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Industry & Technology

Redemption not guaranteed: El Camino is a fitting coda to Jesse Pinkman’s story

Ars Technica - October 19, 2019 - 5:00pm

Enlarge / Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) must elude capture and get out of town in El Camino. (credit: Netflix)

The series finale of Breaking Bad has been touted as one of the best series finales of all time by critics, as former high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth manufacturer Walter White faced the inevitable reckoning for his many crimes and misdeeds. But it left other narrative threads unresolved, most notably the fate of Walter's former student and partner in the meth business, Jesse Pinkman. Series creator Vince Gilligan had long wanted to finish Jesse's story, and the result is El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which debuted on Netflix last week, six years after the series concluded.

(Major spoilers for the Breaking Bad TV series below. Mild spoilers for El Camino.)

Breaking Bad starred Bryan Cranston as Walter, who is diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. Assuming his death is imminent, he frets about providing for his wife and kids. So he decides to put his chemistry expertise to use making methamphetamine, with the help of former pupil Jesse (Aaron Paul). This naturally draws the attention of Albuquerque's criminal underworld. Further complicating matters is Walter's brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), an officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration intent on tracking down this mysterious new player nicknamed "Heisenberg." Over the course of five seasons, viewers witnessed Walter's gradual transformation from an uptight science teacher cooking meth in his tighty-whities to a manipulative, cold-blooded killer.

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Lawmakers express “deep concern” over Blizzard’s Hong Kong protest response

Ars Technica - October 19, 2019 - 2:40pm

Enlarge / Mei from Overwatch has become a grass roots symbol of the Hong Kong protests in the wake of Blizzard's decision. (credit: r/hongkong)

A bipartisan group of Senate and House lawmakers has signed a letter expressing "deep concern" over Activision Blizzard's recent decision to punish Ng "Blitzchung" Wai Chung after the pro Hearthstone player expressed support for continuing Hong Kong protests last week. "This decision is particularly concerning in light of the Chinese government's growing appetite for pressuring American businesses to help stifle free speech," the letter reads, in part.

Blizzard originally banned the Hong Kong-based player for a year and withheld his prize money after he said "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!" in Chinese during the livestreamed event. That penalty was later reduced to a six-month suspension and Chung's prize money was reinstated.

But the letter, addressed to Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, urges Blizzard "in the strongest terms to reconsider your decision with respect to Mr. Chung. You have the opportunity to reverse course. We urge you to take it."

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Minecraft becomes a board game, and the results are faithful, fantastic

Ars Technica - October 19, 2019 - 2:00pm

Enlarge (credit: Sam Machkovech)

I'm not shocked that the first-ever Minecraft board game is cute and fun. But this new game, made as a collaboration between video game studio Mojang and board game producer Ravensburger, has no right to be this elegant.

Minecraft: Builders & Biomes is breezy. It's quick. It's kid-friendly. Yet it's full of the tricky decisions, competitive countermeasures, and three-moves-ahead plotting that can ratchet a game to the top of a diehard tabletop community's rankings.

Best of all, it has a goofy, tactile centerpiece that feeds into the gameplay loop while also looking exactly like what you'd expect from a "Minecraft board game." Builders & Biomes, which is out now in Europe and launches in the US on November 15, has come out of nowhere to punch my licensed-game skepticism down like a blocky, in-game tree.

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When MS Paint ruled the fandom world: An innovative webcomic, 10 years later

Ars Technica - October 19, 2019 - 1:05pm

Enlarge / Webcomic creator Andrew Hussie broke the fourth wall repeatedly within many of his creations. Here, he drew himself next to a person named "Ms. Paint," a play on the fact that his creations were usually made in Microsoft's famed MS Paint app. (credit: Andrew Hussie)

Rewind to the Internet of 10 years ago and you’ll find an era that made sense for an odd, beloved webcomic like Homestuck. It debuted in April 2009 as a one-off lark from avid webcomic maker Andrew Hussie, and its modest premise—four teenage friends playing a video game—could have been a one-and-done comic miniseries. (Its arrival within the appropriately named MS Paint Adventures, or MSPA, spoke to its modesty.)

