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Industry & Technology

Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering game that puts the fun in undermining democracy

Ars Technica - August 19, 2019 - 12:30pm

AUSTIN, Texas—Josh Lafair hasn't even voted yet, but he probably knows more about gerrymandering than most. To start, given that his family's from Austin, Texas, politics has never been a taboo subject around the Lafair dinner table. And in 2017, after the Lafairs watched another uncompetitive congressional election play out in their oddly shaped district (TX-10), Josh and his siblings had an idea: Is there a good gerrymandering board game out there? Could we make our own?

Ars Gaming Week 2019 View more stories

"Political games turn a lot of people off—political games tend to be really gimmicky,” says Lafair, the youngest (18) of the three siblings behind Lafair Family Games. “So while we did want this to be a game about gerrymandering, we also wanted to make a well-designed game. We wanted board gamers to think, ‘Oh, this is a good game. I’ll actually play this.’”

Mapmaker isn't the first title from Lafair Family Games, as older brother Louis invented the popular Pathwayz as a kid (more recently while at Stanford, he even developed an AI that can literally beat him at his own game). But Josh was so young he simply served as "chief guinea pig" on that one, and he considers Mapmaker the first game he truly had a hand in designing. Recently, before Lafair debuted Mapmaker to the masses at Gen Con 2019, he walked Ars through the game's creation while simultaneously taking us to task in a one-on-one battle.

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Minecraft graphics to be more 'realistic'

BBC Technology News - August 19, 2019 - 12:21pm
However, the update will only be available to those with expensive Nvidia RTX graphics cards

Guidemaster: Navigating the hazy world of gaming laptops in 2019

Ars Technica - August 19, 2019 - 12:15pm

Enlarge / Amid the chaos of the Ars Gaming Week testing lab, we took a moment to snap a photo of some of our preferred gaming laptops. But are they right for you? Not necessarily! Hence, here's our careful guide on the topic. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

Welcome to Ars Gaming Week 2019! As a staff full of gamers and game-lovers, we'll be serving up extra reviews, guides, interviews, and other stories all about gaming from August 19 to August 23.

Putting together an ideal gaming desktop computer isn't always the easiest task, but at least it's a controlled kind of chaos. When building a PC, we can individually rank each component type—from CPUs to GPUs, from speakers to monitors—and aspiring builders can feel out their options for each within hearty system-builder guides. Barebones budgets, small form factors, pricey beasts: we can offer tips for each, then let shoppers mix and match those recommendations as they see fit.

The same cannot be said for gaming laptops. There's no simple way to break out and individually test laptops' big-ticket components, and singling out one gaming laptop is tough in a sector that has often suffered from bulk, heft, expense, and ugly designs. When you buy into one good thing in a gaming laptop, you're buying into its every other element, good and bad, with no ability to swap. How much worse does that get when you're stuck with a firm budget?

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E-Scooters: Should they be legal on public roads?

BBC Technology News - August 19, 2019 - 8:50am
Some riders are calling for regulation rather than an outright ban.

After canceling one upgrade, Minecraft gets another—and it’s Nvidia RTX exclusive

Ars Technica - August 19, 2019 - 8:41am

On Monday, Mojang and Nvidia kicked off this week's Gamescom gaming conference by unveiling a substantial update for the blocky, mega-popular game Minecraft: a visual patch coming exclusively to owners of Nvidia RTX graphics cards for the game's Windows 10 version. This comes seven days after another similar patch, which would have been free for all Xbox and Windows players, was canceled after two years of delays.

And while that canceled "Super Duper" patch looked impressive, this one takes the intentionally chunky, lo-fi Minecraft to an entirely new level, thanks to a heavy emphasis on ray tracing. All of Nvidia's RTX graphics cards include a dedicated core designed to efficiently map out massive amounts of light bounces in 3D imagery. This core's effects on Minecraft might be the most impressive yet for an RTX-compatible game.

The upgrade's reveal trailer shows exactly how this "path tracing" patch will look in action, with more realistic looking models for light bouncing and reflection. The game's pixellated "gold" blocks now glisten like gold. Reflective materials now mirror whatever mobs walk near them. Light cast upon different kinds of materials will naturally glow, and underground caverns will now smolder in impressive red light seeping from nearby lava flows.

