‘Runaway’ black hole the size of 20 million suns found speeding through space with a trail of newborn stars behind it


Astronomers have spotted a runaway supermassive black hole, seemingly ejected from its home galaxy and racing through space with a chain of stars trailing in its wake. 

According to the team’s research, which was published on the pre-print server arXiv.org (opens in new tab) and has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the discovery offers the first observational evidence that supermassive black holes can be ejected from their home galaxies to roam interstellar space.

The researchers discovered the runaway black hole as a bright streak of light while they were using the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the dwarf galaxy RCP 28, located about 7.5 billion light-years from Earth. 

Related: Black holes: Everything you need to know

Follow-up observations showed that the streak measures more than 200,000 light-years long — roughly twice the width of the Milky Way — and is thought to be made of compressed gas that is actively forming stars. The gas trails a black hole that is estimated to measure 20 million times the mass of the sun and is speeding away from its home galaxy at 3.5 million mph (5.6 million km/h), or roughly 4,500 times the speed of sound.

According to the researchers, the streak points right to the center of a galaxy, where a supermassive black hole would normally sit.

“We found a thin line in a Hubble image that is pointing to the center of a galaxy,” lead study author Pieter van Dokkum, a professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University, told Live Science. “Using the Keck telescope in Hawaii, we found that the line and the galaxy are connected. From a detailed analysis of the feature, we inferred that we are seeing a very massive black hole that was ejected from the galaxy, leaving a trail of gas and newly formed stars in its wake.” 

Confirming the tail of an ejected black hole

Most, if not all, large galaxies host supermassive black holes at their centers. Active supermassive black holes often launch jets of material at high speeds, which can be seen as streaks of light that superficially resemble the one the researchers spotted. These are called astrophysical jets.

To determine this isn’t what they observed, van Dokkum and the team investigated this streak and found it didn’t possess any of the telltale signs of an astrophysical jet. While astrophysical jets grow weaker as they move away from their source of emission, the potential supermassive black hole tail actually gets stronger as it progresses away from what seems to be its galactic point of origin, according to the researchers. Also, astrophysical jets launched by black holes fan out from their source, whereas this trail seems to have remained linear.

The team concluded that the explanation that best fits the streak is a supermassive black hole blasting through the gas that surrounds its galaxy while compressing that gas enough to trigger star formation in its wake. 

“If confirmed, it would be the first time that we have clear evidence that supermassive black holes can escape from galaxies,” van Dokkum said.

A five-step schematic showing two black holes in a binary partnership before a third black hole intrudes, upsetting the balance at the galaxy’s center and sending one of the black holes careening into intergalactic space. Panel 6 shows the gassy trail observed in the new study. (Image credit: van Dokkum et al.)

Black holes on the move

Once the runaway supermassive black hole is confirmed, the next question that astronomers need to answer is how such a monstrous object gets ejected from its host galaxy.

“The most likely scenario that explains everything we’ve seen is a slingshot, caused by a three-body interaction,” van Dokkum said. “When three similar-mass bodies gravitationally interact, the interaction does not lead to a stable configuration but usually to the formation of a binary and the ejection of the third body.”

This might mean that the runaway black hole was once part of a rare supermassive black hole binary, and during a galactic merger, a third supermassive black hole was introduced to this partnership, flinging out one of its occupants. 

Astronomers aren’t sure how common these massive runaways are. “Ejected supermassive black holes had been predicted for 50 years but none have been unambiguously seen,” van Dokkum said “Most theorists think that there should be many out there.”

Further observations with other telescopes are needed to find direct evidence of a black hole at the mysterious streak’s tip, van Dokkum added. 

Originally published on LiveScience.com.

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February 22, 2023 at 04:09PM

Evolution Turns These Knobs to Make a Hummingbird Hyperquick and a Cavefish Sluggishly Slow


We’re all familiar with muscle conditioning or deconditioning that happens in response to exercise or lack of it. But when an active lifestyle—or, by contrast, that of a couch potato—is sustained over evolutionary timescales stretching for thousands or millions  of years, that leads to dramatic changes in muscle mass, metabolism and even an animal’s biochemistry. Two recent studies reveal how some of the superathletes and couch potatoes of the animal world, hummingbirds and cavefish, have adjusted the metabolic pathways in their muscles to efficiently break down sugar or store it to suit their unique ways of life.

