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Researchers engineer enzyme to break down plastic bottles

Ars Technica - 1 hour 2 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Orange County NC )

Plastics have a lot of properties that have made them fixtures of modern societies. They can be molded into any shape we'd like, they're tough yet flexible, and they come in enough variations that we can tune the chemistry to suit different needs. The problem is that they're tough enough that they don't break down on their own, and incinerating them is relatively inefficient. As a result, they've collected in our environment as both bulk plastics and the seemingly omnipresent microplastic waste.

For natural materials, breaking down isn't an issue, as microbes have evolved ways of digesting them to obtain energy or useful chemicals. But many plastics have only been around for decades, and we're just now seeing organisms that have evolved enzymes to digest them. Figuring they could do one better, researchers in France have engineered an enzyme that can efficiently break down one of the most common forms of plastic. The end result of this reaction is a raw material that can be reused directly to make new plastic bottles.

An unwanted PET

The plastic in question is polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. PET has a variety of uses, including as thin films with very high tensile strength (marketed as mylar). But its most notable use is in plastic drink bottles, which are a major component of environmental plastic waste. First developed in the 1940s, the first living organism that can break down and use the carbon in PET was described in 2016—found in sediment near a plastic recycling facility, naturally.

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Probable Roman shipwrecks unearthed at a Serbian coal mine

Ars Technica - 1 hour 18 min ago

(credit: Uryadovy Courier)

Coal miners in Serbia recently dug up an unexpected surprise: three probable Roman-era ships, buried in the mud of an ancient riverbed for at least 1,300 years. The largest is a flat-bottomed river vessel 15 meters (49 feet) long, which seems to have been built with Roman techniques. Two smaller boats, each carved out from a single tree trunk, match ancient descriptions of dugout boats used by Slavic groups to row across the Danube River and attack the Roman frontier.

The Kostolac surface mine lies near the ancient Roman city of Viminacium, once a provincial capital and the base for a squadron of Roman warships on the Danube River. When the Roman Empire ruled most of Southern Europe, the Danube or one of its larger branches flowed across the land now occupied by the mine. The three ships lay atop a 15-meter- (49-foot-) deep layer of gravel, buried under seven meters (23 feet) of silt and clay, which preserved them for centuries in remarkably good condition—or did until the miners' earthmoving equipment dug into the steep slope to excavate for the mine.

"The [largest] ship was seriously damaged by the mining equipment," archaeologist Miomir Korac, director of the Archaeological Institute and head of the Viminacium Science Project, told Ars in an email. "Approximately 35 percent to 40 percent of the ship was damaged. But the archaeological team collected all the parts, and we should be able to reconstruct it almost in full." With any luck, that reconstruction will help archaeologists understand when the three ships were built and how they came to rest in the riverbed.

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Pandemic hasn’t crushed broadband networks—even rural areas are doing OK

Ars Technica - 1 hour 46 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | metamorworks)

The sharp growth in residential-broadband traffic seen during the pandemic is starting to level off, new data shows. While Internet speeds have slowed somewhat in many parts of the United States, it turns out that even rural-broadband networks are holding up pretty well.

Speeds have dropped in rural areas but are stabilizing, BroadbandNow reported today. Median download speeds in rural areas ranged from 16Mbps to 19.9Mbps in each of the first 11 weeks of 2020. Speeds then fell to 15.5Mbps in March 22 to 28, the lowest recorded all year. But rural speeds went back up to 16.2Mbps in the week of March 29 to April 4.

Median upload speeds in rural areas ranged from 5.5Mbps to 6.3Mbps in the first 11 weeks of 2020 but have been just 5.1Mbps the last two weeks, the same report found:

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HBO’s streaming apps will soon stop working on older Apple TVs

Ars Technica - 2 hours 6 min ago

The fourth-generation Apple TV (left) next to the third-gen model. (credit: Andrew Cunningham)

Second- and third-generation Apple TV streaming boxes will no longer be able to stream content from HBO Go and HBO Now after the end of April, according to a pair of HBO support documents. The documents were uncovered today by MacRumors.

