Faster Memory, Ebola Protection, and A Plane That Delivers Internet (.org) Access | Vol. 2 / No. 40

Intel's new "breakthrough" memory, XPoint; Photo:Intel
Intel and Micron’s new “breakthrough” memory, 3D XPoint; Photo:Intel

3D XPoint

In a big announcement this week, Intel and Micron together described the creation of the first new class of mainstream computer memory since the development of NAND flash (solid-state, like in your phone or camera memory cards) in 1989. It’s pronounced “three-dee cross-point,” in case you want to tell your friends about it. 3D XPoint is non-volatile, which means that it’s not like RAM, which forgets everything when you turn off your computer, but more like magnetic drives or solid-state drives. But, it’s also fast. Up to a thousand times faster than NAND, according to remarks given at their press conference, although slower than DRAM. Another thing it apparently doesn’t have: transistors. According to this in-depth discussion at AnandTech, it’ll probably fill the gap between DRAM and NAND, and because of this it will probably change the general architecture of computers for years to come. It should allow for fewer data bottlenecks near the processor, meaning those loading times in games between play areas might go away, and pattern-recognition software will get faster and more precise. It’s also inexpensive enough to actually find its way into consumer products in the near term (2016), unlike phase-change memory, which though promising has continued to elude price-point aspirations. Check out the coverage at Ars Technica and AnandTech for more.

The Ebola virus / Photo: Flickr user The Global Panorama, courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library, Released into the public domain | Wikimedia Commons
The Ebola virus / Photo: Flickr user The Global Panorama, courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library, Released into the public domain | Wikimedia Commons

Ebola Vaccine

A new vaccine, produced by Merck in partnership with a number of governments (Canada, Norway) and NGOs (Wellcome Trust, Médecins Sans Frontières) seems to have produced exceptional results in fighting the disease in Guinea. In the trial, roughly four thousand people were given the vaccine, all of whom were at risk of getting Ebola because they had someone in their social circle who had the disease. In the first group, they were given the vaccine immediately, and in the second, they were given it three weeks later. Now, the vaccine takes ten days to come into effect, but after that point in the group given it immediately no cases of Ebola were reported. Meanwhile in the delayed group, sixteen cases were reported. Because the results have been so drastic, the study has been extended, and all participants will be given the vaccine immediately. In Guinea, every contact of a person who develops Ebola will be given it, a method of fighting infectious diseases known as Ring Vaccination which was remarkably effective in the fight against smallpox. By rendering all the people in contact with the infected immune, the disease cannot spread and the epidemic dies out. Check out the Guardian or the Verge for more.

The Aquila; Photo: Facebook /
The Aquila; Photo: Facebook /


This week Facebook and (a pseudo-charity partnership between Facebook and Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Opera Software, Nokia, and Qualcomm, designed to bring internet access of a kind to impoverished areas of the world) announced some progress toward that end. The photo above is a full-scale, flight-test-ready prototype of the Aquila, a drone designed to stay aloft for up to ninety days, beaming access (like internet access, but somehow also not) to a locale. They’ve also announced a breakthrough in laser-based information streaming, claiming to be able to reliably transmit at tens of gigabits per second to a “target the size of a dime from more than [ten] miles away.” If true, it means they have the technology to keep the Aquila linked with other flying access points and ground-based access points in order to build a scalable network. Check out Wired or The Verge for more on the story.

Less Methane, More Rice

Apparently — I didn’t know this until this week — rice production is a big source of methane, right up there with cow burps and natural gas leaks. But now, a group of researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences have fixed that problem. How, you ask? Genetic modification (take that, anti-GMO people). By taking some genes from barley, they’ve made much more of the plant grow above the boggy ground rice grows in (thereby giving less food to the methane-producing bacteria that live in it). This reduces methane production by around 90%, and has the added bonus of producing nearly 50% more rice. Check out the Ars Technica article or the paper in the journal Nature for more.


Researchers this week unveiled a hack that, really, defies belief. It’s called “rowhammer.js” and according to its creators, its the first-ever “remote software-induced hardware-fault” exploit. That is, it takes advantage of the very structure of DRAM using nothing but javascript. It’s hard to explain in brief, but here are two quotes from a Motherboard article which you should really go read: in the first place, it’s metaphorically like “repeatedly slamming a neighbor’s door until the vibrations force open the door you were after;” and in the second place, you needn’t worry too much, because the “is such a perfect blend of intricate math, computer architecture knowledge, and sheer computing power that it’s probably unfeasible for anyone but a nation state actor.” Seriously, go read it — it’s totally worth your time.

Best of the Rest

There’s so much this week that I even pushed one part — a write-up on the naming conventions for the three new dwarf planets we’ve seen this year — over to tomorrow’s post. In the meantime, check out these links for other things I haven’t had a chance to write about:

I leave you today with a video of Bill Nye reading “mean” tweets about him.

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