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Ars Technica
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Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 24 min 29 sec ago

Ars’ summer reading guide for our very surreal summer

May 24, 2020 - 2:30pm

Enlarge / A lot of literature in this. (credit: Liyao Xie / Getty Images)

Look, we're admittedly biased around the Ars Orbital HQ. Whether the best of times or worst of times, we routinely find comfort in a good book. COVID-19 has changed so much about our day-to-day lives, including some of our entertainment habits around things like gaming or streaming TV and film. But when it comes to precious reading time in between work and busy personal lives, we're continually drawn to the stories that grip us—as grim as some of those may be.

This year's staff summer recommendation/To Be Read list has a few newer releases, plenty of old classics, and a lot of alternate reality/sci-fi. Ars' book tastes remain nothing if not on-brand, meaning we may never get through one of these without Douglas Adams being mentioned. Here's everything, Hitchhiker's Guides and others, we've been escaping to.

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi (credit: Sparth)

Series starters

Sci-fi fans who enjoy engaging characters and story driven more by human interaction than technical wharrgarbl will enjoy John Scalzi's latest trilogy, The Interdependency. The third book just released last week, and it ties things up neatly—a first, for Scalzi. The Interdependency is an old-school galaxy-spanning empire, with a twist—habitable planets are almost impossibly difficult to find, and in an effort to curtail war, the Interdependency was designed so that no system can survive without trade with the others.

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Can a trip to the iconic Monaco Grand Prix cure an F1 cynic?

May 24, 2020 - 2:00pm

For the first time since 1954, the Monaco Grand Prix will not take place this year—and, for some F1 fans, that’s not entirely a bad thing. The iconic race has been maligned in recent years, and for good reason: who wants to watch modern F1 cars drive single file across narrow city streets, with virtually no chance for overtakes, as billionaires look on from enormous yachts? Critics have argued the event is boring, outdated, and downright obnoxious.

For years, I believed that, too. That is, until I actually attended the race in 2019 and witnessed the pomp and circumstance firsthand. From bombastic ceremonies to surprisingly passionate locals, the experience wound up defying my expectations, resulting in a charming weekend that could sway even the most hardened F1 cynic.

So take a trip with me to last year’s race and find out how you, too, can check this Grand Prix off your bucket list—without breaking the bank—and maybe even rekindle your love of F1 in the process.

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Gears of war: When mechanical analog computers ruled the waves

May 24, 2020 - 12:46pm

The Advanced Gun System, left, is intended to take on the role of the battleship's 16-inch guns, right. Aside from its GPS-guided shell, the digital technology of the AGS's fire control system does exactly what the USS Iowa's Rangekeeper Mark 8 did—just with fewer people and less weight. (credit: US Navy)

Update: We are resurfacing this feature from 2014 for your reading pleasure on this holiday weekend.

The USS Zumwalt, the latest destroyer now undergoing acceptance trials, comes with a new type of naval artillery: the Advanced Gun System (AGS). The automated AGS can fire 10 rocket-assisted, precision-guided projectiles per minute at targets over 100 miles away.

Those projectiles use GPS and inertial guidance to improve the gun’s accuracy to a 50 meter (164 feet) circle of probable error—meaning that half of its GPS-guided shells will fall within that distance from the target. But take away the fancy GPS shells, and the AGS and its digital fire control system are no more accurate than mechanical analog technology that is nearly a century old.

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On the Moon, astronaut pee will be a hot commodity

May 24, 2020 - 11:56am

Enlarge / Future moon bases could be built with 3D printers that mix materials such as Moon regolith, water, and astronauts’ urine. (credit: ESA/Foster and Partners)

Ever since President Donald Trump directed NASA to get boots on the Moon by 2024, the agency and its partners have been hard at work trying to make it happen. Late last month, NASA awarded contracts to three companies to develop a crewed lunar lander, but getting to the Moon is just the start. The agency also plans to build a permanent Moon basebefore the end of the decade and use it as a stepping stone to Mars.

If astronauts are going to spend weeks at a time on the Moon, they’re going to have to figure out how to live off the land—er, regolith. It’s too expensive to ship everything from Earth, which means they’ll have to get creative with the limited resources on the lunar surface. Moon dirt is a great building material and there’s water in the form of ice at the south pole that can be turned into rocket fuel. But the hottest commodity of them all may very well turn out to be an astronaut’s own pee.

