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Industry & Technology

Don’t Panic: The comprehensive Ars Technica guide to the coronavirus [Updated 4/5]

Ars Technica - April 5, 2020 - 5:35pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty)

More than 1.2 million people have been infected with a new coronavirus that has spread widely from its origin in China over the past few months. Over 67,000 have already died. Our comprehensive guide for understanding and navigating this global public health threat is below.

This is a rapidly developing epidemic, and we will update this guide periodically to keep you as prepared and informed as possible.

March 8: Initial publication of the document.
Latest Updates 4/5/2020: Updates have been added to the sections on how likely you are to get infected in normal life, deaths, how transmission compares with flu, and masks. The global and US case counts have also been updated.
A list of all updates and additions to this document can be found at the end.

Read 263 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Flagship sedans like the Audi A8 are a dying breed

Ars Technica - April 5, 2020 - 2:30pm

The flagship sedan has been one of the more tragic victims of the SUV craze. Cars like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7 Series, and the Audi A8 used to be considered the ultimate expression of a carmaker's craft. Advanced technologies like anti-lock brakes, airbags, and infotainment systems would show up in these expensive machines years before they trickled down to the rest of us. But two decades into the 21st century, sedans are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Much of the most interesting new car technology—to us at least—is now found in plug-in powertrains and in the mass-market, like the Model 3, Polestar 2, or VW's ID family. So each year, fewer and fewer flagship sedans find homes, particularly as those same OEMs offer supersized luxury SUVs as well.

The A8 is a perfect example. Despite its Ronin connection, the biggest Audi has never been as popular as the S-Class, 7 Series, or Lexus LS. In 2019, the first full calendar year when the car was on sale in the United States, Audi sold 2,963 A8s. Over the same 12 months, the company sold 14,256 Q8s, the five-seat range-topping SUV that gets all the same gadgets but in much more on-trend packaging. You should be able to read Managing Editor Eric Bangeman's review of that SUV in the next few weeks, but having sampled both vehicles from the driver's seat and also riding as a passenger in the back, my take is that the sedan should come out ahead on both counts.

Despite its 17.3-foot (5.3m) length and 6.3-foot (1.9m) width, you only have to drive an A8 for a day or two before its bulk seems to shrink around you. And a curb weight of at least 4,773lbs (2,164kg) for the lightest variant (the $85,200 A8 55 TFSI, which uses a 3.0L V6 gasoline engine) makes it no featherweight, but it feels nimble nonetheless. And as long as you tick the $3,500 option for the rear-seat comfort package, the back seat of an A8 will outdo many business-class airline seats when it comes to comfort and adjustability, with heating, ventilation, and lumbar massages thrown in.

Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments

How to refuel a nuclear power plant during a pandemic

Ars Technica - April 5, 2020 - 2:00pm

Enlarge / The Palo Verde Nuclear generating plant, the nation's largest nuclear power plant. (credit: Jeff Topping / Getty)

Each spring, nearly 1,000 highly specialized technicians from around the US descend on the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station near Phoenix, Arizona, to refuel one of the plant’s three nuclear reactors. As America’s largest power plant—nuclear or otherwise—Palo Verde provides around-the-clock power to 4 million people in the Southwest. Even under normal circumstances, refueling one of its reactors is a laborious, month-long process. But now that the US is in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the plant operators have had to adapt their refueling plans.

Palo Verde is expected to begin refueling one of its reactors in early April—a spokesperson for Arizona Public Service, the utility that operates the plant, declined to give an exact start date—but the preparations began months in advance. The uranium fuel started arriving at the plant last autumn, delivered in the cargo bay of an unmarked semi truck. The fuel arrives ready for the reactor as 1,000-pound rectangular bundles of uranium rods that are 12 feet tall and about 6 inches on each side.
The latest shipment of fuel arrived at the plant well before the coronavirus pandemicbrought the world to a standstill, says Greg Cameron, the nuclear communications director at Palo Verde. The biggest change with this refueling cycle, he says, is the scope of the operation. “We’ve tried to trim down the amount of work to just what is necessary to ensure that we run for the next 18 months without impacting the reliability of the plant,” Cameron says.

