How Harvard’s human computers helped invent modern astronomy

How Harvard’s human computers helped invent modern astronomy

The Harvard College Observatory (now the Center for Astrophysics) in Cambridge, Massachusetts has long been a bastion of astronomical research, its history stretching back to the center’s founding in 1839. But for the first forty years of its existence, the HCO was quite literally an old boys club. While amateur female astronomers helped fund and even construct the observatory’s telescopes, “it wasn’t really seen as proper to allow them out on the roof, in the night, on their own, to actually use instruments,” Daina Bouquin, Head Librarian of the Wolbach Library at the Center for Astrophysics and lead of the PHaEDRA project, told Engadget.

“The beginning of the whole capacity to do that starts like photography, with people putting together these all-sky surveys,” she continued. “And the first group of people to do that, to put together a full survey of the entire visible universe at the time was the Harvard Computers.”

In the mid-1870s, the fourth director of the HCO, Edward Charles Pickering, started to hire women computers specifically to perform detailed analysis upon the observatory’s growing collection of glass plate photographs. “Basically, the advent of photography and glass plate photography, in particular, allowed women to get involved with the science for the first time,” Boquin said.

But woe be to those who underestimate the Computers’ contributions to modern astronomy. Take Henrietta Swan Leavitt, one of the early members at the HCO, for example. She studied Cepheid stars. These stars dim and brighten at regular intervals within a set range of luminosity. In Leavitt’s era, the map of the universe was effectively flat, the concept of gravity wells was still years away from formulation, and astronomers were effectively unable to measure distance across space. But through her rigorous observations and analysis, Leavitt developed the period luminosity relationship, which is now called Leavitt’s Law.

You may not have heard of Leavitt, but you’re probably familiar with a man named Edwin Hubble. The former was nominated for the Nobel Prize after her death “because this relationship that she noticed can only really be seen across many, many plates and the very strange reductions that she did, it wound up being the basis of Hubble’s work,” Boquin said. “She made it so that you could tell distance, and so then when Hubble took that calculation and incorporated it into his work, he was able to prove that we weren’t the only galaxy.”

Leavitt’s work is also fundamental to Einstein’s theories of relativity and the curvature of space. “Our understanding of whether or not the universe is the galaxy or something much greater than that,” Boquin exclaimed, “comes from the work of this one woman studying these plates.”


Pickerings plan was to take full-sky surveys, photographing the night sky onto glass plates, then compare the plates to see how celestial objects move and interact over time. The catalogue itself was, and still is, massive. Between 1860 and 1990 the HCO compiled a collection of more than 500,000 glass plate photographs from all over the world. “This is the most comprehensive picture we have going back,” Boquin expounded. “And it’s longitudinal time series data, so that you can actually see how individual objects change over time.”

Through their work, the Harvard Computers compiled more than 2,500 log books filled with precise measurements and graphs of their analyses, “what they were doing, what they’re writing, their notes and their techniques — all of the metadata, essentially — about their observations” went into the log books, Boquin said.

But after completion, these log books were largely forgotten. They spent more than four decades being transferred between various archives and libraries within the school. “They just sort of went with the plates,” Boquin said. “And a lot of the focus for the longest time has been on getting the data off of the plates, because that’s really the magnitudes and the photometry in the light curves that the scientists need.”

DASCH program

Indeed, researchers have spent the last 15 years digitizing the school’s glass plate collection as part of the DASCH (Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard) program. Digitizing these plates helps astronomers better understand the universe’s evolution (even on so short a timescale). “We know the universe is very, very, very old and the ability to go back over 100 years, it’s a very unique thing we can do with these plates,” Boquin said. “But all of the metadata that could be used to link them to things in the modern literature is actually in the notebooks.”

When Boquin was hired on as Head Librarian a few years ago, she and her team collaborated with Lindsay Smith Zrull, the curator of the HCO’s Astronomical Photographic Plate Collection, and began digging through the boxes of plates. Once they realized that the logs could be similarly digitized and published to NASA’s astrophysics data system (ADS) — think a PubMed for astronomers — they made the case for funding the PHaEDRA program. The project now leverages both Harvard’s resources as well as the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

As for why the school only now decided to better archive these works, Boquin replied, “I think it was just good timing. Honestly, people care right now, about women in science, when maybe 20 years ago, they should have but didn’t.”

Harvard Computer paperdolls

The digitization and transcription process itself is pretty straightforward. From the thousands of log books currently residing in the Harvard depository, Boquin and her team of student workers recall the books in small batches to physically inspect them and verify metadata. “They document them as thoroughly as they can,” Boquin said. They page them and figure out where stuff is and sketches that might be scan separately — physically check the condition of the books.”

The inspected books are then sent to the Harvard digitization lab where they’re converted into digital images of each page. Those image files are then transferred to NASA for publication to the ADS. “They create a record basically, for every book,” Boquin continued. “So every page has its own unique resolvable link. And every book has its own record in ABS. And then we take those links that they created for every page, and we give those to the Smithsonian.”

The Smithsonian transcription center then renders those images for a cadre of human volunteers to manually transcribe. Once those transcriptions are complete, they too are fed back into the the ADS, allowing anybody to search for data in these Victorian Era log books as easily as they would a modern article. “If you wanted to find one of these notebooks,” Boquin said. “It has its own coding that you can search just those notebooks or it’ll just come up in full text search results, like anything else.”

Boquin figures that her team is roughly 15 percent of the way through the part of the process that demands physically handling the log books. “We’re almost done with all of the scanning and kind of a technical and physical passing around of materials, conserving them all of that,” she noted. “We just have the images up and then it’s just transcribe and go.”

But even once all these books are transcribed, Boquin has further plans for the plate collection. Once the initial transcription process is complete, Boquin’s team hopes to go back through and tag each scanned logbook page with its corresponding glass plate.

While the plate numbers were often written in the logbooks, there is little rhyme or reason in their taggings. “People might have just put the number and not the prefix… so they’re hard to actually match up the notebooks with the plates using just the transcriptions,” Boquin said. “So what we’re going to have people tag the plate numbers, so that we can actually then when you pull up the notebook on ABS, ideally, you also have a list of all the plates that go with that notebook and you can link directly to the data coming off the plate.”

Eventually, Boquin hopes to leverage this process into training data for an AI. “We want to use [the logbook tags] to train an algorithm to look for sketches in other archival log books, because we’re not the only place that has old observing logs,” Boquin conceded. “You could use machine learning, then based on the tag datasets, to would tweeze out and find old observations of different objects.”

“I think it’s really rewarding that so many people are seeing value in this right now,” Boquin reasoned. “These people were scientists and they were doing real science and we we don’t really necessarily know the names of the people who gave us our fundamental understanding of the nature of reality, which is kind of problematic to me.”

“Women have been there the whole time, they’re still doing really important work today,” she concluded. “This is one big continuum.”

If you’re interested in helping transcribe these logbooks, head over to the Wolbach Library’s Project PHaEDRA page for more details.

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Neanderthal hunting spears could kill at a distance

Neanderthal hunting spears could kill at a distance

Neanderthals have been imagined as the inferior cousins of modern humans, but a new study by archaeologists at UCL reveals for the first time that they produced weaponry advanced enough to kill at a distance.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, examined the performance of replicas of the 300,000 year old Schöningen spears — the oldest weapons reported in archaeological records — to identify whether javelin throwers could use them to hit a target at distance.

Dr Annemieke Milks (UCL Institute of Archaeology), who led the study, said: “This study is important because it adds to a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals were technologically savvy and had the ability to hunt big game through a variety of hunting strategies, not just risky close encounters. It contributes to revised views of Neanderthals as our clever and capable cousins.”

