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Aujourd’hui — 27 janvier 2020Ars Technica

Feds, states consider tag-teaming massive Google investigation

Par Kate Cox
Google logo seen during Google Developer Days (GDD) in Shanghai, China, September 2019.

Enlarge / Google logo seen during Google Developer Days (GDD) in Shanghai, China, September 2019. (credit: Lyu Liang | VCG | Getty Images)

Officials from the Department of Justice will reportedly be meeting this week with representatives of a 50-state coalition of state attorneys general to discuss tag-teaming their efforts to determine if Google's parent company, Alphabet, is in violation of antitrust laws.

At least seven of the state attorneys general, including Texas AG Ken Paxton, who is spearheading the state effort, are expected to attend. The Wall Street Journal, citing the ever-popular "people familiar with the matter," was the first to report on the meeting.

The Department of Justice confirmed in July that it was launching an antitrust probe into "market-leading online platforms." Google confirmed in September that it is indeed among those platforms being investigated.

Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Verizon brings 5G to the Super Bowl—for part of the stadium, anyway

Par Jon Brodkin
A sign that says Super Bowl 54 outdoors in Miami.

Enlarge / A sign near the Fox Sports South Beach studio compound prior to Super Bowl LIV in Miami Beach, Florida. (credit: Getty Images | Cliff Hawkins)

Verizon's 5G hype train is heading to the Super Bowl, but the carrier won't tell us whether its new network will cover all the seats in the stadium.

With Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami scheduled for February 2, Verizon emailed a media alert to Ars and other news outlets on Wednesday last week, bragging that it will "power the first Super Bowl featuring 5G." Notably missing from the news alert was any indication of how many fans will be able to use the 5G network from their seats during the game.

We asked Verizon if all the seats and other parts of the stadium will have 5G access and got a vague answer from the company spokesperson who sent out the media alert: "Fans can access 5G UWB [Ultra Wideband] in the bowl seating area, parts of the concourse, ticketing areas, and parking lot."

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

House legislators want to hand NASA’s human spaceflight program over to Boeing

Par Eric Berger
Mars or the Moon? It’s a debate that has bedeviled NASA for decades.

Enlarge / Mars or the Moon? It’s a debate that has bedeviled NASA for decades. (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

On Friday evening, a US House of Representatives committee released H.R. 5666, an authorization act for NASA. Such bills are not required for an agency to function, and they do not directly provide funding—that comes from the appropriations committees in the House and Senate. Authorization bills provide a "sense" of Congress, however and indicate what legislators will be willing to fund in the coming years.

The big-picture takeaway from the bipartisan legislation is that it rejects the Artemis Program put forth by the Trump White House, which established the Moon as a cornerstone of human exploration for the next decade or two and as a place for NASA astronauts to learn the skills needed to expand toward Mars in the late 2030s and 2040s. Instead, the House advocates for a "flags-and-footprints" strategy whereby astronauts make a few short visits to the Moon beginning in 2028 and then depart for a Mars orbit mission by 2033.

Space policy

Whatever one might think about NASA's Artemis Program to land humans on the Moon by 2024, it attempted to learn from decades of space policy failure. Artemis set a near-term target, 2024, for a human return to the Moon that provided some urgency for NASA to get moving. It also sought to develop a "sustainable" path with meaningful activities on the surface of the Moon, including polar landings, efforts to tap lunar resources (the House bill specifically prohibits this), and establishment of a base.

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SpaceX scrubs Starlink launch attempt Monday due to weather [Updated]

Par Eric Berger
Starlink-3 mission on the pad, ready for launch.

Enlarge / Starlink-3 mission on the pad, ready for launch. (credit: SpaceX)

9:30am ET Monday Update: SpaceX scrubbed Monday's launch attempt due to strong upper level winds. The company will now target a back-up launch opportunity on 9:28am ET (14:28 UTC) Tuesday, when weather conditions are expected to be more favorable.

Original post: Weather-permitting, SpaceX will attempt to launch its third batch of operational Starlink satellites on Monday morning. Liftoff is scheduled for 9:49am ET (14:49 UTC) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

However, weather is a legitimate concern. The forecast calls for a 50-percent chance of acceptable conditions at the surface, and there are also concerns about strong upper-level winds that may also preclude a launch. Weather conditions appear to be more favorable for a back-up launch attempt on Tuesday morning.

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Linux on laptops: Ubuntu 19.10 on the HP Dragonfly Elite G1

Par Jim Salter
  • Ubuntu 18.04.3 LTS didn't work out so well, because the Wi-Fi adapter didn't have an in-kernel driver. But the latest interim release—October 2019's Eoan Ermine—worked swimmingly. [credit: Jim Salter ]

Last month, Ars Associate Reviewer Valentina Palladino treated us to a thorough hands-on review of HP's ultra-sleek, ultra-chic Dragonfly Elite G1. Shortly afterward at CES, HP announced a second-generation Dragonfly Elite, the G2, with Ice Lake CPU, optional LTE modem, and more. We haven't had a chance to get our hands on the G2 yet—but while we wait, we wanted to evaluate the Elite G1 not only with the OEM Windows it ships with, but with a fresh Linux installation.

We can't evaluate a laptop with every possible Linux distribution, but in the case of noteworthy designs like the Dragonfly Elite, we want to at least see if one of the more popular distros installs cleanly, detects all the hardware, and is a good daily driver. Our first try was Ubuntu 18.04.3, "Bionic Beaver," the most recent Long Term Support release of Ubuntu. For the most part, the installation went well—the keyboard and touchpad were responsive, the screen looked fine, and so forth—but unfortunately, the Intel Wi-Fi chipset used in the Dragonfly Elite is new enough that 18.04.3 doesn't have an in-kernel driver.

If you're a hardcore Linux type, that might not be enough to stop you—you have many possible options, such as installing a backported newer version of the Linux kernel—but we wanted to see if we could get a "just works" experience rather than a "percussive maintenance required" experience, so we regretfully shelved Ubuntu 18.04.3 and went to the newest interim Ubuntu release—October 2019's 19.10 "Eoan Ermine." Again, the actual installation went fine—but this time, we have Wi-Fi as well without touching a thing. Success!

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

The story of how Nintendo’s iconic logo escaped an “age-up” remake

Par Sam Machkovech
What might have happened to Nintendo's iconic logo had executives such as Reggie Fils-Aimé not stepped in?

Enlarge / What might have happened to Nintendo's iconic logo had executives such as Reggie Fils-Aimé not stepped in? (credit: Aurich Lawson)

Reggie FIls-Aimé, Nintendo of America's popular former president, has begun making the rounds in interviews following his April 2019 retirement. And while he's still speaking fondly of his former gaming employer, his post-retirement position appears to be letting him spill more beans about his 15 years of leadership. This month, that includes a reveal of how he "put a stop" to at least one major change to the company: its logo.

Present Value, a podcast about business leadership recorded by Cornell University graduate students, interviewed Fils-Aimé on December 28 of last year. That episode was resurfaced by gaming video channel GameXplain on Sunday due to the executive's comment on the iconic, "racetrack" Nintendo logo, which has remained consistent since the company's rise as an arcade and console game producer in the 1970s.

The below comment from Fils-Aimé is transcribed from the December 28 episode:

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How Warcraft III birthed a genre, changed a franchise, and earned a Reforge-ing

Par Ars Staff
  • The early 2000s were a much different visual time, but trust me—Warcraft III was a banger that has cast a bit of an industry legacy.

Few game worlds have made a mark as big as that of Warcraft. It has birthed three best-selling strategy games, a blockbuster Hollywood movie, a bunch of novels and comics, a mega-popular (digital) collectible card game (Hearthstone), and an epic, genre-defining MMO that, 15 years on from launch, is soon to get its eighth expansion. And while most of its cultural impact and fame (and infamy) stems from that MMO, World of Warcraft, there's something to be said for the quiet legacy of Blizzard's 2002 real-time strategy game Warcraft III.

