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Industry & Technology

After two years of delays, Minecraft’s visual upgrade has been canceled

Ars Technica - August 12, 2019 - 9:20pm

After announcing a plan to completely overhaul Minecraft's visual engine in 2017, the game's developers at Mojang have finally come clean: the "Super Duper Graphics Pack" is no longer coming to the hugely popular sandbox game.

The update's E3 2017 announcement sent tongues wagging thanks to an incredible trailer, which bathed the game's familiar, blocky environs with a newly dynamic shadow-and-light model, crepuscular rays, screen-space reflections, material-based lighting, and more. Keeping in line with its description as a "pack," the update left the game's raw assets untouched, which made it seem similar to other existing "texture packs" sold within modern Minecraft games. All of this would even run in 4K resolution on supported hardware, Mojang said, and it promised a free launch by "fall 2017."

Once that date slipped, Mojang became wholly mum about the pack's existence until Monday. That's when Mojang confirmed the project's cancellation in a brief, official blog post. In it, the company told fans, "Unfortunately, the pack proved too technically demanding to implement as planned." Instead of offering technical details, Mojang went on to blame the update's problems on "how the pack performed across devices."

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First trailer for Dolemite Is My Name pays tribute to a blaxploitation legend

Ars Technica - August 12, 2019 - 9:03pm

Eddie Murphy stars as controversial comedian Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name, coming to Netflix this fall.

Eddie Murphy is all pimped out and ready to rid his community of evildoers in the first trailer for the comic biopic, Dolemite Is My Name. It's Director Craig Brewer's tribute to Rudy Ray Moore, a singer, dancer, and comedian in the 1960s and 1970s who went on to make a classic of blaxploitation film. (NB: The trailer is not entirely safe for workplace viewing.)

Moore claimed he got the idea for the Dolemite character while working in a Hollywood record store, where one of the locals used to tell obscene tall tales about a man named Dolemite. Moore adapted the persona into his act and released three albums of his frequently raunchy material accompanied by jazz and R&B musicians. Because of his delivery style (which typically involved rhyming lyrics), Moore is often called the "Godfather of Rap." (Snoop Dogg, who has a cameo in the biopic, has said, "Without Rudy Ray Moore, there would be no Snoop Dogg, and that's for real.")

Moore slowly built up a cult following, despite the fact that his albums (including the cover art) were much too vulgar to be publicly displayed in record stores. With the rise of "blaxploitation" films in the early 1970s, Moore saw an opportunity to bring the character Dolemite to the moviegoing masses. He financed his first film himself with royalties from his record sales. The result was the instant blaxploitation classic Dolemite, released in 1975, about "the ultimate ghetto hero" in the tradition of Shaft. Dolemite knew kung-fu, was a sharp dresser, was known for his sexual prowess, and was committed to ridding his neighborhood of criminal influences. The film's success spawned several sequels, although Moore's material never really made it to the mainstream.

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Frontier network outages get worse in NY, triggering state investigation

Ars Technica - August 12, 2019 - 8:26pm

Enlarge / A Frontier Communications van. (credit: Getty Images | jetcityimage)

Frontier Communications customers are reporting more outages and longer repair times, and state government officials have decided to investigate.

NY Public Service Commission (PSC) staff reported "that several Frontier Communications subsidiaries have significant service-quality problems, including escalating complaint rates, lengthy repair durations, and localized network reliability issues," a PSC announcement Thursday said.

PSC staff is seeking more detailed information from Frontier on customer trouble reports and "will work with Frontier to develop and implement a plan to improve poor localized network reliability conditions," the announcement said.

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Tested: Idea that sea ice steadies jet stream, blocking cold winters

Ars Technica - August 12, 2019 - 7:06pm

Enlarge / Cold weather for the Midwest on January 29, 2019. (credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

A lot has been made of the possibility that the loss of Arctic sea ice could make mid-latitude weather weirder by causing wriggling meanders in the jet stream. One possible manifestation of that is bitter cold snaps in winter, as Arctic air slides south along with the jet stream boundary. There is a correlation between cold mid-latitude winters and low sea ice cover in the Arctic. But does the one really cause the other?