Earlier this year, a team of European researchers demonstrated that urea, the second-most common compound in human urine after water, can be mixed with Moon dirt and used for construction. The resulting material is a geopolymer, which has similar properties to concrete and could potentially be used to build landing pads, habitats, and other structures on the Moon.

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After 12 years, Clark Gregg prepares to bid farewell to Agent Coulson. Maybe.

May 23, 2020 - 7:17pm

Enlarge / Clark Gregg never imagined that Agent Phil Coulson would become such an emotional touchstone in the MCU, and beyond, when he first signed on for the role. (credit: ABC)

Get ready to bid farewell to another Marvel property when the seventh and final season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiers next week. Over the course of six seasons, the team has battled Hydra, hostile Inhumans, and alien species and traveled through time—sometimes aligning with the broader MCU, sometimes sticking to its own separate storylines. It's been an equally eventful journey for actor Clark Gregg, who plays team leader Agent Phil Coulson.

(Spoilers for The Avengers and prior six seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. below.)

First introduced in 2008's Iron Man, Coulson quickly became a fan favorite, appearing in Iron Man 2 (2010)  and Thor (2011), before Director Joss Whedon broke our hearts by unexpectedly killing off the character in The Avengers (2012). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. brought Coulson back from the dead to lead an elite squad of agents to take on the terrorist group Hydra, eventually incorporating the superhuman race called Inhumans into the storyline.  

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The best Memorial Day sales on headphones, smartphones, and more tech

May 23, 2020 - 7:15pm

Enlarge / The Apple Watch Series 5. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

Greetings, Arsians! It’s Memorial Day weekend, so the Dealmaster is back with a special holiday edition of their usual tech deals roundup.

To be candid, Memorial Day sales aren’t typically known for providing big tech discounts, and that’s generally the case again this year. Most of the significant offers you’ll see out there apply to mattresses, home goods, and appliances instead of electronics. Per usual, those who can hold out until the holiday season will still see better prices on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

With that caveat said, we have seen a few good deals on noteworthy smartphones, headphones, video games, and other gadgets. Below are the best Memorial Day sales on electronics we could find.

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Results from the remdesivir COVID-19 trial are out, and it’s good news

May 23, 2020 - 5:00pm

Enlarge / Treatment with the antiviral drug remdesivir shortens the recovery time for patients with COVID-19. (credit: digicomphoto/Getty Images)

On Friday, some good news in the fight against SARS-CoV-2 was published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The antiviral drug remdesivir—originally developed as a potential treatment for Ebola—was shown to shorten recovery time for patients infected with the coronavirus. In late April, early results from this phase 3 clinical trial suggested that remdesivir might be of value in treating COVID-19 patients—this new paper confirms that. It's not a cure, but the drug shortened the recovery time from an average of 15 days to 11 days.

The trial involved 1,059 COVID-19 patients across 60 different sites in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Five hundred and thirty-eight patients were treated with a 10-day course of remdesivir; the other 521 patients were given a course of placebo on the same schedule. The patients were assessed daily, both to determine the severity of their symptoms as well as any side effects that could be caused by the drug, which interferes with the the virus' ability to copy its RNA.

What was this trial looking at?

The main thing being measured in this study was how long a patient took to recover, using an eight-point clinical scale that ranged from "not hospitalized," through increasing levels of care required all the way up to "death." Secondary outcomes for the trial looked at mortality at two and four weeks after treatment began, as well as any serious side effects that occurred during the trial.

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Penguin poop creates a buttload of laughing gas, researchers find

May 23, 2020 - 3:00pm

Enlarge / Royaume Uni, Iles de la Georgie du Sud, Plaine de Salysbury, Manchot royal (Aptenodytes patagonicus) United Kingdom, South Georgia Islands, Salysbury plains, King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus). (Photo by Sylvain CORDIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images) (credit: Getty | Sylvain CORDIER )

We could all use a good laugh about now—and a whiff of penguin poop is certainly one way to get it.

Gobs of guano from king penguins in the sub-Antarctic give rise to comical clouds of nitrous oxide—aka laughing gas—according to a recent study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

And—as if the wobbling, forever formally attired birds weren't already amusing enough—the force of their farcical feces is enough to knock someone down with a tail feather, the researchers say.

