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Industry & Technology

Coronavirus from China has made its way to the United States

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 11:05pm

Enlarge / Travelers in China are often wearing protective masks in response to the spread of 2019nCoV (credit: Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

On Tuesday afternoon, the US Centers for Disease Control announced that the coronavirus that's been spreading within China had made it to the United States. A patient in Washington state is the first confirmed case in the US, although indications are that the disease has already spread to other countries in Asia.

A single patient in Washington had been traveling in Wuhan, the area of China hardest hit by the newly described virus, before returning to the US last week. Shortly after their return, the patient was hospitalized with pneumonia-like symptoms. The hospital staff, based on the travel history and symptoms, suspected that the new virus, called 2019-nCoV, might be at fault, and sent samples in to the CDC for testing. Those tests confirmed the virus' identity.

While the initial cases were confined to people who had been in contact with live animals at a seafood market, suggesting that it should be possible to contain the virus. But since then, the news has gotten worse. In addition to spreading to other countries—Thailand and Japan had confirmed cases prior to the US—the virus is now confirmed to be spreading through human contact, which has helped increase the number of cases and enabled its spread to other cities within China. There have also been a number of reported fatalities, although these remain a small percentage of the confirmed infections.

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Brazil prosecutes Glenn Greenwald in “attack on press freedom”

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 10:30pm

Enlarge / Glenn Greenwald speaks during a hearing at the Lower House's Human Rights Commission in Brasilia, Brazil, on June 25, 2019. (credit: Getty Images | Evaristo Sa)

Brazilian prosecutors today charged journalist Glenn Greenwald with cybercrimes related to the publication of articles based on leaked "cellphone messages that have embarrassed prosecutors and tarnished the image of an anti-corruption task force," The New York Times reported.

Greenwald, a resident of Brazil who was born in the United States, is a co-founding editor of The Intercept. The Intercept called the charges politically motivated, saying that Brazil's prosecutors are trying to criminalize a wide range of journalism. The charges stem from an Intercept series published in June 2019, which the news organization said was "based on a massive archive of previously undisclosed materials—including private chats, audio recordings, videos, photos, court proceedings, and other documentation—provided to us by an anonymous source."

The prosecution of Greenwald is "apparent retaliation for The Intercept's critical reporting on abuses committed by Justice Minister [Sérgio] Moro and several federal prosecutors," the news organization also said in a statement provided to Ars and other media.

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Every classic Half-Life game is now free on Steam

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 10:15pm

Enlarge / Completely free... for now. (credit: Valve / Sam Machkovech)

As Valve gears up for the launch of its first official Half-Life game in 13 years, the developer has given fans a big freebie to tide them over while they wait for March 2020: every previous official Half-Life game for free.

On Tuesday, Valve announced that both Half-Life and Half-Life 2, and each expansion pack and episode published directly by the game maker, would be free for all Steam users for a limited time. As of press time, this offer appears to be a temporary unlock of the games until the VR-only adventure game Half-Life Alyx launches in roughly two months; the games' free availability will likely expire after HL:A launches. Click the announcement link to check out the eligible game selection (though it doesn't link to the eligible HL1 expansion packs, which you can find here).

Fans may very well want to connect the plot dots between the biggest Half-Life adventures ahead of HL:A's launch. Valve has announced that the new VR-only game is a "prequel" that takes place between the events of Half-Life 1 and Half-Life 2, while its developers have suggested in interviews that the new game is "the next part" of the series. Hence, you may want to brush up on every tidbit, should the new game contain any continuation of what was left unfinished in Half-Life 2: Episode 2. (Reminder: HL:A is not free as part of this promotion. The new game does come for free with the purchase of any part of the Valve Index VR system.)

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Internet routers running Tomato are under attack by notorious crime gang

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 9:27pm

Enlarge (credit:

Internet routers running the Tomato alternative firmware are under active attack by a self-propagating exploit that searches for devices using default credentials. When credentials are found and remote administration has been turned on, the exploit then makes the routers part of a botnet that’s used in a host of online attacks, researchers said on Tuesday.