Each of Palo Verde’s three nuclear reactors are ensconced in their own bulbous concrete sarcophagus and operate almost entirely independent of one another. This allows plant operators to periodically take one of the reactors offline for refueling and maintenance without totally disrupting the flow of energy to the grid. Each reactor is partially refueled every year and a half, with about one-third of the fuel in the reactor core being swapped out for a fresh batch.

Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Coronavirus: Tech firms summoned over 'crackpot' 5G conspiracies

BBC Technology News - April 5, 2020 - 10:54am
Government will tell social media firms to take down posts more quickly after attacks on masts.

Pixar pioneers behind Toy Story animation win "Nobel Prize" of computing

BBC Technology News - April 5, 2020 - 12:07am
The men who made films like Toy Story and Finding Nemo possible spoke to the BBC about winning the Turing Award.

We now know the effect of altitude on classic “Diet Coke and Mentos“ fountain

Ars Technica - April 4, 2020 - 7:20pm

Enlarge / A well-coordinated Mentos-and-Diet-Coke explosion filmed in slow motion for The Slow Down Show in 2013. (credit: YouTube/The Slow Down Show)

Back in 2006, Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz—the self-described mad scientists behind Eepybird—ignited an Internet sensation with their viral video of an elaborate version of the Diet Coke and Mentos fountain experiment, recreating the choreography of the Bellagio's world-famous fountain display in Las Vegas. The underlying physics and chemistry of the fountain effect is well-known.

But an intrepid pair of scientists at Spring Arbor University in Michigan wondered whether altitude, and associated changes in atmospheric pressure, would have any measurable impact on the intensity of the foaming fountain and performed a series of experiments to find out. They reported their results in a recent paper in the Journal of Chemical Education. The upshot: If you really want to get the most foaming action for your buck, conduct the Diet Coke and Mentos experiment at high altitudes.

Grobe and Voltz didn't invent the basic demo. That has been around since at least the 1980s, although originally creative science teachers used Wint-O-Green Lifesavers threaded onto a pipe cleaner to induce the fountains of foam in soda bottles. In 1990, the size of the Lifesavers changed and were too big to fit into the bottle mouths. So science teachers switched to Mint Mentos candy to achieve the same effect.

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Mast fire probe amid 5G coronavirus claims

BBC Technology News - April 4, 2020 - 7:05pm
There have been fires at masts in Birmingham, Liverpool and Melling in Merseyside.

Will SARS-CoV-2 have a long-term impact on the climate?

Ars Technica - April 4, 2020 - 3:00pm

Enlarge / China has seen pollution levels plunge. (credit: NASA)

COVID-19 is bad for human activity and enterprise. Human activity and enterprise is bad for the environment. So, since our present situation reduces human activity and enterprise, is COVID-19 good for the environment?

The cessation of manufacturing and transportation in Hubei Province has caused a drop in air pollution levels all over China so dramatic—emissions were estimated to be down 25 percent—that the relative dearth of both nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide in the air can be observed from space. Most of the effect came from a sharp drop in coal burning, which still provides the bulk of energy in China. Coal is used to heat homes in rural areas there, but also to fuel power plants and industry.

However, pollution—much like the virus itself—may come roaring back after the lockdowns are lifted. This “revenge pollution” can easily negate the temporary drop in emissions we are now seeing. That’s exactly what happened in China in 2009, when the Chinese government responded to the global financial crisis with an enormous stimulus package that funded large-scale infrastructure-type projects.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

The party goes on in massive online worlds

Ars Technica - April 4, 2020 - 2:15pm

You don't have to be so socially distant when playing Final Fantasy XIV online.

My friends and I were taking a pit stop after an aimless drive when we heard a stranger loudly invite anyone within earshot to her friends’ party. Our plans had ended at “go for a drive;” before that, we were loitering between some collapsed columns in a crystalline wasteland.

We debated whether to attend from inside our car. The party seemed a little raunchy—its promoter, Nina, a minuscule woman with pink blush marks painted on either side of her button nose, advertised “drinks and good company” but also “ERP,” which stands for “erotic role-play.” That’s not generally our thing. We’re more stand-outside types than the types to cast a flashy glamour spell and chat up the nearest cat girl. But, hey, it’s Final Fantasy XIV online, and where my body sat in New York, the epicenter of America’s Covid-19 outbreak, there certainly weren’t any parties.