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6 board games I’m playing during the pandemic

May 23, 2020 - 3:00pm

Enlarge (credit: Nate Anderson)

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at

What's keeping me grounded in our current pandemic? Board games, for one. But I'm not reaching for the latest and the greatest at the moment; I've found myself reaching for shorter titles that don't melt my brain, and I've been digging deeper into my collection for those criminally underplayed treasures. In part that's because I've been playing with family rather than a gaming group, but—and perhaps you know the feeling—it's also because I can't concentrate on a two-hour strategy fest when the world feels like it's on fire.

I've enjoyed digging up some older titles during this time, and I've been reminded of how terrific some of them are. When I played Sanssouci with my 13-year old daughter, for instance, we had such a blast that we immediately played it again. And Keltis—what a gorgeous presentation, even if you do have to order it direct from Germany and download an English rules translation from BoardGameGeek.

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Making Internet service a utility—what’s the worst that could happen?

May 23, 2020 - 1:45pm

The cable industry takes a subtle approach to anti-Title II advertising. (credit: National Cable & Telecommunications Association)

Update: It's 2020, and a coronavirus pandemic has underscored how crucial broadband service is to the lives of Americans for work, entertainment, and school. Internet service is a necessity, and yet it isn't regulated as a utility the way services like water and electricity are. But back in 2014 (when this story was originally published) and 2015, there was a hot debate over whether the Federal Communications Commission should treat broadband service like a utility—or, more precisely, as a Title II common-carrier service—in order to impose net neutrality rules.

We're resurfacing this article from December 2014, which examined the cable industry's argument that utility-style regulation would hurt broadband users and broadband providers. Ultimately, the FCC did reclassify broadband to enforce net neutrality in 2015, but never imposed strict utility regulations like price caps or network unbundling. Broadband users enthusiastically supported the rules and ISPs admitted to investors later that the extra regulation didn't harm their businesses. But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai deregulated the broadband industry anyway, eliminating net neutrality rules and other consumer protections such as a prohibition on hidden fees. Since Pai's decision, the top ISPs have been decreasing network investment despite operating in the mostly regulation-free environment they sought, and the FCC has relied on ISPs' voluntary promises instead of real rules to keep customers online during the pandemic.

There seems to be nothing the broadband industry fears more than Title II of the Communications Act.

Title II gives the Federal Communications Commission power to regulate telecommunications providers as utilities or "common carriers." Like landline phone providers, common carriers must offer service to the public on reasonable terms. To regulate Internet service providers (ISPs) as utilities, the FCC must reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, a move that consumer advocacy groups and even President Obama have pushed the FCC to take.

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Right-to-repair groups fire shots at medical device manufacturers

May 23, 2020 - 12:02pm

Enlarge (credit: Buda Mendes | Getty Images)

The website iFixit has long been known for its electronics repair kits and for its very public stance that repair manuals should be accessible to everyone. That’s one of the foundational arguments of the broader right-to-repair movement, which lobbies that regular consumers should be able to repair the products they've purchased—everything from smartphones to washing machines to farming equipment—without violating a warranty. Now, in the time of COVID-19, iFixit and a prominent consumer interest group are tackling a more immediate concern: access to repair manuals for medical devices.

The company said this week it’s releasing what it calls the “most comprehensive medical equipment service database in the world.” The collection of thousands of files is supposed to help biomedical engineering technicians—the techs who update or fix medical equipment on site at health care facilities—repair everything from imaging equipment to EKG monitors to ventilators. iFixit founder and CEO Kyle Wiens (who also contributes to WIRED's Ideas section) called it an “absolutely massive” undertaking for iFixit, a project that took more than two months to coordinate and required help from 200 volunteers.

The rollout of the iFixit database is also coming on the heels of a letter sent to state legislators by Calpirg, the California arm of the US Public Interest Research Group, with more than 300 signatures from hospital repair experts. In the letter, the group calls for loosened restrictions on repairs of medical equipment and more cooperation from makers of medical devices.

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NASA declares that SpaceX is ready to fly its first crewed mission

May 22, 2020 - 9:29pm

On Thursday and Friday, senior managers from NASA, SpaceX, and the space agency's international partners held long meetings to review all of the aspects of an upcoming flight of the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft.

These discussions must have gone well, because on Friday afternoon, NASA officials emerged with a clear message: "There are no significant issues," said NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk, who led the meetings behind closed doors at Kennedy Space Center. "In the end, it was a very clean review. We are ready to launch."

The flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, carrying Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station, is set to begin at 4:33pm ET (20:33 UTC) on Wednesday, May 27. It will be the first orbital launch of humans from the United States since July 2011, when the space shuttle made its final flight. NASA paid SpaceX to develop this transportation system and will serve as its primary customer. This commercial arrangement has saved NASA billions of dollars.