The Muhstik botnet came to light about two years ago when it started unleashed a string of exploits that attacked Linux servers and Internet-of-things devices. It opportunistically exploited a host of vulnerabilities, including the so-called critical Drupalgeddon2 vulnerability disclosed in early 2018 in the Drupal content management system. Muhstik has also been caught using vulnerabilities in routers that use Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) or DD-WRT software. The botnet has also exploited previously patched vulnerabilities in other server applications, including the Webdav, WebLogic, Webuzo, and WordPress.

On Tuesday, researchers from Palo Alto Networks said they recently detected Muhstik targeting Internet routers running Tomato, an open-source package that serves as an alternative to firmware that ships by default with routers running Broadcom chips. The ability to work with virtual private networks and provide advanced quality of service control make Tomato popular with end users and in some cases router sellers.

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Smart scale goes dumb as Under Armour pulls the plug on connected tech

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 9:05pm

The UA Scale. (credit: Under Armour)

Any smart device comes with its own set of benefits and trade-offs, but there's one huge shoe waiting to drop with every single one of them: anything you connect can be disconnected at the other end, and there's absolutely nothing you the consumer can do about it. Today's example of smart stuff going dumb comes courtesy of Under Armour, which is effectively rendering its fitness hardware line very expensive paperweights.

The company quietly pulled its UA Record app from both Google Play and Apple's App Store on New Year's Eve. In an announcement dated sometime around January 8, Under Armour said that not only has the app been removed from all app stores, but the company is no longer providing customer support or bug fixes for the software, which will completely stop working as of March 31.

Under Armour launched its lineup of connected fitness devices in 2016. The trio of trackers included a wrist-worn activity monitor, a smart scale, and a chest-strap-style heart rate monitor. The scale and wristband retailed at $180 each, with the heart monitor going for $80. Shoppers could buy all three together in a $400 bundle called the UA HealthBox.

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France agrees to delay new tax on tech giants

BBC Technology News - January 21, 2020 - 8:02pm
A digital sales tax, that provoked a threat of tariffs from the US, has been postponed.

Dealmaster: A bunch of Amazon Fire tablets are on sale today

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 7:44pm

Enlarge (credit: Ars Technica)

Headlining today's Dealmaster is a wide-ranging sale on Amazon's Fire tablets, with many of the iPad alternatives back down to the prices we saw on Black Friday. The offers include the Fire 7 for $35, the Fire HD 8 for $50, the Fire HD 10 for $100, and $40-50 off the more child-friendly Kids Edition variants of those slates.

We'd say the Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 10 are your best bets here, as both come with actual HD screens and are generally faster than the ultra-cheap Fire 7. The latter now charges via USB-C, too.

That said, the usual caveats with Fire tablets still apply here: the so-so performance and plastic builds of these devices are decidedly inferior to anything you'd get with a modern iPad, you still have to deal with advertisements on the lock screen, and no Fire device comes with access to the Google Play Store by default (though it's still possible to install Google-made apps with a little extra work). The main reason to buy a Fire tablet is price: these are for people who only need a tablet for basic media consumption (or keeping their kids amused) and want to spend as little as possible on something competent. Viewed through that lens, the Fire lineup remains a good value.

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Glenn Greenwald: Brazil accuses journalist of cyber-crimes

BBC Technology News - January 21, 2020 - 7:20pm
Brazilian authorities are seeking to charge Glenn Greenwald over alleged cyber-crimes.

Dirt-cheap Nokia 2.3 comes to the US for just $129

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 7:18pm

HMD's Nokia 2.3 has been announced for sale in the US. This low-end phone is just $129 but still manages to look like a respectable device.

HMD is basically the only company selling viable low-end devices in the US. Despite only asking a bit more than a Benjamin, this phone still comes with three years of monthly security updates and two years of major OS updates, which is more than some flagship smartphones. Also better than many flagship smartphones: it runs stock Android with no crapware. It also looks pretty good for a cheap phone, with a big 6.2-inch 1520×720 IPS LCD dominating the front of the device.

