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Ars Technica
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Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 1 hour 28 min ago

Planet Earth II is “need a new TV” propaganda—if you get the right version

2 hours 12 min ago

Enlarge / This flamingo colony runs in a nearly perfect formation as a "parade" of sorts. It's even more stunning in motion—and that much more stunning if you get to see the birds' perfect pink tones on an HDR-10 display. (credit: BBC Home Entertainment)

BBC series Planet Earth stood out in 2006 for many reasons: massive budget, beautiful cinematography, isolated ends of the planet, David Attenborough, etc., etc. But I would argue that its 2007 "re-launch" on high-def discs did as much to drive the show's popularity.

Back then, people needed convincing that a fully 1080p home theater was worth the cost. Planet Earth's pure, uncompressed 1080p version (available on both Blu-ray and HD-DVD, weren't those the days) went a long way toward doing that—and proved out the production crew's use of cutting-edge cameras. Big-ticket TV buyers were the first to invite truly sexy cheetahs and blue whales into their living rooms.

In the decade since, other gorgeous globe-trotting documentary series (including a few from the BBC) have premiered. But today's "UHD Blu-ray" release of the six-episode sequel, Planet Earth II, makes clear what it takes to earn the series' name. Planet Earth II is the momentum-tipping disc release that TV manufacturers around the world have been waiting for, and it offers a definitive answer to the question, "Why in the world do I need a 4K high dynamic range TV?"

Read 21 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Ransomware scammers exploited Safari bug to extort porn-viewing iOS users

11 hours 29 min ago

(credit: Lookout)

Ransomware scammers have been exploiting a flaw in Apple's Mobile Safari browser in a campaign to extort fees from uninformed users. The scammers particularly target those who viewed porn or other controversial content. Apple patched the vulnerability on Monday with the release of iOS version 10.3.

The flaw involved the way that Safari displayed JavaScript pop-up windows. In a blog post published Monday afternoon, researchers from mobile-security provider Lookout described how exploit code surreptitiously planted on multiple websites caused an endless loop of windows to be displayed in a way that prevented the browser from being used. The attacker websites posed as law-enforcement actions and falsely claimed that the only way users could regain use of their browser was to pay a fine in the form of an iTunes gift card code to be delivered by text message. In fact, recovering from the pop-up loop was as easy as going into the device settings and clearing the browser cache. This simple fix was possibly lost on some uninformed targets who were too uncomfortable to ask for outside help.

"The attackers effectively used fear as a factor to get what they wanted before the victim realized that there was little actual risk," Lookout researchers Andrew Blaich and Jeremy Richards wrote in Monday's post.

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Elon Musk is setting up a company that will link brains and computers

11 hours 43 min ago

Get ready to plug in. (credit: Village Roadshow Pictures)

Billionaire futurist space explorer Elon Musk has a new project: a "medical research company" called Neuralink that will make brain-computer interfaces. Musk's projects are frequently inspired by science fiction, and this one is a direct reference to a device called a "neural lace," invented by the late British novelist Iain M. Banks for his Culture series. In those books, characters grow a semi-organic mesh on their cerebral cortexes, which allows them to interface wirelessly with AIs and create backups of their minds.

Having a neural lace, in Banks' fiction, makes people essentially immortal—if they die, they're revived from the last backup. Musk isn't seeking immortality just yet, however. Though he's said publicly several times that he'd like to upload and download thoughts, possibly to fight against evil AI, he imagines that Neuralink's proof-of-concept products will be implanted electrodes for treating epilepsy and depression. They will be much like current implants for treating Parkinson's, which work by regulating electrical activity in the brain.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the company will likely be funded entirely by Musk or by the Founders Fund, a VC firm founded by Peter Thiel. The Journal also reports that the company has hired three people already: "Vanessa Tolosa, an engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and an expert in flexible electrodes; Philip Sabes, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco, who studies how the brain controls movement; and Timothy Gardner, a professor at Boston University who is known for implanting tiny electrodes in the brains of finches to study how the birds sing."