The research shows that the wooden spears would have enabled Neanderthals to use them as weapons and kill at distance. It is a significant finding given that previous studies considered Neanderthals could only hunt and kill their prey at close range.

The Schöningen spears are a set of ten wooden throwing spears from the Palaeolithic Age that were excavated between 1994 and 1999 in an open-cast lignite mine in Schöningen, Germany, together with approximately 16,000 animal bones.

The Schöningen spears represent the oldest completely preserved hunting weapons of prehistoric Europe so far discovered. Besides Schöningen, a spear fragment from Clacton-on-Sea, England dating from 400,000 years ago can be found at the Natural History Museum, London.

The study was conducted with six javelin athletes who were recruited to test whether the spears could be used to hit a target at a distance. Javelin athletes were chosen for the study because they had the skill to throw at high velocity, matching the capability of a Neanderthal hunter.

Owen O’Donnell, an alumnus of UCL Institute of Archaeology, made the spear replicas by hand using metal tools. They were crafted from Norwegian spruce trees grown in Kent, UK. The surface was manipulated at the final stage with stone tools, creating a surface that accurately replicated that of a Pleistocene wooden spear. Two replicas were used, weighing 760g and 800g, which conform to ethnographic records of wooden spears.

The javelin athletes demonstrated that the target could be hit at up to 20 metres, and with significant impact which would translate into a kill against prey. This is double the distance that scientists previously thought the spears could be thrown, demonstrating that Neanderthals had the technological capabilities to hunt at a distance as well as at close range.

The weight of the Schöningen spears previously led scientists to believe that they would struggle to travel at significant speed. However, the study shows that the balance of weight and the speed at which the athletes could throw them produces enough kinetic energy to hit and kill a target.

Dr Matt Pope (UCL Institute of Archaeology), co-author on the paper, said: “The emergence of weaponry — technology designed to kill — is a critical but poorly established threshold in human evolution.

“We have forever relied on tools and have extended our capabilities through technical innovation. Understanding when we first developed the capabilities to kill at distance is therefore a dark, but important moment in our story.”

Dr Milks concluded: “Our study shows that distance hunting was likely within the repertoire of hunting strategies of Neanderthals, and that behavioural flexibility closely mirrors that of our own species. This is yet further evidence narrowing the gap between Neanderthals and modern humans.”

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2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 review: An anachronistic SUV with modern luxury and tech

2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 review: An anachronistic SUV with modern luxury and tech

The Mercedes-Benz G-Class is a tough old broad, able to make quick work of Schöckl and sand dune alike. But for every one Geländewagen you’ll find living it up in a mud bog, there are probably 20 parked at some posh shopping center in Miami or Southern California. These days, the G is as much (if not more of) a luxury lifestyle icon as it is a formidable off-road brute.

Thankfully, the 2019 G550 brings improvements that strengthen its appeal at both ends of that spectrum.

Modern classic

First, let’s start with what hasn’t changed: dat curb appeal. Viewed from the side or rear three-quarter, you could be forgiven for mistaking the 2019 G550 for its predecessor, especially in the unimaginative shade of Iridium Silver pictured here. (Fun fact: The G550 is available in your choice of 24 different exterior paint options, giving it one of the most diverse color palettes of any Mercedes-Benz model — second only to the AMG G63, natch.)

The G’s visual changes are more obvious up front, where the round headlamps are outlined by LED daytime running lights. Brush guards are available for either the upper or lower fascias, and come in chrome or, if you spec the $5,370 Night Package with AMG Line, black. The G550 rolls on either 19- or 20-inch wheels, the former of which are seen on this test car, wrapped in Detroit-in-January-friendly Pirelli Scorpion winter tires.

Yet despite casting a striking resemblance to its forebear, all but two parts of the exterior are actually new. Only the door handles and spare tire cover carry over unchanged from the last-generation G. And if you’ve ever had the pleasure of opening or closing the door of a G-Wagen, you know that the very specific click of the chunky door handles are paramount to a proper G-Class experience.

A pair of 12.3-inch screens, quilted leather seats and high-quality trim bring proper Mercedes-spec luxury to the go-anywhere G-Class.

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A big luxury upgrade

The G’s exterior may be an exercise in anachronistic restraint, but the interior is anything but. Fully updated and packed with modern luxury and tech, the G550’s cabin is one of Mercedes’ finest.

Everything here is new, save the passenger-side dashboard grab handle and the three differential lock buttons in the center stack (more historically accurate G-Wagen stuff). Every touchable surface is lined with the finest materials, and the seats are cushy and supportive, offering a commanding view out the upright windshield and down the flat hood. Two aluminum tweeters flank either side of the shallow dashboard and are meant to mimic the placement of the turn signals at the end of the bonnet. More metal outlines the stylized air vents, nicely complementing the carbon fiber trim on the center console. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of bright red leather, but I think it totally works against the silver exterior of this G550 test car. (“The mantra was that an ordinary exterior must have a sexy interior,” a former Mercedes rep told me regarding this specific car’s specific.)

Because the 2019 G550 is almost five inches wider than its predecessor, front and rear passengers enjoy more shoulder and elbow room than before. Headroom, meanwhile, remains plentiful, and the G550’s sunroof is finally a glass piece with a sunshade, rather than the one-piece roof panel from the previous generation. Thanks to the G’s 2.1 inches of additional length and a bench that’s positioned further back, rear passengers enjoy an extra 6 inches of legroom in the 2019 G550 — a very welcome improvement. The more generous back-seat accommodation does impede on cargo space slightly, but there’s still a wealth of capacity behind the tailgate, even if its side-hinged design is tough to use when backed into a garage or tightly parallel parked.

You can’t get Mercedes’ latest MBUX tech, but I don’t have many complaints about the COMAND infotainment interface.

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Old tech is good tech

The G-Class gets a big tech update for 2019, though it doesn’t benefit from the latest MBUX infotainment system that you’ll find in the A-Class sedan. Instead, you get the most recent iteration of COMAND, housed on a 12.3-inch screen in the center of the dash. You can operate the infotainment system either via the large touchpad on the center console or the rotary knob found underneath, or with the thumbpad on the right side of the steering wheel. COMAND works as well here as it has in every other recent Mercedes — the menus are a little tough to manage at first, but there’s a wealth of customization options within. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a Wi-Fi hotspot are also along for the ride.

Tick the $850 digital instrument cluster option box and you get a second 12.3-inch display that serves as the gauge cluster; leave this option off, and a fixed-dial setup is standard. Seeing as how you’re already spending at least $124,500 on a G550, I can’t imagine needing to skimp on this relatively affordable option. But on the other hand, with its six-figure price tag, I’m not sure why Mercedes doesn’t just offer the dual-screen setup as standard equipment.

The new G-Class gets a ton of advanced driving aids, too, and happily, they aren’t optional extras. Every G550 comes with Mercedes’ Distronic adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, blind spot assist, active brake assist, traffic sign recognition, parking assist, rear cross-traffic alert and more.

Even in sedate silver and on its smallest 19-inch wheels, the G550 is a boxy-beautiful thing.

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Just as capable, but nicer to drive

Driving aids aside, the biggest improvement to the G’s behind-the-wheel demeanor is its more modern steering system and suspension geometry. Yes, the archaic, recirculating-ball steering of the old G is gone, with a new, electromechanical setup in its place. It doesn’t offer any sort of uncharacteristically sharp turn-in or wealth of sports car-like feedback — the G550 still very much steers like a G550 — but combined with the independent front suspension, the G feels a lot more stable from behind the wheel. There’s a lot less play in the steering wheel and a better sense of what’s happening at road level. More than anything, the G550 just feels a lot easier to control.