Despite a long and troubled development—a development that included a name change and major shift in direction along the way—Warcraft III cemented the world of Azeroth in gaming culture. It paved the way for WoW's success, kicked off the trend of bringing RPG elements into non-RPG genres, triggered a revival in tower defense games, and spawned the uber-popular MOBA genre, which was invented out of its modding tools. (Warcraft III also happened to be a great game, too.)

With Blizzard's official remaster of the game, Warcraft III: Reforged, out tomorrow, it's high time to take a look back at Warcraft III's history. I spoke to eight of the roughly three dozen core development staff from the original Warcraft III team about how it was made and how it helped shape the future (which is now the present) of the games industry. This is a compressed retelling of their many stories and anecdotes.

Read 67 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Hier — 26 janvier 2020Ars Technica

The Wave takes us on a trippy, surreal journey through a fractured timeline

Par Jennifer Ouellette

Trailer for The Wave.

An ethically challenged insurance lawyer finds himself on a bad hallucinogenic trip that makes him question the nature of his reality, in first-time Director Gille Klabin's psychedelic sci-fi thriller, The Wave.

(Some spoilers below.)

Frank (Justin Long, Galaxy Quest, New Girl) is a lawyer for an insurance company who finds an error in a life insurance claim form for a deceased firefighter that will allow his firm to deny the claim outright. The company will save $4 million, which would put Frank on the fast-track for a promotion. And he seems untroubled by any hardship this denial of claim will cause the fireman's widow and children. His co-worker Jeff (Donald Faison, Scrubs, Ray Donovan) talks him into a night on the town to celebrate ("It's Tuesday, Booze Day!"). And that's where things start to go horribly wrong for Frank.

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As sea levels rise, little of the United States will be unaffected

Par John Timmer
Image of a car driving through a flooded street.

Enlarge (credit: NOAA)

The United States is rich enough, industrialized enough, and far enough from the tropics that the rising temperatures of our changing climate aren't going to make any place uninhabitable. But a side effect of those rising temperatures—rising oceans—most certainly will. Already, an ever-growing list of places is facing what's called "nuisance flooding," in which even a high tide can leave streets underwater. Major storms just make matters worse. And, by the end of this century, the expected rise of the oceans may be over five times what we saw last century.

As a result of this, many areas of the country will simply become uninhabitable, lost to the sea. Well over a third of the United States' population lives in counties that are currently on the coast, and over 10 million currently live on land that will be lost to a sea-level rise of 1.8 meters. They'll have to go somewhere—and people who might otherwise move to the coast will have to find some place else to relocate. All of which will change the dynamics of the typical relocation of people within the US.

A new study released in PLOS ONE tries to estimate what that will mean for the rest of the country. Their results suggest that coastal regions will be far from the only ones affected by sea-level rise. A huge number of counties far from the coast—some deep in the US interior—will see dramatic changes in the number of people relocating there.

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Patreon can’t solve its porn pirate problem

Par WIRED
Patreon can’t solve its porn pirate problem

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty)

Last fall, a prolific photographer who asked not to be named noticed a sharp, unexplained drop-off in earnings on his Patreon page, where fans shell out cash for tiered subscriptions to his photos of well-lit nude models. Then, in December, he received an anonymous email with a link to a website called Yiff.Party. When he clicked, he balked. Thousands of his photos were laid out on the open Web for free.

For five years, the libidinous pirates of Yiff.Party have siphoned masses of paywalled Patreon porn off of the platform and shared it for free. Two years ago, Patreon was determined to shut them down. Instead, the platform has effectively given up, despite desperate protests from affected creators.

Yiff.Party doesn’t look like much: a basic, blocky, white and lavender website with a changelog documenting the latest free art dumps and their respective creators. There might be eight new posts an hour, as well as calls for patrons to help fill out incomplete collections. A lot of it is furry porn—“yiff” is a term in the furry community referencing sexual activity—but Yiff.Party hosts anything that falls under the category of “lewds.” That includes smutty cosplays, vanilla softcore, hentai comics, 3-D sci-fi sex stills, plus whatever Patreon-hosted artstuff pirates dump there. (Patreon’s guidelines on adult content prohibit “real people engaging in sexual acts such as masturbation or sexual intercourse on camera.”)

Read 20 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Tesla needs to fix Autopilot safety flaws, demands Senator Markey

Par Jonathan M. Gitlin
Elon Musk and Barbara Walters in a Tesla. Musk has his hands off the steering wheel as the car is driving.

Enlarge / Tesla says that Autopilot users should always keep both hands on the steering wheel. (credit: CBS)

On Friday, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) called on Tesla to adopt "common sense recommendations" in its Autopilot driver assist to "guarantee the safety of its technology." Specifically, he's asking the automaker to stop implying that the system is capable of self-driving and also asks Tesla to fit a proper driver-monitoring system. The senator began his investigation into the company's driver-assist package following multiple reports of drivers circumventing the cars' rudimentary safety controls.

From the senator's website:

Autopilot is a flawed system, but I believe its dangers can be overcome... I have been proud to work with Tesla on advancing cleaner, more sustainable transportation technologies. But these achievements should not come at the expense of safety. That's why I'm calling on Tesla to use its resources and expertise to better protect drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and all other users of the road. I urge Tesla to adopt my common sense recommendations for fixing Autopilot, which include rebranding and remarketing the system to reduce misuse, as well as building backup driver monitoring tools that will make sure no one falls asleep at the wheel. Tesla can and must do more to guarantee the safety of its technology.

This is not the first time that the name Autopilot has come under fire. In 2016, the German transport minister told the company "to no longer use the misleading term for the driver-assistance system of the car." In 2018, two US consumer safety groups asked the Federal Trade Commission to address Autopilot's "deceptive and misleading" branding. In 2019, we discovered that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told the company to stop making "misleading statements" when it comes to safety, and the company repeatedly made claims about the safety of Autopilot that were not supported by fact. (The data showed that Autosteer—a component of the Autopilot suite of assists—actually increased crashes by 59 percent.)

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Low turnout and polarization are a deadly combo for electoral stability

Par Chris Lee
Closeup photograph of a ballot from a 2013 proposal.

Enlarge (credit: Frankie Roberto / Flickr)

When people talk about elections like horse races, policy doesn't matter—all we care about is who's likely to win. In this fetid theory of elections, governments tend to represent a kind of dissatisfying average of voter opinion. Everyone gets a little bit of the stuff they want, and everyone gets a large dose of the stuff they don't want.

Given this model, is it possible for voter opinion to become, essentially, decoupled from election outcomes? Something like this might be the case, according to an overly general model produced by—you guessed it—physicists.

Elections are unfriendly things to model. Put yourself in the position of the party apparatchik. In an ideal world, you would come up with policy that you think would improve the nation and then present that to the electorate. That is a losing strategy. Instead, policies and candidates are selected based on the opinion of the electorate, which doesn't always know what will improve the nation. That creates a tightly coupled dynamic: the candidates offered are based on the opinion of the electorate, and they, in turn, influence the opinion of the electorate.

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À partir d’avant-hierArs Technica

Color Out of Space review: Nic Cage + Lovecraft = Match made in R‘lyeh

Par Peter Opaskar

A glowing purple meteorite makes life, uh, difficult and gross for an isolated farm family after it crashes in their yard in the new film Color Out of Space. Because the family's patriarch is played by human-TNT hybrid Nicolas Cage and the director is Richard Stanley—who hasn't made a narrative feature since 1996's The Island of Doctor Moreau went so ass-over-teakettle that a whole documentary is devoted to its disaster-ness—you might not expect Color to be an exercise in subtlety. It is not a movie encumbered by "good taste" and does not feel like it was ever brought up in a boardroom full of suits who wanted to make sure it would "play for all demographics" in "all markets."

