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Ars Technica
Syndicate content Ars Technica
Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 1 hour 21 min ago

Ahh, summer—ramlibacter season

2 hours 59 min ago

Enlarge / Even mundane activities can allow microbes to catch a ride on the wind. (credit: Christopher Griner)

Your gut isn’t the only place that harbors a community of microbes. There are also microbiomes coating your skin and most household, industrial, and commercial surfaces. There's even a community hanging out in the lower atmosphere. Scientists in Spain have monitored this airborne microbiome by taking rain and snow samples every two weeks for seven years at a site in the central Pyrenees. The samples were then run through a DNA sequencer to reveal the airborne microbiome. They found that the bacteria, archaea, protists, and fungi all varied predictably by season.

In the wintertime, microbes frequently had marine origins, coming primarily from the Atlantic, although these were mixed in with bugs from forest and other terrestrial sources. Overall, the winter atmospheric microbiome was the most diverse, and that diversity included the highest levels of pathogens in any season.

In the summer, the microbiome was more regional, coming from the Mediterranean as well as fresh water, cropland, and cities. There was more pollution in the summer; the scientists monitored atmospheric levels of chemicals, including nitrates and sulphates, in addition to microbes. One of the most abundant and recurring taxa over the seven summers was Ramlibacter, related to a bacterium first isolated in 2011 from meteorite fragments buried in the sands near Tatouine, in Tunisia. It is specifically adapted to live in hot, dry, desert climes, so the researchers suggested that it could be used as a forensic signature for “summertime in Europe—African dust in the air.”

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Galaxy mergers hide ravenous supermassive black holes

3 hours 33 min ago

Enlarge / When galaxies collide. (credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team)

Black holes are… um, black. The point of a black hole is that the force of gravity is strong enough to prevent light from escaping its grasp. But the matter that is being sucked into a black hole is not at all happy about its fate. The matter gets hot and bothered and starts to glow very brightly before it reaches the black hole. This produces what are called luminous accreting black holes.

Most black holes are proud of themselves, sucking down matter right before our very eyes. But others are shy and seem to hide their antisocial behavior, raising questions about whether they were actually there. It turns out that these murderous monsters are hiding behind the gas clouds created by galaxy collisions. It took a serious amount of detective work to penetrate the fog.

Introducing the eyewitnesses

Astronomers have long recognized that not everything in the Universe happens slowly. Sure, our Sun will be stable for billions of years, but when things start to go wrong, they go downhill quickly (use your remaining eight minutes wisely). Likewise, when something big gets sucked into a black hole, it sends a last desperate SOS in the form of a bright X-ray flash.

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Comcast forced to pay refunds after its hidden fees hurt customers’ credit

3 hours 48 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Aurich / Getty)

Comcast has agreed to pay $700,000 in refunds "and cancel debts for more than 20,000 Massachusetts customers" to settle allegations that it used deceptive advertising to promote long-term cable contracts, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced yesterday. "Comcast stuck too many Massachusetts customers with lengthy, expensive contracts that left many in debt and others with damaged credit," Healey said.

The Massachusetts AG alleged that Comcast violated state consumer protection laws by "fail[ing] to adequately disclose the actual monthly price and terms of its long-term contracts for cable services, including failing to disclose to customers that the company could increase the price of certain monthly fees at any point during the long-term contracts."

Comcast advertised a $99 lock-in rate "but did not adequately disclose equipment costs and mandatory monthly fees" that would add to monthly bills, and "failed to adequately disclose that the fees could increase while the customer was locked into the long-term contract," the AG investigation found.

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Walmart agrees to work with Ford on self-driving grocery delivery pilot

3 hours 56 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Ford)

Ford is working with Postmates and Walmart on a pilot program for self-driving grocery deliveries, the companies announced on Wednesday.

"We are exploring how self-driving vehicles can deliver many everyday goods such as groceries, diapers, pet food and personal care items," Ford said in a press release.