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Despite what Mylan said, its price hikes hit patients’ wallets hard

13 hours 33 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Joe Raedle)

While facing intense outrage for repeatedly jacking up the price of their life-saving epinephrine auto-injectors, Mylan continually argued that patients were shielded from the soaring list price—thanks to insurance coverage, discounts, and rebates. But a new study looking into insurance claims casts doubt on that defense.

Between 2007 and 2014, the average out-of-pocket spending per insured EpiPen-user jumped 123 percent. During that time, Mylan raised the list price of EpiPens from around $50 per pen to a whopping $609 per two-pack. In 2007, the year Mylan obtained the rights to EpiPen, the average patient spent around $33.8 out-of-pocket for a two-pack. By 2014, the average spending rose to $75.5 per two-pack, according to the new analysis published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The figures don’t square neatly with Mylan’s assurances. The company repeatedly claimed that most most patients weren’t significantly affected by the price hikes and pay only $50 out-of-pocket or less. Reuters reports that Mylan even claimed that about 90 percent of patients paid that little.

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Microsoft sued for millions over Windows 10 upgrades

14 hours 8 min ago

Enlarge / The upgrade arc of Windows 10. It now has more than 400 million users, regardless of problems. (credit: Microsoft)

Unhappy Windows 10 users in Illinois are taking Microsoft to court, claiming that problems caused by the Windows 10 upgrade show that it was negligently designed, that Microsoft fraudulently failed to disclose its defects, and that the upgrade is unfit for purpose.

In a break from tradition, Microsoft offered Windows 10 as a free upgrade to Windows 7 and 8.1 for the first year of its release. This unusual offer was matched with a set of increasingly aggressive promotions within Windows itself. In the early days of the upgrade offer, there were even some users reporting that it installed automatically.

Three plaintiffs claim specific harm was caused by the operating system. Stephanie Watson claims that Windows 10 installed without her choosing to accept it. The upgrade destroyed some data, caused such harm that Geek Squad was unable to fully repair the machine, and forced the purchase of a new system.The suit claims that "many" consumers have had their hard drives fail because of the Windows 10 installation, and that the operating system does not check "whether or not the hard drive can withstand the stress of the Windows 10 installation."

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Activists want to know why feds are searching more devices at the border

14 hours 12 min ago

Enlarge (credit: William Hook)

A free speech advocacy organization sued the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Monday, seeking "statistical, policy, and assessment records regarding the government’s searches" of digital devices at the United States border.

The group, the Knight First Amendment Institute based at Columbia University, said on Twitter that the lawsuit came about as a result of recent journalism on the issue.

We're suing after @cynthiamcfadden & @nbcnews reported on a dramatic increase in border device searches since 2015.

— Knight 1st Amendment (@knightcolumbia) March 27, 2017

Ars and other media reported that there has been a rapid uptick in the number of such incidents: February 2017 alone had more border searches of phones, tablets, and computers than all of 2015.

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A tour of iOS 10.3: Checking out APFS, the Settings app, and other tweaks

March 27, 2017 - 8:30pm

Enlarge / An iPhone 5 running iOS 10. Version 10.3 is likely to be its last big update. (credit: Andrew Cunningham)

Apple has just released iOS 10.3 to the general public, an update which is likely to be the last major release of iOS 10; at this point in the year, work usually begins in earnest on the next major release of iOS, which will be revealed at WWDC in June. The update is available for everything that runs iOS 10: the iPhone 5 and newer, the fourth-generation iPad and newer, the iPad Mini 2 and newer, both iPad Pros, and the sixth-generation iPod Touch.

The update has been going through the beta process for a couple of months now, and since it’s likely to be iOS 10’s last major update, we’ll spend some extra time with a few of the high-profile features. I’ve also spent a tiny bit of time with the new APFS filesystem, which won’t change much for most people but does seem to free up a small amount of local storage space.

