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Ars Technica
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Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 8 min 52 sec ago

Air Force certifies Falcon Heavy, orders satellite launch for 2020

6 hours 49 min ago

Enlarge / The Falcon Heavy rocket took off at 3:45pm ET Tuesday, Feb. 6, with all 27 engines firing. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann for Ars Technica)

When SpaceX debuted the Falcon Heavy rocket in February, one of the biggest questions concerned who, exactly, would use the large booster and its 27 engines. Now we have an answer: the US Air Force, which on Thursday announced that it had selected the Falcon Heavy to launch its Air Force Space Command-52 satellite.

The military launch is presently scheduled to occur in September 2020 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Air Force will pay $130 million for the mission, which is higher than the standard rate for a Falcon Heavy launch due to the military's mission assurance requirements.

SpaceX has several other missions set for the Falcon Heavy before then, but this represents a big step for the company, as it means the Air Force has certified the rocket after just a single test flight. The Air Force Space Command-52 satellite flight is believed to be the first time that the Falcon Heavy rocket has competed head-to-head with a United Launch Alliance rocket for a military mission, and obviously it came out on top.

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Why the Supreme Court’s software patent ban didn’t last

June 21, 2018 - 9:15pm

Enlarge / Under the Federal Circuit appeals court, patent law swung from software patent skepticism in the 1970s to extreme permissiveness in the 1990s, then started to swing back toward skepticism with stricter Supreme Court oversight. (credit: Federal Circuit Historical Society / Aurich Lawson)

Forty years ago this week, in the case of Parker v. Flook, the US Supreme Court came close to banning software patents. "The court said, 'Well, software is just math; you can't patent math,'" said Stanford legal scholar Mark Lemley. As a result, "It was close to impossible in the 1970s to get software patents."

If the courts had faithfully applied the principles behind the Flook ruling over the last 40 years, there would be far fewer software patents on the books today. But that's not how things turned out. By 2000, other US courts had dismantled meaningful limits on patenting software—a situation exemplified by Amazon's infamous 1999 patent on the concept of shopping with one click. Software patents proliferated, and patent trolls became a serious problem.

But the pendulum eventually swung the other way. A landmark 2014 Supreme Court decision called CLS Bank v. Alice—which also marks its anniversary this week—set off an earthquake in the software patent world. In the first three years after Alice, the Federal Circuit Court, which hears all patent law appeals, rejected 92.3 percent of the patents challenged under the Alice precedent.

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Get ready for more sales taxes on online purchases

June 21, 2018 - 8:40pm

Enlarge / The US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images | Mike Kline)

State governments may require online retailers to collect sales taxes even in states where the retailers have no physical presence, the US Supreme Court ruled in a decision issued today.

The 5-4 ruling could clear the way for more states to require collection of sales taxes on products ordered online from out-of-state retailers.

The case, South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., Et Al., involved a South Dakota state law "requiring out-of-state sellers to collect and remit sales tax 'as if the seller had a physical presence in the State,'" the decision noted. Online retailers argued that the law was unconstitutional, and the State Supreme Court agreed, but the US Supreme Court overturned the state court ruling. South Dakota expects to collect another $48 million to $58 million in taxes a year because of this ruling.

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California net neutrality bill gutted as lawmakers cave to AT&T lobbyists

June 21, 2018 - 6:16pm

Enlarge / Net neutrality supporter protests the FCC's repeal outside a federal building in Los Angeles, California, on November 28, 2017. (credit: Getty Images | Ronen Tivony | NurPhoto)

A California net neutrality bill that could have been the strictest such law in the country was dramatically scaled back yesterday after state lawmakers caved to demands from AT&T and cable lobbyists.

While the California Senate approved the bill with all of its core parts intact last month, a State Assembly committee's Democratic leadership yesterday removed key provisions.

"What happened today was outrageous," Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the bill author, said. "These hostile amendments eviscerate the bill and leave us with a net neutrality bill in name only."

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“Flip Grip” brings classic arcade screen orientation to portable Switch

June 21, 2018 - 6:00pm

Video game collectible maker Fangamer is now seeking Kickstarter funding for the Flip Grip, a new Nintendo Switch holster that lets you more easily and portably play select games in their vertical "TATE mode" orientation.

The Flip Grip was first publicly mulled last April by Retronauts podcast co-host and classic gaming expert Jeremy Parish, who's working with engineer Mike Choi on the device. Parish then teased the grip in March as a way to hold the Switch and two Joy-Con controllers comfortably in your hands with the screen oriented vertically.

