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Industry & Technology

In the Amazon, deforestation is linked to higher malaria rates

Ars Technica - October 21, 2019 - 4:36pm

Enlarge / Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest, near Manaus the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, Brazil. (credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

In Brazil, the rapid deforestation of the Amazon has been accompanied by a rise in malaria. But did the deforestation help increase malaria rates? Or is something more complicated going on?

Researchers Andrew MacDonald and Erin Mordecai think there is in fact a more complicated story at play. In a paper published in PNAS last week, they report evidence suggesting that deforestation does lead to a rise in malaria—but that at the same time, a rise in malaria reduces deforestation. The complicated relationship makes the effects difficult to tease out of the data. And together, the two effects mean that conservation and human health go hand in hand—what's good for one is good for the other.

Confusing evidence

Because malaria is spread by mosquitoes, it would be easy to think that humans have little to do with its prevalence if we're not killing mosquitos. But because human land use leads to habitat change for disease vectors like mosquitoes, human activity can dramatically change the risks of vector-borne diseases.

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Magic: The Gathering pro uses win to show Hong Kong protest support

Ars Technica - October 21, 2019 - 3:56pm

Enlarge / Lee Shi Tian pumps his fist during an interview in which he highlighted the ongoing protests in his native Hong Kong.

Magic: The Gathering pro Lee Shi Tian used a major win at this weekend's Mythic Championship V event in Long Beach, California, as a chance to call attention to protesters in his native Hong Kong.

"Life has been very tough in my hometown in Hong Kong," Lee said in an emotional, livestreamed post-match interview after reaching the Top 8 in the digital Magic: The Gathering Arena event. "It feels so good to play as a free man" he added later.

Lee wore a dark red scarf as a mask over the lower half of his face during the match and interview, because "we wear [masks like that] when we go on the street," as he told Magic site Hipsters of the Coast. Lee also covered one eye during his entrance to the tournament, an apparent show of support for a nurse who was hit in the eye with a beanbag during a recent protest in Kowloon.

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Long stretches of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA helped Homo sapiens adapt

Ars Technica - October 21, 2019 - 3:45pm

Global map of Denisovan gene frequency in modern human genomes (credit: Image courtesy of Jacobsson and Skoglund/Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

University of Washington geneticist PingHsun Hsieh and his colleagues found Neanderthal and Denisovan versions of some genes in the genomes of people from Melanesia. These versions have several thousand base pairs of DNA that have been duplicated or deleted in the normal human versions. Most of this altered DNA is in or near genes related to metabolism, development, the life cycle of cells, communication among cells, or the immune system.

Those gene variants are surprisingly common among Melanesian peoples, and that could mean that their effects were useful enough that natural selection favored passing them along.

DNA from the Denisovans

As Homo sapiens first ventured beyond Africa, they encountered other hominins already living in Europe and Asia, and those encounters left their mark on our modern genomes. Most people from outside Africa carry a little Neanderthal DNA (it makes up about one to four percent of the average non-African genome), and some people from East Asian, Melanesian, and indigenous Australian populations also have a bit of DNA inherited from Denisovans (about one to five percent of the average genome; it’s highest in Melanesian and indigenous and Australian people). Some of that DNA probably stuck with us for tens of thousands of years because it somehow helped our species adapt to new environments and challenges.

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Phone case created out of artificial skin

BBC Technology News - October 21, 2019 - 2:34pm
Researchers have designed a case that looks and feels like human skin, and can activate controls via touch.

League of Legends admits 'censoring error'

BBC Technology News - October 21, 2019 - 2:13pm
The popular online multi-player game is facing backlash from users.

Remember Sure-Fi? Lostik is open standards Lora you can play with

Ars Technica - October 21, 2019 - 1:07pm

Enlarge / Lostik is plugged in to the left USB port of this Samsung Chromebook running GalliumOS Linux. It's currently transmitting packets, using the sample utility, from a basement about 15 feet underground. (credit: Jim Salter)

A lot of readers commented on our earlier report on Sure-Fi long-range, low-bandwidth RF chirp communicators that we should test generic Lora gear. Lora is the open standard that Sure-Fi began with and built on top of, and it's available in a variety of inexpensive kits. Most of those kits are aimed at low-level maker-style integration with Internet-of-Things gear like Arduino, but I found a couple of preassembled kits with generic USB interfaces suitable for use with regular x86 computers. One of those, Lostik, had consistently better user reviews and glowingly boasted of its "extensive documentation," so we picked a pair up for $46 apiece and got to testing.