On Fridays, Saturdays, and basically any given weeknight, my Brooklyn neighborhood is alive with throbbing house music, over-earnest open mics, DJ sets, roiling apartment bashes, and cars blasting reggaeton. In this new-normal world, events as we know them no longer exist, unless you count texting your 20 closest acquaintances a DRINKS ON ZOOM!!!! invite, give or take a couple of cloying emojis. With all of this newfound time to overthink the mundane, I recognize now that social outings are dedicated units of time for self-expression, coloring-book pages onto which we and our friends draw outlines that we pour ourselves into. Social distancing has separated us from our social contexts; without them, all the color drains out.

Read 13 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Subscription drive, day 5: A plea from a punny pandemic reporter

Ars Technica - April 4, 2020 - 1:00pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty)

What a turd of a year, eh? 2020 didn’t start with a bang. It started with a plop. It’s only April and already we’re all frantically fumbling for a lever, hoping to flush this deuce as quickly as possible, praying our toilet-paper stash holds out and the stench doesn’t linger.

Maybe we should have seen it all coming. After all, the year began with Gwyneth Paltrow’s ridiculous lifestyle brand, Goop, releasing a six-episode Netflix series. Yep, Gwyneth Paltrow: the college-drop-out-turned-actor who couldn’t identify a vagina on a diagram while claiming to empower women with a smorgasbord of pseudoscience. The same self-proclaimed wellness guru who endorsed squirting coffee up your keister, shoving a rock into your hooha, and letting bees sting you.

In her Netflix series, the madness continued. Among other things, she praised a wizard chiropractor who manipulates people’s energy fields by pretending to do Tai chi near them—like a weird guy in your neighborhood park who wears parachute pants and always smells like sandalwood. (At least it’s a social-distancing-compliant method, I guess.)

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Bugs that let sites hijack Mac and iPhone cameras fetch $75k bounty

Ars Technica - April 3, 2020 - 11:07pm

Enlarge (credit: Ryan Pickren)

A security bug that gave malicious hackers the ability to access the cameras of Macs, iPhones, and iPads has fetched a $75,000 bounty to the researcher who discovered it.

In posts published here and here, researcher Ryan Pickren said he discovered seven vulnerabilities in Safari and its Webkit browser engine that, when chained together, allowed malicious websites to turn on the cameras of Macs, iPhones, and iPads. Pickren privately reported the bugs, and Apple has since fixed the vulnerabilities and paid the researcher $75,000 as part of the company’s bug bounty program.

Apple tightly restricts the access that third-party apps get to device cameras. For Apple apps, the restrictions aren’t quite as stringent. Even then, Safari requires users to explicitly list the sites that are allowed camera access. And beyond that, cameras can only have access to those sites when they are delivered in a secure context, meaning when the browser has high confidence the page is being delivered through an HTTPS connection.

Read 6 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Xbox architect sues Atari over unpaid work on crowdfunded console

Ars Technica - April 3, 2020 - 9:50pm

Rob Wyatt, perhaps best known as the system architect on Microsoft's original Xbox, has filed a lawsuit against Atari Gamebox LLC. The suit, filed in a federal court in Colorado, alleges that the company has failed to pay Wyatt and his firm Tin Giant nearly $262,000 invoiced for work on the long-delayed Atari VCS microconsole.

The project now known as the Atari VCS was first announced as Ataribox back in 2017, and it was originally targeting a spring 2018 launch. But despite a $3 million IndieGogo campaign in 2018, Atari's hybrid PC/microconsole has since limped through production pauses and delays over the months. Most recently, the company wrote that supply chain issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic may delay a planned March 2020 rollout to initial backers and pre-orderers.

Wyatt says in his lawsuit that he and Tin Giant have been unfairly defamed as "scapegoats" for these development troubles to the press. "The fact that Atari’s Console Project was or is delayed has nothing to do with the quality of Tin Giant’s work but is the fault of Atari’s own mismanagement of the Console Project," Wyatt alleges in his suit. "The architecture being used by Atari on the Console Project is exactly what Plaintiffs designed under the Agreement."