Change is afoot… in the Settings app

Andrew Cunningham

Read 17 remaining paragraphs | Comments

macOS 10.12.4 update brings Night Shift to the Mac and not much else

March 27, 2017 - 8:13pm

Enlarge / The $1,499 MacBook Pro running macOS Sierra.

Apple has just released macOS 10.12.4, the fourth major update for Sierra since the operating system was released last September. In addition to the typical bug fixes and security patches, the update brings over one minor feature from iOS: Night Shift, which can subtly change your screen's color from a cooler blue tone to warmer yellow tones in an effort to help you sleep better.

Night Shift was originally introduced in iOS 9.3 about a year ago. Since then, Google has added a similar feature to Android 7.0, and Microsoft is going to include a version of it in the imminent Windows 10 Creators Update. On Android, Windows, and macOS, the feature is arguably less necessary, since third-party apps like f.lux can fill the gap. Still, it's convenient to have it integrated into the OS itself and officially supported by the companies, if only because it will prevent the feature from breaking when new updates come out.

The complete list of fixes, including business-specific updates, is below. For security update information, keep an eye on this page.

Read on Ars Technica | Comments

Spinach leaf transforms into sheet of beating human heart cells

March 27, 2017 - 7:57pm

Enlarge / In this sequence, a spinach leaf is stripped of its plant cells, a process called decellularization, using a detergent. The process leaves behind the leaf's vasculature. Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) were able to culture beating human heart cells on such decellularized leaves. (credit: Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

To create artificial tissue with functioning vasculature, tissue engineers looked no further than their salad bowls.

By peeling away the cells from a spinach leaf and seeding the cellulose matrix left behind with heart cells, researchers were able to create a beating sheet of human heart tissue—complete with a functional vascular system. The proof-of-concept experiment, appearing in the May issue of Biomaterials, provides an intriguing plant-based approach to generating realistic tissues for grafts and transplants.

Vasculature has been a sticking point for bioengineers. Modern methods for creating artificial tissues and organs, such as 3D printing, haven’t included a good way to recreate the vital conduits. Yet the success (and survival) of any bioengineered tissue or organ hinges on whether it’s equipped with an extensive network of blood-carrying vessels, which drop off oxygen and critical nutrients to cells while flushing away molecular garbage.

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Apple releases watchOS 3.2 with new Theater Mode and SiriKit

March 27, 2017 - 7:20pm

Enlarge (credit: Andrew Cunningham)

The latest update for the Apple Watch is now available. Apple is pushing out watchOS 3.2 today to bring two key features to its smartwatch: Theater Mode and SiriKit. This is the second addition since Apple released the huge watchOS 3 update back in September 2016.

Theater Mode has been talked about a lot as Apple released betas of watchOS 3.2 over the past few months. It lets you mute sounds and disable the raise-to-wake feature of the watch, meaning its screen won't light up when it senses your wrist turning to check the time. This takes the Apple Watch's current Silent Mode onestep further, essentially eliminating all the lights and sounds the watch would make when triggered by movements or alerts. You'll still receive haptic feedback for incoming notifications (if you have that feature turned on), and you can still view notifications by manually waking the watch's display. Theater Mode can be activated by swiping up from the bottom of the Apple Watch's display and tapping the drama-masks button. Once you turn Theater Mode off, your Apple Watch will go back to your usual settings.

WatchOS 3.2 also brings SiriKit to the Apple Watch, which is a feature previously only available on iOS devices. This expands voice commands to third-party applications, letting you ask Siri on the Watch to do more for you like make a payment, call a car, or send a message. App developers must make extensions using Apple's Intents and Intents UI frameworks. So once third-party developers add those capabilities to their apps, you'll be able to do more with Siri from your Watch.

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Samsung’s Note 7 recycling plan includes reselling the device in some countries

March 27, 2017 - 7:16pm

Greenpeace protests Samsung at MWC 2017.