We should be clear about one thing up front—nobody should claim that any Lora device has "extensive documentation" with a straight face. Lostik seems to have more documentation than any of its competitors, but figuring out exactly what it would do felt like learning to play pirated video games in the 1980s. What we eventually discovered was that Lora devices are sort of like dial-up modems all connected to a single party line—they run on serial interfaces over which they can be issued commands and can send or receive data.

It's possible to use a generic terminal emulator (at 57,600bps, 8 data bits, 1 stop bit, and no parity) to communicate directly with Lostik, but you'll need to understand its commands—analogous to the Hayes AT modem commands of yore—if you do. That was a bridge too far for us, so we said "the heck with it" and just lightly modified the ./ and ./ sample scripts from Lostik's Github repository and used them for some simple range testing. These scripts don't require (or offer) any kind of authentication or pairing; any Lora device running will successfully receive data from any Lora device running within its effective range.

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Review: Jojo Rabbit walks a fine line between humor and heart

Ars Technica - October 21, 2019 - 12:52pm

Enlarge / Taika Waititi plays a young Nazi boy's imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, in his new film Jojo Rabbit. (credit: YouTube/Fox Searchlight)

There's a very fine line between successfully mining Hitler and Nazi Germany for laughs and telling distasteful "jokes" that land with an ignominious splat. Director Taika Waititi navigates that treacherous tightrope perfectly in Jojo Rabbit, his bittersweet new dramedy based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens. The film will definitely make you laugh, but be forewarned: it may also break your heart.

Waititi's film defies easy categorization. Let's just call it an absurdist dramedy. It's being touted as a satire, and the marketing has emphasized the humorous elements, but the WWII setting also calls to mind darker fare like Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009). Several critics have compared it to the Oscar-winning 1997 Italian film Life Is Beautiful, directed by and starring Roberto Benigni as a Jewish father shielding his son from the horrors of a WWII concentration camp by pretending it's all an elaborate game.

Jojo Rabbit falls somewhere in between. It has more warmth and heart than the former and more of a savage edge than the latter. And while Waititi cites Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973) and the 1988 black comedy Heathers as influences, tonally, Jojo Rabbit also owes quite a lot to Waititi's charming 2016 film Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

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Rocket Lab—yep, Rocket Lab—has a plan to deliver satellites to the Moon

Ars Technica - October 21, 2019 - 11:00am

Enlarge / The "Make It Rain" mission launches in June 2019 from Rocket Lab's spaceport in New Zealand. (credit: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab has successfully begun to transform into an operational launch company this year, with five successful Electron missions in 2019 and the promise of a couple more before the year ends. In accomplishing this, it has become the world's first private company to develop a low-cost rocket for small satellites.

Moreover, it continues to set performance milestones. With its "As the Crow Flies" mission earlier this month, Rocket Lab set a new altitude record for the company by sending a 20kg payload to a 1,200km circular orbit. But now, the US-based company that launches primarily from New Zealand has set its sights much, much higher.

On Monday, Rocket Lab announced that with its "Photon" upper stage, it will be able to send small payloads all the way to lunar orbit. “Small satellites will play a crucial role in science and exploration, as well as providing communications and navigation infrastructure to support returning humans to the Moon," Peter Beck, the company's chief executive, said in a news release. "They play a vital role as pathfinders to retire risk and lay down infrastructure for future missions."

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Are electric cars as 'green' as you think?

BBC Technology News - October 21, 2019 - 10:36am
The lithium powering electric vehicles is found deep beneath the salt flats of Argentina

Mitt Romney's secret Twitter account revealed

BBC Technology News - October 21, 2019 - 10:30am
The ex-presidential hopeful admits using the Twitter account "Pierre Delecto" - "C'est moi", he says.

Elton John app lets concert audiences mix his music

BBC Technology News - October 21, 2019 - 8:17am
A device which lets the audience choose which instruments they hear at a concert has been created.

'I lost £4,000 in a hand grenade hacker scam'

BBC Technology News - October 21, 2019 - 5:02am
Indian police shut two call centres and arrest seven people suspected of involvement in the scam.

Russian hackers cloak attacks using Iranian group

BBC Technology News - October 21, 2019 - 5:00am
Russian hackers used access to a rival group in Iran to hide attacks, say intelligence agencies.

Alexa and Google Home abused to eavesdrop and phish passwords

Ars Technica - October 21, 2019 - 12:05am

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Amazon)

By now, the privacy threats posed by Amazon Alexa and Google Home are common knowledge. Workers for both companies routinely listen to audio of users—recordings of which can be kept forever—and the sounds the devices capture can be used in criminal trials.

