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Ars Technica
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Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 46 min 18 sec ago

Man convicted for renting human heads cut with chainsaw, dripping disease

January 23, 2018 - 10:40pm

Enlarge (credit: JD Hancock / Flickr)

A jury found body broker Arthur Rathburn guilty on Monday of illegally renting out diseased human body parts and heads to unwitting doctors. He faces up to 20 years in prison for eight crimes, including wire fraud and illegally transporting hazardous materials.

Federal prosecutors alleged that from January 2007 to December 2013, Rathburn, 63, and his wife Elizabeth ran a corrupt body brokering company called International Biological, Inc (IBI). For the grisly scheme, Rathburn dismembered cadavers with a chainsaw, band saw, and reciprocating saw. He haphazardly piled parts and heads—flesh on flesh—amid pools of blood and shipped them wrapped in trash bags in camping coolers.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, managed rental orders from clients who used the heads and parts for medical and dental training. All the while, the pair hid the fact that they often bought diseased bodies at bargain rates and made thousands renting individual parts that they knew to be contaminated with HIV, hepatitis, and other diseases.

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Apple releases macOS High Sierra 10.13.3 and iOS 11.2.5

January 23, 2018 - 10:20pm

Enlarge / One of the 2016 MacBook Pros. (credit: Andrew Cunningham)

Apple updated its entire suite of operating systems today with public releases of macOS High Sierra 10.13.3, iOS 11.2.5, tvOS 11.2.5, and watchOS 4.2.2.

The High Sierra update is relatively minor. It fixes a bug that caused messages in the Messages app to appear out of order, and it fixed a problem with connecting to SMB servers.

Here are the notes:

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Verizon won’t be using tax cut to boost spending on network upgrades

January 23, 2018 - 9:10pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Spencer Platt)

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's claim that repealing net neutrality rules will boost network investment didn't get much support from Verizon's latest spending forecast. Verizon's network spending won't change much this year, and the company also won't be using its newfound tax savings to upgrade its broadband networks.

Verizon reported $17.2 billion of capital expenditures in calendar year 2017, with the net neutrality rules in place the entire year. In 2018, with the net neutrality rules about to come off the books, Verizon says its spending will come in slightly below or above that. Even at the high end of Verizon's forecast, the spending would not exceed its total of $17.8 billion in 2015, another year in which net neutrality rules were in place.

"Capital spending for 2018 will be in the range of $17.0 billion to $17.8 billion, including the commercial launch of 5G," Verizon said today in an announcement of its year-end financial results.

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Dealmaster: Save $150 on a Samsung 4K QLED TV

January 23, 2018 - 8:59pm

Greetings, Arsians! While the Dealmaster can't disclose who he's pulling for in this year's Super Bowl, he can, courtesy of our friends at TechBargains, bring you a number of deals on 4K televisions as the big game nears. Samsung's 49-inch Q6F QLED TV is close to an all-time low, and LG's acclaimed OLED TVs and a 75-inch 4K set from Vizio are also included below.

For those who aren't ready to spend the big bucks, we've got deals on Amazon's Echo Spot, Apple's iPad Pro, a boatload of Dell PCs, Windows "Mixed Reality" (read: virtual reality) headsets, and other assorted tech accessories. Take a look at the full rundown below.

(credit: TechBargains)

Note: Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

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How many electric cars can the grid take? Depends on your neighborhood

January 23, 2018 - 8:21pm

Enlarge / Signage for an electric car charging booth is displayed at Federation Square car park in Melbourne, Australia, on Friday, April 28, 2017. (credit: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

We all know what it's like to ask for more electricity than a system can give. Throw some soup in the microwave, put a poptart in the toaster, plug in your hair straightener, and pop! All of a sudden, you're in the dark, searching for the switchbox to reset the blown fuse.

Though that problem takes place on a small scale, utilities work hard to make sure surges in demand don't affect normal grid operations on a large scale. And as more and more electric cars get plugged in to residential garage systems, some experts have wondered whether the various grids that serve our homes can handle the extra demand for energy.