Yet Color's first half, before everything succumbs to glorious madness while Nic Cage does what we pay him to do, is a surprisingly effective look at a family trying to keep things together.

Something nasty's in the woodshed well in the trailer for Color Out of Space.

This new film is based on the short story "The Colour Out of Space" by H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), whose short stories often feature rural families becoming isolated, inbred, degenerate, or cannibals. Oh, or turning into fish-people. In Stanley's film, the family's isolation is more emotional than physical. Mom (Joely Richardson) is a workaholic recovering from a mastectomy. The daughter (Madeleine Arthur) dabbles in the occult. The teenage son (Brendan Meyer) smokes doobies behind the barn. And the younger son (Julian Hilliard) eventually makes friends with a disembodied voice coming out of the well. See, America, this is what happens when your town doesn't have a nearby Blockbuster.

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The most complete brain map ever is here: A fly’s “connectome”

Par WIRED
The most complete brain map ever is here: A fly’s “connectome”

Enlarge (credit: Katja Schulz)

When asked what’s so special about Drosophila melanogaster, or the common fruit fly, Gerry Rubin quickly gets on a roll. Rubin has poked and prodded flies for decades, including as a leader of the effort to sequence their genome. So permit him to count their merits. They’re expert navigators, for one, zipping around without crashing into walls. They have great memories too, he adds. Deprived of their senses, they can find their way around a room—much as you, if you were suddenly blindfolded, could probably escape through whichever door you most recently entered.

“Fruit flies are very skillful,” he appraises. And all that skill, although contained in a brain the size of a poppy seed, involves some neural circuitry similar to our own, a product of our distant common ancestor. That’s why, as director of Janelia Research Campus, part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, he’s spent the last 12 years leading a team that’s mapping out the fly brain’s physical wiring, down to the very last neuron.

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After 3,000 years, we can hear the “voice” of a mummified Egyptian priest

Par Jennifer Ouellette
The mummy of Nesyamun, a priest who lived in Thebes about 3,000 years ago, is ready for his CT scan.

Enlarge / The mummy of Nesyamun, a priest who lived in Thebes about 3,000 years ago, is ready for his CT scan. (credit: Leeds Teaching Hospitals/Leeds Museums and Galleries)

Around 1100 BC, during the reign of Ramses XI, an Egyptian scribe and priest named Nesyamun spent his life singing and chanting during liturgies at the Karnak temple in Thebes. As was the custom in those times, upon death, Nesyamun was mummified and sealed in a coffin, with the inscription "Nesyamun, True of Voice (maat kheru)." His mummy has become one of the most well-studied artifacts over the last 200 years. We know he suffered from gum disease, for instance, and may have died in his 50s from some kind of allergic reaction. The coffin inscription also expressed a desire that Nesyamun's soul would be able to speak to his gods from the afterlife.

And now, Nesyamun is getting his dearest wish. A team of scientists has reproduced the "sound" of the Egyptian priest's voice by creating a 3D-printed version of his vocal tract and connecting it to a loudspeaker. The researchers revealed all the gory details behind their project in a new paper in Scientific Reports.

"He had a desire that his voice would be everlasting," co-author David Howard of Royal Holloway University of London told IEEE Spectrum. "In a sense, you could argue we've heeded that call, which is a slightly strange thing, but there we are."

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Apple introduces its large-scale gym partnership program, Apple Watch Connected

Par Samuel Axon
The new Apple Watch Series 5.

Enlarge / The Apple Watch Series 5. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

According to a report from CNBC, Apple this week introduced "Apple Watch Connected," an initiative that sees the Cupertino company partnering with major gym chains to bring Apple Watch-related technologies and benefits to members of those gyms. Benefits include workout machines that play nice with the Watch, rewards programs based on workout data collected by the Watch, and special deals on products and services.

The first gyms to participate include Orange Theory, Crunch Fitness, YMCA, and Basecamp Fitness, but more may be added later. Apple doesn't require gyms to pay anything directly to the company to participate, though complying with all the requirements might produce additional expenses for said gyms.

Participating gyms must offer an app for either the iPhone or the Watch that allows members to track their fitness progress or activity, they must accept mobile payments via the tech company's Apple Pay system, and they have to offer some kind of rewards to members for achieving specific goals using the Watch. Additionally, gyms that make use of certain types of fitness equipment must use equipment that supports Apple's GymKit API for tracking workouts. Some gyms, like Orange Theory, are not focused on self-directed workout with machines and thus have slightly different requirements to meet with regard to GymKit, though.

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Star Trek: Picard frontloads fanservice so it can get on with going boldly

Par Kate Cox
The character Picard's first impulse is to be comforting and safe. The show <em>Picard's</em> first impulse is to slowly tear down the sense of comfort and safety the audience starts with.

Enlarge / The character Picard's first impulse is to be comforting and safe. The show Picard's first impulse is to slowly tear down the sense of comfort and safety the audience starts with. (credit: CBS)

The first Romulan you meet in Star Trek: Picard speaks with a soft Gaelic accent and wears a comfortable, practical cardigan. She is the very model of a classic cozy housekeeper, an archetype made instantly recognizable by her bearing and manner, and yet in the same breath she's utterly foreign and unexpected.

This marriage of familiar with unfamiliar—this attempt to take what you know but then tilt it to one side and jiggle it around a bit to throw you off-balance—is as good a metaphor as any for what Picard seems to be doing. This is not the comfortable, well-worn world of Star Trek I was born and raised in and am now sharing with my own child. This is something different, and based on the first episode at least, I badly want to follow this path and see where it leads.

(Mild spoilers for the first episode of Picard, "Remembrance," follow below.)

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This amazing glitch puts Star Fox 64 ships in an unmodified Zelda cartridge

Par Kyle Orland

In my years writing about games for Ars, I've covered my fair share of surprising glitches, long-secret codes, arbitrary code execution tricks, and deeply hidden content buried within some classic games and hardware. But none of that prepared me for the above Twitch video clip I saw this morning, showing a fleet of flying Arwings from Star Fox 64 invading the world of Ocarina of Time to attack Link.

It's the kind of scene you'd expect to see only in a fan-made animation or in a ROM hack of the type Nintendo is so fond of taking down from the Internet. But what made this clip truly impressive was the fact that it was apparently running on an unmodified version of the original Japanese Ocarina of Time ROM, using standard N64 hardware and control accessories.

I spent all morning tracking down how such a thing was even possible. Explaining it involves a deep dive into the nature of Nintendo 64 machine language instructions, Ocarina of Time memory management, and the mid-'90s development of the game itself. If you're as curious about all this as I was, come and take a journey with me.

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China locks down 35M people as US confirms second coronavirus case

Par Beth Mole
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 24: Disinfection workers wearing protective gear spray anti-septic solution in a train terminal amid rising public concerns over the spread of China's Wuhan Coronavirus at SRT train station on January 24, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea.

Enlarge / SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 24: Disinfection workers wearing protective gear spray anti-septic solution in a train terminal amid rising public concerns over the spread of China's Wuhan Coronavirus at SRT train station on January 24, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (credit: Getty | Chung Sung-Jun)

An outbreak of a never-before-seen coronavirus continued to dramatically escalate in China this week, with case counts reaching into the 800s and 26 deaths reported by Chinese health officials.

To try to curb the spread of disease, China has issued travel restrictions in the central city of Wuhan, where the outbreak erupted late last month, as well as many nearby cities, including Huanggang, Ezhou, Zhijiang, and Chibi. Hundreds of flights have been cancelled, and train, bus, and subway services have been suspended. Collectively, the travel restrictions and frozen public transportation have now locked down an estimated 35 million residents in the region.