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Call Of Duty World League Championship: eUnited crowned winners

BBC Technology News - August 19, 2019 - 7:43am
The finals of the e-sports championship took place in Los Angeles this weekend.

How I stopped my teenager being recruited online

BBC Technology News - August 19, 2019 - 12:39am
How can parents intervene when boys seem drawn into extremist internet culture - and should they?

What does Amazon’s “Top Brand” badge actually mean?

Ars Technica - August 18, 2019 - 1:30pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Leon Neal)

Amazon's biggest asset can also be a headache for its customers. The so-called "everything store" really does sell almost any item consumers might want, but it's often cumbersome and time-consuming to sort through them all. To avoid "choice overload," the retail giant has come up with certain signals designed to help people distinguish high-quality products from the rest. They include star ratings and product reviews, as well as "Amazon's Choice," a mysterious badge bestowed on some individual items, which has recently become the subject of scrutiny from lawmakers. Now, Amazon is testing a new signifier, called "Top Brand." But no one seems to know what, exactly, a "Top Brand" is, and Amazon won't say.

Amazon has long given customers the ability to search by "Top Brands," but the products previously weren't distinguished by a special badge in search results. Now, if you search for "swimming goggles," for instance, Amazon may return several pairs from Speedo whose photos bear a "Top Brand" badge. Here's the weird part: the longstanding "Top Brands" search filter isn't quite the same thing as the newer "Top Brand" badge. Here's an example: if you look up "women's belts" on Amazon and filter for "Top Brands," you may notice that not all of the results actually receive the Top Brand badge. How can a company be a Top Brand in one sense but not in another?

(credit: Louise Matsakis via Amazon)

Amazon says the discrepancy exists because the Top Brand badge is only a feature within Amazon Fashion, the part of its website dedicated to clothes, accessories, and luggage, while the Top Brands search filter is available across the entire marketplace. It makes sense for Amazon to try out this new badge feature specifically for fashion, since consumers are generally brand-conscious when shopping for things like handbags and shoes. But since not all women's belts are within the fashion category, they're not eligible for the Top Brand badge, even though Amazon might consider them to be Top Brands generally. Confusing, right?

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I put myself through hell as an IPCC convening lead author, but it was worth it

Ars Technica - August 18, 2019 - 1:00pm

Enlarge / A view of the building of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), hosting the 50th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on August 8, 2019 in Geneva. (credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

In my day job, I am a scientist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland studying things such as how agriculture contributes to climate change and what we can do about it. Recently, though, I found myself in Geneva, to take part in my fourth “adoption plenary” for a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report in question was the recent Special Report on Climate Change and Land, and I was one of its 15 convening lead authors, responsible along with two others for a 300-page chapter on links between desertification, land degradation, food security, and climate change. The adoption plenary is the process by which the 195 governments who are part of the IPCC reach consensus on the wording of a much shorter (40 or so page) “Summary for Policymakers” (SPM) of an entire IPCC report, and thereby adopt its findings.

The process of approval is grueling for all concerned: it’s allocated five days, with an additional reserve day allocated, which is often used. During this period, every word of the policymakers’ summary has to be agreed and approved, line by line, with delegates from all governments in the room.

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New Attack exploiting serious Bluetooth weakness can intercept sensitive data

Ars Technica - August 17, 2019 - 2:56pm


Researchers have demonstrated a serious weakness in the Bluetooth wireless standard that could allow hackers to intercept keystrokes, address books, and other sensitive data sent from billions of devices.

Dubbed Key Negotiation of Bluetooth—or KNOB for short—the attack forces two or more devices to choose an encryption key just a single byte in length before establishing a Bluetooth connection. Attackers within radio range can then use commodity hardware to quickly crack the key. From there, attackers can use the cracked key to decrypt data passing between the devices. The types of data susceptible could include keystrokes passing between a wireless keyboard and computer, address books uploaded from a phone to a car dashboard, or photographs exchanged between phones.

KNOB doesn't require an attacker to have any previously shared secret material or to observe the pairing process of the targeted devices. The exploit is invisible to Bluetooth apps and the operating systems they run on, making the attack almost impossible to detect without highly specialized equipment. KNOB also exploits a weakness in the Bluetooth standard itself. That means, in all likelihood, that the vulnerability affects just about every device that's compliant with the specification. The researchers have simulated the attack on 14 different Bluetooth chips—including those from Broadcom, Apple, and Qualcomm—and found all of them to be vulnerable.