Matteo Muratori, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, tried to take a granular look at how electric vehicle (EV) market share can affect grid operations. He found that when certain communities adopt electric vehicles more quickly than others and drivers charge their vehicles in an uncoordinated manner, EV adoption can strain certain areas of the grid, even if aggregate market share is low.

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Hands-on: DJI’s new Mavic Air is a beefed-up Spark with 4K video

January 23, 2018 - 8:10pm

Enlarge / The Mavic Air in red. Black and white options are also available. (credit: Jeff Dunn)

NEW YORK—DJI on Tuesday announced the latest entry in its popular line of consumer drones: the Mavic Air.

The Chinese firm, which is estimated to hold around 70 percent of the consumer drone market, showcased the new device at an event in New York City. It’ll start at $799, which is $400 more than the Spark’s current going rate and $200 below the cost of a new Mavic Pro. The entry-level package does include a dedicated controller, though, albeit one without an integrated display. A $999 package that includes extra batteries, a charging hub, and other accessories will also be available. The Mavic Air is available for pre-order today, and DJI says the device will start shipping on January 28.

At first blush, the Mavic Air appears to find a middle ground between DJI’s beginner-friendly Spark drone and its pricier but more technically capable Mavic Pro. Like both of those devices, the Mavic Air is small—at 168x184x64mm, it’s a bit larger than the Spark but smaller than the Mavic Pro. Like the latter, its arms can be folded inward, which should make it relatively easy to pack and transport. Its design doesn’t stray too far from the past, either, with the rounded, swooping lines of its chassis punctuated by stubby, Spark-like propeller arms.

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Firefox’s continued Quantum transformation—more multithreading, tracking protection

January 23, 2018 - 7:07pm

Firefox 58, out today, continues to deliver Project Quantum, Mozilla's far-reaching modernization effort that's boosting the browser's performance, security, and maintainability. The initiative allows Firefox to take better advantage of modern multicore processors and makes the browser better suited to the demands of today's Web applications.

The two highlights from today's release are an optional Tracking Protection feature and new multithreading in the page rendering.

Firefox has had Tracking Protection in its Private Browsing mode for a couple of years. This actively blocks ads, analytics trackers, and social media sharing buttons, reducing the privacy exposure that these things can cause. Firefox 58 brings the option of using Tracking Protection even in the regular browser, blocking this content without having to use Private Browsing.

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Unlocked PS4 consoles can now run copies of PS2 games

January 23, 2018 - 6:23pm

Video of Dragon Ball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 3 for the PS2 running on an unlocked PlayStation 4.

After years of work, hackers have finally managed to unlock the PS4 hardware with an exploit that lets the system run homebrew and pirated PS4 software. In a somewhat more surprising discovery, those hackers have also unlocked the ability to run many PS2 games directly on the console, using the same system-level emulation that powers legitimate PlayStation Classics downloads.

While hackers managed to install Linux on the PS4 years ago, the biggest breakthrough in the PS4 hacking scene came late last month, when two different teams of hackers released a WebKit exploit for version 4.05 of the PS4 firmware.

That firmware was patched (and automatically updated on many systems) in late 2016, and there's currently no known way to downgrade an updated system to the older firmware, which limits the range of consoles that can run the exploit. For compatible consoles, though, the kernel-level exploit allows for pretty much full control of the system, including the running of unsigned code.

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Acer’s new Chromebooks start at $279

January 23, 2018 - 6:15pm

Acer has announced a slew of new Chrome OS products in the wake of CES. The company's entry-level Chrome OS laptops are big hits with mainstream consumers, regularly ranking high on Amazon's laptop sales charts and moving units in educational sales. We have two new laptops and a Chromebox to cover.

Acer Chromebook Spin 11

As the name implies, the Spin 11's party trick is the 360-degree hinge, allowing the laptop to fold all the way around and turn into a tablet. It supports an optional Wacom EMR (Electromagnetic Resonance) stylus for pen input and supports Google Play, so it runs Android apps.