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

“We hit 3M hard“—Trump orders 3M to keep US-made masks in the US

Ars Technica - April 3, 2020 - 9:35pm

Enlarge (credit: pengpeng/Getty Images)

Minnesota manufacturing giant 3M warned Friday that a Trump administration order reserving US-made N95 masks for the US market could backfire. Demand for these masks, also known as respirators, has surged in recent weeks because they help protect health care workers from contracting COVID-19.

"Ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same," a 3M statement warned. "If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease."

The statement was a response to President Trump's Thursday decision to invoke the Defense Production Act against 3M. The 1950 law gives the president broad powers to order US companies to devote manufacturing capacity to products that are essential to national defense.

Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Google knows if everyone in your county is actually staying home or not

Ars Technica - April 3, 2020 - 8:58pm

Enlarge / The reports are all public, but the nifty magnifying glass effect is not actually included. (credit: Google)

The entire world is scrambling to mitigate the novel coronavirus pandemic. By now, a majority of US states are under some kind of stay-at-home order, with governors nationwide asking or requiring non-essential businesses to close and everyone to plant their butts at home as much as possible.

As the disease continues to march its way across the country and the globe, though—as of this writing, there have been more than 250,000 US diagnosed cases—officials, regulators, and we the work-from-home masses are all wondering: are we all actually complying with these new rules, or is it still chaos on the streets out there somewhere?

Google has unfathomable reams of data from billions of individuals worldwide, and it has pulled some of that location information together into community mobility reports to try to answer that question. Here's the good news: by and large, trips to virtually everywhere that isn't "home" have dropped a whole lot.

Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Face masks for COVID-19: A deep dive into the data

Ars Technica - April 3, 2020 - 8:45pm

Enlarge / Self-sewn protective face masks in a fabric store on April 3, 2020 in Jena, Germany. (credit: Getty | Jens Schlueter)

As COVID-19 cases increase sharply nationwide, some health experts are now recommending that seemingly healthy members of the public wear cloth masks when they’re out and about. On April 3, President Trump announced a new federal recommendation urging the public to wear cloth masks to prevent people who are infected, but may not have symptoms, from unknowingly spreading the disease.

The recommendation is an about-face from previous guidance on mask usage. Until now, officials at the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other agencies worldwide have discouraged the public from wearing masks unless they are sick or caring for someone who is sick. They noted that there is little evidence to support mass masking and that the limited data we do have suggests it may reduce disease transmission only marginally at best.

With evidence of benefits in short supply, experts also raised concerns about potential harms. Mask wearing may give people a false sense of security, some experts said. This may lead some members of the public to be lax about other, far more critical precautions, such as staying two meters apart from others, limiting outings, and washing their hands frequently and thoroughly.

Read 43 remaining paragraphs | Comments

US edits National Stockpile website after Kushner claims it’s not for states

Ars Technica - April 3, 2020 - 8:35pm

Enlarge / President Donald Trump speaks as Jared Kushner, senior White House adviser, listens during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference at the White House on Thursday, April 2, 2020. (credit: Getty Images | Bloomberg)

The Trump administration changed the Strategic National Stockpile website's description of the program yesterday after White House adviser Jared Kushner falsely claimed that the medical-supply stockpile is not meant to be used to help states. The description was changed to minimize the stockpile's role in helping states through crises like the current pandemic, but other portions of the official website still make it clear that Kushner was wrong.

After Jared Kushner's comment about how the Strategic National Stockpile is not supposed to be for states, lots of people pointed to the fact that its own website says it is.

The language on the website has now been changed.

My screenshot from last night vs. one from today: pic.twitter.com/UwJFAr7uoV

— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) April 3, 2020

Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law, claimed in a news conference Thursday that "the notion of the federal stockpile was it's supposed to be our stockpile, it's not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use." Kushner made the remark while discussing ventilators and masks. (See transcript.)