First, let’s take a look at a superathlete. Hummingbirds’ hovering flight, a seemingly effortless suspension in air, is achieved by burning sugar in their flight muscles at a blisteringly fast rate. But how such an adaptation evolved is a challenge to reconstruct. Recently a German team of researchers implicated the loss of a key gene, FBP2. Without it, the birds are more efficient at breaking down sugar to use it for energy. The discarding of this gene coincided with the evolution of hovering flight. Researchers learned this by comparing the timing of the gene loss with the age of key hummingbird fossils, according to findings reported in the January 13 issue of Science.

“All hummingbirds have hovering flight, and all hummingbirds are nectarivores,” says Michael Hiller, a comparative genomicist  at Goethe University and the Senckenberg Research Institute, both in Germany, and senior author of the study. So it’s pretty clear that these traits evolved somewhere on the branch of an evolutionary tree after hummingbirds split from the lineage of another bird family, the swifts, but before the hummingbirds radiated into the 300-some species that exist today, he explains.

The new traits give hummingbirds their signature hang-in-the-air flight, which makes them extremely maneuverable and allows them to stay nearly stationary in the air while they drink flower nectar, often the main source of energy in their diet.

To better understand the origins of this unique ability, Hiller’s team sequenced the genome of a hummingbird species that was a relatively distant cousin of other hummingbirds: the Long-tailed Hermit. Matching this to two existing hummingbird genomes (Anna’s Hummingbird and the Black-breasted Hillstar) allowed the researchers to pinpoint genetic changes that occurred in the ancestors of all hummingbirds. Hiller reasoned that hovering flight had to have evolved somewhere on that ancestral branch, and genetic changes that occurred there could have contributed to the evolution of this trait.

By comparing the hummingbird genomes with the chicken genome, which is a well-annotated reference genome for birds as a whole, the researchers identified five genes hummingbirds had lost, including FBP2, which was previously known to be involved in sugar metabolism. Sugar circulating in the bloodstream is taken up by cells. And once inside, the sugar is broken down by enzymes in a process called glycolysis. This results in two molecules that each carry three carbon atoms plus two molecules of ATP, which cells use as fuel in all sorts of processes, including muscle contraction. These biochemical reactions move in both directions, forward and back. The backward flow—taking up two three-carbon molecules to make a sugar—is called gluconeogenesis. FBP2 encodes an enzyme  in muscle cells that catalyzes this reversal of glycolysis.

In typical muscle tissue, this enzyme  takes up small carbon molecules to make sugar. But hummingbirds have lost FBP2, which means their muscles cannot catalyze the synthesis of sugar from small carbon molecules,  Hiller and his colleagues hypothesized that the loss of FBP2 makes the forward glycolysis reaction more efficient, accelerating the hummingbird’s ability to break down sugar, which it consumes in abundance through its nectar diet.

To test this idea, they needed to do an experiment. They were constrained by the fact that it’s nearly impossible to genetically manipulate a living bird such as a chicken and knock out FBP2 to measure the effect.  Instead the researchers used a quail muscle cell line to knock out FBP2. They then measured the rate of glycolysis in the quail muscle cells and showed that the process indeed runs faster when the gene is knocked out. In addition, the cells with the FBP2 knockout also had more mitochondria for reasons that are still not completely understood. “In the literature, there’s good evidence that hummingbird flight muscle has more mitochondria and high capacity for processing sugar,” Hiller says. “The effects we saw [in the cell line] are at least consistent with observations in hummingbird muscle.”

With further genome analysis, the researchers discovered that the loss of FBP2 must have happened between 46 million and 34 million years ago. This estimate coincided with paleontological evidence that turned up about 20 years ago in the form of two key fossils found in Germany. One fossil, which still looks like that of a swift, dates back 48 million years, while the other, an early fossil on the branch that split from the swift lineage, had changes in the configuration of the shoulder girdle bones, making it biomechanically capable of hovering flight. It is therefore the oldest known hummingbird, and it is about 35 million to 30 million years old.