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Software used in judicial decisions meets its equal in random amateurs

January 23, 2018 - 4:03pm

(credit: Adam Jones, Ph.D.)

In 2016, ProPublica caused a stir when it evaluated the performance of software that's used in criminal justice proceedings. The software, which is used to evaluate a defendant's chance of committing further crimes, turned out to produce different results when evaluating black people and Caucasians.

The significance of that discrepancy is still the subject of some debate, but two Dartmouth College researchers have asked a more fundamental question: is the software any good? The answer they came up with is "not especially," as its performance could be matched by recruiting people on Mechanical Turk or performing a simple analysis that only took two factors into account.

Software and bias

The software in question is called COMPAS, for Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions. It takes into account a wide variety of factors about defendants and uses them to evaluate whether those individuals are likely to commit additional crimes and helps identify intervention options. COMPAS is heavily integrated into the judicial process (see this document from the California Department of Corrections for a sense of its importance). Perhaps most significantly, however, it is sometimes influential in determining sentencing, which can be based on the idea that people who are likely to commit additional crimes should be incarcerated longer.

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Huge pay package convinces Elon Musk to stay at Tesla for 10 more years

January 23, 2018 - 3:51pm

Enlarge / Elon Musk speaks during the StartmeupHK Venture Forum in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (credit: Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tesla has been a huge success under Elon Musk's leadership, rising in value from less than $4 billion six years ago to $59 billion today. On Tuesday, Tesla's board announced that it had convinced Musk to stay at the helm for another decade with a truly gargantuan performance-based pay package.

The pay package is tied to the value of the company's stock as well as revenue and earnings targets. If Tesla's stock never rises above $100 billion, Musk will get nothing for a decade's work as Tesla's CEO (aside from increases in the value of the stock he already has). If the stock reaches a value of $100 billion—and the company either achieves revenues of $20 billion or earnings of $1.5 billion—Musk will get 1 percent of the company's stock, an award worth $1 billion.

Things get a lot more generous from there. If the stock rises to $150 billion (and Musk reaches another revenue or profit target), Musk gets another 1 percent of the stock, which will be worth $1.5 billion. That pattern continues in $50 billion increments until Tesla's stock rises above $650 billion—at which point Musk will get a stock award worth $6.5 billion. Musk's stock awards will total $45 billion if he hits all 12 milestones.

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Apple’s Siri-equipped HomePod comes to your home on February 9

January 23, 2018 - 3:30pm

Enlarge (credit: Apple)

Apple announced this morning that the wait for its HomePod smart speaker is nearly over. HomePod will be available starting February 9, with preorders beginning Friday, January 26. The home speaker that houses the company's virtual assistant Siri will initially be sold in the US, UK, and Australia, and will be available in France and Germany this spring.

The company first announced HomePod at last year's WWDC with the hopes of releasing it in December for $349, ahead of the holiday season. However, that deadline came and went and those who wanted an Apple version of Amazon's Echo and Google's Home were left waiting.

Apple's announcement doesn't detail anything we didn't already know about HomePod. The cylindrical speaker is powered by Apple's A8 chip and uses an array of six microphones to pick up your calls of "Hey, Siri" from across the room, even with music playing. It also uses real-time acoustic modeling, audio beam-forming, and echo cancellation to create a rich sound experience, and its spacial awareness feature lets it automatically adjust to produce the best sound for its location in your home.

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The first Chinese astronaut thought he was going to die

January 23, 2018 - 3:24pm

Enlarge / Astronaut Yang Liwei lies in the re-entry capsule of Shenzhou-5 Spacecraft during a training on September 27, 2003 in Beijing, China. (credit: VCG via Getty Images)

Later this year, China will mark the 15th anniversary of its first human spaceflight. On October 15, 2003, Yang Liwei launched into space on a Long March 2F rocket. After making 14 orbits around Earth, Liwei returned to the planet as China received congratulations from countries around the world. It had succeeded where only the United States and Russia had before.