So far, all of the outbreak-related deaths and nearly all of the cases have been in China, but the viral illness has appeared in travelers in several other countries. That includes Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the US.

Read 21 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Google I/O 2020 set for May 12-14 at Shoreline Amphitheater

Par Ron Amadeo
The Shoreline Amphitheater, the home of Google I/O. It's right in Google's backyard.

The Shoreline Amphitheater, the home of Google I/O. It's right in Google's backyard. (credit: Shoreline Amphitheatre)

The dates are set for Google I/O 2020—Google's biggest show of the year will take place on May 12-14. As usual, the show is at the Shoreline Amphitheater, an outdoor venue located right next to Google's Mountain View headquarters. Google announced the date through a cryptic command-line-driven space game at events.google.com/io/mission/. There is also this tweet:

Cosmos aligned. We'll be back at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View for this year's #GoogleIO on May 12-14! pic.twitter.com/3bZqriaoi1

— Sundar Pichai (@sundarpichai) January 24, 2020

Last year's Google I/O was one of the more eventful entries in recent memory, as it saw the return of the Google hardware launch. Google started targeting the midrange smartphone market by debuting the cheaper Pixel 3a at the show, and it launched a bigger smart display, the Google Nest Hub Max. Android saw the release of Android (10) Q Beta 3, a revamped gesture navigation system, and disclosure of the "Project Mainline" update system. Alongside the Nest Hub, there was also major upheaval in how Nest operates. Nest stopped being a standalone company and merged with Google in February 2018, but at Google I/O 2019, we started to see the reality of this change: Nest became a sub-brand of Google, and the "Works with Nest" smart home platform got a shutdown date.

For 2020, there's a good chance we'll see the launch of the Pixel 4a, which has already hit the rumor mill. The phone seems to throw out most of the oddities of the Pixel 4 in favor of a thin bezel. It would be a no-nonsense smartphone with a front hole punch display, a headphone jack, and a rear fingerprint reader. If Google sticks to the typical Android schedule, we should see the next beta version, Android 11 R, debut in March, with a second beta in April and a third beta in time for I/O. You might think a third beta would be uneventful, but last year Google withheld a lot of features to show off on the big stage at I/O.

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Why can’t I remember? Model may show how recall can fail

Par Chris Lee
Why can’t I remember? Model may show how recall can fail

Enlarge (credit: Serdar Acar / EyeEm)

Physicists can create serious mathematical models of stuff that is very far from physics—stuff like biology or the human brain. These models are hilarious, but I'm still a sucker for them because of the hope they provide: maybe a simple mathematical model can explain the sexual choices of the disinterested panda? (And, yes, I know there is an XKCD about this very topic). So a bunch of physicists who claimed to have found a fundamental law of memory recall was catnip to me.

To get an idea of how interesting their work is, it helps to understand the unwritten rules of “simple models for biology.” First, the model should be general enough that the predictions are vague and unsatisfying. Second, if you must compare with experimental data, do it on a logarithmic scale so that huge differences between theory and experiment at least look tiny. Third, if possible, make the mathematical model so abstract that it loses all connection to the actual biology.

By breaking all of these rules, a group of physicists has come up with a model for recall that seems to work. The model is based on a concrete idea of how recall works, and, with pretty much no fine-tuning whatsoever, it provides a pretty good prediction for how well people will recall items from a list.

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Sonos sunsets several smart speakers’ software support, spurring storm [Updated]

Par Kate Cox
Promotional image of record player in bohemian studio.

Enlarge / The Sonos Connect:Amp in what is soon to be its natural setting: a room filled with old stuff that may or may not work. (credit: Sonos)

Update: Sonos CEO Patrick Spence published an open letter to Sonos customers Wednesday, apologizing for the way his company handled the announcement. Spence pledged to keep legacy products "updated with bug fixes and security patches for as long as possible," although they still will not receive new software updates, and Spence reiterated the company's commitment to creating a workaround to separate legacy products onto a secondary network and allow users to use legacy products and "modern" Sonos equipment in the same home.

"Thank you for taking the time to give us your feedback. I hope that you’ll forgive our misstep and let us earn back your trust," Spence added.

Original post:

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Samsung Galaxy Fold review: The future is an ugly disappointment

Par Ron Amadeo
  • The Galaxy Fold, screen off, featuring the big crease down the middle. [credit: Ron Amadeo ]

The Galaxy Fold was supposed to be The Future™. Samsung, the world's leading display manufacturer, invested six years and $130 million to birth its ultimate creation: the flexible OLED display. And with the holy grail of display technology under its belt, Samsung would revolutionize the smartphone industry by introducing the "foldable" smartphone—a device that would be a portable, pocketable smartphone when closed and a multi-pane, multi-tasking, big-screen tablet when open. Samsung might have started the modern smartphone era as "that company that just copies Apple," but after surviving a thousand lawsuits, ushering in the big-screen smartphone, and eventually surpassing Apple in sales, Samsung would finally, indisputably plant its flag atop the smartphone market with the Galaxy Fold, a device that would redefine the modern smartphone.

At least, that was the plan. Things have not gone to plan.

Catastrophe struck, allegedly during the development of the Galaxy Fold. At the end of 2018, Samsung said the foldable display technology it spent so much time and money to develop was stolen by a supplier and sold to two Chinese companies for $14 million. All of Samsung's R&D work was supposed to give it a sizable head start in foldable smartphones, but that technological lead was suddenly evaporating.

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Rocket Report: It takes three years to build an SLS? Long March 5B coming

Par Eric Berger
The Electron launch vehicle is ready to soar.

Enlarge / The Electron launch vehicle is ready to soar. (credit: Rocket Lab)

Welcome to Edition 2.29 of the Rocket Report! This week saw SpaceX complete a critical in-flight abort test that clears a major hurdle for the company as it seeks to launch astronauts into orbit this year. We also have not one, but two stories about launch companies in New Zealand. Way to go, Kiwis!

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

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Librem 5 phone hands-on—Open source phone shows the cost of being different

Par Ron Amadeo
  • The Librem 5. This is the home screen, I guess? It is just totally blank. [credit: Ron Amadeo ]

It is hard to do something truly different in the smartphone industry. Companies, especially smaller companies, are all working from the same parts bin with the same manufacturing partners. You take your Qualcomm SoC, your Samsung display, and your Sony camera sensor—and you take a flight to China and visit Foxconn, which, in addition to manufacturing, will even do engineering for you if you want. Smartphones are so samey because they have an established, for-hire supply chain that has a certain way of doing things, and it's much cheaper, faster, and easier if you just "go with the flow" and do what everyone else is doing.

Big companies like Samsung and Apple have enough money, control, and connections to move the supply chain in whatever direction they want. In terms of smaller companies, though, there is a single one trying to blaze its own path: Purism, the maker of open source Linux laptops, is building the Librem 5 smartphone. Not only is the OS open source and based on GNU/Linux—not Android—the hardware is open source, too. The core components have open source firmware, and there are even public hardware schematics. This is as close as you're going to get to a totally open source smartphone.

If you haven't noticed, open source smartphone hardware is not a thing that existed before now. There have been phones that run open source builds of Android, but those are full of closed-source firmware from non-open components. The usual hardware companies cautiously guard their hardware designs and drivers, and Purism's hardline stance on open source has ruled out almost the entire established smartphone supply chain. As the company writes in a blog post, "When we first approached hardware manufacturers almost two years ago with this project most of them instantly said 'No, sorry, impossible, we can not help you'." Others warned us, that it could never work, that it was too complicated, 'the industry does not do that,' and so forth."