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Tesla lawsuit target called “horrible human being” by CEO Elon Musk

June 21, 2018 - 5:59pm

Enlarge / Tesla's new Model 3 car on display is seen on Friday, January 26, 2018, at the Tesla store in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images)

Martin Tripp, the recently fired Tesla employee the company sued under accusations of "hacking" company systems, told Ars on Thursday morning that he is actually a whistleblower who is trying to reveal internal waste and safety flaws in Tesla batteries.

He also denied to Ars on Thursday that he had made a comment to a friend to "shoot the place up," which prompted a visit by the Storey County Sheriff. The local authorities ultimately determined that there was "no credible threat."

"Absolutely not!" he told Ars. "The ONLY thing I have said to any ‘friends’ is I sent a link to the CNBC article to five of them and asked if they really thought I was a hacker."

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Ars on your lunch break, part two: History, reality, and robots for the elderly

June 21, 2018 - 5:00pm

Enlarge / Robots are everywhere. (credit: NBC Universal)

Today we present the second installment of my wide-ranging interview with the world-renowned roboticist and AI pioneer, Rodney Brooks. Part one ran yesterday—so if you missed it, click right here.

Today’s installment starts with the new robotic era that dawned when Brooks' latest company—Rethink Robotics—launched its Baxter robot. Baxter and its successor, Sawyer, shifted the industry in both obvious and subtle ways, which we discuss. We then consider the ancient legacy equipment and standards that still plague so much factory automation. Next, we dive into society’s urgent need for robots to assist with elder care in the coming years. This capability is currently remote, though many are starting work on it.

Click here for a transcript and click here for an MP3 direct download.

One of the most entertaining and provocative sections of the interview follows, when we get into self-driving cars. Brooks finds most of the industry’s launch forecasts and timelines to be absurdly aggressive. This is unwelcome news for those of us who want fully autonomous cars yesterday! But this realm sits at the very intersection of robotics and AI—two fields that Brooks has occupied for decades—and his arguments are powerful (and often quite funny).

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Twitter punishes users for doxing White House advisor Stephen Miller

June 21, 2018 - 4:21pm

Enlarge / White House advisor Stephen Miller in 2017. (credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

White House advisor Stephen Miller is widely seen as the mastermind behind President Donald Trump's controversial policy of separating parents from their children at the US southern border. Yesterday, Splinter, a news and opinion site that was previously known as Fusion, published Miller's personal cell phone number.

When Splinter and others started tweeting out Miller's number, it got the attention of Twitter's content police. Twitter doesn't allow users to post private information about someone else without their consent, and this rule doesn't have an exception for people responsible for intensely controversial policies.

(credit: Splinter)

Users who shared Miller's number were forced to delete the tweet and had their accounts locked out for several hours. Some people have reported that users could get suspended just for linking to the Splinter story—even if the tweet itself didn't contain Miller's number.

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Intel CEO Brian Krzanich resigns over workplace relationship

June 21, 2018 - 3:58pm

Enlarge / Intel CEO Brian Krzanich. (credit: NYU Stern BHR)

Brian Krzanich has resigned as Intel CEO, the company announced this morning. The resignation was due to a "past consensual relationship with an Intel employee" that violated the company's non-fraternization policy that managers are bound by. Krzanich is also leaving the company's board of directors.

Intel was informed recently of the relationship, and an investigation by internal and external counsel confirmed its existence. The board named CFO Bob Swan as interim CEO and has begun searching for a permanent replacement for Krzanich. Swan joined Intel in 2016 after nine years as CFO of eBay. Intel says that it is looking at both internal and external candidates in its quest to find a permanent CEO.

Krzanich has been at Intel since 1982, starting as a process engineer before moving into management. He became CEO in 2013, and since then Intel has entered new markets—including FPGAs and 3D XPoint memory—and the company says that it is likely to report its best second quarter ever.

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Grim look at Civil War surgery unearthed by new pit of limbs, bodies

June 21, 2018 - 3:36pm

Enlarge / Erin Godwin (Field Technician, Louis Berger Group) excavates an amputated limb. (credit: Kate D. Sherwood, Smithsonian Institution.)

Eleven amputated limbs, two nearly complete skeletons, and scattered artifacts uncovered from a shallow pit at Virginia’s Manassas National Battlefield Park are unearthing rare and grim glimpses of Civil War surgery.

The surgeon’s burial pit is the first of its kind to be discovered at a Civil War battlefield, the National Park Service announced this week.