The similarity between the estimated age of the FBP2 mutation and the ages of the fossils is convincing evidence that this mutation contributed to hovering flight, Hiller says. Still, he cautions, knocking out this gene in another bird probably isn’t enough to produce such flight—this adaptation likely required several steps, including the changes in the shoulder girdle. “The way I think about it, it’s one of these knobs that evolution was tuning to give hummingbirds this adaptation of hovering flight,” Hiller says. “It probably required several steps or many steps, but we think this is one of them.”

Indeed, evolution can tune key metabolic pathways in many different ways to suit the demands of particular environments. The Mexican cavefish, which lives in dark caves, has metabolic challenges of a different kind. Since these cavefish split from their river ancestors about 160,000 years ago, they have developed numerous changes to survive inside the nutrient-poor caves. For one, because they have no predators, they have slowed their swimming speeds, compared with the surface fish from which they evolved.

“We know that when humans decrease movement for just a day or two, this can have profound effects on the muscle,” says Luke Olsen, a graduate student at the Stowers Institute in Missouri, who led a new study about cavefish muscle published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA on January 24. “Thinking about the cavefish, if they have decreased their movement, how has their muscle changed over 160,000 years?”

Muscle is extremely important for regulating whole-body metabolism,” explains Tray Wright, who studies animal physiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch  at Galveston. “In many animals, muscle mass can make up 40 to 50 percent of their body mass, and it is a really metabolically demanding tissue. By tuning that metabolism in the muscle, you really affect a lot of animal fitness.”

To better understand the consequences of the cavefish’s loss of muscle mass, Olsen and his colleagues dissected muscle fibers from both cavefish and surface fish and electrically stimulated them. The researchers found that the cavefish muscle fibers contracted with less force than those of surface fish. “That’s a really important point because that’s exactly what we see in humans who are obese,” Olsen says.

To test if this actually translated to the fish not being able to swim at high speeds, the team created a swim tunnel—a kind of treadmill for the fish, where they could force them to swim against a water current of varying speeds. He gradually increased the flow until the cavefish fatigued. Surprisingly, cavefish were able to swim just as fast and as long as surface fish. Olsen and his colleagues hypothesized that the large amounts of sugar stored as glycogen in cavefish muscles provided the energy needed to sustain muscular contractions during the swimming endurance test.

As predicted, before exercise, the cavefish had more glycogen in their muscles than the surface fish did, but after the swim test, their glycogen level plummeted. When Olsen and his colleagues looked at what was going on biochemically in cavefish muscle, they found increased levels of both enzymes that store glycogen and those that break it down. One of these enzymes, phosphoglucomutase 1 (PGM1), was activated through phosphorylation—the addition of phosphate chemical groups—in cavefish but not in surface fish. In fact, two of the sites that were phosphorylated on this enzyme in cavefish are mutated in humans with glycogen-storage diseases. In humans, if PGM1 is mutated at one of these sites and can’t be phosphorylated, it causes the person to fatigue easily, Olsen explains. These same sites are hyperphosphorylated in cavefish, which may explain why they are slow to fatigue during swim-tunnel experiments.

The researchers then focused on a specific phosphorylation site and created a mutation that prevented it from being phosphorylated. Cells with this mutation lost much of their ability to make glycogen.

“What this told us was that this specific location that we found to be hyperphosphorylated in cavefish leads to a change in PGM1 activity, where it takes incoming glucose and converts it to glycogen,” Olsen says. Increasing the activity of PGM1 increases the muscle’s ability to make and store glycogen, which explains why the fish have so much glycogen in their muscles.

Olsen and his supervisor at the Stowers Institute, Nicolas Rohner, believe that this is adaptive for the cavefish because when the caves flood about once a year, the water currents can be very strong. The cavefish have to swim against these currents to stay in the caves; if they are swept out of the caves, they will not survive. So their metabolism must allow them to store energy to persist long periods without food, then release energy to swim against strong currents once in a blue moon. Phosphorylating PGM1, which boosts their ability to store glycogen that can be broken down when needed, lets them to do just that.

What’s fascinating, Olsen says, is that while humans with diabetes or obesity have increased inflammation, the cavefish do not, despite having lots of fat and sugar in their muscle. The researchers are interested in better understanding how cavefish remained healthy, even as their muscles evolved to store more fat and sugar.