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Mac users are getting bombarded by laughably unsophisticated malware

Par Dan Goodin
Mac users are getting bombarded by laughably unsophisticated malware

Enlarge (credit: Kaspersky Lab)

Almost two years have passed since the appearance of Shlayer, a piece of Mac malware that gets installed by tricking targets into installing fake Adobe Flash updates. It usually does so after promising pirated videos, which are also fake. The lure may be trite and easy to spot, but Shlayer continues to be common—so much so that it’s the number one threat encountered by users of Kaspersky Labs’ antivirus programs for macOS.

Since Shlayer first came to light in February 2018, Kaspersky Lab researchers have collected almost 32,000 different variants and identified 143 separate domains operators have used to control infected machines. The malware accounts for 30 percent of all malicious detections generated by the Kaspersky Lab’s Mac AV products. Attacks are most common against US users, who account for 31 percent of attacks Kaspersky Lab sees. Germany, with 14 percent, and France and the UK (both with 10 percent) followed. For malware using such a crude and outdated infection method, Shlayer remains surprisingly prolific.

An analysis Kaspersky Lab published on Thursday says that Shlayer is “a rather ordinary piece of malware” that, except for a recent variant based on a Python script, was built on Bash commands. Under the hood, the workflow for all versions is similar: they collect IDs and system versions and, based on that information, download and execute a file. The download is then deleted to remote traces of an infection. Shlayer also uses curl with the combination of options -f0L, which Thursday’s post said “is basically the calling card of the entire family.”

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Time check: Examining the Doomsday Clock’s move to 100 seconds to midnight

Par Sean Gallagher
Two different protest posters side by side.

Enlarge / The Doomsday Clock reads 100 seconds to midnight, a decision made by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, during an announcement at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on January 23, 2020. (credit: EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images)

Today, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists released a statement that the group's Science and Security Board had moved the hands on the symbolic Doomsday Clock forward by 20 seconds to 100 seconds before midnight. Since the advent of the Doomsday Clock—even in the peak years of the Cold War—the clock's minute hand has never before been advanced past the 11:58 mark.

In a statement on the change, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists President and CEO Rachel Bronson said:

As far as the Bulletin and the Doomsday Clock are concerned, the world has entered into the realm of the two-minute warning, a period when danger is high and the margin for error low. The moment demands attention and new, creative responses. If decision makers continue to fail to act—pretending that being inside two minutes is no more urgent than the preceding period—citizens around the world should rightfully echo the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg and ask: "How dare you?"

Before 2017, the clock had not been at that mark since 1953—the year in which the United States and the Soviet Union both conducted atmospheric tests of their first thermonuclear bombs. Even during the Reagan years—during which the world came the closest it had ever come to a nuclear war—the clock was advanced only as far as three minutes before midnight. And in the fictional world of the original Watchmen comic books, the clock never advanced past five minutes to midnight.

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CenturyLink, Frontier took FCC cash, failed to deploy all required broadband

Par Jon Brodkin
A white truck with a CenturyLink logo is parked next to a building.

Enlarge / A CenturyLink repair truck in Estes Park, Colorado, in 2018. (credit: Tony Webster / Flickr)

CenturyLink and Frontier Communications have apparently failed to meet broadband-deployment requirements in numerous states where they are receiving government funding to expand their networks in rural areas.

CenturyLink notified the Federal Communications Commission that it "may not have reached the deployment milestone" in 23 states and that it hit the latest deadline in only 10 states.

Frontier similarly notified the FCC that it "may not have met" the requirements in 13 states. Frontier met or exceeded the requirement in 16 other states.

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EPA reasoning for gutting fuel-economy rule doesn’t hold up, senator finds

Par Kate Cox
Photograph of a concrete maze of highway overpasses.

Enlarge / Traffic moves through an interchange along Interstate 580 on July 25, 2019, in Oakland, California. (credit: Justin Sullivan | Getty Images)

The Trump administration has for several years been working to weaken federal vehicle fuel-efficiency standards. To justify these changes, regulatory agencies argued that more stringent standards would both cost consumers more and reduce road safety. A draft version of the new final rule, however, seems to directly contradict those lines of reasoning.

The draft of the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule has not been released publicly, but Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) has seen it. In a letter (PDF) to the White House, Carper says not only is the rule "replete with numerous questionable legal, procedural, and technical assertions," as well as "apparent typographical and other errors," but it also completely fails to provide the safety or economic benefits initially claimed.

Why SAFE?

The SAFE rule is part of a back-and-forth that hasn't literally been going on since the dawn of time, but it kind of feels that way. The kerfuffle all began in 2012 when the Obama administration adopted a fuel-economy standard that would gradually increase the average miles-per-gallon rating for most cars to 54.5mpg by 2025 (about 40mpg under real-world conditions). The Environmental Protection Agency finalized that standard in December 2016.

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Microsoft’s sneaky plan to switch Chrome searches from Google to Bing

Par Jim Salter
  • Stop trying to make Bing happen, Microsoft. It's never going to happen. [credit: Paramount Pictures ]

Microsoft announced today that, beginning in February 2020, Office365 Pro Plus installs and updates will include a Chrome extension that forcibly changes the default search engine to Microsoft's own search engine, Bing.

The change takes place beginning with Version 2002 of Office 365 Pro Plus, and it will affect both new installations and existing installations as they're automatically updated. If your default search engine is already Bing, Office365 will not install the extension. Users who don't enjoy the arbitrary unrequested change to their defaults can opt out by finding and changing a toggle which the extension also adds to the browser, or the extension itself can be removed, either manually or programmatically.

This new policy only takes places in specific geographic areas, as determined by a user's IP address. If you aren't in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, the UK, or the United States, you should be safe—for now, at least, and assuming you don't take your laptop on holiday or work-related travel to one of those countries during a time an Office update rolls out. Microsoft says it may add new locations over time but will notify administrators through the Microsoft 365 admin center if and when it does.

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Rocket League will drop support for Mac, Linux versions in March

Par Sam Machkovech
Screenshot of video game Rocket League.

Enlarge (credit: Epic Games)

For anyone who clings to Linux or MacOS as a preferred gaming platform, Epic Games and Psyonix offered a rare kind of bad news on Thursday. The companies confirmed that their mega-hit game Rocket League would no longer receive updates for either platform following a "final" patch for all non-Windows versions on PC coming in "early March."

This "end-of-life" version of Rocket League on Linux and MacOS will still function in a wholly offline state, and affected players will be able to access whatever cosmetics and add-ons they'd previously earned through the game's economy system (but no more new ones). Additionally, those platforms will be able to use Steam Workshop content, but only if it's downloaded and applied to the game before the March patch goes live.

Otherwise, if any function in the game connects even in the slightest to the Internet—from item shops to matchmaking to private matches to friends lists—it will stop working once the March patch goes live, and any future modes, maps, or other game-changing content won't come to their platforms, either.

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After a decade of drama, Apple is ready to kill Flash in Safari once and for all

Par Samuel Axon
Safari is the default browser on all of Apple's devices.

Enlarge / Safari is the default browser on all of Apple's devices. (credit: NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Release notes for the latest version of the Safari Technology Preview, essentially the beta version of the macOS Web browser, explicitly state that the update ends support for Adobe Flash. This marks the end of the line for that Web technology on Macs.

The change happened in Safari Technology Preview 99 and is likely to hit the public release sometime in the near future.

Apple already disabled Flash by default in a previous Safari version, and the practice of including Flash on each Mac from initial installation ended a decade ago. But if users wanted to download Flash to their Macs and manually activate it, doing so was still possible. Soon, it won't be—at least, not in the system's default browser.

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Sick of Big Pharma’s pricing, health insurers pledge $55M for cheap generics

Par Beth Mole
A pharmacy technician grabs a bottle of drugs off a shelf at the central pharmacy of Intermountain Heathcare on September 10, 2018 in Midvale, Utah. IHC along with other hospitals and philanthropies are launching a nonprofit generic drug company called "Civica Rx" to help reduce cost and shortages of generic drugs.