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IBM laying off thousands, seeking “flexibility” during COVID-19 crisis

May 22, 2020 - 8:27pm

Enlarge / Unlike the illustrative man in this stock photo, employees at HPE, IBM, and other firms conducting layoffs at this time may not even be able to gather their effects from offices closed due to coronavirus. (credit: Tetra Images | Daniel Grill | Getty Images)

The COVID-19 crisis is hitting almost every market sector hard, and now the dominos are starting to fall. As other small, medium, and large businesses pare back operations or shutter for good, the tech firms that rely on enterprise clients are themselves taking heavy losses and laying off personnel.

Both Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and IBM this week announced significant cost-cutting measures, including pay cuts and significant job losses.

IBM announced its layoffs late Thursday. In a statement, the company said the "highly competitive marketplace requires flexibility to constantly remix high-value skills," which in this case means deciding you no longer place a high value on the skills a significant number of employees bring to the socially distanced table.

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Hydroxychloroquine linked to increase in COVID-19 deaths, heart risks

May 22, 2020 - 7:44pm

Enlarge / A bottle and pills of Hydroxychloroquine. US President Donald Trump announced May 18 he has been taking hydroxychloroquine for almost two weeks as a preventative measure against COVID-19. (credit: Getty | George Frey)

Two closely related anti-malarial drugs championed by President Donald Trump as promising treatments for COVID-19 appear to substantially increase the risks of death and heart complications in patients hospitalized from the disease.

That’s according to the largest study yet on the topic, which involved more than 96,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients on six continents. The peer-reviewed study, appearing Friday in The Lancet, was led by Mandeep Mehra, a professor of medicine at Harvard.

The drugs studied included chloroquine and its analogue hydroxychloroquine, which are used to treat autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as malaria. Early laboratory work suggested that they also have potent anti-viral properties. But small clinical studies looking into potential benefits for COVID-19 patients have largely provided mixed and inconclusive results to this point.

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Survey of patients correlates COVID-19 severity with immune system changes

May 22, 2020 - 7:23pm

Enlarge / Warning sign outside a lab doing coronavirus testing. (credit: Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Why do some people appear to handle a SARS-CoV-2 infection without developing symptoms, while it's fatal to others? Some factors, like age, have been easy to identify, but there's still a broad spectrum of responses among younger individuals that remains unexplained. Is there something with the patient, with the virus they're infected by, or both?

To try to learn more, a group of researchers in Shanghai did a basic characterization of over 300 patients with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections, sequencing the genome of the viruses they were infected by and looking through medical records to see what factors were correlated with outcomes. The results suggest that, at least at early stages of the pandemic, the virus itself made little difference. By contrast, the immune system's response to infection showed a strong correlation, supporting an idea that has already led to some drug trials.

It’s not all in the genes

The patient population included five asymptomatic individuals, 293 who were classified as having mild cases, 12 with severe symptoms, and 16 who needed critical care. The researchers obtained basic health information on all of them and managed to obtain the coronavirus genome from 112 of them.

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Archaeologists may have found William Wallace’s hidden fortress

May 22, 2020 - 6:00pm

Enlarge / The 1995 film Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson as the medieval Scottish knight Sir William Wallace, turns 25 this month. Archaeologists think they may have located the hidden fort he used during his battles against the English. (credit: Paramount Pictures)

William Wallace, the Scottish knight who emerged as a military leader during the First War of Scottish Independence in the late 13th century, has become a household name thanks to Mel Gibson's blockbuster film Braveheart, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. Wallace's rebellion began with the murder of the High Sheriff of Lanark in May 1297, and he conducted several successful raids before achieving a stunning upset victory against English troops at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. He was particularly known for his strategic use of terrain, and legend holds that he conducted at least one raid from a hidden fort somewhere in the vicinity of Dumfriesshire.

There is mention of the fort in The New Statistical Account of Scotland (published between 1834 and 1845). It said the fort adjoined a glade called Torlinn, commanded "an extensive view of the south," and was protected on three sides by two branches of a steep ravine and a large ditch. In 1297, Wallace supposedly holed up in the fort with 16 men, "with whom he sallied forth to annoy the English garrison under Greystock and Sir Hugh of Moreland."