From there, the series gradually expanded in scope to become an epic science fantasy story about children from different cultures coming of age without adult supervision. They learn to work together in spite of cultural differences, individual traumas, and the feeling of isolation that comes from being an adolescent in a rapidly changing world—and, in doing so, they defy an evil time traveler with the power to create a new and “better” universe.

Homestuck is a product of its time. It's built on media tropes from when it was written, and its aesthetic evolved with the Internet's tastes, from jokes about TV shows and adventure games to social media and anime references as the story wrapped up in 2013. But one thing that remained constant and set a tone for how creators would operate online in the years that followed is the tight-knit relationship between Homestuck's author and his fans.

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Zuckerberg doubles down on free speech—the Facebook way

Ars Technica - October 19, 2019 - 12:05pm

Enlarge / “I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at Georgetown University Thursday. (credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty)

Mark Zuckerberg came to Washington, DC, on Thursday to claim the mantle of Martin Luther King and the Founding Fathers as a champion of free speech. Standing in the stately Gaston Hall auditorium at Georgetown University—which has hosted the likes of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Bono—the Facebook CEO declared, “I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression.”

And a city full of regulation-hungry politicians and foes of Big Tech undoubtedly thought: How’s that working out?

Zuckerberg’s highly promoted speech introduced no new Facebook features or initiatives, but was a defiant reply to critics of Facebook’s destructive effects on global society—manipulating voters, fomenting division, and even aiding genocide. He doubled down on Facebook’s handling of the treacherous business of implementing free expression at an unprecedented global scale. Despite considerable evidence that the approach has often fallen short, Zuckerberg still professes optimism: Giving people a voice and connecting the world, he believes, are transformationally positive actions. Essentially, he’s saying—as he always has—that Facebook is essentially positive.

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Review: Zombieland: Double Tap delivers wise-cracking, brain-splattering fun

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 11:13pm

Enlarge / Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita, and Little Rock face a new kind of zombie in Zombieland 2: Double Tap. (credit: YouTube/Sony Pictures)

The makeshift family unit that slays together stays together in Zombieland: Double Tap, Director Ruben Fleischer's follow-up to his 2009 hit film Zombieland. This hotly anticipated sequel succeeds in recapturing much of the original's magic, with plenty of wit, gore, and playful callbacks to delight diehard fans. And let's just say you'll definitely want to hang around through the closing credits.

(Some spoilers below.)

In the first Zombieland, a virulent form of human-adapted mad cow disease sweeps across the United States, transforming most of the nation’s populace into ravenous zombies. The film follows a ragtag group of unlikely survivors—Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), and orphaned sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin)—on a road trip in hopes of finding some place yet untouched by the disease, ending with a pitched battle against zombie hordes in an abandoned amusement park. Audiences (myself included) loved the mix of horror and dark screwball comedy, especially the "Zombie Kills of the Week" and Columbus's hilarious survival rules—cardio, limber up, beware of bathrooms, and buckle up, for instance—often illustrated by various doomed souls who failed to heed those rules. It was a fresh, fun take on the "zom-com" format.

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Two women completed a seven-hour spacewalk on Friday

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 10:20pm

Two American astronauts made history on Friday when they performed a spacewalk outside of the International Space Station—it was the first all-woman extravehicular activity (EVA). Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir spent 7 hours and 17 minutes outside the station.

The pair, who are best friends, worked well together. Not only did they complete the primary task of replacing a failed power charging unit, which is already operating properly, but they also performed several extra tasks. While the astronauts recognized the achievement, they sought to play down the significance of the moment. "You know, for us, this is really just us doing our job," Meir said during NASA's broadcast of the spacewalk. "It’s something we’ve been training for for six years, and preparing for."

That seemed to be the attitude of most NASA people following the event—that this was a good milestone, and an important one for NASA to get past. (Especially after NASA had to cancel the first all-female EVA back in March). But in the future, this shouldn't be a notable thing. "I think the milestone is hopefully this will now be considered normal," NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson said Friday. "I think many of us are looking forward to this just being normal."

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Man has massive, rotting scrotum removed after avoiding doctors for decades

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 9:04pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty )

After three decades of progressive symptoms, a 43-year-old man from Panama was rushed into emergency surgery with a massively swollen scrotum that hung past the level of his knees and had begun to rot and ooze foul-smelling pus, a team of Texas doctors report.