Enlarge / A pharmacy technician grabs a bottle of drugs off a shelf at the central pharmacy of Intermountain Heathcare on September 10, 2018 in Midvale, Utah. IHC along with other hospitals and philanthropies are launching a nonprofit generic drug company called "Civica Rx" to help reduce cost and shortages of generic drugs. (credit: Getty | George Frey)

Fed up with the exorbitant price tags on old, off-patent medications, 18 Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies are partnering with a nonprofit dedicated to manufacturing and selling affordably priced generic drugs.

The BCBS companies are providing $55 million in their new partnership with nonprofit Civica Rx, the two organizations announced.

Like the new venture, Civica was born out of frustration with the pharmaceutical industry’s steep price increases as well as perilous shortages of essential drugs. In 2018, numerous health care organizations banded together with three philanthropies to manufacture their own brand of generic drugs, forming Civica and thwarting the generic industry. Their aim was to provide hospitals with injectable generic medications in steady supplies at affordable prices.

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A young couple is trapped in the forever home from hell in Vivarium trailer

Par Jennifer Ouellette

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots play a house-hunting couple trapped in a suburban nightmare in Vivarium.

A young couple stumbles into the wrong neighborhood while house-hunting and finds themselves prisoners in the forever home from hell in Vivarium, a surreal science fiction film directed by Lorcan Finnegan. The film premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival and made its way around the festival circuit before being picked up for distribution by Saban Films. And it has been garnering quite a bit of positive word of mouth along the way.

There's only the vaguest official premise: "A young couple looking for the perfect home find themselves trapped in a mysterious labyrinth-like neighborhood of identical houses." But Wikipedia offers this telling definition of the film's title: "A vivarium is an area, usually enclosed, for keeping and raising animals or plants for observation or research." It translates into "place of life," and it can be a small terrarium, for example, or something much larger, like Biosphere 2. It's pretty obvious that the film's suburban paradise is meant to be just such a place.

Imogen Poots plays Gemma, who is married to Tom (Jesse Eisenberg). They decide to check out the home options in a wholesome development called Yonder ("It has all you'd need and all you'd want"), and a very creepy real estate agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris) shows them around #9. Yonder is basically a large grid of identical streets filled with identical cookie-cutter houses, with the same cookie-cutter backyards. It calls to mind the classic folk song, "Little Boxes," popularized by Pete Seeger in the 1960s, about cheap, tiny suburban houses "made of ticky-tacky" that "all look just the same."

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Doom Eternal hands-on: It’s more, more, more—and maybe just a little bit less, too

Par Samuel Axon
  • There are a bunch more enemy types, and they will overwhelm you. [credit: Bethesda ]

The portals open, the metal music starts, and the chainsaw revs up. There's something about that moment that, repeated as many times as it was throughout Doom (2016), never got old for me. But Doom Eternal is coming from the point of view that this setup did, in fact, get old, and the way to keep it fresh is to add a lot of new stuff. So much new stuff.

Publisher Bethesda Softworks hosted a 3-hour preview of Doom Eternal for press in Los Angeles this week. I came into the event right off my first playthrough of its immediate predecessor on Nightmare difficulty (I did better than I feared, though I still died a lot!) and amped up by watching an entertaining live speedrun at Awesome Games Done Quick earlier this month. I was ultra-eager to get a taste of the sequel to one of my favorite shooters in years.

I was pleased to find that the frenetic, in-your-face, always-moving combat of the 2016 reboot was still here in full force, as was the tendency of the music to amp up as enemy portals appear in your immediate surroundings. I was surprised, though, to find that much of the pacing and narrative of Doom (2016) have been dropped in the name of pure, video game-y carnage.

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Dealmaster: Our favorite Fitbit fitness tracker is 30% off on Amazon today

Par Ars Staff
Dealmaster: Our favorite Fitbit fitness tracker is 30% off on Amazon today

Enlarge (credit: Ars Technica)

In today's Dealmaster, we have a great discount on Fitbit's Inspire HR, which we recently named the best fitness tracker for most people. As part of Amazon's Deal of the Day, the heart-rate-tracking Inspire HR is down to $70 for today only. That's just $1 off the lowest price we've seen from reputable retailers and a good $30 off its usual going rate.

The Inspire HR is essentially an updated version of Fitbit's old Alta HR tracker. It's something like the general-purpose option in Fitbit's lineup: it doesn't have the battery life and altimeter of the pricier Fitbit Charge 3 or the smartwatch-style functionality of the Fitbit Versa series, but it's still good for what most people need from a device like this without breaking the bank.

Compared to the Alta HR, the Inspire HR includes a full-on touchscreen instead of a tap-only panel and a generally more intuitive interface, with the ability to set timers and better change the look of the OS. At its core, it remains a dependable monitor of daily activity, heart rate, and sleep, aided in large part by the ever-useful Fitbit app. Fitbit rates the Inspire HR's battery as lasting up to five days per charge, which is a downgrade from the seven-day rating of the Charge 3 or Alta HR but should still be enough to only require one charge a week.

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DirecTV races to decommission broken Boeing satellite before it explodes

Par Jon Brodkin
Illustration of a satellite orbiting Earth.

Enlarge / Illustration—not the actual Boeing satellite used by DirecTV. (credit: Getty Images | 3DSculptor)

DirecTV is scrambling to move a broken Boeing satellite out of its standard orbit in order to limit the risk of "an accidental explosion."

As Space News reported today, DirecTV asked the Federal Communications Commission for a rules waiver so it can "conduct emergency operations to de-orbit the Spaceway-1 satellite," which is at risk of explosion because of damage to batteries. The 15-year-old Boeing 702HP satellite is in a geostationary orbit.

DirecTV, which is owned by AT&T, is coordinating with Intelsat on a plan to move Spaceway-1 into a new orbit. DirecTV already disabled the satellite's primary function, which is to provide backup Ka-band capacity in Alaska. The satellite can operate on power reserves from its solar panels, but that won't be possible during the coming eclipse season, DirecTV explained in its FCC filing:

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Jewel beetle’s bright colored shell serves as camouflage from predators

Par Jennifer Ouellette
The brightly colored shell of this jewel beetle is a surprisingly effective form of camouflage, according to a new study by scientists at the University of Bristol.

Enlarge / The brightly colored shell of this jewel beetle is a surprisingly effective form of camouflage, according to a new study by scientists at the University of Bristol. (credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries, and Archives)

Artist and naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer became known as the "father of camouflage" with the publication in 1909 of a book on coloration in animals. He was particularly fascinated by the phenomenon of iridescence: many species exhibit bright, metallic jewel tones that shift hues depending on viewing angle. While iridescence is often viewed as a means of sexual selection—think the magnificent peacock, shimmering his feathers to attract a willing peahen—Thayer suggested that in some species, it was also an effective means of camouflage.

Thayer endured a fair bit of mockery for his ideas, most notably from Theodore Roosevelt, a big game hunter who thought Thayer had grossly overstated his case. Indeed, there has been very little empirical support for Thayer's hypothesis in the ensuing century. But researchers from the University of Bristol have now uncovered the first solid evidence for this in the jewel beetle, according to a new paper in Current Biology.

What makes iridescence in nature so unusual is the fact that the color we see doesn't come from actual pigment molecules but from the precise lattice-like structure of the wings (or abalone shells, or peacock feathers, or opals, for that matter). That structure forces each light wave passing through to interfere with itself, so it can propagate only in certain directions and at certain frequencies. In essence, the structure acts like naturally occurring diffraction gratings. Physicists call these structures photonic crystals, an example of so-called "photonic band gap materials," meaning they block out certain frequencies of light and let through others.

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No one hurt in Firefly “anomaly” as company tests its Alpha first stage

Par Eric Berger
An earlier image from Firefly showing a nighttime stage test at its Briggs Test Stand in Central Texas.