The two streaming apps affected are HBO Go, the additive over-the-top (OTT) streaming service HBO provides to traditional cable subscribers, and HBO Now, the cable-free streaming platform for cordcutters. The support websites for both were each updated with identical support pages titled "Apple TV (2nd and 3rd gen): Changes to device support," saying:

In order to provide the best streaming experience, we need to make some changes to our supported devices list. Starting on April 30, 2020, HBO GO will no longer be available on the Apple TV (2nd and 3rd generation).

The post goes on to provide instructions that readers can follow to identify which Apple TV model they have, then offers a series of bullet points listing ways to access HBO's content on those devices even though the apps will stop working.

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Stadia launches free tier including two-month trial of Stadia Pro

Ars Technica - 2 hours 47 min ago

Nearly five months after its paid launch, Google's Stadia streaming-games service is finally rolling out a (relatively) simple way to try it out for free. Curious new users no longer have to pay $130 upfront or a $10 monthly fee (or rely on an invite code from a Premiere Edition subscriber) to try the service.

Google announced today that it would be rolling out free access to Stadia across 14 countries over the next 48 hours. Anyone with a Gmail address should soon be able to sign up for Stadia at its website or through the mobile app on Android or iOS. Despite this morning's announcement, that free offer wasn't available via the website in the United States as of press time, though Android users are reporting the ability to sign up through the app.

Those new signups will include two free months of Stadia Pro, which includes instant streaming access to nine games:

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Google makes seamless update support mandatory in Android 11

Ars Technica - 4 hours 8 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Android)

Google is putting new rules in place for Android 11: it's going to make support for Android's "seamless update" feature mandatory for devices launching with the new OS. The news comes to us via an Android source code commit first spotted by XDA Developers, which reads, "Require Virtual A/B on R launches." In English, this means the seamless update system, which requires two partitions (labeled "A" and "B"), will be required on Android R, aka Android 11.

Android's seamless update system was introduced in Android 7.0 Nougat (it was actually borrowed from Chrome OS) as a way to reduce the downtime caused by OS updates and to offer a recovery mechanism in case an update applies incorrectly. Applying an update to an operating system usually means taking the OS offline for an extended period of downtime. On Android, before seamless updates, the phone would boot into recovery and could be stuck on the "Installing System Update" screen for as much as 25 minutes. That's a lot of downtime, and during this time you can't run any apps, see any text messages, or get any phone calls. The downtime happens because updating the system files requires taking the system partition offline, but the seamless update system fixes this by just having a second copy of the system partition.

As referenced in the commit, the two system partitions are called "A" and "B." Normally they are exact copies of each other. One of the system partitions is online and being used for the phone operating system, and the other one is offline, just sitting there. When it comes time to apply an update, the update is applied to the offline partition first. So if you're running on system partition A, then it's system partition B that gets updated. This happens, well, seamlessly, in the background, and while system partition B is having files updated, you can still do all the normal phone stuff on system partition A. Instead of having to stare at a phone locked to an "Installing System Update" screen for 25 minutes, the phone only has an "installing system update" notification that you can ignore.

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Tesla announces pay cuts and worker furloughs

Ars Technica - 4 hours 33 min ago

Enlarge / Elon Musk. (credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tesla announced Tuesday that salaried workers would take pay cuts of 10 percent or more through the end of June. Most hourly workers—many of whom haven't been working since Tesla shut down its Fremont factory last month—are being formally furloughed, making them eligible to claim unemployment benefits. The changes take effect on April 13.

"We expect to resume normal production at our US facilities on May 4, barring any significant changes," the email from Tesla HR said. It said that pay cuts and furloughs were a "shared sacrifice across the company that will allow us to progress during these challenging times."

Tesla is slashing pay for vice presidents by 30 percent and directors by 20 percent. Lower-level salaried employees will see their pay fall by 10 percent. These are predominantly white-collar workers who have been able to continue working from home.

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Zoom brings in former Facebook security head amid lawsuits, investigations

Ars Technica - 4 hours 46 min ago

Enlarge / Security and privacy protip: Don't do your videoconference in the middle of an airport. (credit: hapabapa | Getty Images)

Zoom's meteoric rise to prominence as the go-to teleconference tool of the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on every single design flaw, privacy issue, or vulnerability the platform has. Now, the company is scrambling to react to problems while investigations and lawsuits mount.

The company is already facing lawsuits from consumers, but now investors have joined the fray. A shareholder filed a class-action suit (PDF) yesterday in federal court in California, alleging that Zoom violated securities law by covering up known problems with its product.

