As a person I am liberal; I’m pro-LGBT. I saw a phenomenon with my own eyes and I investigated, found that it was different than what was in the scientific literature.” 

One reason for the success of Littman’s paper is that it validates the idea that trans kids are new. But Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins and author of Histories of the Transgender Child, says that is “empirically untrue.” Trans children have only recently started to be discussed in mainstream media, so people assume they weren’t around before, she says, but “there have been children transitioning for as long as there has been transition-related medical technology,” and children were socially transitioning—living as a different gender without any medical or legal interventions—long before that.

Many trans people are young children when they first observe a dissonance between how they are identified and how they identify. The process of transitioning is never simple, but the explanation of their identity might be.

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Inside the software that will become the next battle front in US-China chip war

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screenshot of KiCad software for circuit board design and prototyping


EDA software is a small but mighty part of the semiconductor supply chain, and it’s mostly controlled by three Western companies. That gives the US a powerful point of leverage, similar to the way it wanted to restrict access to lithography machines—another crucial tool for chipmaking—last month. So how has the industry become so American-centric, and why can’t China just develop its own alternative software? 

What is EDA?

Electronic design automation (also known as electronic computer-aided design, or ECAD) is the specialized software used in chipmaking. It’s like the CAD software that architects use, except it’s more sophisticated, since it deals with billions of minuscule transistors on an integrated circuit.

Screenshot of KiCad, a free EDA software.

JON NEAL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

There’s no single dominant software program that represents the best in the industry. Instead, a series of software modules are often used throughout the whole design flow: logic design, debugging, component placement, wire routing, optimization of time and power consumption, verification, and more. Because modern-day chips are so complex, each step requires a different software tool. 

How important is EDA to chipmaking?

Although the global EDA market was valued at only around $10 billion in 2021, making it a small fraction of the $595 billion semiconductor market, it’s of unique importance to the entire supply chain.

The semiconductor ecosystem today can be seen as a triangle, says Mike Demler, a consultant who has been in the chip design and EDA industry for over 40 years. On one corner are the foundries, or chip manufacturers like TSMC; on another corner are intellectual-property companies like ARM, which make and sell reusable design units or layouts; and on the third corner are the EDA tools. All three together make sure the supply chain moves smoothly.

From the name, it may sound as if EDA tools are only important to chip design firms, but they are also used by chip manufacturers to verify that a design is feasible before production. There’s no way for a foundry to make a single chip as a prototype; it has to invest in months of time and production, and each time, hundreds of chips are fabricated on the same semiconductor base. It would be an enormous waste if they were found to have design flaws. Therefore, manufacturers rely on a special type of EDA tool to do their own validation. 

What are the leading companies in the EDA industry?

There are only a few companies that sell software for each step of the chipmaking process, and they have dominated this market for decades. The top three companies—Cadence (American), Synopsys (American), and Mentor Graphics (American but acquired by the German company Siemens in 2017)—control about 70% of the global EDA market. Their dominance is so strong that many EDA startups specialize in one niche use and then sell themselves to one of these three companies, further cementing the oligopoly. 

What is the US government doing to restrict EDA exports to China?

US companies’ outsize influence on the EDA industry makes it easy for the US government to squeeze China’s access. In its latest announcement, it pledged to add certain EDA tools to its list of technologies banned from export. The US will coordinate with 41 other countries, including Germany, to implement these restrictions. 

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