Enlarge / An earlier image from Firefly showing a nighttime stage test at its Briggs Test Stand in Central Texas. (credit: Firefly Aerospace)

On Wednesday evening at Firefly Aerospace's test site about an hour north of Austin in Central Texas, some sort of anomaly occurred. The Burnet County Sheriff's Office reported that the incident took place at 6:24pm CT (00:24 UTC, Thursday), and that officers had called for evacuations of residences within one mile of the test site.

Earlier in the evening, in a subsequently deleted tweet, the company stated that it was loading liquid oxygen onto the rocket and about to attempt a qualification hot fire test of the first stage of its Alpha booster. This rocket is powered by four Reaver engines and has a reported capacity of 1 metric ton to low-Earth orbit. Firefly has been working toward the inaugural launch of the rocket, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in April.

Later Wednesday night, the company issued a statement about the test, noting that no one had been hurt.

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FCC shuts New York out of $20B broadband fund, and senators are angry

Par Jon Brodkin
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speaks at a podium during a news conference while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer looks on.

Enlarge / Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrats from New York, during a news conference on the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund in Washington, DC, on Thursday, July 18, 2019. (credit: Getty Images | Bloomberg)

The Federal Communications Commission has unfairly shut New York state out of a planned $20.4 billion broadband-funding program, US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai last week.

ISPs in 48 states are eligible for funding in the FCC rural-broadband program, which will distribute the money over 10 years to providers that expand their networks to new homes and businesses. The FCC said it blocked New York and Alaska from Phase I of the program "because of previously established programs to fund rural broadband in these states." (Phase I will distribute $16 billion of the $20.4 billion.)

The FCC previously established a separate funding program for Alaska with $1.5 billion over 10 years. But Schumer and Gillibrand say New York has only gotten its fair share of nationwide FCC programs, rather than something extra.

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars starts its final season on February 21

Par Jonathan M. Gitlin
  • Of all the characters to appear in the animated Star Wars series, Ahsoka Tano (voiced by Ashley Eckstein) has been the standout. [credit: Disney ]

Back in 2018, Lucasfilm surprised and delighted attendees at that year's ComicCon with the news that it would return to Star Wars: The Clone Wars. On Wednesday it released a new trailer for the animated series' final season, which airs on the Disney+ streaming service beginning February 21. Set before Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, the 12-episode season will (hopefully) wrap up the adventures of fan-favorite Jedi Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker's Padawan learner.

Like most of my colleagues, signing up for Disney+ wasn't a particularly hard decision; the eight-part series The Mandalorian has been more than worth the price of entry. But Disney wants people like me to keep sending it $6.99 a month, and that means fresh content, no matter how totes adorbs we all find Baby Yoda.

In fact, I'm currently in the middle of rewatching the first seven seasons of The Clone Wars, except this time in actual chronological order rather than the inexplicable "let's just show episodes at random because who cares, it's just a cartoon" order that Cartoon Network chose when airing them between 2008 and 2013. (Note: the first seven series are still arranged in that bizarre mashup on Disney+, but this handy page over at starwars.com will help you straighten it out.)

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Google researchers find serious privacy risks in Safari’s anti-tracking protections

Par Dan Goodin
Google researchers find serious privacy risks in Safari’s anti-tracking protections

Enlarge (credit: Ben Miller)

When Apple introduced powerful anti-tracking protections to Safari in 2017, advertisers banded together to say they were “deeply concerned” it would sabotage ad-supported content. Now, there’s new information showing that Safari users had good reason for unease as well.

Known as Intelligent Tracking Prevention, the mechanism uses machine learning to classify which websites are allowed to use browser cookies or scripts hosted on third-party domains to track users. Classifications are based on the specific browsing patterns of each end user. Sites that end users intentionally visit are permitted to do cross-site tracking. Sites that users don’t actively visit (but are accessed through tracking scripts) are restricted, either by automatically removing the cookies they set or truncating referrer headers to include only the domain, rather than the entire URL.

A paper published on Wednesday by researchers from Google said this protection came with unintended consequences that posed a risk to the privacy end users. Because the list of restricted sites is based on users’ individual browsing patterns, Intelligent Tracking Prevention—commonly abbreviated as ITP—introduces settings into Safari that can be modified and detected by any page on the Internet. The paper said websites have been able to use this capability for a host of attacks, including:

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Ancient African skeletons hint at a “ghost lineage” of humans

Par John Timmer
Image of boards surrounding trenches under a rock overhang.

Enlarge / A 1994 photograph of the excavations that yielded the skeletons at Shum Laka. (credit: Pierre de Maret)

Understanding humanity's shared history means understanding what happened in Africa. But figuring out what happened in Africa has been a difficult task. Not every area is well represented in the fossil history, and most African environments aren't conducive to the preservation of ancient DNA. DNA sequencing of modern African populations lags behind other regions, in part because DNA sequencing hardware is more common elsewhere. Finally, as in many other areas, massive migrations within the continent have helped scramble the genetic legacy of the past.

Now, researchers are describing a new window into our collective past: DNA from ancient skeletons found in a rock shelter in West Africa. The skeletons come from a location and time that are both near the origin of the Bantu expansion that spread West African peoples across the entirety of Africa but have little in common with Bantu-speaking populations. Yet, at the same time, they provide hints of what might have happened very early in humanity's history, including the existence of a lineage of archaic humans we've not yet identified.

Right time, right place

The skeletons come from a site called Shum Laka, which is located in a grassland area of Cameroon. For those not up on their African geography, Cameroon is located at the angle where West Africa meets Southern Africa. This is also the region where the Bantu people put together a collection of agricultural and metallurgical technologies that allowed them to sweep across the rest of the continent, leaving their linguistic and genetic mark on many other populations.

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Valve opens up about Half-Life: Alyx, Source 2 engine on Reddit

Par Sam Machkovech
Valve released this promotional illustration for <em>Half-Life: Alyx</em> on Tuesday, thus revealing a bit more about the game's "Multi-tool" system we've mentioned in previous reports on the VR-exclusive game.

Enlarge / Valve released this promotional illustration for Half-Life: Alyx on Tuesday, thus revealing a bit more about the game's "Multi-tool" system we've mentioned in previous reports on the VR-exclusive game. (credit: Valve)

With approximately two months left to go until their next game's launch, the developers at Valve opened up to the throngs at Reddit for a thousands-strong "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) session on Wednesday. Unsurprisingly, most of the questions were ignored—especially ones that mentioned the number "three"—but the team still revealed some new and interesting tidbits about March's upcoming VR-exclusive game Half-Life: Alyx.

Perhaps most importantly, the development team insists the game is still on schedule to launch in its announced window of March 2020. "With the exception of some tweaks to the absolute final scene, the game is done," an unnamed staff member says in one post. "We let the Valve Time happen before we announced the game." This statement alludes to the company's tradition of letting release schedules slip until a game reaches "it's done" territory, but that wasn't clarified in further answers.

That means the game's full suite of movement options within VR are complete, Valve says, "including things like Seated, Left-Handed mode, etc." The new game's suite of "accessibility" features are still being iterated on, particularly support for one-handed play.

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Sarcos offers fully mobile, insanely strong industrial exoskeletons

Par Jim Salter
Screenshot from 1986 film Aliens.

Enlarge / Sarcos Robotics' Guardian XO is the closest thing we've seen in real life to the Power Loader Lieutenant Ripley used to such good effect in 1986's Aliens. (credit: 20th Century Fox)

The most interesting thing we saw at the Consumer Electronics Show this year was the back side of Delta Airlines' exhibit, where some Sarcos Robotics folks were putting the Guardian XO—a powered industrial exoskeleton—through its paces, and the adventurous (and patient) could wait for half an hour or so in line to operate one disembodied arm of the Guardian attached to a 50-pound suitcase.