The SoC is a Mediatek Helio A22—a 12nm chip with four Cortex-A53 CPU cores running at 2GHz, with a PowerVR GPU. There's 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a 4000mAh battery. For cameras, you get a 5MP front camera, and, new for this year, a dual camera setup in the back, with a 13MP main camera and a 2MP depth camera. There are some nice extras here, too, like a micro SD slot, a headphone jack, FM Radio support, and a dedicated Google Assistant button on the side.

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Why isn’t California using more prescribed burns to reduce fire risk?

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 7:08pm

Enlarge / Crews carrying out a prescribed burn in California's San Bernardino National Forest. (credit: San Bernardino National Forest)

Whenever wildfires rip through an area, splashing nightmarish scenes across the evening news, people who live elsewhere seem to have a lot of suggestions. Why don’t they log the forest so there’s less to burn? Why don’t they get millions of goats to graze the brush? Why live in such a dangerous spot? But as with most things, there are usually complications when you look closer.

A new study led by Stanford’s Rebecca Miller analyzes one option for limiting fires in California: prescribed burns. The researchers interviewed experts in state government, federal agencies, non profits, and academia to find out what barriers are preventing greater use of prescribed burns.

Burning to avoid burns

Prescribed burns utilize low-intensity fires during favorable weather to safely remove some of the fuel that has accumulated on the ground—fuel present partly as a result of our past practice of putting out wildfires as aggressively as possible. It’s often combined with mechanical thinning of brush and trees that serve as “ladders” for fires to climb into treetops, with the resulting brush piles burned later. The researchers say that about 20 percent of the state—20 million acres—could benefit from prescribed burns to reduce the wildfire hazard. But California is not currently on pace to complete that monumental task any time soon.

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Reuters: Apple cut backup end-to-end encryption plans after FBI complained

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 6:43pm

Enlarge / The iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max running iOS 13. (credit: Samuel Axon)

Two years ago, Apple dropped a plan that would have made it impossible for the company to decrypt iPhone and iPad backups for law enforcement, according to a Reuters report today. Reuters wrote that "six sources familiar with the matter" confirmed that Apple dropped the end-to-end encryption plan for iCloud Backup "after the FBI complained that the move would harm investigations."

Apple had "told the FBI that it planned to offer users end-to-end encryption when storing their phone data on iCloud" more than two years ago, Reuters wrote.

"Under that plan, primarily designed to thwart hackers, Apple would no longer have a key to unlock the encrypted data, meaning it would not be able to turn material over to authorities in a readable form even under court order," the report continued.

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If you love someone, know Lego is releasing an ISS-inspired set in February

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 5:43pm

Perhaps reinforcing the idea that waiting until the last minute can be good for gift-seekers, Lego today announced it has produced an International Space Station-inspired set that will be available on February 1 for $69.99. (Outside of an Ars subscription, this is the perfect Valentine's Day gift for any Arsian in your life.)

Like prior Lego space releases such as the Saturn V, this ISS model looks robust. The set contains 850-plus pieces and when built stands over 7-inches (20cm) high, 12-inches (31cm) long, and 19-inches (49cm) wide. According to the official company press release, loving details include a posable Canadarm2 and two rotating joints that coincide with eight adjustable solar panels. The set also comes with some delightful extras, such as a pair of astronaut minifigs, a brick-built mini space shuttle, and a 148-page booklet stuffed with info on the real ISS.

Besides being a drool-worthy addition to any brickhead's collection, the Lego ISS doubles as a celebration of the Lego Ideas initiative, which turns 10 this year. Ideas is a platform where users can submit proposals for future sets, and those submissions that garner enough support through votes can ultimately end up in production. (See that awesome Women of NASA set from 2017 as just one example.) Lego fan Christoph Ruge submitted his ISS proposal more than three years ago, but it resurfaced thanks to Lego revisiting popular ideas that hadn't been produced as a way of celebrating Ideas turning 10. Ruge's Ideas page is a nice collection of other space proposals, by the way: can we get a Baikonur or Hubble set sometime, too?