Experts from the NPS and the Smithsonian Institution have determined that remains date back to August 1862, the time of the Second Battle of Manassas (also referred to as the Second Battle of Bull Run by Union Forces). The pit was likely at the site of a field hospital, set up to tend to the thousands of wounded following the multi-day battle.

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Apple’s AirPower charging mat delayed until fall due to “technical hurdles”

June 21, 2018 - 2:49pm

Enlarge / "AirPower" wireless charging mat.

Alongside the debut of the iPhone X and iPhone 8 handsets, Apple talked about a wireless charging mat it would debut to complement those new devices. But the company has been incredibly quiet about the mat, dubbed AirPower, ever since.

According to a report from Bloomberg, "technical hurdles" have delayed the launch of the AirPower wireless charging mat. The device was slated to be released in June 2018, but it will now likely be released either before or in September of this year.

Apple has had to address issues regarding overheating and the "complexity of the circuitry" within the mat. The device will be designed to wirelessly charge up to three devices at once; compatible products include the iPhone X, iPhone 8 models, Apple Watch Series 3 devices, and AirPod earbuds once their rumored wireless charging case comes out.

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With three words, President Trump fortifies a flawed perception about NASA

June 21, 2018 - 2:20pm

Enlarge / President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at the Amsoil Arena on June 20, 2018 in Duluth, Minnesota.

Fresh off an appearance at a National Space Council meeting Monday, space was evidently on his mind when President Trump spoke at a campaign rally in Duluth, Minnesota, on Wednesday night. "Our beautiful ancestors won two world wars, defeated fascism and communism, and put a man on the face of the Moon," he told his adulatory crowd. "And I think you saw the other day, we're reopening NASA. We're going to be going to space."

The crowd responded by chanting, "Space Force! Space Force!"

The most obvious response to such a comment is to laugh. NASA has never closed, of course. NASA's budget, in terms of raw dollars, has never been larger. Additionally, the Space Force has nothing to do with NASA; it is a military enterprise. And the United States, thanks to SpaceX, is launching as many orbital rockets today as almost any time in history. We have never been more in space than we are now.

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Interview: What went into making Divinity: Original Sin 2’s definitive edition

June 21, 2018 - 1:42pm

Enlarge (credit: Larian Studios)

LOS ANGELES—Larian Studios had been making OK-to-pretty-good PC RPGs for years. The company had its dedicated fans, but it was hardly mainstream. So 2014's Kickstarter-driven Divinity: Original Sin surprised many by being not just the studio's best game, but maybe one of the best PC-style RPGs ever made.

You could argue that Original Sin didn't quite reach that state until the Enhanced Edition, though. That launched alongside console ports for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2015. The update added full voice acting, greatly improved the multiplayer experience, added couch co-op and a 360-degree camera, and made significant changes to content.

Last year, critics and fans seemed mostly to agree that the sequel, Divinity: Original Sin 2, was even better than the first game's Enhanced Edition. It included all the enhanced features from that title and more. So with the Definitive Edition of Original Sin 2 coming August 31, what is there left to add?

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Report: Lucasfilm puts Obi-Wan film “on hold” after underwhelming Solo debut

June 20, 2018 - 9:58pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Lucasfilm)

The film news and reviews site Collider posted an exclusive report on Wednesday concerning the fate of future Star Wars films—and in particular, a long-rumored, not-yet-announced film focused on the classic character Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Citing "sources with knowledge of the situation," Collider confirmed that all pre-production for Lucasfilm's unnamed Obi-Wan "Star Wars Story" film is now "on hold." Every contributor attached to that film's pre-production process is "no longer involved," the site adds, and any other Star Wars Story film projects are currently "on hiatus." That includes a rumored Boba Fett film, which Collider reports was not as far along in a pre-production process as the Obi-Wan film was.

Other major film-gossip outlets—including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Deadline—have not published similar news as of press time.

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China-based hackers burrow inside satellite, defense, and telecoms firms

June 20, 2018 - 8:55pm

Enlarge (credit: US National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing.)

An advanced hacking campaign originating in China has spent the past year infiltrating satellite operators, defense contractors, and telecoms companies in the US and Southeast Asia, researchers from Symantec said.

The attackers specifically looked for and infected computers one target used to monitor and control satellites, Symantec researchers reported in a blog post published Tuesday. A hack on a second target in the geospatial industry zeroed in on the software-development tools it used. The focus on the operational sides of the unnamed companies suggests that the hackers sought the ability not just to intercept but possibly to also alter communications traffic sent by businesses and consumers.