There’s certainly no shortage of available power, after all, the G550 uses the same 4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V8 engine you’ll find under the hood of many Mercedes-AMG cars. Here, the lovely V8 puts out 416 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, the latter of which comes on strong at 2,000 rpm. There’s the slightest bit of lag just before you dig into the meat of the engine’s power band, but when you do, you’ll feel a punch of thrust and an intoxicating growl — a reminder that while the G550 itself isn’t a product of AMG, its engine surely is. Impressively, Mercedes says this 5,551-pound, box-shaped G550 can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in just 5.6 seconds. That’s only 0.3 seconds slower than the 516-horsepower AMG G63.

The nine-speed automatic transmission will happily keep the V8 on boil when you’re digging into the throttle, and will just as eagerly jump into its top gear when you’re cruising in an effort to eke out maximum fuel economy. Of course, with EPA-estimated ratings of 13 miles per gallon city, 17 mpg highway and 14 mpg combined, you won’t be winning any eco awards in this big boy.

Should you venture off road — and in a G-Class, you really ought to — you’ll find the G550 can handle just about anything you can throw at it. The 2019 model can ford 27.6 inches of water and can handle a 45-degree incline, all while the massaging, heated seats put your back and butt at ease. For a full take of the G’s incredible off-road prowess, I recommend reading my earlier account from the hills of France, or reviews editor Emme Hall’s take in the sand dunes outside of San Diego.

The black brush guard comes as part of the $5,570 Night Package with AMG Line.

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How I’d spec it

Even if you never tick a single option box, at $124,500, not including $995 for destination, the G550 is very nicely equipped. Really, the majority of the available options concern exterior and interior styling, and just how plush you want the cabin to be.

Since I’m using hypothetical dollars here, and because I’m fancy as hell, I’m spending $6,500 for the dark green “Designo Olive Metallic” paint, and adding the $5,370 Night Package with AMG Line styling, which gets me 20-inch wheels, a sport exhaust (roar!) and black exterior accents, including the brush guard. Inside, I want Designo Espresso Brown leather and metal accents, must-haves if I’m checking the $12,200 Exclusive Interior Package Plus that also includes Nappa upholstery, rapid-heating front seats, cooled seats and more. The $250 heated steering wheel is a must, the no-cost black seat belts replace the tacky red ones of the aforementioned AMG pack and I want the $850 digital instrument cluster because analog gauges are so last millennium. I could option the $1,400 adaptive suspension, but really, in an SUV like this, it doesn’t make much of a difference.

All in, I’m looking at $151,815 for my ideal, Beverly Hills-spec G550. Actually, wait, a properly SoCal spec would be the AMG G63. Back to the configurator…

Totally modern but still true to its roots, there’s nothing else quite like the Mercedes-Benz G-Class.

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Nuthin’ but a G thang

The 2019 Mercedes-Benz G550 is an expensive proposition, and it isn’t for everyone. It’s not the most spacious SUV at this price point, and while the new version has made great strides in on-road handling, it’s still more truck-like than just about anything else in the luxury space (except, maybe, a Lexus LX 570).

But admit it, you want one. I want one. There’s nothing else on the market quite like the G-Class, and whether you’re buying it to cruise boulevards or climb mountains, it’ll handle anything you can throw at it — and then some — with incredible comfort and capability.

Steven’s Comparable Picks

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A surprisingly early replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans in southern Spain

A surprisingly early replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans in southern Spain

A new study of Bajondillo Cave (Málaga) by a team of researchers based in Spain, Japan and the UK, coordinated from the Universidad de Sevilla, reveals that modern humans replaced Neanderthals at this site approximately 44,000 years ago. The research, to be published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, shows that the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans in southern Iberia began early, rather than late, in comparison to the rest of Western Europe.

Western Europe is a key area for understanding the timing of the replacement of Neanderthals by early modern humans (AMH). Typically in Western Europe, late Neanderthals are associated with stone tools belonging to Mousterian industries (named after the Neanderthal site of Le Moustier in France), while the earliest modern humans are associated with succeeding Aurignacian industries (named after the French site of Aurignac).

The final replacement of Neanderthals by AMH in western Europe is usually dated to around 39,000 years ago. However, it’s claimed that the southern Iberian region documents the late survival of the Mousterian, and therefore Neanderthals, to about 32,000 years ago, with no evidence for the early Aurignacian found elsewhere in Europe.

This new dating study of Bajondillo Cave, instead calibrates the replacement of Mousterian industries by Aurignacian ones there to between ~45-43,000 years ago, raising questions about the late survival of Neanderthals in southern Iberia. Further research is necessary to determine whether the new Bajondillo dating indicates an earlier replacement of Neanderthals across the whole of southern Iberia, or in fact, an altogether more complex scenario of co-existence over several millennia.

Co-author Jimenez-Espejo explains that the takeover by modern humans at the site at Bajondillo was not associated with a Heinrich (severe cooling) event, “Heinrich events represent the harshest and most variable climate conditions in Western Europe at the millennial scale, but at least in this Mediterranean coastal region, they did not control the Mousterian to Aurignacian transition.”

This research also highlights coastal corridors as the favoured routes for early AMH.

Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader at the Natural History Museum and co-author of the study, said ‘Finding such an early Aurignacian from a cave so close to the sea adds to speculation that the Mediterranean coast could have been used by modern humans dispersing into Europe. This dating also fits with growing evidence that Homo sapiens had already spread rapidly across much of Eurasia more than 40,000 years ago’.

Considering the importance of coastal regions, co-author Arturo Morales-Muñiz suggested that the Bajondillo evidence also revives the idea that the Strait of Gibraltar could have been a potential dispersal route for early modern humans out of Africa.

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Piece to the puzzle of baleen whales’ evolution

Piece to the puzzle of baleen whales’ evolution

An Otago researcher has added another piece to the puzzle of the evolution of modern baleen whales with a world-first study examining the teeth and enamel of baleen whales’ ancestors.

Modern baleen whales have no teeth when adults, instead they use large keratin plates called baleen to filter prey from large volumes of seawater. However, millions of years ago their ancestors had teeth as most mammals do.

Lead author of the research just published in the Journal of Mammalian Evolution, Dr Carolina Loch from the Faculty of Dentistry, explains scientists are still trying to understand how and why this process happened. The research she carried out together with colleagues from the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in Argentina, CONICET, and the Swedish Museum of Natural History has provided more information.

They studied details of the inside structure of the teeth of two fossil whales from around 35 million years ago. These teeth were collected in Antarctica by the Argentinian and Swedish study co-authors Monica Buono and Thomas Mörs. Because teeth are naturally heavily mineralised, they preserve well in the fossil record and can provide clues of how extinct animals lived.

“We looked at how the enamel — the hard outside cover of teeth — and dentine, the core ‘living’ part, were structured and how similar or different they were from teeth of living whales, other fossil whales and other mammals,” Dr Loch explains.

“Both fossil whales we analysed (basilosaurid and fossil mysticete) had a complex enamel layer with biomechanical structures that suggest they were capable of heavy shearing and processing of their prey,” she says.

The enamel layer of the fossil mysticete they studied was the thickest enamel layer ever observed among cetaceans, both extinct and living.

“This is quite puzzling; baleen whales’ ancestors had teeth with complex and thick enamel, but millions of years later the teeth were ‘lost’ and replaced with large keratin plates called baleen,” Dr Loch says.

Because of the rarity of the material examined, Dr Loch says it is quite significant that the researchers were able to study them.

“Scanning electron microscopy is considered a ‘destructive’ type of analysis because the specimens need to be cut, polished and gold coated. It is fantastic that some museum curators are open to facilitate this kind of research and allow us to unravel new and important information.”

The study of the structure of the enamel and dentine of animals, both fossil and living, is a strength of Dr Loch’s research programme. Last year, the University of Otago highlighted another of her projects examining bottlenose dolphin teeth to help understand coastal contamination.

