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Star Wars fans jam ‘Rogue One’ ticket window

Jyn Erso
Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, in “Rogue One.” (Disney / Lucasfilm via YouTube)

The past 24 hours have brought good news and bad news for throngs of Star Wars fans who are eagerly awaiting “Rogue One,” the next installment in the film saga.

Let’s start with the bad news: Many of those fans faced hours of frustration on the night of Nov. 27, scrambling for advance tickets. At 9:01 p.m. PT, theaters and websites started selling tickets for the show, including seats for opening night on Dec. 15.

At least that was the plan.

Seattle’s Cinerama struggled with its overloaded online reservation system for hours: Users encountered repeated error messages when they tried to connect – and even if they were able to get through to the website, many couldn’t get all the way through the payment process. “Could Not Get Seat Data” was a frequent response.

For the Cinerama’s harried staff, and for hard-core fans who had a hard time getting opening-night tickets to “Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” it was deja vu all over again.

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$5 million donated to fund ballot recounts

Obama voting
President Barack Obama casts an early ballot in the 2012 election. (White House File Photo)

A flurry of reports has raised questions over whether electronic voting systems were hacked during this month’s election, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s campaign has raised more than $5 million with the aim of double-checking the vote in three key states.

It all started with a report published by New York magazine on Tuesday. It said that a group of lawyers and computer scientists, including the University of Michigan’s J. Alex Halderman, was calling for a closer look at ballots from Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Those states narrowly went for President-elect Donald Trump over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The group noted that counties in Wisconsin with electronic-voting systems showed Clinton receiving a lower proportion of votes than she did in counties that used optical scanners and paper ballots.

The implication was that hackers, perhaps based in Russia, may have tampered with the e-voting machines. However, the magazine said the group had no proof of such interference; rather, it was reportedly calling upon the Clinton team to press for a recount or an audit.

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Proteins are ‘bred’ to bond silicon and carbon

Silicon-based life
An artist’s conception shows a fanciful view of organosilicon-based life. (Lei Chen and Yan Liang / BeautyOfScience.com for Caltech)

Using directed evolution, researchers say they’ve “bred” protein molecules from an unusual type of bacteria to create chemical bonds between silicon atoms and carbon atoms efficiently.

Chemists have been able to do that in the lab, but it’s not been done biologically before.

“No living organism is known to put silicon-carbon bonds together, even though silicon is so abundant, all around us, in rocks and all over the beach,” Caltech researcher Jennifer Kan, the lead author of a report on the experiment published in the journal Science, said in a news release.

Silicon is the second most abundant element in Earth’s crust (after oxygen), and the idea of living organisms based on silicon rather than carbon has been a science-fiction standard for decades. The best-known example is the Horta, the rock-eating creature on the planet Janus VI in the original “Star Trek” TV series.

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Books about life, the universe and everything

"The Cell" book cover
“The Cell” turns the inner workings of life into a coffee-table book. (University of Chicago Press)

Fans of the late science-fiction humorist Douglas Adams know that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42 – but what’s the answer to the annual holiday gift conundrum?

If you’re buying a gift for a science geek, the answer just might come in the form of books about life, the universe and everything. There are far more than 42 volumes that could serve, but we’ll go halfway with a roundup of 21 science books suitable for holiday giving (and reading).

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Trump’s victory highlights automation vs. jobs

Ford auto factory
Robots work on Ford trucks at a factory in Norfolk, Va. The plant was closed in 2007. (Ford Photo)

Six months ago, computer scientist Moshe Vardi felt as if he was a voice crying in the wilderness when it came to automation’s anticipated effect on the job market. No political candidate, it seemed, was talking about the potential impact of autonomous cars and automated manufacturing on future employment.

Today, the topic still isn’t quite on President-elect Donald Trump’s radar screen. But his election has gotten a lot more experts talking about the issue.

“It went from being somewhat esoteric to being practically mainstream,” Rice University’s Vardi told GeekWire.

Since the election, Trump has put jobs front and center on his agenda.

“Whether it’s producing steel, building cars or curing disease, I want the next generation of production and innovation to happen right here, in our great homeland, America, creating wealth and jobs for American workers,” he said this week in a YouTube video.

But Trump’s prescription focuses on renegotiating (or withdrawing from) trade deals, doubling down on fossil-fuel sources, cutting back on regulations and cracking down on work visas.

Even if Trump and congressional leaders follow through on those initiatives, they won’t address what Vardi and other analysts say is a fundamental shift that will transform the very nature of work in the decades to come: the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence.