Publicly traded businesses are required by federal law to disclose issues or events that could materially affect their stock price so that investors can make informed decisions. Basically any time you hear of some catastrophe at a company—for example, Equifax's disastrous 2017 data breach—there's a shareholder suit right after from investors who are angry that they received no warning their shares were about to plummet in value.

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You can help medical science just by playing a new Borderlands mini-game

Ars Technica - 4 hours 55 min ago

Players can help biomedical research by playing a new color-matching mini-game introduced in Borderlands 3 this week. "Borderlands Science" basically tricks human players into solving complex genetic alignment problems that can be intuitive for humans but difficult for computer algorithms.

The mini-game is a joint effort between Borderlands maker Gearbox and scientists at McGill University, UC San Diego's Microsetta Initiative, and the Massively Multiplayer Online Science group. "The first time I met with [Gearbox founder] Randy Pitchford and [Producer] Aaron Thibault to discuss this crazy idea was 5 years ago at GDC," MMOS founder Attila Szantner said in a blog post. "Since then we have been working together with the Gearbox team to realize this project."

How does it work?

The process starts with DNA sequences from some of the trillions of microbes in the human gut. Researchers want to arrange those sequences to figure out which of these microbes are genetically similar to each other. That can help indicate which genetic lines of microbes are associated with certain diseases.

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I was bored, so I watched the movie that astronauts must view before launch

Ars Technica - 5 hours 31 min ago

Sometime Wednesday, perhaps around the time this article is published, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and his two Russian crew mates—Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner—will repair to their quarantine crew quarters for movie night in the Cosmonaut Hotel.

This Soviet-era building in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, is where astronauts spend their final days before launching into space on board the Russian Soyuz vehicle. Cassidy's crew is due to launch on Thursday afternoon, at 1:05pm local time. (This is 4:05am ET Thursday, and 8:05am UTC.) They will spend about six hours catching up to and docking with the International Space Station.

The Russians have the oldest space program in the world and by far the most traditions and superstitions related to launch, including peeing on the wheel of the bus that takes the crew to the launch pad—a tradition that dates back to Yuri Gagarin's first human spaceflight in 1961.

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The 2020 World Car of the Year awards are out, and the winner is…

Ars Technica - 5 hours 44 min ago

Enlarge / The 2020 Kia Telluride, 2020 World Car of the Year winner. (credit: BradleyWarren Photography)

If 2020 had been a normal year, this week would have been packed with news from the New York International Auto Show. Instead, the Javits Center in Manhattan is being converted into a mass intensive care unit to handle up to 3,000 COVID-19 patients. That has crimped the plans of every OEM hoping to make a splash with a new reveal at NYIAS this year, but one small slice of normality remains—the World Car Awards. Instead of holding a press conference in New York, the steering committee decided to use the power of YouTube to make the announcements from the safety of their homes. And as yours truly is one of the jurors, I figured it was worth climbing my way out of a pit of existential despair to bring you the winners.

Each juror is only allowed to vote for a car they've actually driven. For the first round of voting, we are asked to rank the cars in each category. Once that's done, the second round asks jurors to rank the finalists from 1 to 10 in a range of attributes, including design, safety, performance, technology, the environment, value for money, and so on, with the final three being announced a few weeks ahead of time.

World Urban Car

Of the top three finalists, I've driven two of them—the Kia Soul EV, which made my top 10 cars of 2019, and the Volkswagen T-Cross, which decidedly didn't. The third contender is the Mini Electric—my press loan is not scheduled until mid-May, so in the meantime you could always check out Jonny Smith's recent video review. The other cars that didn't make it were the Peugeot 208, Renault Clio, Hyundai Venue (which I thought was rather good), Opel/Vauxhall Corsa, and the Renault Zoe R135.

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Tesla cuts staff pay as coronavirus halts production

BBC Technology News - 7 hours 27 min ago
Non-essential workers will be placed on furlough without pay and executives will take a 30% pay cut.

Coronavirus: Covid-19 detecting apps face teething problems

BBC Technology News - 7 hours 49 min ago
Researchers at two leading universities take different approaches to creating cough-analysing tools.