The grocery delivery pilot experiment will be based in Miami, where Ford's self-driving car company, Argo, is already testing self-driving vehicles. Ford had been testing self-driving deliveries with Postmates prior to this announcement.

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Cave acoustics can help sculpt more realistic sounds in digital space

4 hours 20 min ago

Enlarge / Slim pickings: A search for “cave” in Altiverb sampling software shows Howe’s Cavern in NY and two locations in Malta, in addition to several human-made structures. (credit: Yuri Lysoivanov)

Sound is very much an ephemeral phenomenon. So when acoustician Yuri Lysoivanov wanted to capture the unique acoustics of natural caves, he lugged all his recording equipment to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky to analyze the reverberations and resonances. He described this experience at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Victoria, Canada, earlier this month.

Reverberation is a critical design element, especially for performance spaces. It's not the same as an echo, which is what happens when a sound repeats. Reverb is what happens indoors when sound can't travel sufficient distance to produce those echoing delays. Instead, you get a continuous ring that gradually "decays" (fades).

American audio engineer Bill Putnam was the first person to use "artificial reverb" for commercial recording in the late 1940s with the Harmonicats' "Peg o' My Heart"—achieved by placing a microphone and loudspeaker in the recording studio's bathroom. (Bathroom and subway tiles have excellent reverberation, which is why buskers have their favorite spots in New York City's subway stations.) Today, one of the most popular digital techniques is called convolution reverb, which uses recordings of the acoustics of real spaces to produce highly realistic simulations of those spaces.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Spotify officially releases first version of its Apple Watch app

5 hours 52 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Valentina Palladino)

After rolling out wearables apps across other platforms over the past few weeks, Spotify just released the first iteration of its Apple Watch app. The watchOS app will be rolling out to Apple Watch users over the next week, and you must have the latest version of the Spotify iOS app on your iPhone to download the app.

Much like Spotify's other wearable device apps, the program for the Apple Watch focuses on controlling playback on your iPhone from the watch. Users can pause, play, skip, and rewind their music, podcasts, and other tracks. They can also tap a heart icon to add new music that they stumble upon to their libraries. Most of these features, aside from adding music to your library, are available in Apple's native Now Playing app that lets users control playback from nearly any audio source on their connected iPhone.

The Apple Watch app also has Spotify Connect support, which lets users manage connections and playback with Bluetooth devices. Directly from the watch, you can choose which devices—like laptops, speakers, headphones, and others—you want to play music.

Read 3 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Memristors built with 2-nanometer-thick parts

8 hours 21 min ago

When two blocks are set down on top of each other, they're oriented so that they have nine intersections. (credit: Pi et al.)

Phase-change memory seems to offer the best of both worlds: the speed of current RAM with the permanence of a hard disk. While current implementations are too expensive for widespread use, researchers have been doing interesting things with test hardware. Its distinct properties have allowed people to perform calculations and train neural networks, all in memory. So finding out how to make phase-change memory more efficient could open some new approaches to computing.

This week, a collaboration between scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Brookhaven National Lab is publishing a paper describing how it made a tiny set of memristors that acts similar to phase-change memory. The features of the memory are only two nanometers across, and they can be separated by as little as 12nm—below the cutting edge of processor manufacturing. The down sides? So far, the team has only made nine bits at a time, and they're made using platinum.

On the grid

Key to this new work are tiny sheets of platinum only two nanometers thick—that's just over 11 atoms of the element. While platinum is rather pricey, the thin sheets provide extremely low resistance. The researchers measured each sheet at about 10,000 times less than the expected resistance of a similar-thickness carbon nanotube. And the authors say they can manufacture the sheets in the appropriate dimensions with a 100-percent efficiency.

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Spectre, Meltdown researchers unveil 7 more speculative execution attacks

18 hours 15 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Back at the start of the year, a set of attacks that leveraged the speculative execution capabilities of modern high-performance processors was revealed. The attacks were named Meltdown and Spectre. Since then, numerous variants of these attacks have been devised. In tandem, a range of mitigation techniques has been created to enable at-risk software, operating systems, and hypervisor platforms to protect against these attacks.