The possible relationship between a warming Arctic and changing behavior of the jet stream is still a matter of real scientific debate. For a number of reasons, it’s a difficult question to resolve. In this case, a team led by the University of Exeter’s Russell Blackport tried to disentangle the chain of events with a clever analysis.

Checking causality

Ultimately, the question is whether shrinking sea ice allows the ocean to warm the atmosphere, or whether the warm air forms separately and then melts the sea ice. The researchers used a pair of climate models and global maps of observed weather; the measurement gaps were filled in by simulated physics. First, the team categorized each winter in North America and Asia based on two measures: cooler or warmer mid-latitude temperatures and lower or higher Arctic sea ice. As in other studies, they found a correlation between the two.

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Now you can use Android phones, rather than passwords, to log in to Google*

Ars Technica - August 12, 2019 - 6:40pm


It could soon become easier for Android users to securely log in to Web accounts. Starting today, Google is rolling out a service that lets people on version 7 and later of Google’s mobile operating system use their device’s fingerprint or screen lock instead of a password when visiting certain Google services.

For now, the service is available only for Google’s Password Manager property, and even then it's only when people are using select Android models. Over the next few days, the feature will be available to all Android 7 and above devices. Google has no timeline for when people will be able to use the feature when signing in to Gmail, other Google properties, or for non-Google sites.

The new sign-in method uses the industry-wide FIDO2, W3C WebAuthn, and FIDO CTAP standards jointly developed over the past few years by a long list of companies. The standards are designed to wean the world off its reliance on passwords by making it easier to use other authentication factors such as physical security keys, fingerprints, or other biometrics.

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Alleged kingpin of massive, deadly fentanyl-laced pill scheme stands trial

Ars Technica - August 12, 2019 - 5:24pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty | John Moore)

Utah man Aaron Shamo, 29, will stand trial starting today over federal charges that he allegedly ran a deadly, multimillion-dollar counterfeit opioid racket on the black market amid the country’s devastating opioid epidemic.

Federal prosecutors allege that Shamo and his accomplices pressed hundreds of thousands of counterfeit pills in the basement of Shamo’s suburban Salt Lake City home and sold them on the dark Web to customers all across the US, making millions in the process. The pills resembled prescription opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone, but they were actually fakes laced with the highly potent and deadly opioid fentanyl, which Shamo allegedly imported from China illegally.

Prosecutors linked the pills to dozens of customer deaths, according to the Associated Press. However, Shamo is charged in connection to only one death, that of a 21-year-old who died in 2016 after snorting a fentanyl-containing pill that was made to resemble prescription oxycodone.

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Kyle 'Bugha' Giersdorf: Fortnite world champion 'swatted' mid-game

BBC Technology News - August 12, 2019 - 5:23pm
Teenager Kyle 'Bugha' Giersdorf was in the middle of a game when he was interrupted by armed police.

Eliza review: Startup culture meets sci-fi in a touching, fascinating tale

Ars Technica - August 12, 2019 - 5:00pm

Enlarge / Main character Evelyn looks upon her hometown of Seattle in the fascinating new visual novel Eliza. (credit: Zachtronics)

"You're a computer," a graduate student says in a huff, directly to my face. "You don't know what [relationships] are like, do you?"

I don't respond. Instead, I eye him quietly, his face appearing between two informational grids, full of biometric analysis. His vitals (heart rate, voice levels) appear in a chart on the right. His word choice, and each word's associated value (positive, negative), pop up in a chat log on my left. I study him. I wait.

This person—my therapy client—continues speaking, like a freight train full of anxiety, and his rhetorical questions fall like discarded cargo as he continues. He eventually compares his distress to something out of a "self-pitying novel," which finally prompts my guiding system, named Eliza, to offer a question: "Why did you think you were so much better than those types of writers?" I see this question pop up in my augmented-reality field, and I speak it aloud, word-for-word.