Muscle wasting and the accumulation of sugar and fat would be detrimental in a human but are beneficial for the cavefish in their unique environment, says Misty Riddle, who studies Mexican cavefish at the University of Nevada and was not involved in the new research. “ This is [an] example of how studying cavefish and the traits that provide them an advantage could potentially relate to understanding how we can alleviate the issues that arise when humans have those traits,” she says.

The two studies illustrate two extremes of evolution. In hummingbirds, loss of a key gene in gluconeogenesis makes their muscles very efficient at breaking down sugars for energy, a requirement for hovering flight. Mexican cavefish, in contrast, have modified an enzyme to make their muscles efficient at storing sugar as glycogen, so they can withstand food scarcity yet outswim floods when required. In both cases, evolution has tuned the pathway for breaking down and storing sugar to enable new metabolic feats that help the animals survive in demanding environments.

via Scientific American https://ift.tt/g6WO2mj

February 24, 2023 at 06:34AM

Giant Claw for Removing Space Junk Is Now One Step Closer to Reality


An artist’s impression of the ClearSpace-1 spacecraft approaching Vega Secondary Payload Adapter from ESA’s Vega launcher.
Image: Clear Space

ClearSpace, a Swiss space company, has secured clearance from the European Space Agency after the company’s first program review of its efforts to clear junk from Earth orbit by using a giant, four-armed robotic satellite to capture debris.

What goes up must come down—especially in the case of debris and defunct satellites left orbiting Earth—and ClearSpace is on a continued path towards making that happen.

The company announced this week that it got the green light from ESA on the first major review of the company’s plans for ClearSpace-1—a claw-like spacecraft that will grab onto space debris and send it into Earth’s atmosphere to burn up. After passing proof-of-concept testing in October of last year, ClearSpace says it will now begin the process of finalizing designs, securing equipment, and building the full-scale ClearSpace-1 for a scheduled launch in 2026.

“Along with an experienced European industrial team and the close collaboration with ESA, we were able to reach this important milestone in an effective and technologically sound manner,” said Muriel Richard-Noca, ClearSpace CTO and co-founder, in a press release.

ClearSpace-1 Approaching the VESPA

ESA first revealed that it commissioned the ClearSpace-1 project from the titular company in September 2019, with a then-scheduled launch in 2025. The contract between ESA and ClearSpace totaled 86.2 million Euros, which was equivalent to around $103 million at that time. Upon launch of ClearSpace-1 in 2026, the company’s plan is to demonstrate the satellite’s grabbing ability by targeting a Vega Secondary Payload Adapter (Vespa) upper stage left behind by a 2013 launch of an ESA Vega rocket, which is upwards of 500 miles (800 kilometers) above Earth’s surface.

ESA has continued its interest in cracking down on the amount of space debris left behind by space operations in Earth orbit. At the 2023 World Economic Forum in Davos, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher reportedly expressed the agency’s commitment to “a zero debris policy,” as quoted in SpaceNews.

While it seems logical to compel space-faring entities to ensure that their satellites and rocket stages come down after the completion of their missions, ESA is right when it comes to funding projects like ClearSpace-1 and the Drag Augmentation Deorbiting System (ADEO) braking sail to remove pre-existing space junk hurtling through space.

More: Lance Bass of NSYNC Says He Tried to Go to Space in 2002 but Got a Gun to the Head Instead

via Gizmodo https://gizmodo.com

February 23, 2023 at 03:00PM

This Custom 100-Pound Laptop Has a 43-Inch Screen


At least year’s CES, Lenovo revealed a behemoth of a laptop sporting an enormous 17.3-inch screen with an ultra-wide 21:10 aspect ratio. Believe it or not, even larger laptops predate it, including a 21-inch monster that Acer put out back in 2017. Plus, Razer just released its own 18 inch laptop. But none can measure up to this custom creation, which boasts a 43-inch screen that’s larger than what most people use as desktop monitors.

Designed and built by YouTube’s Evan and Katelyn, it’s yet another custom build that completely ignores all questions except one: can we make it happen? The answer to that question was yes, but calling the result a laptop, or in any way portable, requires some loose interpretations of those words. And is it truly the “world’s biggest,” as they claim? The Guinness World Records team hasn’t weighed in on that yet.