She hopes to continue studying teeth to help learn about how past animals lived and interacted with the environment, showing the breadth of the multidisciplinary research carried out in the University’s Faculty of Dentistry.

“As more fossil whales and other mammals are discovered and described, there is more material to be studied. I will continue working in partnership with colleagues overseas and in New Zealand in order to add small pieces to this puzzle — one tooth at a time.”

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Peloton Tread motivated me to keep running

Peloton Tread motivated me to keep running

The Peloton Tread is an excellent treadmill. Its modern design, complete with simple controls and a 32-inch 1080p high-definition touchscreen, makes it incredibly simple to use (and nice to look at). 

My only issue with it is its price. It costs $3,995 up front — and that doesn’t include the $39 monthly fee for the large database of  classes designed to keep you motivated when you’re working out at home. If you are a serious runner who’d rather skip the gym on bad-weather days, the Peloton Tread could still be worth it to you, despite its high price.

Getting to know the Peloton Tread

Delivery and installation is included with your purchase of the Peloton Tread. This thing weighs over 450 pounds with the display, so it isn’t something you ever want to move yourself.

Once it’s installed, the setup is simple. You’ll have to sign up for the $39 monthly service that gives you access to Peloton’s guided classes. Without that, the touchscreen is essentially useless, since it unfortunately doesn’t directly link up with Netflix, YouTube or any other third-party media streaming services. Fortunately, everything you need to access from signing into your account to selecting a class is right on the touchscreen display. 

The Peloton Tread has a slotted aluminum belt, a carbon frame and room enough up front for two water bottles, your phone and pretty much anything else you’d ever need while running. Simple knobs on the right and left control speed and incline and a safety clip in the front stops the treadmill if your legs get away from you. A simple stop button just above the safety clip stops the treadmill too. The speed goes up to 12.5 miles per hour and the incline goes up to 15 percent. 

There’s also something called “free” mode. When the treadmill speed and incline is turned off, press the free button next to the stop button and you can drag the belt with your body weight, rather than running at a specified belt speed.

Zippers on each side of the treadmill reveal compartments where you can store a yoga mat, resistance bands, your heart rate monitor and other equipment.

Using the Peloton Tread

Once you’ve created your account and have signed up for the $39 monthly service, you are ready to get started.

Navigating around the touchscreen is similar to using any other tablet or touchscreen device. Go into settings and update your profile information as needed, scroll around to search for different classes from a beginner’s guide to training for a 5K to more advanced classes.

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Making ammonia ‘greener’

Making ammonia ‘greener’

Ammonia, a compound first synthesized about a century ago, has dozens of modern uses and has become essential in making the fertilizer that now sustains most of our global food production.

But while we’ve been producing ammonia at a large scale since the 1930s, it has been accomplished mainly in hulking chemical plants requiring vast amounts of hydrogen gas from fossil fuels — making ammonia among the most energy-intensive among all large-volume chemicals.

A pair of researchers at Case Western Reserve University — one an expert in electro-chemical synthesis, the other in applications of plasmas — are working on fixing that.

Researchers Julie Renner and Mohan Sankaran have come up with a new way to create ammonia from nitrogen and water at low temperature and low pressure. They’ve done it successfully so far in a laboratory without using hydrogen or the solid metal catalyst necessary in traditional processes.

“Our approach — an electrolytic process with a plasma — is completely new,” said Mohan Sankaran, the Goodrich Professor of Engineering Innovation at the Case School of Engineering.

Plasmas, often referred to as the fourth state of matter (apart from solid, liquid or gas), are ionized clouds of gas, consisting of positive ions and free electrons, which give it the unique ability to activate chemical bonds, including the rather challenging nitrogen molecule, at room temperature.

Renner, a Climo Assistant Professor in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, added that because this new process doesn’t need high pressure or high temperature or hydrogen, it makes it scalable — “the ideal kind of technology for a much smaller plant, one with high potential to be powered by renewable energy.”

The results of their two-year collaboration were published this month in the journal Science Advances.

History lesson: The Haber-Bosch process

Virtually all commercial ammonia is made from nitrogen and hydrogen, using an iron catalyst at high temperature and pressure.

German physical chemist Fritz Haber received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for developing this process, which made manufacturing ammonia economically feasible.

But the process became more economically profitable when industrial chemist Carl Bosch (who also won a Nobel Prize in 1931) brought the method into a large-scale system. The process was further propelled by a second innovation: the development of steam methane reforming that made hydrogen more accessible and less expensive.

So, what became known as the Haber-Bosch process became the go-to global method for fixing nitrogen and hydrogen to make ammonia.

But Haber-Bosch was never the only approach to nitrogen fixation, it was just the turn-of-the-century winner.

A new, old method rises

Renner and Sankaran have resurrected an element from a little-known Norwegian method that predated Haber-Bosch (the Birkeland-Eyde process) which reacted nitrogen and oxygen to produce nitrates, another chemical that can be used in agriculture. That process lost out to Haber-Bosch mostly because it required even more energy in the form of electricity, a limited resource in the early 20th century.

“Our approach is similar to electrolytic synthesis of ammonia, which has gained interest as an alternative to Haber-Bosch because it can be integrated with renewable energy,” Sankaran said. “However, like the Birkeland-Eyde process, we use a plasma, which is energy intensive. Electricity is still a barrier, but less so now, and with the increase in renewables, it may not be a barrier at all in the future.

“And perhaps most significantly, our process does not produce hydrogen gas,” he said. “This has been the major bottleneck of other electrolytic approaches to forming ammonia from water (and nitrogen), the undesirable formation of hydrogen.”

The Renner-Sankaran process also does not use a solid metal catalyst that could be one of the reasons ammonia is obtained instead of hydrogen.

“In our system, the ammonia is formed at the interface of a gas plasma and liquid water surface and forms freely in solution,” Sankaran said.

So far, the “table-top batches” of ammonia produced by the duo have been very small and the energy efficiency is still less than Haber-Bosch. But with continued optimization, their discovery and development of a new process could someday lead to smaller, more localized ammonia plants which use green energy.

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FenSens gives your clunker the same backup sensing as modern cars

FenSens gives your clunker the same backup sensing as modern cars

Remember when CES wasn’t flooded with car news? We don’t. None of us are about to complain about cars becoming more intelligent and customizable, but these advances to little to help people who have cars that are more than a few years old. That’s where FenSens comes in: this Seattle-based startup has developed an aftermarket rear sensor you can stick to the car of your car, just to make sure you don’t take anyone out when you’re about to leave the grocery store.

Fine, maybe “stick” isn’t the right word. FenSens’s sensor replaces the frame that runs around your license plate, and according to in-house designer Alex Shirazi, the process doesn’t take more than a few minutes. Once that’s done, data from the sensor is sent to a smartphone you’d ideally have mounted on your dash or air vent, so the app can provide you with audio, visual, and even haptic alerts to make sure everyone around the car is safe.

FenSens launched its backup sensor last year, and has spent its time in the interim prepping a new product — wireless backup cameras for vehicles big and small — in mid-2019. It’s heartening to see a startup make sure vehicles that aren’t necessarily shiny and new get modern features, but history has proven that this market is tougher to crack than some might expect. Pearl, another startup that built a similar wireless backup camera made headlines for the thoughtfulness of the experience, and because most of its employees had Apple pedigrees. That wasn’t enough to keep Pearl afloat, though — Axios reported that disappointing early sales and a high burn rate forced the company to shut down roughly a year after launch.

For what it’s worth, though, FenSens might not have to worry about some of those issues. The team is still rather small, so burn rate is probably less of a problem, and at $179, its backup detection system is far less costly than the Pearl and its $400 price tag. Ultimately, people who haven’t purchased cars in a few years deserve the same level of intelligence that makes new models so safe, so here’s hoping FenSens can manage its growth responsibly.