Now, there's a new concern: malicious apps developed by third parties and hosted by Amazon or Google. The threat isn't just theoretical. Whitehat hackers at Germany's Security Research Labs developed eight apps—four Alexa "skills" and four Google Home "actions"—that all passed Amazon or Google security-vetting processes. The skills or actions posed as simple apps for checking horoscopes, with the exception of one, which masqueraded as a random-number generator. Behind the scenes, these "smart spies," as the researchers call them, surreptitiously eavesdropped on users and phished for their passwords.

"It was always clear that those voice assistants have privacy implications—with Google and Amazon receiving your speech, and this possibly being triggered on accident sometimes," Fabian Bräunlein, senior security consultant at SRLabs, told me. "We now show that, not only the manufacturers, but... also hackers can abuse those voice assistants to intrude on someone's privacy."

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'I lost £4,000 in a call centre scam'

BBC Technology News - October 21, 2019 - 12:00am
Doug Varey was offered security software which turned out to be a frightening and costly scam.

Accessibility, the future, and why Domino’s matters

Ars Technica - October 20, 2019 - 3:15pm

Technology is changing the way we interact with companies like Domino's, for sure. (credit: Domino's)

The US Supreme Court last week formally declined to weigh in on an argument that the Americans with Disabilities Act should not apply to websites and digital storefronts, leaving intact a lower ruling finding that the ADA does, indeed, apply to digital space. Internet and Web users with disabilities, as well as advocates for accessible design, are breathing a sigh of relief.

Accessibility in the digital space has come a great distance in a relatively short time, in many ways opening up the entire digital economy of the 21st century to millions of users. But the fact that one company—Domino's Pizza—could try taking a case for not making its services accessible to the highest court in 2019 makes clear how much work there is left to do to make the online world equitable, both today and in the future.

So although the Domino's case has run out of road, the questions it raises still remain: where does the connected world stand today in terms of accessibility? What does the future look like? Why is the law still unclear on all of this? And what's at stake for any future Domino's followers?

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Neurons hide their memories in their imaginary fluctuations

Ars Technica - October 20, 2019 - 2:00pm

Enlarge / This is your brain. Well, not your brain. Presumably your brain isn't being photographed at this moment. (credit: Adeel Anwar / Flickr)

The brain is, at least to me, an enigma wrapped in a mystery. People who are smarter than I am—a list that encompasses most humans, dogs, and possibly some species of yeast—have worked out many aspects of the brain. But some seemingly basic things, like how we remember, are still understood only at a very vague level. Now, by investigating a mathematical model of neural activity, researchers have found another possible mechanism to store and recall memories.

We know in detail how neurons function. Neurotransmitters, synapse firing, excitation, and suppression are all textbook knowledge. Indeed, we've abstracted these ideas to create blackbox algorithms to help us ruin people's lives by performing real-world tasks.

We also understand the brain at a higher, more structural, level: we know which bits of the brain are involved in processing different tasks. The vision system, for instance is mapped out in exquisite detail. Yet the intermediate level in between these two areas remains frustratingly vague. We know that a set of neurons might be involved in identifying vertical lines in our visual field, but we don't really understand how that recognition occurs.

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How meme culture changed the PSAT

Ars Technica - October 20, 2019 - 11:55am

Enlarge (credit: Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty)

Thank you for coming and welcome to the College Board’s Preliminary SAT and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, the Internet Age edition. You must bring two No. 2 pencils, a photo ID, and an approved calculator. You must not smuggle in a protractor, or scarf down a sandwich, or post memes on Twitter that reveal test content. No, really: the penalty for such illicit memes could be the cancellation of your test score. And now, an inspiring message from Youth Icon, former boy band member, and British person Harry Styles:

All over the US, high school juniors and sophomores are now taking the PSAT, which has been the norm for the past half-century. The contemporary trouble for test administrator the College Board is that the test’s ubiquity, the age of participants, and the high emotional stakes these days make the details of the exam guaranteed meme fodder—and, well, standardized tests are standardized. Posting memes about them could lead to teens getting hints about their contents. So the organization has taken to Twitter to try to salvage some semblance of their normal testing conditions. Teens are, as always, unimpressed.

The College Board has been on meme watch for years. The earliest signs of PSAT meme movements likely date back to 2014, when users on subreddit r/teenagers decided to “illegally discuss the PSAT,” and others took to Twitter and Tumblr to post their own reactions to test questions. The College Board has made it clear that it disapproves, sometimes posting stern messages warning test takers about the potential consequences and making frequent requests for students to delete tweets pertaining to the test.

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Meet the student who has created African emojis

BBC Technology News - October 20, 2019 - 12:00am
Emoji obsessed? Meet O’Plerou Grebet, who has made over 350 emojis with African cultural references.

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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