DIY World’s Biggest Laptop

Although most of the laptop’s structure is made of plywood, sturdy metal rails were used to create the industrial-strength hinge that allows the 43-inch screen to be raised, lowered, and even locked at an angle with the help of adjustable tension levers, all without the risk of it slamming down and destroying hands and fingers in the process.

An over-sized Redragon K605 mechanical keyboard somehow looks tiny when built into this monstrosity, while a touchpad the size of a small tablet means a mouse is never needed. Although the body of the laptop was kept (relatively) thin so that it didn’t end up looking like a briefcase computer in the end, there was still lots of room inside to install an Intel NUC 11 mini desktop computer, so while games will probably look great on that large screen, this laptop isn’t exactly a gaming powerhouse.

The biggest challenge of the build was finding a way to power a laptop this size when away from a power outlet. The solution was to install a pair of beefy 150W batteries, one to power the mini PC and one to power the screen, plus a smaller third battery for all of the LED accent lighting. The final results look surprisingly polished, but unsurprisingly back-breaking. Your scientists YouTube makers were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

via Gizmodo https://gizmodo.com

February 23, 2023 at 01:04PM

MediaTek is set to unveil its own phone-to-satellite communication system next week


MediaTek is set to demonstrate its new technology that can put two-way satellite communications on smartphones at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC), which will take place from February 27th to March 2nd. Some of the devices that will show whether the semiconductor’s product actually works will come from Motorola. The manufacturer will debut two satellite smartphones, the defy 2 and CAT S75, as well as a Bluetooth accessory that comes equipped with MediaTek’s chip at the event. 

The company’s response to Qualcomm’s and Apple’s satellite technologies is a standalone chipset that can be added to any 4G or 5G phone. It uses the 3GPP Non-Terrestrial Network standard instead of proprietary technologies like Qualcomm’s and Apple’s do, which means it can be used with any network that complies with the standard. MediaTek teamed up with a company called Bullitt to use the latter’s Satellite Connect service and enable the satellite messaging feature on the aforementioned Motorola devices.

Another difference is that MediaTek’s chips connect to Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit satellites instead of to satellites in Low Earth Orbit. The chipmaker says its technology enables not just emergency SOS texts like Apple’s can, but also full two-way messaging. That means it can actually receive messages sent via satellite connection and not just send them. The iPhone 14, which debuted Apple’s satellite tech, can’t receive messages without a traditional cellular connection yet. Meanwhile, devices using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Satellite tech will need to be manually refreshed for new messages.

The Motorola defy 2 smartphone and defy Bluetooth accessory will be released in the second quarter of the year across North America, Latin America and Canada and will be the first devices to offer MediaTek’s satellite capabilities. 

A table showing how MediaTek's satellite technology differs from Qualcomm's and Apple's.

via Engadget http://www.engadget.com

February 24, 2023 at 03:26AM

Mercedes’ new MB.OS software platform is like Skynet for a carmaker


The same day Mercedes-Benz dished on the optional interior in the 2024 Mercedes-Benz E-Class, it dished on what the new Superscreen will make available to E-Class owners. Part of that will be the next-gen navigation experience being created in collaboration with Google, but there’s more — and Mercedes expects the changes to mean a lot more money for the company. Beyond being an infotainment system, not only will the software spread throughout the lineup, Mercedes says MB.OS will connect everything from vehicle development and the production value chain to vehicle functions and services long after the sale. Think of MB.OS as the program the automaker itself runs on, the breadth of capability “effectively making it an operating system for the entire Mercedes-Benz business.” In that case, vehicle infotainment would be just a node in the system.

MB.OS will debut on a new electric vehicle in the “Entry Luxury” segment on the new MMA platform (Mercedes Modular Architecture) next year. We’re not sure how much of the platform possibilities we’ll see in the new car, but we’re told part of what’s coming are new partnerships for video, gaming, and productivity. That includes being able to watch YouTube when parked or during autonomous driving; “a new dimension of in-car gaming through Antstream for arcade games;” and being able to join Zoom and Webex videoconferences from the comfort of an 12-way seat. Customers in China will get dedicated solutions from local providers like Tencent.     