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The US Navy says no to touchscreens—maybe automakers should, too

Ars Technica - August 12, 2019 - 4:51pm

Enlarge / Seaman Timothy North stands watch as the helmsman on the bridge of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98). Forrest Sherman is participating in a sustainment exercise with the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, an integrated, comprehensive exercise designed to ensure the strike group is ready to meet all mission sets and carry out sustained combat operations from the sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Raymond Maddocks/Released) (credit: Specialist 3rd Class Raymond Maddocks | US Navy)

The US Navy has had enough of touchscreens and is going back to physical controls for its destroyers, according to a report last week in USNI News. Starting next summer the Navy will refit its DDG-51 destroyer fleet with a physical throttle and helm control system. The effort is a response to feedback the Navy solicited in the wake of a pair of fatal crashes involving that class of ship during 2017.

In June of that year, seven sailors were killed when the USS Fitzgerald collided with the MV ACX Crystal, a container ship. In August, 10 US sailors were killed when the USS John S McCain hit another container ship, the Alnic MC.

On August 5, the National Transportation Safety Board published its report into the USS John S McCain incident. Although the agency found that the probable cause was "a lack of effective operational oversight of the destroyer by the US Navy," it also criticized the ship's complex throttle and steering touchscreen controls.

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Twitch backtracks after accidentally showing porn on Ninja’s old page

Ars Technica - August 12, 2019 - 3:53pm

Enlarge / Ninja's defunct Twitch page, as it looked briefly this weekend (The explicit thumbnail in the upper left has been blurred by Ars Technica). (credit: Keemstar / Twitter)

Popular video game streamer Tyler "Ninja" Blevins isn't on Amazon's popular Twitch service anymore after Microsoft paid to move him to its competing Mixer earlier this month. But Ninja's Twitch page lives on without him, existing in a zombie form that ended up accidentally promoting a pornographic channel over the weekend.

Most defunct, offline streamer pages on Twitch revert to a kind of permanent archival form, where streamers can point their followers to new locations and viewers can access old streams and clips. After Ninja's Twitch departure, however, Twitch used that prime online real estate (which had over 14 million followers at its peak) to point users to other popular Fortnite streams on Twitch. "The Ninja you are looking for is in another castle" a header on the page read. "Check out these popular live channels."

This deviation didn't cause too much trouble for anyone until this weekend, when a stream featuring hardcore pornography somehow shot to the top of those Fortnite recommendations. Visitors to Ninja's old Twitch page this weekend were faced with an explicit thumbnail from the stream along with a Cyrillic description of its contents. After the explicit content promotion was noticed, Twitch quickly reverted Ninja's page the standard archival mode, as normal.

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Hurricane forecasts may be running headlong into the butterfly effect

Ars Technica - August 12, 2019 - 3:45pm

Enlarge / Hurricane Florence on NOAA's GOES satellite in 2018. (credit: NOAA)

Not that they're ones to brag about it, but hurricane forecasters have gotten a lot better at their jobs in recent years, especially when it comes to predicting where tropical cyclones will go.

From the period of 1990 through 2016, the three-day track error for tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico declined from 555km to 185km, dramatically reducing the size of hurricane warning and evacuation zone areas. Similarly, the three-day track error in the eastern North Pacific hurricane region fell from 415km to 135km over the same period.

These improvements are due to significantly better computer modeling, more powerful supercomputers, more advanced methods to collect and ingest data into these models (particularly from satellites), and improved techniques to blend these models into a single forecast.

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King's Cross developer defends use of facial recognition

BBC Technology News - August 12, 2019 - 2:55pm
The tech is one of "a number of detection and tracking methods" used at the London site, the firm said.

US Navy to ditch touch screen ship controls

BBC Technology News - August 12, 2019 - 12:50pm
Familiar wheels and throttle controls will replace "overly complex" touch screens, says US Navy.

Electronic tongue puts fiery foods to the test

BBC Technology News - August 12, 2019 - 10:36am
Human taste buds tire very quickly, but the machine can maintain accuracy regardless of the heat.