Samsung has announced a recycling plan for the Galaxy Note 7, which includes the possibility of the device hitting the market again as a refurbished product. The Note 7 was famously recalled shortly after launch due to faulty, potentially explosive batteries. After the recall, Samsung was left with an estimated 4.3 million Note 7s taking up space in a warehouse (and most likely setting fire to that warehouse). Now what?

In a blog post, Samsung laid out three "principles" for dealing with the Note 7 bodies in an "environmentally-friendly manner."

First, devices shall be considered to be used as refurbished phones or rental phones where applicable.

Second, salvageable components shall be detached for reuse.

Third, processes such as metals extraction shall be performed using environmentally friendly methods.

Refurbishing the phone is the most interesting option. Samsung says that refurbishing applicability is "dependent upon consultations with regulatory authorities and carriers as well as due consideration of local demand. The markets and release dates will be determined accordingly." A Samsung representative gave a bit more info to The Verge, saying, "Samsung will not be offering refurbished Galaxy Note 7 devices for rent or sale in the US." When a refurb does happen, “the product details including the name, technical specification, and price range will be announced when the device is available," according to the company. So it seems everything is on the table right now, including giving the Note 7s a new name and tweaking the specs.

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Uncovered iPad bomb plot blamed for electronics ban on some flights

March 27, 2017 - 6:33pm

(credit: Travis Olbrich)

The US-UK ban on electronic devices larger than a mobile phone for some flights from Africa and the Middle East stems, in part, from the discovery of a terror plot to use an iPad to blow up an airliner.

The Guardian, citing an anonymous "security source," said Monday that the uncovered plot involved explosives hidden in a fake iPad "that appeared to be as good as the real thing." The Guardian's source did not provide other details, like when and where the threat was discovered and who was behind it.

Discovery of the plot confirmed the fears of the intelligence agencies that Islamist groups had found a novel way to smuggle explosives into the cabin area in carry-on luggage after failed attempts with shoe bombs and explosives hidden in underwear. An explosion in a cabin (where a terrorist can position the explosive against a door or window) can have much more impact than one in the hold (where the terrorist has no control over the position of the explosive, which could be in the middle of luggage, away from the skin of the aircraft), given passengers and crew could be sucked out of any subsequent hole.

Security concerns over weaponized electronics on airlines have some merit. For starters, electronics are ubiquitous. And last year, for example, a bomb in a laptop punctured a hole in the passenger area on a Somalia-bound flight.

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Uber quickly resumes self-driving tests despite weekend traffic crash [Updated]

March 27, 2017 - 5:55pm

Enlarge / Uber is hitting the big red "Stop" button after a crash in Tempe, Ariz., left one of its self-driving Volvos beached on its side. (credit: ANGELO MERENDINO/AFP/Getty Images)

Update (3/27, 12:55p ET):That didn't take very long—according to Engadget, Uber resumed autonomous testing on Monday morning. The company had previously told Reuters it would be suspending the program while Uber looked into a weekend crash involving a self-driving car. Our original story from earlier today is below.

Original story: Uber is having a tough time lately. Its CEO went viral arguing with a driver, and its president has just thrown in the towel. In the past few weeks, the ride-hailing service has been mired in sexual abuse scandals, subject to a consumer boycott, and accused of stealing self-driving secrets. Uber probably wishes the last of those items was the complete extent of its self-induced self-driving headache. But now, a crash on the streets of Tempe, Arizona left an autonomous test vehicle on its side and Uber's self-driving program suspended according to Reuters.

BREAKING: Self-driving Uber vehicle on it’s side after a collision in Tempe, AZ.

Photos by @fresconews user Mark Beach

— Fresco News (@fresconews) March 25, 2017

The vehicle—a Volvo XC90—was driving autonomously with a pair of Uber engineers up front but no passengers, when another vehicle failed to yield. No one was seriously injured, and the incident occurred on a stretch of road that locals say "isn't very safe."