  • We took this photo of an operator demonstrating movement and work in the Guardian XO at the Delta exhibit at CES. [credit: Jim Salter ]

Unfortunately, neither Sarcos nor Delta was about to let any journalists inside an actual Guardian XO. They had good reason, though—which became abundantly clear after we took a test run with a disembodied, statically mounted Guardian XO right arm. The suits aren't just designed to be incredibly strong—they're also designed for long-term, ergonomically correct operation that won't destroy backs and knees the way a career in the military or heavy industry tends to. That's great if you're a trained professional trying not to injure yourself—not so great if you're a random enthusiast suddenly given 20:1 muscular amplification in a densely packed crowd of thousands.

That term—20:1 muscular amplification—is a little misleading. The Guardian XO isn't really 20 times as strong as a construction worker. The promotional materials we've seen rate the exosuit for weights that aren't out of the question for a very strong human—200lbs total, 100lbs per arm, 50lbs per arm at full extension—but inside the Guardian XO, you're handling those weights while working no harder than you might in a light office environment.

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One immune cell type appears to attack any type of cancer

Par John Timmer
Image of a blue sphere with a surface covered by many small extrusions.

Enlarge / False-colored image of an electron micrograph of a T cell. (credit: NIAID)

While cancerous cells look a lot like normal human cells, they're still different enough that the immune system regularly attacks them. Obviously, this attack sometimes bogs down, allowing cancer to thrive and spread. Figuring out how to get the immune system back on track has been a major focus of research, and success in the area has been honored with a Nobel Prize.

Despite these successes, many patients aren't helped by the newer immune-focused therapies, raising questions of what else we still need to figure out to help cancer patients. A new paper highlights something we may have missed: a class of immune cells that appears to be primed specifically to attack cancer. But the finding raises questions about what it is on cancer cells that the immune cells are recognizing and why they fail to keep cancer in check.

Finding cancer killers

The start of this work was pretty simple: a large international team of researchers grew a mix of immune cells called "T cells" in the presence of cancerous cells and looked for cells that grew rapidly. This rapid growth is typically a sign that the immune cells have been activated by something they recognize—in this case, the cancer. They identified one particular lineage of T cells that grew well and named it MC.7.G5, confirming yet again that most scientists don't belong in the creative industries.

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Leaked images show Xbox Series X is missing Xbox One’s HDMI input

Par Kyle Orland
Yup, the Xbox Series X has ports, alright.

Enlarge / Yup, the Xbox Series X has ports, alright. (credit: NeoGAF / CurryPanda)

Last month, when Microsoft gave us our first glimpse of the Xbox Series X housing, the photo angles provided notably left out the rear of the console—you know, the part with all the ports for wires and such. Now, a message board leak has apparently revealed what that back side will look like, including a few changes from the old Xbox One line.

The images of an "Xbox Product Name Placeholder PROTOTYPE - NOT FOR SALE," originally posted by NeoGAF user Curry Panda, were later confirmed as authentic by Brad Sams at Thurrott.com (who has a strong track record of reporting accurate internal information about Microsoft's plans). That makes this leak different from a glimpse of the Series X's backside shown by AMD at CES earlier this month—AMD later admitted that imagery "was not sourced from Microsoft and does not accurately represent the design or features of the upcoming console."

The biggest apparent change from the Xbox One to the Xbox Series X, port-wise, is the lack of the HDMI input that allowed for "pass-through" TV programming on all Xbox One models (and the accompanying IR output that allowed the Xbox One/Kinect to act as a TV remote). That's not a huge surprise, considering how quickly Microsoft stopped stressing this functionality after a major Xbox-as-set-top-TV-box push back in the console's early years. The Series X is also missing the dedicated Kinect port that was already removed from the Xbox One S and Xbox One X, meaning you'll seemingly need a discontinued USB adapter for those particular backward-compatible games.

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Monty Python’s Terry Jones joins the choir invisible

Par Eric Bangeman
Terry Jones playing the organ <i>au naturel</i> in Monty Python's "Blackmail" sketch.

Enlarge / Terry Jones playing the organ au naturel in Monty Python's "Blackmail" sketch. (credit: Python (Monty) Pictures | BBC)

Monty Python’s Terry Jones died at age 77 on January 21 at his London home.

Born in Colwyn Bay, Wales, Jones got his comedy start at Oxford University, playing in revues with fellow future Python Michael Palin. After graduation, he worked as a writer on a handful of BBC shows, including The Frost Report, and he performed on Do Not Adjust Your Set along with The Complete and Utter History of Britain. But it was his work with Monty Python that he is primarily remembered for.

During Python’s original four-year run, Jones generally wrote with Michael Palin, and the two would bring their work in progress to the entire group to read through and workshop the material. (John Cleese and Graham Chapman also wrote together, while Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam generally worked alone.) It was in that crucible that Jones, along with the other Pythons, honed their sketch-writing and comedic-timing skills to produce timeless comedy.

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After a 1-month delay, the new Moto Razr will be out February 6

Par Ron Amadeo
  • The new Moto Razr. [credit: Motorola ]

The Moto Razr has a new release date. After announcing a delay just a few days before it was planned to go on sale in December, Verizon now says the new-school flip phone will go up for pre-order January 26, with an in-store date of February 6. It's still $1,499.99.

The new Moto Razr quickly became one of the most interesting upcoming devices when it was unveiled in November. It has a nostalgic flip phone design with a folding, flexible OLED display, a trick hinge mechanism that won't crease the display, and even a mode that replicates the old Razr UI. Just six days before the December 26 pre-order date, Motorola pumped the brakes on its smartphone project, saying it needed to "adjust Razr’s presale and launch timing to better meet consumer demand."

Several companies have released foldable smartphones now, but so far, every foldable device has seen significant delays and a limited release. The new flexible display technology is impressive, but it comes with a host of issues related to durability. First, folding glass is not a thing yet (though Corning is working on it) so these displays are all covered in a scratchable, pierceable plastic. Second, folding an OLED display in half puts stress on it, and it's unclear how much folding and unfolding these displays can take without failing. Finally, these devices need hinges that are bigger and stronger than anything that was fitted to a flip phone in the past, and that introduces a host of moving parts. Balancing all of these issues, working out the details of a new form factor, and doing this all for a reasonable price has proven difficult for the entire industry so far.

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The math of brewing a better espresso

Par Jennifer Ouellette
A new mathematical model sheds light on the optimal brewing process for espresso.

Enlarge / A new mathematical model sheds light on the optimal brewing process for espresso. (credit: Five Senses Coffee (Australia))

Skilled baristas know that achieving the perfect complex flavor profile for a delectable shot of espresso is as much art as science. Get it wrong, and the resulting espresso can taste too bitter or sourly acidic rather than being a perfect mix of each. Now, as outlined in a new paper in the journal Matter, an international team of scientists has devised a mathematical model for brewing the perfect cup, over and over, while minimizing waste.

"A good espresso beverage can be made in a multitude of ways," said co-author Christopher Hendon, a computational chemist at the University of Oregon. "The point of this paper was to give people a map for making an espresso beverage that they like and then be able to make it 100 times in a row."

There's actually an official industry standard for brewing espresso, courtesy of the Specialty Coffee Association, which sets out strict guidelines for its final volume (25-35mL, or roughly one ounce) and preparation. The water must be heated to 92° to 95°C (197° to 203°F) and forced (at a specific pressure) through a bed of 7 to 9 grams (about a quarter of an ounce) of finely ground coffee over the course of 20 to 30 seconds. But most coffee shops don't follow this closely, typically using more coffee, while the brewing machines allow baristas to configure water pressure, temperature, and other key variables to their liking. The result of all those variations in technique is a great deal of variability in quality and taste.

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