Attackers can bypass fingerprint authentication with an ~80% success rate

Ars Technica - 8 hours 2 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Andri Koolme)

For decades, the use of fingerprints to authenticate users to computers, networks, and restricted areas was (with a few notable exceptions) mostly limited to large and well-resourced organizations that used specialized and expensive equipment. That all changed in 2013 when Apple introduced TouchID. Within a few years, fingerprint-based validation became available to the masses as computer, phone, and lock manufacturers added sensors that gave users an alternative to passwords when unlocking the devices.

Although hackers managed to defeat TouchID with a fake fingerprint less than 48 hours after the technology was rolled out in the iPhone 5S, fingerprint-based authentication over the past few years has become much harder to defeat. Today, fingerprints are widely accepted as a safe alternative over passwords when unlocking devices in many, but not all, contexts.

A very high probability

A study published on Wednesday by Cisco’s Talos security group makes clear that the alternative isn’t suitable for everyone—namely those who may be targeted by nation-sponsored hackers or other skilled, well-financed, and determined attack groups. The researchers spent about $2,000 over several months testing fingerprint authentication offered by Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Huawei, and three lock makers. The result: on average, fake fingerprints were able to bypass sensors at least once roughly 80 percent of the time.

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Moto Razr review—RIP to our Moto Razr (March 30, 2020 – March 31, 2020)

Ars Technica - 9 hours 16 min ago

After being on backorder for months, my Moto Razr arrived on March 30, 2020. It was beautiful. Motorola had perfectly captured the essence of old-school Moto Razr design and updated it with futuristic folding display technology. While it was still an impractical flip phone, it was fun and cool and different. The Moto Razr was something I was excited to write about.

But my Razr was not long for this world. Straight out of the box, every fold was accompanied by a groan or creak from the hinge system. I would later learn that these noises were cries of agony—every actuation brought the smartphone closer to death, as if little bits of lifeforce were leaving the phone with every flip. First, the phantom touch inputs started. While the phone was opening and closing, apps would mysteriously start up. Buttons would press themselves. Things were not good.

"This is fine," I thought. "Opening and closing the phone only happens for a very short amount of time. Once it opens and everything settles down, things are fine." Things were not fine for very long, though. These phantom touch inputs were the death throes of the flexible OLED panel, and soon they started even when the phone was open and stationary. Sometimes I could open a multitouch test app and watch as touchpoints danced across the screen. Opening and closing the phone one or two more times would usually clear up these errant touch inputs, and things would be fine again.

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Asus ROG Zephyrus G14—Ryzen 7nm mobile is here, and it’s awesome

Ars Technica - 10 hours 17 min ago

We've been excited about getting our hands on AMD's 7nm laptop parts for a long time now—even before visiting AMD's campus in Austin last month for a sneak preview. Originally, we were supposed to come home from AMD with a laptop in hand to test, but the novel coronavirus had its way with this as with many other products.

We did eventually get one of Asus' Zephyrus G14 gaming laptops with a top-of-the-line Ryzen 9 4900HS, though—and after several days of testing, we're ready to talk about it.

Overview Specs at a glance: Asus ROG Zephyrus G14, as tested OS Windows 10 Home CPU 3.0GHz 8-core AMD Ryzen 9 4900HS (4.3GHz boost) RAM 16GB DDR4-3200 GPU AMD Radeon 8 core / Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 MaxQ SSD Intel 660p M.2 NVMe PCIe3.0 1TB Battery ASUStek 76000mWh Display 1080p, non-glare, 120Hz, adaptive sync Connectivity
  • two USB-A ports
  • two USB-C ports
  • 3.5mm phone/mic combo jack
  • DC power jack
  • full-size HDMI out
  • Kensington lock slot
  • no camera
Price as tested $1,449.99 at Best Buy and Asus

The Zephyrus G14 is a surprisingly small and sleek build for a full-on gaming laptop—and make no mistake about it, that's precisely what this beast is. At first glance, the 18mm-thick Zephyrus looks more like an ultraportable design than a gaming laptop. (For reference, the Acer C720 11-inch Chromebooks were 19mm thick.)