Twitch CEO apologises for pornography on Ninja's channel

BBC Technology News - August 12, 2019 - 9:36am
Streaming platform Twitch's boss apologises after pornography is hosted on Ninja's former channel.

Tech firms face fines for harmful videos from regulator Ofcom

BBC Technology News - August 12, 2019 - 9:17am
The UK plans to give new powers to the media regulator in order to comply with EU law.

In fighting deep fakes, mice may be great listeners

BBC Technology News - August 12, 2019 - 6:06am
A Las Vegas cyber-security conference hears the latest, unusual techniques to fight "deep fake" videos.

How my favorite designer ended up being featured in Hobbs and Shaw

Ars Technica - August 11, 2019 - 4:09pm

Have you been to see Hobbs and Shaw yet? It's the latest installment from the Fast and Furious franchise, a spinoff starring Vanessa Kirby, Jason Statham, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and Idris Elba, and it's pretty darn good as far as mindless summer action flicks go. Now, I know what you're thinking: he only really likes it because it's got some cool cars. But here's a secret—I'm far more in love with the way everyone is dressed in the movie.

Much of the credit for that goes to Sarah Evelyn, the film's costume designer. But there's another influence at work in the wardrobe department, that of techwear luminary Errolson Hugh. Hugh has been called "your favorite designer's favorite designer," although more recently you might know him from having started that bottle cap challenge earlier this summer.

It's fair to say Hugh's attitude toward design, particularly with his label, Acronym, is uncompromising. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Gordon Murray's approach to designing the McLaren F1. Like Murray, Hugh's work is heavy with the latest technology—it is called "techwear," after all. But instead of ultra lightweight composites (the McLaren F1 was the first production road car to be made completely from carbon fiber), it uses cutting-edge fabrics from companies like Schoeller, Gore, and Nextec.

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The last magnetic pole flip saw 22,000 years of weirdness

Ars Technica - August 11, 2019 - 3:00pm

Enlarge (credit: m kasahara / Flickr)

On its face, this fact is simple: our planet's magnetic poles have traded places with some frequency over Earth's history. At points in the past, compass needles would point south instead of north. But look into the details of these transitions and things will get considerably more complicated. What exactly is it like during the times when the poles flip, for example? And what is it about the "geodynamo" of Earth's liquid iron outer core that causes this behavior?

Records of these transitions exist in several forms. Small bits of the mineral magnetite in sediment will tend to orient themselves with the Earth's magnetic field as they settle into place. Isotopes in ice cores can record changes in the magnetic field's ability to deflect away charged particles from space. And lavas—on land or the seafloor—contain magnetite crystals that are locked into place when the lava solidifies.

A new study led by the University of Wisconsin's Brad Singer uses the latest dating techniques to put together a timeline of the most recent pole reversal (which occurred a little over 770,000 years ago) based on sequences of lava flows around the world.

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Terrifying tales spring to vivid life in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Ars Technica - August 11, 2019 - 2:00pm

Reading a book brings all manner of ghosts and monsters to life in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Monstrous creatures from terrifying tales come to life for a group of teens in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the new horror film produced by Guillermo del Toro. The movie is based on a series of children's books from the 1980s by the late amateur folklorist Alvin Schwartz (he died in 1992), who drew upon common folklore and popular urban legends for his anthologies.

(Some spoilers below.)

Technically, Schwartz was a curator, collecting scary stories from all over and preserving those oral traditions on the page. Remember that classic campfire ditty, The worms crawl in the worms crawl out/the worms play pinochle on your snout? So did Schwartz. You'll also find variations on the killer with a hook for a hand who preys on couples necking in parked cars. So, too, the hapless babysitter who discovers the call is coming from inside the house, along with plenty of other frightening fare. It's all delivered in a breezy, conversational format, complete with tips on how to most effectively read the stories aloud to scare your friends. (The 2018 documentary Scary Stories delves more into Schwartz's source material.)

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