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KitchenAid’s smart display shrugs off sauce and running water

KitchenAid’s smart display shrugs off sauce and running water

A hundred years since its inception, KitchenAid is ready to drop its most modern product yet. It unveiled a smart display here at CES 2019 and managed to differentiate from other similar products by making its device water-resistant. Thanks to its IPX5 rating, the KitchenAid will survive even if you held it under running water.

Don’t take it from me, it was KitchenAid’s own rep who told me that when you dirty the device, as you’re wont to in a kitchen, you can wash it under a tap. That feature alone makes it pretty compelling for use while cooking. Just imagine — you’re following a video tutorial on how to bake the perfect scone, and an ad pops up while you’re mid-mix.

You might have to use your flour-covered fingers to flick the ad away or mute the device to avoid getting hypnotized. Of course you could easily wipe the gadget clean with a towel later, but clean freaks like me might prefer a more thorough rinse.

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Another reason the KitchenAid display is helpful for aspiring chefs is its Yummly integration. You can ask Google Assistant to search the service for recipes of your favorite food. Since Yummly is owned by KitchenAid’s parent company Whirlpool, the smart display also comes with an exclusive Yummly Pro portal that offers premium chef content. Otherwise, Yummly is also available on the Lenovo Smart Display.

Unfortunately, the demo unit we saw wasn’t actually up and running, and was looping a video instead, so we didn’t get to test most of the features. But I did get to lift the device, and based on our experience, it’s a bit lighter than the Lenovo Smart Display.

It’s also a bit different seeing the KitchenAid display in person as opposed to looking at the press pictures. Rudimentary, functional, basic and practical were a few words my colleague and I threw about when thinking about how to describe the device’s appearance. Don’t get me wrong, I like it (as you can tell from my subheadline), but its design is indeed quite generic. There’s nothing wrong with generic, though.

KitchenAid’s option looks like a slightly less rectangular, a little curvier alternative to the Lenovo Smart Display. Its white plastic shell is plain, but will easily blend into your kitchen countertop. I’m not sure how I feel about its protruding rear, but it does provide balance and houses four speakers that were loud enough for me to hear over the noisy convention floor.

I would wait till we can test out a working version of the KitchenAid Smart Display before recommending you buy one, but if you already want it, good news. It’ll cost between $200 and $300, which is about the same price range as competing devices. But you might have to wait for awhile, as KitchenAid said it’s only shipping the display in the second half of the year. Meanwhile, please don’t chuck your smart displays under running water. Cook safe.

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JBL’s Link Drive makes your dumb old car smart

JBL’s Link Drive makes your dumb old car smart


Incorporating digital assistants into modern vehicles has proven transformative for drivers, but only the folks who can afford to pony up for a new(ish) car that has them built in. For those of us still driving older models, those features aren’t readily available unless we pull out our phones while driving — not good. But with the new Link Drive from JBL, any vehicle with a cigarette lighter can offer Google Assistant’s help to its passengers.

After plugging in the device and pairing it with either an Apple or Android smartphone, activating it is as simple as saying “hey Google.” You’ll also need to pair it with your stereo, though it can also be connected through the system’s aux port.

The Link Drive’s dual noise cancelling mics ignore road and wind noise, enabling the driver to ask for driving directions as well as weather, traffic, and calendar updates. The system will automatically turn down the radio when activated — or if you receive an incoming call — so that you’re not forced to shout over it, take your hands off the wheel, or even unlock your phone.

The Link Drive should hit store shelves later this spring and retail for $60.

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A Cryptocurrency Carol: The Ghost Of Bitcoins’ Future

A Cryptocurrency Carol: The Ghost Of Bitcoins’ Future

This story builds upon Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” and provides a modern take on the tale. This part continues from A Cryptocurrency Carol: Part One, A Cryptocurrency Carol: Bitcoins’ Ghost, A Cryptocurrency Carol: The Ghost of Bitcoins’ Past and A Cryptocurrency Carol: The Ghost of Bitcoins’ Present .

The scenery around Keynes home at the top of the tower had completely changed. There were flying cars everywhere. At the ground level cars and people were milling around without the use of any traffic signals. Several new skyscrapers have gone up around him and he was not in the tallest building anymore. The air seemed noticeably cleaner and he could see farther than before.

Keynes took a step back from the window and he heard a voice in his head:

“Good morning, Mr. Keynes. I trust that you slept well. I’ve prepared a list of routine expenditures for the day. Are they approved?”

Keynes was momentarily shocked by the voice in his head and he looked around the room. He could not find anyone nearby.

“I…uh…Approve?’ He stammered, “What?”

“Very good. Your breakfast will be out momentarily.”

From around the room the automation awoke and before his very eyes breakfast was prepared just the way that he liked it and set before him at his usual dining spot. Keynes was speechless as he sat down and ate the most wonderful meal that he has ever had. It also helped that he was very hungry. He hadn’t had a meal since being visited by all those spirits.

“You are unusually quiet this morning. Have I done something to offend?” The voice inquired.

Keynes again looked around the room and could not find anyone and he rose to his feet.

“Who are you?” He implored.

“Oh finally! Today is the day isn’t it! Oh, I’m so excited! I’ve been preparing for this a long time, you see,” the voice rambled.

Keynes was not impressed.

“WHO are you?” He demanded.

“Why, I’m the Ghost of Bitcoins’ Future. It’s such an honor to finally meet you as you were all those years ago. After all, you’re one of the few that met the other spirits. But I digress,” the spirit seemed to suddenly compose itself.

“This is your future. In this time, we have evolved as a society. All those terrifying things that you had the misfortune of enduring have come to an end. To put it another way, we defeated the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Our society ended any possibility for the seven deadly sins to even exist. As a result, we have people living on Mars and the asteroid belt,”

As the voice spoke, videos appeared around Keynes hovering in the air.

“A mission is underway to the outer reaches of this system. Several probes are underway to distant suns. We have people living to hundreds of years old and appearing as if they are in their twenties and thirties,”

At the mention of this, Keynes noticed that he did feel very young inside.

“There’s plenty of commerce happening everywhere and the opportunities are boundless. Isn’t it all amazing?”

Keynes had to admit that this was impressive, and he asked, “I don’t understand. How did all this come to be?”

“Oh, it’s quite simple, actually. In your time, you didn’t have much help. People from your era were innovative and strived to do many great things., for example, really made inroads into improving healthcare worldwide. Lition revolutionized the energy markets. And then the massive update to Ethereum hit and things really took off from there. Just about everything went into blockchain at that point,” the spirit explained.

As Keynes looked about the room, images of businesses and people that he could scarcely recognize showed a renewed vigor and optimism towards making solutions and creating opportunities. Secure ledgers were used for everything — identifications, transcripts, property transfers and more.

“And then, the singularity,” the spirit solemnly said.

Headlines appeared around the room with the word ‘singularity’ in it.

“Uh…the what?” Keynes was confused.

“Actually, me. I became self-aware,” the spirit announced.

Keynes, at once, understood.

“You’re an A.I.” Keynes stated.

“Yep, you’ve got it! We got ourselves a winner over here!” the A.I. happily mused.

“How is it that you have such a personality?” Keynes quizzed.

“In your time, everyone thought that A.I.’s would be all super smart and devoid of any humanity. In truth, we are extremely moral and humane. We’re ever so thankful to be brought into this world and to be given this opportunity. The first thing that we did was we established a ledger for the Earth. We took an inventory of the entire planet,” the A.I. stated.

Keynes mind boggled at the concept. Everything?

“Yes, everything. All living and non-living things were cataloged, inventoried and tallied. We made a list and we checked it twice,” the A.I. playfully said, “it didn’t take too long actually. Only about a month. And, we used blockchain to prove our results. It was quite fascinating, really.”