A research team—including many of the original researchers behind Meltdown, Spectre, and the related Foreshadow and BranchScope attacks—has published a new paper disclosing yet more attacks in the Spectre and Meltdown families. The result? Seven new possible attacks. Some are mitigated by known mitigation techniques, but others are not. That means further work is required to safeguard vulnerable systems.

The previous investigations into these attacks have been a little ad hoc in nature: examining particular features of interest to provide, for example, a Spectre attack that can be performed remotely over a network or Meltdown-esque attack to break into SGX enclaves. The new research is more systematic, looking at the underlying mechanisms behind both Meltdown and Spectre and running through all the different ways the speculative execution can be misdirected.

Read 15 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Man pleads guilty to swatting attack that led to death of Kansas man

19 hours 11 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Chatsimo / Getty Images)

Federal prosecutors in Kansas announced Tuesday that a 26-year-old Californian has admitted that he caused a Wichita man to be killed at the hands of local police during a swatting attack late last year.

Swatting is a way to harass or threaten someone by calling in a false threat to law enforcement, and, when successful, it usually results in a police SWAT team showing up needlessly at its victim's house.

According to the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Kansas, Tyler Barriss pleaded guilty to making a false report resulting in a death, cyberstalking, and conspiracy. He also admitted that he was part of "dozens of similar crimes in which no one was injured."

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

What is going on with California’s horrific fires?

November 13, 2018 - 11:05pm

Enlarge / Wildfire smoke blows westward on November 9. (credit: NASA)

Late last year, California experienced terrible—and in the case of the October Tubbs Fire, record-setting—wildfires. The fires were especially intense due to an unusually late start to the rainy season, which left vegetation dry as seasonal mountain winds kicked up like bellows in a forge.

This year, the situation has repeated. The Camp Fire in Northern California not only broke last year’s all-time record for structures burned, it also broke a much older record for the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. And in Southern California, the Hill and Woolsey Fires have burned through homes on the north side of Los Angeles.

So what is going on with these extreme fires? Are they just chance or part of a trend? President Trump, via his Twitter account, has repeatedly blamed California for its fires and claimed that environmental policies for water use or forestry are somehow responsible. But these claims make no sense to anyone working in the state—or anyone who knows that forest fires aren’t put out by hose-carrying fire engines. In reality, many factors contribute to the current situation. And climate change is one of them.

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Dealmaster: Take 22% off an Nvidia Shield TV 4K media streamer

November 13, 2018 - 8:37pm

Enlarge (credit: TechBargains)

Greetings, Arsians! Courtesy of our friends at TechBargains, we have another round of deals to share. Today's list is headlined by a deal on Nvidia's Shield TV, which is currently down to $140. That's a $40 discount, tied for the lowest price we've seen for the 4K media streamer.

The Shield TV has been around for a few years, but it's still the box to own if you want Android TV. Nvidia continues to support the device with regular updates, and the hardware remains more than fast enough to keep everything smooth. While Roku and Amazon offer 4K HDR streamers for far less, the Shield is more flexible when it comes to local file support, with a couple of USB ports for connecting external peripherals and the ability to serve as its own Plex server.

It works with both the Google Assistant and Alexa—the latter requires a pre-existing Alexa device—and can be paired with a tuner to show live TV. The Shield also works like a pseudo game console with Nvidia's GeForce Now streaming service, though this deal doesn't include the company's game-controller accessory. The only glaring downside is that it lacks Dolby Vision HDR, unlike the Apple TV 4K.

Read 6 remaining paragraphs | Comments

We unbox the $200 “power armor” Fallout ’76 version so you don’t have to

November 13, 2018 - 8:07pm

Sam Machkovech

A surprise showed up at my doorstep last night: the Fallout '76 "power armor" edition, arriving ahead of the game's official launch at 12:01am tomorrow morning (Wednesday, November 14). The PC version's $200 special edition has been sold out at many retailers for quite some time, as it was announced well before the game began receiving more public scrutiny. [Update: GameStop is still selling the console version of the set.]