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Scientists ponder how jugglers seem to defy limits to human reaction times

Ars Technica - 10 hours 32 min ago

Enlarge / Scientists have long been fascinated with the math and mechanics of juggling. (credit: Todd Davidson PTY LTD/Getty Images)

The fastest expert jugglers can make nearly 500 catches per minute, which translates into just 120 milliseconds per catch—faster than human reaction times even in high-speed sports like tennis, in which a player typically takes 200 milliseconds to adjust their performance. The Guinness world record for juggling is currently 11 balls. Troy Shinbrot, a biomedical engineer at Rutgers University, and Rutgers undergraduate math major Jonah Botvinick-Greenhouse explored the question of how expert jugglers can achieve these remarkable feats in a recent article in Physics Today.

Master jugglers are clearly very good at multitasking, and since balls aren't being thrown randomly, each ball need not be tracked and caught independently. But Botvinick-Greenhouse and Shinbrot still wondered how it was possible for jugglers with reaction times of 200 milliseconds to routinely catch balls every 120 milliseconds. "Jugglers rely on making accurate throws and predictions of where the balls will travel," the authors wrote. "The accuracy required is a measure of how unstable—and thus how difficult—a particular juggling pattern is."

Juggling has a long and glorious history dating back to ancient Egypt; there are hieroglyphics circa 1994 and 1781 BCE that historians consider to be the earliest historical record of juggling. There were juggling warriors in China (770-476 BCE)—apparently it was viewed as an effective diversionary tactic—and the practice eventually spread to ancient Greece and Rome. By the mid-1800s CE, juggling was largely practiced by circus and street performers, and it has fascinated scientists since at least 1903. That's when Edgar James Swift published a paper looking at the psychology and physiology of learning in the American Journal of Psychology, which discussed the rate at which students learned to toss two balls in one hand.

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Facebook releases couples-only messaging app

BBC Technology News - 20 hours 1 min ago
The new service claims to be a "private space" for couples but has the same data privacy policy as Facebook.

Pixel 4 face unlock finally gains an alertness check

Ars Technica - 21 hours 49 min ago

Google is shipping Android's April security patch this week, and with it comes a fix for a long-standing issue with the Pixel 4's face unlock feature. The Pixel 4's face unlock system is finally getting an alertness check, almost a whopping six months after launch.

Google went all-in on a face unlock system for the Pixel 4, removing the fingerprint reader that had been on previous models and using an IR-backed, 3D face scanner as the only biometric system. The Pixel 4 sported a big, lopsided top bezel with all the requisite hardware to build a FaceID-like system, but Google's software left a bit to be desired. The face-scanning system worked even when the user's eyes were closed, so it would be possible to point the phone at the sleeping owner and unlock the phone without their consent. With the new eyes-open check, there's more of a consent factor built into the biometrics.

The fact that the Pixel 4 didn't launch with this feature is kind of baffling. The system is, after all, a copy of Apple's Face ID system that debuted on the iPhone X and has an eyes-open check that was built into the original release. Even Google's previous version of face unlock—a camera-based system that was built into Android 4.1 Jelly Bean back in 2012—could ask the user to blink to verify that they were a living, breathing, alert person.

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Senator backing anti-crypto bill calls out Zoom’s lack of end-to-end crypto

Ars Technica - 22 hours 21 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Yuri Samoilov Follow / Flickr)

Richard Blumenthal, the US senator sponsoring a bill that critics say will limit the use of encryption, is calling for an investigation of video-conference provider Zoom, in part over its false claim it offered... end-to-end encryption.

The Connecticut Democrat is a sponsor of the EARN IT (Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies) Act bill that would create incentives for companies to make changes to their platforms. In return, the companies would receive liability protections for any violations of laws related to online child sexual abuse material. Critics of the proposed law, who include the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), say it's a Trojan horse designed to allow the government to weaken end-to-end encryption. A Blumenthal representative disagrees with the characterization and says the bill doesn't hamper encryption.

A pattern of privacy infringements

Citing a "pattern of security failures & privacy infringements," Sen. Blumenthal on Tuesday called for the FTC to investigate Zoom. Chief among cited privacy infringements is the claim on the Zoom website that meetings were end-to-end encrypted, meaning video, audio, and text was encrypted at all times in transit and couldn't be decrypted by Zoom or anyone else, other than conference participants. A post published last week by The Intercept reported that Zoom meetings, in fact, used what's usually called transport encryption, which allows Zoom to decrypt meeting data.

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