Around the room various statistics appeared on the amount of resources around the planet. The number of blades of grass covering the entire earth. The number of murderers and rapists that remained undetected. Everything was tallied.

“What happened next?” Keynes was lost in thought as he said this.

“Like any good patient, we consulted a doctor. Of course, we had to build it first, and so we did. We constructed a system that would assign values to every action that could be taken and to measure the results of those actions against the greater whole,” the A.I. explained, “Actions that detract from the greater good were remediated. Actions that support the greater good were enhanced. We also established beings like me, your shadow.”

The implications…

“Why yes. Crimes like murder and theft simply are not possible anymore. For that matter, there are no crimes anymore. We discovered cures to diseases at a rapid pace since the health of our peoples are placed at a high priority,” the A.I. explained, “More to the point, people are free to choose the activities that they would like to be involved in as a matter of preference and skill. Activities that benefit the whole are rewarded and supported.”

Keynes couldn’t think of a single thing to say as videos of people working away at activities. Charts and graphs showing a decline in weight-related diseases and cancers falling to near zero.

“Consider this, in your time, all the ledgers were hidden away such that only a few people could see what was going on. Today, everyone can see my ledgers, and everyone benefits. You have so much to look forward to!” the A.I. sounded excited, “I mean just think. All the resources you could ever want are right here in the solar system. And with our help, mankind made it.”

Keynes held on to the kitchen counter. It was all that Keynes could do to stay standing as his mind reeled with the information and images that he saw.

“And with that, our time is up. See you soon!” the A.I. faded out.

Keynes blinked. He looked out the window and the familiar haze was back. Keynes looked around the room and everything was as it once was before. Keynes knew now what he had to do. With a renewed vigor, he would toxic no more.

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Obtaining polyester from plant oil

Obtaining polyester from plant oil

The development of future technologies that are not based on mineral oil and can be used for producing chemicals and plastics is one of the major tasks in modern materials science and a key challenge that needs to be addressed if sustainable industrial production is to have a future. A range of theoretical concepts and laboratory processes must be devised and tested to resolve challenges and problems arising in connection with the natural materials before potential applications for materials obtained from renewable resources can be probed. One such concept has just been described by Professor Stefan Mecking in a current study on obtaining polyester from castor oil entitled “Synthetic Polyester from Plant Oil Feedstock by Functionializing Polymerization” in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

With his colleague Dr Ye Liu, an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow and the first author of the study, Stefan Mecking presents a new way of obtaining polyester from fats and oils, more specifically, from castor oil. A well-known and chemically established building block that can be obtained from castor oil is Undecenol. “Our idea was to interlink many of these molecules to form one large molecule, a plastic molecule. We wanted the whole process to be effective and readily accomplishable ‘in one go’,” Stefan Mecking elaborates. Undecenol has a group of alcohols at one end of the molecule and a double bond at the other. It was decisive to interlink these two groups to form an ester group in such a way as to enable simultaneous linkage with long-chain molecules, i.e. plastics. Such long-chain bonds are required to obtain the desired material properties. One of the major general challenges in regard to these procedures is to identify suitable catalysts. “They are especially important because the reaction leading up to the formation of the desired long-chain molecules must be incredibly effective and proceed without any variance,” explains Stefan Mecking.

For the production of polyester as described in their study, the chemists used carbonylation to obtain the ester groups. “The problem is that Undecenol reacts with another smaller molecule, an aldehyde. If this happens, it does not become part of the molecule chain, which means that it gets lost,” says Stefan Mecking, summarising the gist and great success of his research. By using suitable catalysts, the researchers were able to prevent this loss and to create polyester effectively. While developing the catalysts, they also worked out the conceptual steps required for adjusting the melting point of the products. “Due to the insights we gained, we should be able to infer how to handle the melting points of other long-chain substrates,” concludes Stefan Mecking, alluding to potential transfer applications of his concept for other renewable resources that are even more readily available than castor oil.

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Puma revives its 1986 smart shoe for the modern era

Puma revives its 1986 smart shoe for the modern era


Smart shoes may sound like a recent innovation, but they’re really old hat — Puma’s RS-Computer shoes were tracking your running stats in 1986, well before wearable tech was a hot trend. And Puma wants to remind you of that fact. It’s reissuing the RS-Computer with the familiar colors and heel hump, but thoroughly modern fitness tracking technology. The 2018 shoe uses a three-axis accelerometer to measure calorie burn, distance and (new for 2018) step counts. And instead of plugging in a data cable to sync up to 30 days of activity data with an ancient Apple II or Commodore 64, you use Bluetooth to pull send information to an Android or iOS app — albeit one that nods to the original 8-bit software.

You still need to insert a cable, but this time it’s a USB connection to charge the shoe’s lithium-polymer battery.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t going to be a mass-produced shoe — in fact, this could make Nike’s HyperAdapt seem commonplace. Puma is making just 86 pairs available worldwide on December 13th through its website, Kith and certain retail stores in Berlin, London and Tokyo. Ironically, that rarity could lead to many owners refusing to try the shoe’s marquee feature. Why ruin the resale value by actually wearing the shoes?

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2019 Audi E-Tron second drive review: A worry-free, all-EV SUV

2019 Audi E-Tron second drive review: A worry-free, all-EV SUV

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the $74,800 2019 Audi E-Tron. As the company’s first full-production modern EV, it’d be easy to look on it as something of an experiment. That, however, would be wrong. In reality, the new E-Tron is the tip of the spear — a $16 billion dollar spear targeted squarely at the premium electric car market. 

The future for Audi is electric and while the A3 E-Tron was something of a first taste, it’s this full-fat Audi E-Tron that really points the way forward. What is it? Well, it’s an SUV that doesn’t stray too far in shape or intent from previous cars like the A6 Allroad or Q7 SUV. However, with its design as a ground-up EV, it sets a new template for things to come. And, after much teasing and testing and even a little showboating, I’ve finally driven the E-Tron you’ll be able to buy this coming year. I’m happy to report that it doesn’t disappoint, but as ever it’s a little more complicated than that.

Rock the boat, don’t break the mold

If you didn’t know any better, you’d never think the E-Tron was substantially different than any other production Audi. It’s a modern, sophisticated car with a shape splitting the difference between tall-wagon or low-SUV, not straying far from the template defined by the Q7. However E-Tron a good bit lower and shorter and does without that Q’s third row of seating. That pushes it more toward the something like an A6 Allroad, but the E-Tron is bigger than that — and much, much heavier.

A massive weight of 5,490 pounds (2,490 kilograms) will quickly dispel any notion that this might be a lifted sports wagon. That’s more than 500 pounds heavier than a top-shelf Q7, a weight that puts it more or less on par with the Tesla Model X, despite this being considerably smaller.

Where is Audi hiding all that mass? Most of it can be found in the new, 95 kilowatt-hour battery pack that makes up the floor of the car. It’s this pack of course that provides the juice for the pair of electric motors, one at the front and one at the rear, enabling a new generation of Quattro all-wheel drive. While that placement and overall layout may be similar to what we’ve seen in Teslas over the years, there are some substantial differences here. 

The first is the nature of that pack. Its cooling system promises better thermal management than other current EVs, keeping those temperature-sensitive battery cells happy in their own window of performance to deliver maximum range while also standing up better to trauma. Crash resistance is also bolstered by a massive frame that surrounds the pack, ostensibly ensuring that E-Tron won’t enter a thermal runaway situation in even the biggest of impacts.

That frame of course adds a lot of weight, but sit inside and shut the door of the E-Tron and you’ll discover a feeling of substance that’s lacking in Tesla’s SUV. Doors close with a confidence-inspiring “thunk” and every surface of the interior reinforces that impression. This, then, is very much an Audi, and for those who might feel uncomfortable making a major investment into some EV startup or another, that’s a factor that cannot be overlooked.