CT imaging illustrating impressive scrotal edema and massive inguinal hernia. (credit: Dowd et al.)

When he arrived at the hospital, he had a fever of 102.2 °F (39 °C) and rapid heart rate, as well as extensive swelling and thickened skin in his scrotum and upper right leg. He also had two open wounds in his scrotum. Further imaging of his abdomen and pelvis revealed a large hernia containing part of his colon, as well as a huge abscess, considerable tissue damage, and fluid collection. (You can see NSFW images of his condition here)

Fearing the ravages of gangrene and sepsis—a life-threatening response to infection—the doctors quickly wheeled him to an operating room to try to remove the rotting flesh. Pathologists examining tissue from his scrotum found extensive inflammation and that some of his skin had begun to liquify.

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Report: Home builders ditch Nest products after Google takeover

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 8:38pm

Enlarge / Coming soon to a Nest near you: Your Google account. (credit: Google Nest)

Google's "Nest" smart home division has seen major upheaval this year, and according to a report from Bloomberg, the changes aren't sitting well with residential builders that formerly integrated Nest projects into their construction projects.

This year, we finally started seeing results from Nest's 2018 demotion from a standalone Alphabet company to a merger with Google. "Nest" is no longer a line of products developed by a company or division and now seems to be a general-purpose sub-brand for any of Google's smart home devices. We've seen several existing product lines be rebranded from "Google" to "Google Nest" like the Google Nest Mini (formerly the Google Home Mini), the Google Nest Hub (formerly the Google Home Hub), the Nest Wifi (formerly Google Wifi), and the Google Nest Learning Thermostat (formerly the Nest Learning Thermostat).

In addition to the death of Nest the company, we're also seeing the death of the Nest ecosystem. The "Works with Nest" smart home program is being shut down in favor of Google Assistant compatibility, and that means devices that used to communicate with Nest now work differently or not at all. Nest's account system is also being shut down, and in the future, users will need a Google account.

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AT&T hits online TV customers with second big price increase this year

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 7:56pm

(credit: Aurich Lawson)

AT&T is rolling out another batch of price increases for AT&T TV Now, the online streaming service formerly known as DirecTV Now.

The AT&T TV Now "Plus" package that contains 45 channels and costs $50 a month will rise to $65, AT&T told Ars. Customers on some other plans will get a $10 increase, AT&T said. That means the "Max" plan with 60 channels will go from $70 to $80, but plans with more channels that range in price from $86 to $135 will stay at the current prices, AT&T told us.

Notices of the increases are being sent to existing customers, so the price hikes will affect both new and existing users.

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“You’re going to flip”: Motorola teases the new Razr in November event invitation

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 7:42pm

Motorola and parent company Lenovo have invited press outlets to a product unveiling event on November 13 in Los Angeles that has enthusiasts speculating about the potential imminent announcement of a new Razr phone.

As reported by CNET, an invitation went out with taglines like "an original unlike any other," "you're going to flip," and "highly anticipated unveiling of a reinvented icon." Accompanying the invitation was an animated image depicting the original Razr phone hinge design being peeled back to reveal another, partially obscured device that is clearly meant to look like a foldable device. Given that, it's hard to imagine this event as anything other than a Razr event.

Despite a dearth of reliable information or confirmations, the Razr reboot has become one of the most anticipated smartphone releases among gadget enthusiasts. It's understandable; the Razr V3 was the first cell phone to achieve pop culture icon status, thanks to aggressive, fashion-oriented marketing, among other things. More than 130 million Razr phones were sold over several years after it was announced. It's one of only a few specific phones even today that many consumers in the general public could recall by brand name.

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Frontier gets away with “paltry” settlement after breaking 35 laws and rules

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 6:18pm

Enlarge / A Frontier Communications service van. (credit: Mike Mozart)

Minnesota regulators are letting Frontier Communications settle an investigation without admitting fault, despite the state attorney general's office calling the settlement "paltry compared with Frontier's alleged misconduct."

