Members of Pixelbar woke up to shocking news on Wednesday morning this week as they learned that a fire had destroyed the building housing their Rotterdam hackerspace. Pictures of the fire are pretty dramatic and show the entire building ablaze. We’re not familiar with Pixelbar specifically, but most hackerspaces seem to share space with other businesses in repurposed warehouses and other industrial buildings, and it looks like that was the case here. Local coverage doesn’t indicate that a cause has been determined, but they do say that “large batches of wood” were stored in or near the structure, which likely contributed to the dramatic display. There don’t seem to be reports of injuries to civilians or first responders, so that’s a blessing, but Pixelbar seems to have been completely destroyed. If you’re in a position to help, check out their GoFundMe page. As our own Jenny List, who currently lives in The Netherlands, points out, spaces suitable for housing a hackerspace are hard to come by in a city like Rotterdam, which is the busiest port in Europe. That means Pixelbar members will be competing for space with businesses that have far deeper pockets, so anything you can donate will likely go a long way toward rebuilding.
NASA released the James Webb Space Telescope’s first official portrait of the Saturnian system this week, and the results are truly stunning. The images were captured using the NIRcam instrument, and show the famously ringed planet and three of its larger moons, Tethys, Enceladus, and Dione. The planet itself appears dark and muddy since the methane gas that makes up so much of its atmosphere absorbs IR light strongly. But those rings — man, do the pop! The icy bits and pieces are super reflective in the IR wavelengths, and the rings look amazing. And by way of technical context for these photos, Dr. Becky has a YouTube Short that explains how JWST can take pictures of Jupiter and Saturn while Betelgeuse is too bright to image.
Also in space news but closer to home, there’s a great article over on Space.com with an animation showing the entire path of the upcoming “Great American Eclipse.” It shows the entire path of the Moon’s shadow from landfall off the Pacific coast of Mexico until it finally zips off the edge of the globe in the North Atlantic off Newfoundland. It’s fascinating to watch the size and shape of the shadow change as it moves along, as well as seeing the shadow move faster and faster as the event proceeds. Animations like this are helpful in choosing a place to watch the eclipse; trust us, totality is where it’s at, and the closer to the centerline, the better.
Speaking of useful visualizations, we found another great animation that shows the popularity of various operating systems over the years. The animation is based on market share, so “popularity” may be stretching things a bit since we consumers generally face the Henry Ford-esque “Any OS you want as long as it’s Windows, Mac, or Chrome” choice. Still, it’s interesting to see how the distribution of OS prevalence has changed over the last 20 years. Particularly interesting is watching each new iteration of Windows chasing away the previous one — except for Windows XP, which proved remarkably resilient. Also of note is the absolutely horrible uptake of Windows 8 and 8.1, which together never managed to eclipse Windows 7. It’s also neat to see how Mac OS market share grew from barely larger than the catch-all “Other” category to more respectable numbers, and how Windows XP was still earning a slice up until 2019.
We know, we know — someday AI is going to take over the world, steal all our jobs, and reduce the planet to a radioactive cinder just to be rid of us. So we’ve got that to look forward to, but while we wait, here’s a use for AI we can really get behind: creating fake victims for scammers. Cybersecurity researchers at Macquarie University have developed multilingual chatbots that can be deployed en masse and keep scammers on the phone for extended periods of time, which based on some of the human-based “scamming the scammers” videos we’ve seen, they really, REALLY hate. So while it may not be as satisfying to observe, AI-based professional victims can probably put a real crimp in the value proposition of scamming, and make these people question why they’d spend all day crowded shoulder to shoulder in a call center trying to take advantage of the elderly and technologically unsophisticated. Or maybe not, but we still think it’s devilishly clever and wholeheartedly endorse it.
And finally, as a former “lab rat” we found this tale of woe out of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute particularly relatable. It seems that a hapless janitor is being blamed for the loss of a million dollars worth of biological samples after accidentally turning off a supercold freezer. Freezers such as these, which typically operate in the range of -80° C, are used to preserve some of the most heat-sensitive samples, and are universally alarmed in case of temperature fluctuations. This particular freezer had alarmed earlier in the day, and the alarm continued to sound while waiting for a service tech to arrive. The janitor noticed the annoying alarm and attempted to help by fiddling with the lab’s circuit breakers. Unfortunately, he mistakenly switched the circuit off, with predictable results. The university is suing the cleaning service that employed the janitor, of course, who claims he thought he was being helpful. It’s hard to know who’s right and who’s wrong here without knowing the specifics better, but having been in a similar position before, we can say one thing for sure: if you’ve got a million bucks worth of samples in a dodgy minus-80, you don’t just leave it — you either move the samples or you post someone to make sure the freezer doesn’t turn off. That’s literally what grad students are for.