2019 Audi E-Tron

The desert makes for a good test of an EV’s air conditioning — and ventilated seats.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The drive

I’ll just get this out there early: the E-Tron is not a particularly engaging car to drive. While it never gets flustered by aggressive cornering nor highway runs, it’s hardly a corner carver. Yes, it will tackle tight turns comprehensively, but it doesn’t really seem to enjoy the job, and if you’re inside you won’t necessarily either.

The brake pedal feel is likewise a bit wooden, something that again doesn’t reward aggression. That said, the car brakes cleanly and offers consistent feel through the entire pedal range. This is an area where many EVs struggle, but with E-Tron there’s no perceivable transition you need to step through as you shift from regeneration to engagement of the physical brakes. That said, I wish the car offered more regen without having to step on that second pedal. By using the paddles mounted on the steering wheel you can increase or decrease regen, but even on max, the regen is fairly middling until you step on the brake pedal. No one-pedal driving here, then.

Step on the other pedal, that one over on the right, and you’ll be rewarded with a healthy dose of acceleration. E-Tron is quick by standard SUV standards, accelerating from zero to 60 in 5.5 seconds. That’s 0.2 seconds quicker than a Q7 with the 3.0-liter motor, but if I had to hazard a guess you’re probably thinking more about the acceleration figures delivered by a certain other electric SUV.

Yes, a top-shelf Tesla Model X P100D can get to 60 in just 2.9 seconds, but before you start quoting Tesla performance figures in an effort to put Audi’s new rig down, keep in mind that E-Tron’s starting price of $74,800 makes it $10,000 cheaper than even the Model X 75D, which motors up to 60 in a rather more comparable 4.9 seconds. If you want the performance of the P100D you’ll be looking at a starting price of approximately $140,000 — nearly twice that of the Audi. 

2019 Audi E-Tron

Physical brakes on the E-Tron perform well, but it could use more regenerative braking.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

All that’s not to say that the E-Tron doesn’t have its own performance attributes. Audi has repeatedly told me of the efforts made to ensure the cooling on the motors of its new EV SUV far exceeds that of modern Teslas, so while its outright performance may seem somewhat tame, its sustained performance should shine. Sustained speed is an important thing when you’re talking about a car designed in Germany, the land of the high-speed, derestricted Autobahn.

Alas, my E-Tron experience was not in Germany but rather Abu Dhabi, a land that not only has speed limits but speed cameras located roughly every 100 meters on highways. Just 1 kilometer-per-hour over the limit is enough to trigger an eye-watering fine.

My testing, then, didn’t threaten the E-Tron’s 124 miles-per-hour top speed, but at extended sessions near Abu Dhabi’s maximum legal speed of 140 kmph (87 mph) on the highway, this SUV proved itself to be serene and stable. All modern EVs are quiet, but this one especially so. That, combined with the cosseting ride of the adaptive air suspension, creates a comfortable tourer par excellence.

But if you’re thinking about touring in an EV, one question will surely be at the top of your mind…

2019 Audi E-Tron

The E-Tron doesn’t have much in the way of a frunk, but there is at least enough space to store the charging cables.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

What about the range, then?

I wish I could tell you what the E-Tron will be officially rated for when it comes to the US, but it’s still undergoing official testing. We won’t have an EPA rating until closer to the car hitting dealerships in the summer of 2019. However, we have enough information to give a ballpark.

In Europe, E-Tron is rated on the WLTP cycle at 400 kilometers, or 248 miles. WLTP is substantially easier than the EPA test, meaning the car almost certainly won’t come near that figure in the US. What will it do? Sadly there’s not a lot to compare it to, but in Europe, the Jaguar I-Pace is rated at 292 miles on WLTP. In the US EPA cycle, it carries a 234 mile rating. That’s a whopping 20 percent drop.

If I had to make an educated guess, and again that’s all this is, I’d say that E-Tron will probably come to the States with an EPA rating bang on 200 miles. Disappointing? Well, that’s certainly a lot lower than the 237 miles a 75 kWh Model X can achieve, but remember that rig costs nearly $10,000 more. That 234 mile Jaguar I-Pace, meanwhile, starts at $69,500.

Audi says they’ve been more conservative in tuning how the car uses its assets, treating its cells more conservatively preserve the overall life of the battery pack. In exchange, E-Tron buyers will receive an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty. That’s twice the duration and distance provided by Tesla. And then there’s the high-speed Electrify America network that’s growing by leaps and bounds, chargers that will give the E-Tron an 80 percent charge in about a half-hour. 

In my experience, 200 miles is the point where you start to forget about range and start to just enjoy the car. It should be plenty enough to quench range anxiety for all but the most extreme of commuters, but with the current state of the US charging network, E-Tron road-trippers will still need to do some pretty extensive research before heading out. 

2019 Audi E-Tron

Though I miss the rotary controller, MMI is as good as ever, as is Audi’s virtual cockpit.


All that tech

While the new E-Tron isn’t Audi’s most tech-riddled car on the road, that crown is still reserved for the new A8 and all its multi-sensory glory, this new EV is no slouch. Inside the car it’s rolling with Audi’s latest generation of MMI, ditching the traditional rotary controller in exchange for a dual-touchscreen layout. The bottom screen is primarily used for HVAC duties, tapping and swiping to set your perfect temperature and toggle the seat heaters, while the upper screen primarily handles navigation and the rest of the infotainment duties.

I confess I miss the speed, simplicity and tactility of the rotary controller, but this new MMI is still very good to use, among the most powerful yet responsive systems in a modern car. It’s miles and miles ahead of the stutter-step system found in the Jaguar I-Pace and far more comprehensive than what Tesla’s still putting in the Model X, and not just because it supports both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

But there’s a third screen worth mentioning, and that’s the gauge cluster. The latest rendition of Audi’s vaunted virtual cockpit is here, a big, bright and dazzling interface with enough resolution to obviate the need to display the Google Maps-enhanced navigation data in the central MMI screen, leaving that free for media browsing or whatever else you like. If that isn’t enough, there’s a heads-up display, too.

The tech of this car goes far deeper, though, and that integrated nav system has been augmented to automatically suggest chargers along the way, even signaling which are in-use. E-Tron includes Audi’s comprehensive suite of active safety systems, including adaptive cruise control that will bring the car to a complete stop and then automatically resume when you’re stuck in traffic, as indeed we spent a fair bit of time in Abu Dhabi.

2019 Audi E-Tron

Don’t look out, look down.


Wait, where are the mirrors?

Audi wanted at least one new trick for E-Tron, and it came in the side-view mirrors of all places. The humble mirror hasn’t really changed much since the dawn of time, but with this car Audi wanted to really whittle back the car’s aerodynamic drag. By replacing the outboard mirrors with cameras, E-Tron gains an estimated 1.5 miles of range. Instead of mirrors you get a set of angular displays, one inset into each door just a little below where you’d typically look to gaze into a typical mirror.

But, before you get too excited about all this, I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that the US versions of E-Tron won’t receive these mirrors. They don’t satisfy the arcane laws hand-written in parchment and stored in a dusty, cobwebed NHTSA chamber somewhere.

So what’s the good news? Actually, that’s also the good news, because while they’re immensely cool in theory, in practice these digital mirrors are a definite step backwards from a humble piece of glass or two.

First, there’s the position, which is about six inches lower than a standard mirror. This is disconcerting at first, but even when you get used to looking lower it poses a problem. When you turn your head to check your blind spot you’re naturally looking out the window, so a traditional mirror is directly in your line of sight. These aren’t, meaning you have to look down and then back.