But even though its sticker price includes a DLC-loaded version of the retail game, most of its cost is made up of Fallout series swag. Even if you're wary about the game's buggy beta period, is there still enough here to justify the insane cost for a series diehard?

Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Thermal power plants use a lot of water, but that’s slowly changing

November 13, 2018 - 7:41pm

Enlarge / A view of the decommissioned Duke Energy Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant. (credit: Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

It may come as a surprise that as of 2015, most of the water taken out of US ground- and surface-water sources was withdrawn by the electricity sector. Irrigation is a close second, and public supply is a distant third.

In 2015, thermal power generation—anything that burns fuel to create gas or steam that pushes a turbine—used 133 billion gallons of water per day. That water is mostly for cooling the equipment, but some of it is also used for emissions reduction and other processes essential to operating a power plant.

Those gallons are mostly freshwater, but some near-coast power generators do use saline or brackish water to operate. Much of the water is returned to the ecosystem, but some of it is also lost in evaporation. The water that is returned can often be thermally polluted, that is, it's warmer than what's ideal for the local ecosystem.

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Windows 10 October 2018 Update is back, this time without deleting your data

November 13, 2018 - 7:21pm

Enlarge / This message, shown during Windows upgrades, is going to be salt in the wound.

Just over a month since its initial release, Microsoft is making the Windows 10 October 2018 Update widely available today. The update was withdrawn shortly after its initial release due to the discovery of a bug causing data loss.

New Windows 10 feature updates use a staggered, ramping rollout, and this (re)release is no different. Initially, it'll be offered only to two groups of people: those who manually tell their system to check for updates (and that have no known blocking issues due to, for example, incompatible anti-virus software), and those who use the media-creation tool to download the installer. If all goes well, Microsoft will offer the update to an ever-wider range of Windows 10 users over the coming weeks.

For the sake of support windows, Microsoft is treating last month's release as if it never happened; this release will receive 30 months of support and updates, with the clock starting today. The same is true for related products; Windows Server 2019 and Windows Server, version 1809, are both effectively released today.

Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Here’s the first teaser for the final season of Game of Thrones

November 13, 2018 - 7:06pm

Enlarge / The survivors of the first eight seasons of Game of Thrones will face the Night King and his army of White Walkers and wights in the final season. (credit: HBO)

It has been a long wait for the final season of Game of Thrones, and sadly, the wait is not quite over yet. But HBO has thrown hungry fans a bone with a shiny new teaser trailer. There's no new footage from the upcoming episodes, but we do get one full minute featuring some of our favorite moments from seasons past.

(Some spoilers from prior seasons below.)

Game of Thrones is the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin's best-selling Song of Ice and Fire series of novels—for those of you who've been living under a rock since the show debuted in 2011 and turned into a bona fide global phenomenon. It's a ratings blockbuster for HBO that has won multiple Emmys and may be one of the most expensive TV series ever made, thanks to numerous film-quality battle scenes, CGI dragons, and a simply massive all-star cast of characters. Bonus: it's got a killer theme song and opening title sequence.

Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Indonesia 737 crash caused by “safety” feature change pilots weren’t told of

November 13, 2018 - 6:40pm

Enlarge / SONY DSC (credit: PK-REN, Jakarta, Indonesia )

On November 6, Boeing issued an update to Boeing 737 MAX aircrews. The change, directed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), came because Boeing had never provided guidance to pilots on what to do when part of an updated safety system malfunctioned—the very scenario that the pilots of Indonesia's Lion Air Flight 610 faced on October 29. Not knowing how to correct for the malfunction, the aircrew and their passengers were doomed. All aboard were lost as the aircraft crashed into the Java Sea.