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Wind power prices now lower than the cost of natural gas

Ars Technica - August 17, 2019 - 1:45pm

Enlarge (credit: NREL)

This week, the US Department of Energy released a report that looks back on the state of wind power in the US by running the numbers on 2018. The analysis shows that wind hardware prices are dropping, even as new turbine designs are increasing the typical power generated by each turbine. As a result, recent wind farms have gotten so cheap that you can build and operate them for less than the expected cost of buying fuel for an equivalent natural gas plant.

Wind is even cheaper at the moment because of a tax credit given to renewable energy generation. But that credit is in the process of fading out, leading to long-term uncertainty in a power market where demand is generally stable or dropping.

A lot of GigaWatts

2018 saw about 7.6 GigaWatts of new wind capacity added to the grid, accounting for just over 20% of the US' capacity additions. This puts it in third place behind natural gas and solar power. That's less impressive than it might sound, however, given that things like coal and nuclear are essentially at a standstill. Because the best winds aren't evenly distributed in the US, there are areas, like parts of the Great Plains, where wind installations were more than half of the new power capacity installed.

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Surprise! Uber and Lyft don’t like NYC’s new ride-hail rules

Ars Technica - August 17, 2019 - 12:11pm

Enlarge / The Uber ride-sharing app is seen on a mobile phone on February 12, 2018. (credit: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who took the helm of the controversial company back in 2017, is known for being pretty unflappable. He was even upbeat during the company’s second quarter earnings call, when he was charged with explaining why Uber posted more than $5 billion in losses in just a few months’ time.

But in response to one analyst’s question, about how the regulations in New York had affected the company’s bottom line, Khosrowshahi got a bit spicy, at least for Khosrowshahi. “I think anyone who tells you that the changes in New York City are good is…” he trailed off for a moment. “It’s malarkey, frankly.”

One person’s malarkey is another’s sensible policy decision. Nearly a decade after ride-hail companies began exploiting the gray areas of decades-old taxi regulations around the country, Uber and Lyft have found themselves subject to increasingly strict rules in the Big Apple.

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The Fortnite coach who helped create teenage millionaires

BBC Technology News - August 17, 2019 - 2:28am
Hugh Gilmour failed to qualify for the Fortnite World Cup, so has turned to coaching instead.

Google Drive will introduce long-asked-for file shortcuts feature

Ars Technica - August 17, 2019 - 12:10am

Enlarge / Google offers a suite of cloud collaboration services, but Drive is at the heart of it all. (credit: Google)

Soon, Google will add one of the most commonly requested features to its Drive file hosting, sharing, and collaboration service: shortcuts. These will allow users to create pointers to files from either the same drive or another, separate shared drive.

The new feature will work just like shortcuts in Windows—they are pointers to a file stored in another location. The shortcut can be stored anywhere without impacting the location of the original file. Google gave this example in its blog post announcing the feature:

If Paul in marketing shares a document from his team’s shared drive with the entire sales team, Greta in sales can create a shortcut to that document in her own team’s shared drive. Previously, because documents can’t be owned by two shared drives, Greta would need to create a copy of the document for her team’s shared drive, which could then quickly become out of date.

Google writes that supported content types for shortcuts include Docs, Slides, Sheets, JPGs, PDFs, folders, and Microsoft Office files.

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NASA chief alienates Senators needed to fund the Moon program

Ars Technica - August 16, 2019 - 11:13pm

Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks in front of a large hydrogen tank Friday at Marshall Space Flight Center. (credit: NASA)

When Jim Bridenstine became administrator of NASA 16 months ago, critics questioned his willingness to defend NASA's climate science portfolio and his ability to move beyond the partisan politics that characterized his nearly three terms as a Republican from Oklahoma. Since that time, Bridenstine has largely answered those questions. He has stood up for science and sought to work across the aisle.

However, Bridenstine has stumbled where most thought he would succeed—selling and communicating NASA's programs to Congress. In particular, the administrator appears to have angered some key Republican legislators who will be needed to support increasing funding for the agency's Moon plans.