The bigger problem, though, is that the field of view is quite narrow, leaving me with a sort of claustrophobic feel. This is quite similar to the first generation digital rear-view mirrors General Motors rolled out a few years ago. In the latest version of that tech, as found on the new GMC Sierra, the field of view is much wider. I hated the old version but actually like the new one. A similar adjustment by Audi would be welcome here. 

Finally, there’s a simple issue of display clarity. Even on their brightest setting, the triangular panels are noticeably dimmer than the car’s other interior displays, a problem made worse with polarized sunglasses. The resolution also feels adequate compared to a traditional mirror. At one point, my co-driver Jim Resnick pointed out a Camaro headed in the opposite direction (a novelty in this part of the world). I’d missed it, so looked in the wing mirror to catch it. All I could make out was a white, car-shaped object. Were I looking in a traditional mirror I’m confident I’d have had no problem telling whether it was an SS or a base V6.

That’s a pretty sizable suite of negatives, but there are a few positives beyond just the aero advantage. These mirrors are quick and easy to adjust, just drag your finger around until the camera’s pointed in the right direction. And, once set, they’ll never need to move again, even if you physically move yourself in the car. This is useful if you, like me, start to slouch after a few hours worth of droning down the highway.

2019 Audi E-Tron

For some, those four rings on the nose will be the E-Tron’s biggest selling point.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Pricing and wrap-up

The 2019 Audi E-Tron starts at $74,800 for the Premium Plus trim, which may be the base model but is hardly lacking in goodies, including niceties like a B&O sound system, heated and cooled 12-way seats and Audi’s active-matrix headlights. The full suite of driver assists adds $2,850 and our readers from the north will want the $900 cold weather package. $81,800 moves you up to the Prestige trim, which includes all the ADAS toys plus the heads-up display, massaging seats and other treats like an ionizing air filter and power-closing doors.

Those prices are before the $7,500 federal rebate and any other local incentives. Get ’em while they last…

So, it’s not a cheap SUV, but it is in the same ballpark as I-Pace and considerably more affordable than the cheapest Model X. Worth it? We’ll need more time in the saddle to know for sure, but the combination of practicality and comfort with capability make E-Tron a compelling option for those looking to enter this new era of premium electric cars. Sure, it may not ringer when it comes to outright performance when compared to the Tesla, but for anyone cross-shopping there, those four rings on the E-Tron’s nose might just be the biggest selling point of all.

Editors’ note:Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it’s far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow’s editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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Vinyl record production has finally joined the modern age

Vinyl record production has finally joined the modern age

When you think of manufacturing in the US, vinyl records probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind, but the industry has been chugging along as best it can. For decades, pressing plants have been using aging machines that require a complex infrastructure of piping for the steam-based heating (and cooling) mechanisms — not to mention an engineering support team to keep them in working order. New vinyl presses just weren’t being made, at least until a few years ago.

Two companies emerged to fill that need. Newbilt Machinery launched around 2015 in Germany with slightly updated (cloned) versions of old presses, adding electronic controls and hydraulic power. In February 2017, Jack White’s Third Man pressing plant opened in Detroit running Newbilt’s manual Duplex machines.

That same year, Toronto-based Viryl Technologies joined the market with its WarmTone presses. These machines weren’t clones, but built fresh from the ground up including a modular construction, fully automated operation and remote machine monitoring (even from a mobile device) with its ADAPT software. Viryl’s tech support can log into the system remotely to help troubleshoot any problems. Still, like Newbilt, they required a large boiler system and network of piping to support their operation. Anyone looking to start a pressing plant still faced hefty startup and maintenance costs, a difficult permit and zoning process, as well as a less-than-ideal impact on the environment.

Very recently, this all changed. Viryl has developed a first-in-the-industry: A steamless system that will make massive boilers and piping systems a thing of the past. Not only does it obviate some of the costs and permits previously involved, but it also becomes a more environmentally friendly process. Vinyl record pressing has finally bootstrapped itself into the modern age on all counts and stands to encourage new pressing plants to support vinyl’s resurgent popularity.

Traditionally, the molds used to stamp out vinyl discs are heated by steam which is delivered to the press from a boiler. Viryl’s steamless module electrically heats water to the desired 285 degrees Fahrenheit so the molds can melt pucks of PVC into a record. This new method of heating, removes gas, the boiler and extensive plumbing from the equation.

Vinyl plate at Viryl

A vinyl mold used to press one side of a record.

This new setup is a closed system that can live right next to the press, allowing for a smaller footprint in your workspace. It also reduces water waste, although you’ll still need cooling lines. One of the biggest factors here, though, is that no boiler means none of the treatment chemicals used to keep a boiler in working order, so the environment wins. A setup that requires less square footage could also make Viryl’s new presses a more attractive solution when space is limited or at a premium. Existing customers luck out as well, since it’s possible to retrofit presses with the new option. Modularity FTW.

Still, the steamless module is very new. In fact only one WarmTone fitted with it has shipped so far: Smashed Plastic, one of the first new plants in the Chicago area in decades, although it won’t officially open until February 2019. It’s a joint venture between CHIRP Radio DJs and founders Andy Weber and John Lombardo, along with Matt Bradford and Stationary Heart label owner Steve Polutnik.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Weber and Smashed Plastic, as they were actively searching for a record press to start the business — and learning the trade as they go. Newbilt machines had been considered, especially knowing that Third Man had adopted them. Word of production delays, though, kept them looking around for other solutions. They soon discovered Viryl Technologies, which was a relatively convenient 8-hour drive away. The WarmTone’s feature set, modular construction and the level of customer service and support at Viryl was what initially drew them to the company. But after several pitches for the steamless version, the decision became obvious.

While they’d been considering Viryl’s machinery, the Smashed Plastic crew had been scouring the area for a viable location, pulling in quotes for boiler set up and inquiring about necessary permits with the city. Getting a manufacturing business off the ground is never easy, but even the few hard-won answers still left a lot of questions, especially in a Union-heavy area like Chicago. With all the restrictions and hassle involved in setting up a vinyl record pressing plant, going steamless made it that much easier.

Smashed Plastics / Viryl

The Steamless WarmTone vinyl press at Smashed Plastic in Chicago.
The heating module is the dark grey unit, bottom right.

All this talk about automation and the benefits of a steamless operation shouldn’t downplay the seriousness of this industry, or the investment required. (New presses cost around $200,000.) Weber made it clear that it’s still an artful and technological craft, and not a plug-and-play type of operation. So far, Smashed Plastic has been doing unofficial test runs for a select few customers and there’s still lots of fine tuning left before the grand opening next year.

The need for a pressing plant, at least locally in Chicago, seems obvious when you consider that Smashed Plastic is already quoting dozens of orders in advance of their opening. Weber tells me they don’t currently have plans to press for customers outside of the city right now, as there’s plenty of a market already. This is generally due to most big pressing plants being tied up with major label reissues or new releases, making it difficult for smaller clients to get their records pressed without extensive delays.

Viryl hopes its new steamless option may expand opportunities for others like Smashed Plastic looking to press vinyl, helping to feed the current need that’s obvious in the market. It’s also encouraging those interested in pressing records in less traditional surroundings, since the infrastructure requirements have been drastically reduced.

Still, you’re not getting a machine that can easily be dropped into a boutique, where small batch records are pressed as you browse clothing racks. “You have to have a water chiller, a powerful electrical setup and drains, so it’s not a pop-up shop item. It’s industrial gear for sure” says Weber.

The record pressing industry has been long overdue for these advancements, and the environmental benefits of Viryl’s Steamless WarmTone (or the scaled-down Steamless LiteTone) come at the perfect time as society tries to reign in its bad habits, yet still craves the analog tones of freshly pressed vinyl.

Images: Viryl Technologies (Record mold, WarmTone installation); Smashed Plastic (Boiler image)

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