Now Forestry Journal has announced that archaeologists may have discovered the site of Wallace's hidden fort. Matt Ritchie is an archaeologist with Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), who has been working with an organization called Skyscape Survey to develop a drone-based method to conduct photogrammetric surveys. This involves using remote-controlled drones to take hundreds of photographs from the air, then stitching them together with the help of point-matching software.

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Facebook workers get remote work option—but it could come with a pay cut

May 22, 2020 - 5:50pm

Enlarge / Mark Zuckerberg demonstrates an Oculus Rift headset at a 2016 event. (credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Facebook will become far more friendly to remote work, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in a Thursday livestream to employees that was shared publicly.

"We're going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale," Zuckerberg said. "I think that it's quite possible that over the next five to 10 years, about 50 percent of our people could be working remotely."

Right now, of course, far more than 50 percent of Facebook employees are working from home due to the pandemic. The company has told workers that they'll be free to work remotely through the end of 2020. But even after the COVID-19 threat subsides, Facebook will be more accepting of remote workers than it was before the pandemic.

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Report says the Galaxy Note 20 is “significantly bigger” than the Note 10

May 22, 2020 - 5:05pm

After launching the Galaxy S20 early in the year, the next big flagship for Samsung is the Galaxy Note 20, which is expected to launch in an online-only event sometime in August. For an early look at the phone, we have CAD-based renders from Pigtou and xleaks7.

The design is exactly what you would expect from Samsung: a device that is very close to the Galaxy S20 Ultra, but a bit more blocky. Xleaks7 warns the design isn't completely finalized yet, but the front design doesn't really change at all, with an all-screen front and a center camera hole punch in the top of the display. The back adopts the S20 Ultra's giant camera block design, with several lenses.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra talked a big talk with a "100x" camera zoom, but in reality, it only had a 5x optical zoom camera. It took cropping, AI upscaling, and a boatload of shameless marking hype to hit "100x." As you can probably imagine, turning a 5x zoom lens into 100x did not work very well, and if you got anywhere close to max zoom level, it turned your photos into unrecognizable mush. For the Note 20, the word from plugged-in Samsung leaker IceUniverse is that the 100x zoom will be axed from the Note 20. All the Android manufacturers pick from the same parts bins, and most companies with the same zoom camera setup as Samsung have only called it a "30x" zoom.

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Naughty Dog uses new Twitter feature to block Last of Us Part II spoilers

May 22, 2020 - 4:33pm

Earlier this week, Twitter started rolling out a new feature to "a small % globally" of its users—namely, the ability to limit tweet replies to people tagged in the original tweet. That's nice for arranging more limited public conversations, but it also has an interesting side effect: if you don't tag anyone in your tweet, then absolutely no one can reply.

Some lucky Twitter users are already using this new feature for gimmicky jokes, tweeting out intentionally trolly messages with blocked replies and letting followers stew in their inability to answer back. But The Last of Us developer Naughty Dog seems to be using the feature for a more noble purpose: blocking the spread of spoilers for the upcoming The Last of Us Part II.

Ever since major plot spoilers for the game leaked onto the Internet via a debug build earlier this month, every one of Naughty Dog's social media posts has been bombarded with hundreds of trolls posting references to the footage. Yesterday's tweet from the company, sharing a promotional image for the game, avoided this fate simply because replies were not allowed by the system (as noted by the message "A conversation between @Naughty_Dog and people they mentioned in this Tweet" appearing at the bottom).

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After watching 50,000 hours of Pac-Man, Nvidia’s AI generated a playable clone

May 22, 2020 - 2:04pm

Enlarge / To rebuild Pac-Man, you must watch a lot of Pac-Man. (credit: Nvidia / Bandai-Namco)

You may be familiar with the Infinite Monkey Theorem, an oft-cited (and often incorrectly quoted) claim that thousands of monkeys could bang on thousands of typewriters and eventually produce a work of art equivalent to William Shakespeare. (Yes, Simpsons did it.)

This week, Nvidia confirms that it has taken this theory quite seriously with its own twist: an army of AI routines, dubbed GameGAN (short for "generative adversarial networks"), trained to build a playable video game from scratch. More precisely, they've chosen one of the industry's biggest, most recognizable games, celebrating its 40th anniversary today: Pac-Man.

If you've seen other farms of computers trained on existing games, this has usually come in the form of them learning how to play the game in question. After watching thousands of hours of a particular game and tracking the most successful moves and reactions in the course of a versus match, these AI routines can then control games, repeat and juggle thousands of strategies, and battle humans. (Sometimes the results go well for the computers, but not always.)

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