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Court reverses $10.1 million judgement against Nintendo in Wii patent case

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 5:33pm

Enlarge / Turns out Nintendo wasn't infringing on a 1999 patent when it made this controller. (credit: Marlith)

Remember the Nintendo Wii? Years ago, a few companies tried to claim they had patented the system's innovative motion-sensing controller technology before Nintendo did and thus deserved a cut of the massive profits Nintendo derived from the platform. One of those companies, iLife, even managed to secure a $10.1 million judgement against Nintendo in 2017 after a jury found that the Wii (and Wii U) infringed on the Dallas-based company's 1999 patent for a body-mounted fall-detection system.

Now, over two years after that judgment, a Dallas federal court has overturned that monetary award and invalidated iLife's patent altogether.

iLife's original patent describes a system that determines whether someone is falling by "process[ing] said sensed dynamic and static accelerative phenomena as a function of at least one accelerative event characteristic to thereby determine whether said evaluated body movement is within environmental tolerance." On the surface, that's somewhat similar to the accelerometer-based movement detection on the Wii Remote, even if the use case is entirely different (and even if there's no evidence iLife actually sold any device that implemented the patented idea).

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Starliner’s thruster performance receiving close scrutiny from NASA

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 4:55pm

Enlarge / A close-up view of the Starliner capsule with its service module immediately beneath it. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann )

Nearly one month ago, Boeing completed the first orbital test flight of its Starliner spacecraft with a near-perfect landing at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.

The mission had to be cut short due to a well-publicized timing error that delayed the spacecraft's service module from performing an orbital insertion burn. This caused the thrusters on board the service module, which provides power to Starliner during most of its mission, to fire longer than expected. As a result, the spacecraft did not have enough fuel to complete a rendezvous with the International Space Station, a key component of the test flight in advance of crewed missions.

Since providing some initial information during a post-flight news conference, NASA and Boeing have gone mostly quiet about the investigation into the timing error. Two weeks ago, the space agency said it had initiated two investigations. One would find the root cause of the "mission elapsed timer anomaly" over the course of about two months, and the second will determine whether another uncrewed test flight of Starliner is required before astronauts fly on the vehicle.

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New twist on marshmallow test: Kids depend on each other for self control

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 3:16pm

Enlarge / Could you resist these Oreos? Maybe if you depended on a friend to help you delay gratification. (credit: Pranee Tiangkate/iStock/Getty Images)

In the 1970s, the late psychologist Walter Mischel explored the importance of the ability to delay gratification as a child to one's future success in life, via the famous Stanford "marshmallow experiment." Now a team of German researchers has adapted the classic experimental setup using Oreos and vanilla cookies with German and Kenyan schoolchildren. They found that kids are more likely to delay gratification when they depend on each other. They described their findings in a recent paper in Psychological Science.

As we previously reported, Mischel's landmark behavioral study involved 600 kids between the ages of four and six, all culled from Stanford University's Bing Nursery School. He would give each child a marshmallow and give them the option of eating it immediately if they chose. But if they could wait 15 minutes, they would get a second marshmallow as a reward. Then Mischel would leave the room, and a hidden video camera would tape what happened next.

Some kids just ate the marshmallow right away. Others found a handy distraction: covering their eyes, kicking the desk, or poking at the marshmallow with their fingers. Some smelled it, licked it, or took tiny nibbles around the edges. Roughly one-third of the kids held out long enough to earn a second marshmallow. Several years later, Mischel noticed a strong correlation between the success of some of those kids later in life (better grades, higher self-confidence) and their ability to delay gratification in nursery school. Mischel's follow-up study confirmed the correlation.