Proprietary development is expected to mean a better electric ownership experience and finer execution of automated driving as well. Because Mercedes can give MB.OS access to all vehicle data, EVs will provide more precise and reliable range data. Refilling at Mercedes’ coming charging network should also be more convenient via the MB.Charge ecosystem. 

The money comes via MB.Connect and MB.Drive. The former is the umbrella for infotainment functions from navigation to entertainment and communication, the latter oversees the bundle of upgradeable driver assistance functions. The automaker says it made more than 1 billion euro in 2022 from “software-enabled revenues” like map updates and Live Traffic, both in the purview of MB.Connect. All MMA vehicles will be fitted with a new sensor suite enabling Level 2 assisted driving tailored to the more complex task of urban driving; ultimately, the company wants to offer Level 3 assisted driving at speeds up to 80 miles per hour. MB.Drive is where an owner could upgrade ADAS feature capability or go from Level 2 to Level 3 “with a fixed-term contract.” The carmaker plans that from 2025, certain functions will be upgradeable over the life of the vehicle, bringing in more billions every year. 

The first hint of the world MB.OS will open can be had now on any Mercedes running the latest version of the current MBUX infotainment software. Google’s Place Details, with information on more than 200 million businesses around the world, can be accessed in the car. The new E-Class will take the next step with the third generation of MBUX that will allow the installation of certain third-party apps instead of apps being mirrored from the phone.

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February 23, 2023 at 07:24AM

Tile thinks a $1 million fine will deter stalkers from using its trackers


Tile is giving its customers a new option to make its trackers harder for thieves to detect. But since doing so also makes it easier for stalkers to track others without their consent, the company requires verification with a government ID and biometric info to activate the feature. And if someone gets caught using them to stalk, Tile’s terms and conditions will slap them with a $1 million penalty.

The rise in popularity of Bluetooth trackers after Apple’s AirTag launch has highlighted the seemingly zero-sum balance between theft and stalking prevention. Stalking prevention measures, like emitting a sound when the tracker is following someone who isn’t its owner, can make it easier for thieves to recognize they’re being tracked (and quickly dispose of the accessory). But if you remove those protections to make theft deterrence more effective, creeps will have an easier time stalking their exes or anyone else unlucky enough to be their target.

“The bottom line is that a good locating device is also a good stalking device,” said Life360 (Tile’s parent company) CEO Chris Hulls in a Medium blog post on Wednesday. “It is almost impossible to fine-tune alerts in a way that balances the need for accuracy with timeliness. Likewise, it is nearly impossible to make notifications or alert sounds noticeable enough in any practical environment — it is often hard to hear an AirTag beep in a silent room let alone a bar or club where a stalker might be present.”

Tile’s solution tries to find the sweet spot. The Anti-Theft Mode feature will make the devices invisible to Scan and Secure, the company’s in-app feature that lets you know if any nearby Tiles are following you. But to activate the new Anti-Theft Mode, the Tile owner will have to verify their real identity with a government-issued ID, submit a biometric scan that helps root out fake IDs, agree to let Tile share their information with law enforcement and agree to be subject to a $1 million penalty if convicted in a court of law of using Tile for criminal activity. So although it technically makes the device easier for stalkers to use Tiles silently, it makes the penalty of doing so high enough to (at least in theory) deter them from trying.

A person’s left hand holding an Apple AirTag with a thumbs-up emoji laser-engraved onto it.
Apple AirTag
Chris Velazco / Engadget

Hulls believes the approach is superior to Apple’s solution with AirTag, which emits a sound and notifies iPhone users that one of the trackers is following them. (Android users need to download a separate app to receive similar alerts.) “We did our own limited internal testing (view results here) to see how quickly AirTags would trigger an alert when following someone who was not their owner, and the results were disappointing,” said Hulls. The CEO says the company’s studies, using the latest AirTag software, show that tracked participants received their first “an AirTag is moving with you” alert within one to 24 hours of walking or driving — and sometimes not for several days.

Hull says Tile will “make public, to the greatest extent legally possible, all data about any instances of misuse of Tile devices that have been Anti-Theft enabled. Finally, while I am highly confident that the numbers will prove our thesis true, if we find we are wrong, we will reverse course and publicly acknowledge our mistake.”

via Engadget http://www.engadget.com

February 16, 2023 at 12:23PM