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Thanksgiving in space: Work, turkey and football

Kimbrough on space station
NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough shows off a pouch holding Thanksgiving turkey. (NASA via YouTube)

The two Americans aboard the International Space Station won’t be getting Thanksgiving Day off, but they will be getting NASA’s traditional turkey dinner … out of a vacuum-packed pouch.

“We’ll heat this up, and it’ll taste really good, just like you’re having it at home,” NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, the station’s commander, said in a pre-holiday video.

Also on the menu: mashed potatoes, cornbread dressing, green beans and mushrooms (all dehydrated), and pouch-preserved candied yams plus cherry-blueberry cobbler for dessert. There’ll be powdered sweet tea with lemon for Kimbrough, an Atlanta native.

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who arrived at the station over the weekend, will be in on the festivities, along with the crew’s three Russians and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

“Of course, Thanksgiving in my world is not complete without some football, so we’re going to have Mission Control send up some live football games for us to watch, to complete the experience of Thanksgiving,” Kimbrough said.

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How Britain sees the drone revolution

Amazon drone
Amazon is testing its delivery drone system in Britain. (Amazon Photo)

Regulators have to work out lots of issues before they let drones start delivering packages routinely, but in Britain at least, there’s a timetable.

“We’ve got a soft target of 2020,” Michael Clark, deputy director at Britain’s Department for Transport, told GeekWire. And although the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t announced its own timetable, 2020 could well be a soft target for U.S. operations as well.

Clark and other British transport officials discussed the U.K. perspective on unmanned aircraft systems last week while visiting the States for the Drone World Expo in San Jose, Calif.

Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority is playing a key role in Amazon’s plans to develop delivery drones, highlighted by the Seattle-based retailer’s flight test program near Cambridge.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos spoke warmly about the company’s relationship with British regulators last month at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. “We’re getting really good cooperation from the British equivalent of the FAA, the CAA,” he said. “It’s incredible. It’s really cool.”

For what it’s worth, the feeling is mutual: “Amazon is a pathfinder,” Clark said.

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Tesla-SolarCity merger takes effect

Elon Musk
Tesla CEO Elon Musk says the SolarCity merger will lead to increased synergies. (Tesla via YouTube)

The $2 billion Tesla-SolarCity merger went into effect today, just four days after Tesla Motors’ shareholders gave their approval.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Tesla said SolarCity is now its wholly owned subsidiary. The all-stock deal converted each SolarCity share into 0.11 Tesla shares, and SolarCity is no longer listed in the NASDAQ market quotes.

For what it’s worth, the final trading price for SolarCity shares was $20.34 as of Nov. 18. At the end of today’s trading, Tesla shares were down 50 cents for the day at $184.52.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the merger would create synergies between Tesla’s lines of business, which market electric cars and electricity storage systems, and SolarCity’s line of electricity-generating solar panels.

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Boeing names its next CEO for commercial jets

Boeing logo
The Boeing Co., which has its corporate headquarters in Chicago, has created a new business unit for aviation services with its headquarters in Dallas. (Boeing Photo)

The Boeing Co. set a huge organizational transition into motion today by bringing in an outside aerospace executive as the next head of its commercial airplane unit and setting up a new business unit for aviation services.

GE Aviation Services’ president and CEO, Kevin McAllister, will become the next president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The business unit’s current head, Ray Conner, will ease out of that role during a transitional period culminating in his retirement at the end of 2017, the company said in a statement.

The new unit, called Boeing Global Services, will integrate the customer service operations currently provided through Boeing Commercial Airplanes and Boeing Defense, Space and Security.

Veteran Boeing executive Stanley Deal will be president and CEO of the services unit, which will have a small core headquarters based in Dallas.

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Microsoft bets big on quantum computers

Todd Holmdahl
Microsoft executive Todd Holmdahl is leading the effort to create scalable quantum hardware and software. (Red Box Pictures via Microsoft / Scott Eklund)

Microsoft says it’s moving ahead from just talking about quantum computing to building an actual quantum computer, based on the physics that won a Nobel Prize this year.

The project will be headed by longtime Microsoft executive Todd Holmdahl, who previously played key roles in developing the Xbox gaming console, the Kinect motion sensor and the HoloLens augmented-reality system. Now he’s corporate vice president of Microsoft’s quantum program.

“I think we’re at an inflection point in which we are ready to go from research to engineering,” Holmdahl said in a Microsoft blog posting about the project on Nov. 20.

Microsoft isn’t alone in the field: For several years, Google has been working with NASA and a Vancouver-area company called D-Wave to evaluate quantum computer designs.

But neither is Microsoft a newcomer in the field: The Redmond-based software giant has had researchers exploring the quantum frontier for more than 15 years.

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