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This EV company is using AI and 3D printing to add lightness

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 3:00pm

Arcimoto accurately calls its electric three-wheeler a Fun Utility Vehicle—we first tested one at CES four years ago, and it remains one of the more entertaining vehicles I've driven for Ars. The company started delivering the first FUVs to customers last September, but it's not quite done with the design for this engaging little machine. As you probably know, weight is the enemy of efficiency, and even little EVs like this one have to carry around a hefty battery pack, in this case a 12kWh unit with 102.5 miles (165km) of city range. On Tuesday, Arcimoto and XponentialWorks announced they've been working together on a project that should make future FUVs even more efficient, thanks to lightweight suspension parts created using AI generative design and 3D printing.

"Our mission to rightsize the footprint of daily mobility means a continued commitment to optimizing not just the vehicle platform architecture, but all of its constituent parts as well. The speed at which the XponentialWorks team has made meaningful weight improvements to core components of the Fun Utility Vehicle is truly impressive," said Arcimoto CEO Mark Frohnmayer in a statement.

XponentialWorks used ParaMatters' AI software to iterate new designs for components like the FUV's brake pedal, upper control arm, rear swing arm, and knuckle. As with other AI-generated auto parts, the results look far more organic than anything you'd expect to find on a road vehicle, and the weight savings is real–between 34 and 52 percent compared to the conventionally designed and constructed bits fitted to the versions we've tested in the past. It all happened pretty rapidly, according to XponentialWorks founder Avi Reichental.

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DDoS: Man who sold website defences pleads guilty to attacks

BBC Technology News - January 21, 2020 - 2:07pm
The US resident co-founded a service to help firms protect themselves from web attacks.

Curmudgeon watch: My 2020 tech resolutions

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 12:45pm

Enlarge / Taming tech in 2020. (credit: Nora Carol Photography / Getty Images)

Now that I'm in my 40s, I am officially Old™, which gives me license to be curmudgeonly. I take as much advantage of that right as I possibly can.

But I don't think that my 2020 list of tech resolutions, which I've been formulating over the last three weeks, is actually as curmudgeonly as it might seem on first glance. Yes, many of the items are pitched as negatives, but that's because we've awakened as a society to some of the ways that digital technology may inhibit rather than enhance life. I like to think of the list below as my attempt to make tech work for me rather than against me—to provide freedom, information, and entertainment without making life into a "content consumption" quest.

Here's what I'm focused on this year; leave your own resolutions in the comments section.

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Nobody can see all of CES. But I tried

Ars Technica - January 21, 2020 - 12:30pm

To the surprise and delight of the more experienced Ars staff, I volunteered to attend CES—the Consumer Electronics Show, held annually in Las Vegas—this year. The delight, as it turns out, is because if I hadn't volunteered, one of them might have been voluntold. I didn't let the Schadenfreude get me down, though; attending CES has been a bucket-list item for me for more than 20 years. I'm not a huge fan of crowds, but the promise of "weird electronic stuff" and sights not offered to the general public had me mesmerized.

One of the things any CES veteran will tell you is that it's impossible to actually see all of CES. They're not kidding—it would be an overstatement to claim that CES takes over the entirety of Las Vegas, but it wouldn't be an egregious one. Parts of CES take place at the Venetian hotel/casino/indoor mall, the attached and similarly gargantuan Palazzo, and the Las Vegas Convention Center. Any one of those locations dwarfs any other convention center I've seen, but even all of them together aren't enough to entirely contain CES—which also has offshoots in other area hotels, convention centers, and just about anywhere else you can cram a few hundred people.

I hardly left the Venetian on my first day at CES. The show wasn't technically open at all yet—it was an extremely limited "media preview" with a few high-impact press conferences from the likes of AMD and Intel, and not much else. To the great fury of our most dedicated AMD fans, I ended up covering Intel's press release a day before AMD's—because AMD mistakenly invited me to the location of their future party room, not their actual press conference, which was several miles across town.

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Disney+ to launch a week earlier than planned in the UK

BBC Technology News - January 21, 2020 - 11:17am
The US media giant also confirmed the service will cost more than its earlier DisneyLife platform.

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