“Espionage is the group’s likely motive, but given its interest in compromising operational systems, it could also adopt a more aggressive, disruptive stance should it choose to do so,” Symantec researchers wrote.

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Sorry, Comcast: Fox and Disney sign new merger deal, rejecting Comcast bid

June 20, 2018 - 8:41pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | NurPhoto )

The Walt Disney Company and 21st Century Fox have struck a new merger agreement, with Fox's leadership having rejected Comcast's attempt to outbid Disney.

Under the amended acquisition agreement announced today, Disney would buy Fox for $71.3 billion in cash and stock. This comes one week after Comcast offered Fox $65 billion in cash, which topped Disney's previous deal to buy Fox for $52.4 billion in stock.

Comcast could try to outbid Disney again, but it hasn't yet responded to today's announcement of a new Disney/Fox deal.

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Report: World trending to hit 50% renewables, 11% coal by 2050

June 20, 2018 - 6:39pm

(credit: Chauncey Davis)

Bloomberg New Energy Finance released a new report this week that estimates how electricity generation will change out to 2050. The clean energy analysis firm estimates that in a mere 33 years, the world will generate almost 50 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, and coal will make up just 11 percent of the total electricity mix.

Add in hydroelectric power and nuclear energy, and greenhouse-gas-free electricity sources climb to 71 percent of the world's total electricity generation. The report doesn't offer a terribly bright future for nuclear, however, and after a period of contraction, the nuclear industry's contribution to electricity generation is expected to level off.

Instead, falling photovoltaic (PV), wind, and battery costs will cause the dramatic shift in investment, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) notes. "PV and wind are already cheaper than building new large-scale coal or gas plants," the 2018 report says. In addition, BNEF expects that more than $500 billion will be invested in batteries by 2050, with two-thirds of that investment going to installations on the grid and one-third of that investment happening at a residential level.

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Tesla sues employee alleged to have stolen gigabytes of data

June 20, 2018 - 6:33pm

Enlarge / Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, speaks at a press conference at the Nevada State Capitol, September 4, 2014 in Carson City, Nevada. (credit: Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Tesla sued a former employee who worked in its Gigafactory in Nevada, accusing him of stealing trade secrets.

The lawsuit appears to be what CEO Elon Musk was referring to recently when he said that production of the Model 3 had been sabotaged.

Musk said that there are "more" alleged saboteurs.

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Microsoft staff call on company to end ICE contract

June 20, 2018 - 5:29pm

Enlarge / Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, speaks at the Microsoft Annual Shareholders Meeting in Bellevue, Washington, on November 30, 2016. (credit: Jason Redmond, Getty Images)

Microsoft staff members are calling on CEO Satya Nadella to terminate the company's contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In an open letter published by The New York Times, employees say that they "refuse to be complicit" in ICE's policy of breaking apart migrant families that come to the US without legal documentation.

Since May, the agency has been systematically separating children from their parents, and the kids have been housed in former warehouses and camps around the country. Microsoft's involvement comes from the company's Azure Government cloud computing platform: a segregated set of government-only data centers and cloud services operated exclusively by US citizens, with certifications and approval to fulfill certain government needs. In January, the company announced in a blog post that it was proud to support ICE's "IT modernization" using Azure Government. This language was briefly removed "by mistake" from the blog post but has subsequently been reinstated.

In the view of the open letter's signatories—and no small number of Microsoft employees on Twitter and the company's internal social media—this cooperation is unacceptable, and the company should take an "ethical stand, and put children and families above profits." They're calling on the company to cancel its contract with ICE (claimed to be worth $19.4 million), create a public policy that neither Microsoft nor its contractors will work with clients violating international human rights law, and show greater transparency over contracts with government agencies.

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Europe advances copyright law that could filter the Internet

June 20, 2018 - 5:19pm

Enlarge / European Union flags. (credit: Getty Images | Walter Zerla)

A European Parliament committee today approved a copyright law that could have wide-ranging effects on Internet platforms that host user-generated content.

The Parliament's Committee on Legal Affairs voted 15-10 "to approve the controversial Article 13, which critics warn could put an end to memes, remixes and other user-generated content," the BBC reported. The full parliament is expected to vote on the measure in July.

"The vote by the Legal Affairs Committee is likely to be the Parliament's official stance as it heads into negotiations with EU countries on a common position, unless dissenting lawmakers force a vote at the general assembly next month," Reuters wrote.

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