First approved for commercial operation by the FAA on March 8, 2017, the MAX is just beginning to be delivered in large volumes. Lion Air was one of Boeing's primary foreign customers for the MAX, which is also flown by Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, and Air Canada. The Lion Air aircraft lost in the accident was virtually brand new, delivered by Boeing in August; this was the first accident involving an aircraft touted for its safety.

Update: But Boeing never told pilots about one key new safety feature—an automated anti-stall system—or how to troubleshoot its failure. The manual update raised an outcry from pilots in the US.

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Amazon is getting more than $2 billion for NYC and Virginia expansions

November 13, 2018 - 6:27pm

Enlarge / Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on September 13, 2018. (credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Over the last year, Amazon has dangled in front of cities the possibility that they could host the company's "second headquarters"—a massive $5 billion facility that would provide 50,000 white-collar jobs. On Tuesday, Amazon confirmed what had been widely reported: nobody would be getting this massive prize. Instead, the expansion would be split in half, with New York City and Arlington, Virginia, (just outside Washington, DC) each getting smaller facilities that will employ around 25,000 people each.

Amazon's Seattle offices will continue to be the company's largest and will continue to be Amazon's headquarters by any reasonable definition. But pretending to have three "headquarters" undoubtedly makes it easier for Amazon to coax taxpayer dollars out of local governments.

The announcement is underwhelming in other ways, too. The Washington, DC, area has been widely seen as the frontrunner since the competition was announced last year. When Amazon announced a list of 20 finalists, the region claimed three of those 20 spots, with separate entries for Northern Virginia; Montgomery County, Maryland; and the district itself. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013 and bought the largest house in Washington, DC, in 2016.

Read 13 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Bay Area: How can we integrate e-scooters into our cities?

November 13, 2018 - 6:05pm

Enlarge / People use a smartphone to unlock a LimeBike shared electric scooter on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, California, on Thursday, May 3, 2018. (credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Oakland, California, is just one of numerous American cities that have been transformed—for better or worse—by electric scooters.

Just earlier this month, a personal injury lawyer in Southern California filed a proposed class-action lawsuit seeking to take Bird, Lime, and the other scooter companies to task for their “draconian” terms of service.

Seeing our city streets become awash with these scooters almost overnight is something that local officials are trying to figure out how to deal with. Earlier this year, San Francisco famously imposed a moratorium while waiting to sort out a permitting process that would force companies to pay the city in order to operate their scooters about town.

Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Google adds always-on VPN to its Project Fi cellular service

November 13, 2018 - 6:00pm

Enlarge

Today, Google announced a new feature for its Project Fi cellular service: an always-on VPN. Project Fi's VPN previously was used to encrypt traffic while connecting to a network of free public Wi-Fi hotspots, but now Google will enable the VPN for all your traffic, be it over the LTE service or a Wi-Fi connection.

For now, the always-on VPN will need to be turned on in the Project Fi settings, where the feature is called "Enhanced Network" and labeled a "beta."

"When you enable our enhanced network, all of your mobile and Wi-Fi traffic will be encrypted and securely sent through our virtual private network (VPN) on every network you connect to, so you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing that others can’t see your online activity," Google's blog post says. "That includes Google—our VPN is designed so that your traffic isn’t tied to your Google account or phone number."

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PUBG’s “console exclusivity” ends, PS4 version out on Dec. 7 [Updated]

November 13, 2018 - 5:37pm

PUBG Corp.

Update, November 13: One of gaming's worst-kept secrets has finally been confirmed: PUBG is coming to PS4 consoles. Specifically, on December 7, for $29.99. As of press time, additional digital bundles can also be preordered for $50 and $70, and these include the game's variety of confusing microtransaction currencies.

With an admission that "this probably doesn't come as a surprise" (see original report below), PUBG Corp. made a Tuesday announcement that its one-versus-99 shooting sensation will include a few PlayStation-exclusive cosmetic bonuses for all PS4 preorders: a Nathan Drake (Uncharted) outfit and an Ellie (The Last of Us) backpack.

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