Angering Shelby

For example, in March 2019, Bridenstine revealed at a Congressional hearing that NASA was looking at using commercial rockets to launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon. This represented a bold move, as Congress has demanded that NASA build the large Space Launch System rocket, at great cost, to serve as Orion's launch vehicle.

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Undead hordes rise from the sea in delightfully campy Zombie Tidal Wave

Ars Technica - August 16, 2019 - 8:55pm

SYFY hopes to do for zombies what all those Sharknado movies did for sharks with Zombie Tidal Wave.

Fans of SYFY's delightfully cheesy B-movies like Sharktopus and Sharknado, rejoice. This weekend, the network debuts its latest offering in the genre: Zombie Tidal Wave. The title pretty much says it all.

(Mild spoilers below.)

Director Anthony C. Ferrante is the mastermind behind the hugely popular Sharknado and its five (count 'em!) sequels—it's a franchise that now even has a theme park attraction in Malaysia called Sharknado Alive. So what's this latest movie about? The trailer (embedded above) reveals a few details. A mysterious substance oozes out from the ocean floor, and suddenly hordes of the undead are swimming to the surface, popping up in the shallows off a local beach to snack on some unsuspecting sunbathers just trying to enjoy the day.

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Check out the gory, cringy images the FDA wants to put on cigarettes

Ars Technica - August 16, 2019 - 7:35pm

Enlarge / Sick kids, chest scars, and bloody urine are just some of the new warnings. (credit: FDA)

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday revealed 13 repulsive warnings it proposes adding to cigarette advertisements and packaging.

The graphic warnings are intended to deter smoking. They include short statements and “photo-realistic color images depicting some of the lesser-known health risks of cigarette smoking.” The depicted health risks include bladder cancer, prominent neck tumors, limb amputation, erectile dysfunction, type II diabetes, blindness, and heart and lung disease. The warnings would replace the standard Surgeon General’s warning, which the agency described as “virtually invisible” to consumers.

The FDA said the new warnings fulfill a mandate set by a 2009 law called The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA). The act required the agency to come up with fresh warnings for cigarette packages and ads to address the lingering public health issue.

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Apple sues company that sells “perfect replicas” of iOS without a license

Ars Technica - August 16, 2019 - 7:10pm

Enlarge / An image from Apple's lawsuit shows a real iPhone X and Corellium's service running a virtual iPhone X. (credit: Apple)

Apple yesterday sued Corellium, a company that sells access to virtual machines that run copies of the operating system used in iPhones and iPads.

Corellium markets iOS virtualization as "a research tool for those trying to discover security vulnerabilities and other flaws in Apple's software," according to Apple's complaint (PDF) filed in US District Court for the Southern District of Florida. But "Corellium's true goal is profiting off its blatant infringement," Apple wrote. "Far from assisting in fixing vulnerabilities, Corellium encourages its users to sell any discovered information on the open market to the highest bidder."

Corellium offers access to copies of iOS in a cloud service and in private installations on a customer's premises, with the latter costing $1 million a year, the lawsuit said. "Corellium does so with no license or permission from Apple," the lawsuit said.

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TalkTalk hacker Elliott Gunton took cryptocurrency for stolen data

BBC Technology News - August 16, 2019 - 6:46pm
Elliott Gunton supplied mobile numbers for others to use in criminal activity.

Audi e-tron wins top crash rating, beating Tesla Model S and Chevy Bolt

Ars Technica - August 16, 2019 - 6:23pm

Enlarge / Ars Technica's Jonathan Gitlin spotted this e-tron being prepared for crash testing during a visit to IIHS testing facilities. (credit: Jonathan Gitlin)

Crashes hurt car insurance companies' bottom lines, so the industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducts comprehensive crash tests to help consumers buy safe cars—and encourage the industry to raise its standards. The IIHS recently put Audi's new e-tron through its paces, and Audi boasts that the e-tron is the first fully electric car to win the organization's highest rating: Top Safety Pick+.

The IIHS conducts several different crash tests as well as evaluating a vehicle's headlights and crash prevention technology. The e-tron earned the highest possible mark, "good," for every one of the dozens of sub-categories in the IIHS report.

"The dummy's position in relation to the door frame, steering wheel, and instrument panel after the crash test indicates that the driver's survival space was maintained very well," the IIHS writes of one of its crash test results.

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