Frontier failed to properly maintain its telecom network in Minnesota, leading to "frequent and lengthy" phone and Internet outages, the Minnesota Commerce Department said in January. Frontier also failed to provide refunds or bill credits to customers affected by outages that sometimes lasted for months, committed frequent billing errors that caused customers to pay for services they didn't order, and failed to promptly provide telephone service to all customers who requested it, the department's investigation found.

The Commerce Department in August announced a proposed settlement in which Frontier agreed to offer refunds to customers for problems dating back to November 2015, and to improve future service quality, customer service, and billing practices. The settlement would expire in two years if Frontier is in "substantial compliance" with its terms.

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Archaeologists unearth a Bronze Age warrior’s personal toolkit

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 6:05pm

The contents of the Bronze Age toolkit with the mud cleaned off. (credit: V. Minkus)

Three-thousand years ago, at least 140 fighters died in a battle along the banks of Germany’s Tollense River. One of the fallen dropped a small kit containing tools and a handful of bronze scraps. Based on the types of artifacts archaeologists found in this kit, they've concluded that at least some of the combatants in the prehistoric battle probably came from hundreds of kilometers away in Central or even Southern Europe.

According to University of Göttingen archaeologist Tobias Uhlig and his colleagues, that suggests that large-scale battles between far-flung groups began long before people in Europe had developed a system of writing to record the history of their conflicts.

An ancient battlefield

Today, quiet pastures flanked by woods line the banks of the Tollense River in Northeastern Germany. But beneath the green grass and the placid surface of the water, the 3,000-year-old remains of fallen soldiers and their broken weapons lie scattered for at least 2.5km along the river. Most of what we know of the European Bronze Age comes from more peaceful contexts, like settlement or burial sites; the bones, weapons, and personal effects along the Tollense River are the only archaeological evidence (so far) of a battle in prehistoric Europe.

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Project Xcloud preview serves as a passable, portable Xbox One

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 5:49pm

Through nearly two decades of Xbox game consoles, Microsoft has never followed Nintendo's and Sony's lead in attempting to create a dedicated portable gaming system. Project Xcloud, which entered a limited public beta test this week, is an interesting end-run attempt at filling in that hole. Instead of downloadable games running locally, you stream games running on powerful remote servers over Wi-Fi. Instead of dedicated hardware, you use the smartphone you probably already own.

After spending a few days playing "portable" Xbox One games at home via Xcloud, we're somewhat warming up to the idea. But there are enough hassles and caveats that we're glad Xcloud isn't serving as a full-on replacement for Microsoft's existing gaming strategy just yet.

Head in the clouds

After getting approved for the preview, setting up our Xcloud test was as simple as logging in to the free Android app with a Microsoft account and connecting the controller via Bluetooth. There were about 60 seconds of loading when first starting up a game, but much less when switching back to an existing game after briefly moving to another app on the phone.

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The Pixel 4’s face unlock works on sleeping, unconscious people

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 5:25pm

Google's recently announced Pixel 4 has a new biometric feature—well, new for Google, at least—face unlock. Like most new biometric systems, that means we'll probably be writing about security flaws in its implementation, and the first one has already popped up before the phone is even out. You don't need to have your eyes open for the Pixel 4's face unlock to work. The flaw was first publicized by the BBC's technology reporter, Chris Fox, who was able to get face unlock to work on several people with their eyes closed.

The thing about biometrics versus a password or PIN is that having to enter data via a keyboard is a pretty good indicator of consent. You're conscious, you're recalling this secret information, and you're typing it into the phone. You're at least aware of what's going on. Biometrics, on the other hand, are something other people can do for you, or to you. The easiest example is pointing a phone at a sleeping person to unlock it. You could also lift a person's finger and put it on a fingerprint reader, but at least you have to touch the victim to do that. There's a real lack of consent and awareness when you can just point the phone at an unconscious person.

Fox gives a great video example on Twitter:

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'WhatsApp tax' plan dropped in Lebanon

BBC Technology News - October 18, 2019 - 5:21pm
Protests continue in Lebanon despite the government backtracking on a new tax on WhatsApp calls.

Should all connected cars have a physical network kill switch?

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 5:15pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty)

Connected cars should come with a kill switch. That's the take-home message—and the title—of a report by the group Consumer Watchdog. Software increasingly defines the vehicles we drive, and software can be exploited by nefarious people for nefarious means. The problem is compounded by the fact that automakers rely on software written by third parties, including open source software that is riddled with security holes, it says.