Kushner acknowledged that the federal government is giving ventilators and other equipment to states, even though he argued that the stockpile isn't meant to be used by states. But the Strategic National Stockpile website homepage, maintained by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), previously made it clear that the stockpile is for the entire country. Before Kushner's remarks, the page said:

Read 12 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Intel’s 10th-generation H-series laptop CPUs break 5GHz

Ars Technica - April 3, 2020 - 7:47pm

Yesterday, Intel announced the launch of its newest laptop CPUs, the tenth generation Comet Lake H-series. If you're not up on all the minutiae of CPU naming schemes, H-series parts (for both Intel and AMD) are specialty high-performance parts with much higher thermal design power than the standard U-series, and they're usually deployed in systems with higher-powered, discrete graphics.

Pay careful attention to the word "fastest"

The big news Intel is pushing on the tenth series Comet Lake H-series is their high turbo clockrate. All of the i7 SKUs, as well as the lone i9, are capable of breaking 5GHz on the high end of their turbo clock rate.

Most consumers would define the "fastest" processor in terms of real performance—time to complete benchmarks, frames per second achieved in AAA gaming titles, and so forth. Intel talks a lot about the "fastest" processor but seems careful to hide its definitions away in the fine print.

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Apple Store appears to leak new, iPhone 8-like iPhone SE

Ars Technica - April 3, 2020 - 6:50pm

The last time the iPhone SE appeared in an Apple presentation was in this 2018 slide showing it being scrapped for materials. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

An apparent leak on the Apple Store suggests that a new phone carrying the iPhone SE name is coming soon.

A product title for a Belkin screen protector in Apple's online store listed the supported devices as iPhone 7, 8, and SE. This seems to indicate that a new SE would be the same size as an iPhone 7 or 8, making the new SE bigger than its 4-inch predecessor from 2016. The product page has since been updated to remove the iPhone SE name; it just says 7 and 8 now.

This leak corroborates a vaguely sourced rumor from 9to5Mac published only a short time earlier, which cited a “tip from a highly trusted reader” that Apple is days away from announcing a new low-cost iPhone and that the phone would be called the iPhone SE, not the iPhone 9 or iPhone SE 2. Like so many other Apple products, it would be distinguished from its predecessors by its year of release (2020).

Read 6 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Haunting Tales from the Loop brings ’80s alternative timeline to vivid life

Ars Technica - April 3, 2020 - 6:37pm

Tales from the Loop trailer.

Residents of a rural town find themselves grappling with strange occurrences thanks to the presence of an underground particle accelerator in the new series Tales from the Loop, inspired by the stunningly surreal neofuturistic art of Swedish artist/designer Simon Stålenhag. The eight-episode series was originally slated for a limited premiere at SXSW last month; the coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans, along with our collective social lives. But now everyone can watch the series on Amazon Prime, and I highly recommend that you do so. It's visually arresting, with powerful performances from a very talented cast, and brings out the underlying humanity and hope of all great science fiction.

(Mild spoilers below.)

Tales from the Loop has its roots in Stålenhag's 2014 narrative art book of the same name. That book, and 2016's Things from the Flood, centered on the construction of a fictional particle accelerator dubbed "the Loop" and its impact on the surrounding people and environment. (A third book, The Electric State, focused on a young girl and her robot companion traveling across the western US, which in that reality is known as Pacifica.) A child of the 1980s, Stålenhag grew up on the rural outskirts of Stockholm, a witness to the decline of the Swedish welfare state. That sense of decline infuses his Loop-based work, which sets rural settings and easily recognizable common objects like Volvo cars alongside mysterious structures and mechanical robots.

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

FCC: TracFone made up “fictitious” customers to defraud low-income program

Ars Technica - April 3, 2020 - 6:12pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Jozef Polc | 500px)

TracFone Wireless is facing a potential $6 million fine for allegedly defrauding a government program that provides discount telecom service to poor people.

The Federal Communications Commission proposed the fine against TracFone yesterday, saying the prepaid wireless provider obtained FCC Lifeline funding by "enroll[ing] fictitious subscriber accounts." TracFone improperly sought and received more than $1 million from Lifeline, the FCC said.

The FCC press release said:

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments


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