At the time, the secretive Chinese government released few technical details about the spaceflight. But apparently there were some serious problems, especially during the launch of the rocket. In a new interview with Xinhua, the official Chinese news media, Yang revealed that he experienced extreme vibrations between 30 and 40km above the ground.

"I thought I was going to die," Yang said. At the time, sitting in the seat of his cramped Shenzhou spacecraft, he recalled telling himself, "Hold on! Just hold on for a bit longer."

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Raw sprouts at Jimmy John’s linked to another outbreak—at least the 7th

January 23, 2018 - 1:00pm

Enlarge / Jimmy John's Beach Club sandwich on seven grain bread with sprouts. Don't do it. (credit: Getty | The Washington Post)

On the 2018 list of “things that are a bad idea to shove in your face,” raw sprouts from Jimmy John’s may be up there—right behind Tide laundry pods.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration announced late Friday that a multistate outbreak of Salmonella is linked to raw sprouts served at the sandwich chain’s restaurants in Wisconsin and Illinois. While sprouts in general are a well-established source of foodborne illnesses linked to many dozens of outbreaks in recent decades, Friday’s announcement marks at least the seventh time since 2008 that raw sprouts at Jimmy John’s specifically have caused outbreaks.

In response, Jimmy John’s on Friday ordered sprouts off the menu at all 2,727 of its restaurants. The company called the move a “precautionary measure.”

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Here’s why the epidemic of malicious ads grew so much worse last year

January 23, 2018 - 12:00pm

Enlarge / A tech support scam pushed by Zirconium displays the authenticated URL of Microsoft, making it easy for some people to trust. (credit: Confiant)

Last year brought a surge of sketchy online ads to the Internet that tried to trick viewers into installing malicious software. Even credit reporting service Equifax was caught redirecting its website visitors to a fake Flash installer just a few weeks after reports of a data breach affecting as many as 145.5 million US consumers.

Now, researchers have uncovered one of the forces driving that spike—a consortium of 28 fake ad agencies. The consortium displayed an estimated 1 billion ad impressions last year that pushed malicious antivirus software, tech support scams, and other fraudulent schemes. By carefully developing relationships with legitimate ad platforms, the ads reached 62 percent of the Internet's ad-monetized websites on a weekly basis, researchers from security firm Confiant reported in a report published Tuesday. (Confiant has dubbed the consortium "Zirconium.") The ads were delivered on so-called "forced redirects," in which a site displaying editorial content or an ad suddenly opened a new page on a different domain.

Confiant CTO Jerome Dangu wrote the following in an email:

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Net neutrality is bad? 1 million PornHub employees can’t be wrong. Oh, wait

January 23, 2018 - 1:35am

Enlarge / FCC Chairman Ajit Pai with his oversized coffee mug in November 2017. (credit: Getty Images | Bloomberg)

WASHINGTON, DC—If Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai actually allowed the weight of public comments on the FCC's proposed changes to network neutrality regulations to sway (or confirm) his position, he seems to have given more credence to the "opinions" of spam-generating software "bots" than actual citizens, researchers have found.

At the Shmoocon information security conference on Saturday, Leah Figueroa, lead data engineer at the data analytics software company Gravwell, presented a detailed analysis of the public comments submitted to the FCC regarding network neutrality. Applying filters to the more than 22 million comments submitted to the FCC, Figueroa and her team attempted to identify which comments were submitted by real US citizens—and which were generated by bulk-uploading bots.

At the end of September, Figueroa said, she and her team pulled in all of the submitted comments from the FCC site and applied a series of analytical steps to separate "organic" comments—those most likely to have been submitted by actual human beings—from comments submitted by automated systems ("bots") using faked personal data.