Therefore, to prevent "a 9/11-like cyber-attack on our cars," the report calls for physical "kill switches" to be built into new cars to allow them to be completely disconnected from the Internet. If carmakers don't agree to the report's recommendations by year's end, then "legislators and regulators should mandate these protections," it says.

Yes, there’s a modem in your new car

You may have noticed that it's becoming increasingly difficult to buy a new vehicle that doesn't feature an embedded modem in it. The benefits of a connected car are various, we're told. It enables onboard telematics that the car maker can use both to improve future products and to allow features like predictive maintenance alerts. And an Internet connection to the infotainment system opens up streaming media services alongside more traditional platforms like FM or satellite radio. In Europe, an onboard modem that can call emergency services in the event of a serious crash has been mandatory since last year.

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Report: More than half of all US doctors get money from pharma each year

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 4:40pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Bill Diodato)

Drug makers and medical device makers are still spending between $2.1 billion and $2.2 billion a year to woo doctors into prescribing and using their products, according to a new investigation by ProPublica.

Between 2014 and 2018, more than 600,000 of the approximately 1.1 million doctors in the US received at least one payment from industry in any given year. The payments were for things including speaking fees, consulting, meals, gifts, travel, and royalties.

While thousands of doctors have made $100,000 or more, more than 2,500 received $500,000 or more in the five-year period—and those payments do not include royalties. More than 700 received at least $1 million.

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Explaining how fighting games use delay-based and rollback netcode

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 4:07pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Capcom / Getty Images)

Ricky "Infil" Pusch is a long-time fighting game fan and content creator. He wrote The Complete Killer Instinct Guide, an interactive and comprehensive website for learning about Killer Instinct. This article was originally published there.

Hang around the fighting game community for any period of time, and you'll hear discussion about why playing fighting games online can be frustrating. A genre built on twitch reflexes and player reactions, fighting games can struggle at times to translate their offline success to online environments. Good online play is possible, though, and nothing is more important for realizing this goal than choosing the right approach to netcode.

At its core, netcode is simply a method for two or more computers, each trying to play the same game, to talk to each other over the Internet. While local play always ensures that all player inputs arrive and are processed at the same time, networks are constantly unstable in ways the game cannot control or predict. Information sent to your opponent may be delayed, arrive out of order, or become lost entirely depending on dozens of factors, including the physical distance to your opponent, whether you’re on a Wi-Fi connection, and whether your roommate is watching Netflix.

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Air Force finally retires 8-inch floppies from missile launch control system

Ars Technica - October 18, 2019 - 3:37pm

Enlarge / Pour one out for the 8-inch floppy, retired from the Air Force after 50 years of service. (credit: CBS News)

Five years ago, a CBS 60 Minutes report publicized a bit of technology trivia many in the defense community were aware of: the fact that eight-inch floppy disks were still used to store data critical to operating the Air Force's intercontinental ballistic missile command, control, and communications network. The system, once called the Strategic Air Command Digital Network (SACDIN), relied on IBM Series/1 computers installed by the Air Force at Minuteman II missile sites in the 1960s and 1970s.

Those floppy disks have now been retired. Despite the contention by the Air Force at the time of the 60 Minutes report that the archaic hardware offered a cybersecurity advantage, the service has completed an upgrade to what is now known as the Strategic Automated Command and Control System (SACCS), as Defense News reports. SAACS is an upgrade that swaps the floppy disk system for what Lt. Col. Jason Rossi, commander of the Air Force’s 595th Strategic Communications Squadron, described as a “highly secure solid state digital storage solution.” The floppy drives were fully retired in June.

But the IBM Series/1 computers remain, in part because of their reliability and security. And it's not clear whether other upgrades to "modernize" the system have been completed. Air Force officials have acknowledged network upgrades that have enhanced the speed and capacity of SACCS' communications systems, and a Government Accountability Office report in 2016 noted that the Air Force planned to "update its data storage solutions, port expansion processors, portable terminals, and desktop terminals by the end of fiscal year 2017." But it's not clear how much of that has been completed.

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