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Video demonstrates the marvel of CRT displays at 380,000 frames per second

January 23, 2018 - 1:05am

Enlarge (credit: The Slow Mo Guys)

We spend a lot of time reading about the differences between display technologies like LCD and OLED, which, like all display technologies, are built to fool our eyes into seeing things that are only simulated, not real, like colors, or realistic movement. But it helps to see it in action.

A video from YouTube channel The Slow Mo Guys (originally reported on by Motherboard) vividly illustrates how CRT, LCD, and OLED displays work by either zooming in very close or by recording in insane frame rates at ultra slow motion.

You'll still find enthusiasts who insist that it's all been downhill since CRT monitors and TVs went sunset for most of the market. While this video doesn't make much of a case for CRT's relative quality, it does show that they were engineering marvels for their time.

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Trump puts 30% tariff on imported solar cells and modules

January 23, 2018 - 12:25am

Enlarge / Long Island solar farm. (credit: Brookhaven National Lab)

On Monday afternoon, the Trump administration released a fact sheet (PDF) detailing new tariffs on imports, including a tariff schedule for solar cells and modules starting at 30 percent.

The solar tariff determination had been tensely anticipated by the US solar industry, with manufacturers arguing that cheap imports from Asia have harmed their businesses. Solar installers, financiers, and sales people, however, argue that cheap imports have created a bigger boom in employment than manufacturing ever could.

The news is likely a blow to the wider solar industry, although it's not entirely unexpected. Trump has been vocal about his preference for tariffs and has shown little desire to extend a hand out to the solar industry, which is often seen as a competitor with fossil fuels. When the International Trade Commission (ITC) voted in favor of imposing tariffs on solar imports in September, the trade association Solar Energy Industries of America (SEIA) prepared for the worst.

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Making tools gives crows a big food boost

January 23, 2018 - 12:00am

Enlarge / A crow gets to work manufacturing a tool. (credit: Jolyon Troscianko)

Tool use among animals isn't common, but it is spread widely across our evolutionary tree. Critters from sea otters to cephalopods have been observed using tools in the wild. In most of these instances, however, the animal is simply using something that's found in its environment, rather than crafting a tool specifically for a task. Tool crafting has mostly been seen among primates.

Mostly, but not entirely. One major exception is the New Caledonian crow. To extract food from holes and crevices, these birds use twigs or stems that are found in their environment without modification. In other environments, however, they'll remove branches from plants and carefully strip parts of the plant to leave behind a hooked stick. The behavior takes over a minute, and the crows will typically carry the tool with them when they explore new sites, and they will sometimes store it for future use.

Understanding how this complex behavior came about in crows requires us to understand the evolutionary advantages that might be had from a good tool. A group of researchers, mostly from the University of St. Andrews, has now done just that: the researchers have quantified how tool manufacture influences food harvesting. The results show that the use of bird-crafted tools can increase food extraction by up to 12 times the rate the crows could achieve by using unmodified sticks.

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SpaceX gets good news from the Air Force on the Zuma mission

January 22, 2018 - 11:29pm

Enlarge / The launch of Zuma was pretty, but the aftermath has been anything but. (credit: SpaceX)

A little more than two weeks have passed since the apparent loss of the highly classified Zuma mission. Since then, SpaceX has publicly and privately stated that its Falcon 9 rocket performed nominally throughout the flight—with both its first and second stages firing as anticipated.

Now, the US Air Force seems to be backing the rocket company up. "Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX's Falcon 9 certification status," Lieutenant General John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, told Bloomberg News. This qualified conclusion came after a preliminary review of data from the Zuma launch. That's according to Thompson, who said the Air Force will continue to review data from all launches.

However tentative, this statement buttresses the efforts by SpaceX to say that, from its perspective, the mission was a success. The statement also adds to the concerns of Northrop Grumman, which built the Zuma payload and the adapter that connected it to the Falcon 9 rocket. Northrop Grumman was also responsible for separating after the second stage of the Zuma rocket reached space. The aerospace veteran has yet to publicly comment on specifics of the Zuma mission since the launch.

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