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Millimeter telescope array spots early galaxies in “super halos” of gas

March 27, 2017 - 5:45pm

Enlarge / Artist's impression of a progenitor of galaxies like the Milky Way, seen when the Universe was only 1.5 billion years old. New observations reveal that these galaxies are surrounded by massive halos of hydrogen gas. (credit: A. Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF))

The early Universe can be studied by looking at light coming from distant galaxies. The farther away the galaxy is, the longer its light takes to reach us, so we can see extremely distant galaxies as they were billions of years ago. However, the further back in time we look through this method, the more difficult it becomes to clearly resolve any features about the galaxies we’re looking at.

An easier task, and one researchers have been doing for decades, is to study the gas surrounding early galaxies. When light passes through this gas, certain wavelengths of light are absorbed, while others aren’t. The result is that there are certain gaps, or lines, in this light. But until now, that’s as far as researchers could go for the most part: they couldn’t learn much about the galaxies themselves.

In a new study, researchers have directly imaged two Milky Way-like galaxies through observations from ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array). The galaxies seem to have the properties of massive, star-forming galaxies.

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Four years later, Xbox exec admits how Microsoft screwed up disc resale plan

March 27, 2017 - 5:20pm

(credit: Orin Zebest / Flickr)

We're now approaching the four-year anniversary of Microsoft's rollout (and subsequent reversal) of a controversial plan to let game publishers limit resale of used, disc-based games. Looking back on that time recently, Microsoft Corporate Vice President for Windows and Devices Yusuf Mehdi acknowledged how that rollout fell flat and discussed how hard it was for the firm to change course even in light of fan complaints at the time.

In a blog post on LinkedIn posted last weekend, Mehdi writes:

"With our initial announcement of Xbox One and our desire to deliver breakthroughs in gaming and entertainment, the team made a few key decisions regarding connectivity requirements and how games would be purchased that didn’t land well with fans. While the intent was good – we imagined a new set of benefits such as easier roaming, family sharing and new ways to try and buy games, we didn’t deliver what our fans wanted.

We heard their feedback, and while it required great technical work, we changed Xbox One to work the same way as Xbox 360 for how our customers could play, share, lend, and resell games. This experience was such a powerful reminder that we must always do the right thing for our customers, and since we’ve made that commitment to our Xbox fans, we’ve never looked back."

It's an interesting reflection in light of an interview Mehdi gave to Ars Technica at E3 2013, when the executive defended Microsoft's announced plans for Xbox One game licensing. Mehdi, then serving as Xbox chief marketing and strategy officer, stressed at the time that "this is a big change, consumers don't always love change, and there's a lot of education we have to provide to make sure that people understand... We're trying to do something pretty big in terms of moving the industry forward for console gaming into the digital world. We believe the digital world is the future, and we believe digital is better."

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Feds: Brooklyn prosecutor forged judges’ signatures to wiretap lover

March 27, 2017 - 5:10pm

Enlarge / Old-school wiretapping gear

A former county prosecutor in New York was indicted Monday on federal charges of illegally wiretapping two phones. Tara Lenich is set to be arraigned before a federal magistrate on Monday afternoon in Brooklyn.

Lenich first faced state charges last fall when she was accused of orchestrating the surveillance of an unnamed male police detective and one of Lenich’s own female colleagues, in what the New York Times characterized last year as a "love triangle gone wrong." The new federal charges likely will supersede those state charges.

In a Monday statement, federal prosecutors allege that for nearly 16 months between June 2015 and November 2016, Lenich created fake judicial orders and forged judge’s signatures to authorize the wiretaps and authorize fraudulent search warrants in order to get texts from the target phones. Specifically, the indictment alleges that Lenich "physically cut a copy of each such judge's signature from a legitimate document and taped the signature onto the fraudulent documents she had created."

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Intel’s first Optane SSD for regular PCs is a small but super-fast cache

March 27, 2017 - 5:00pm


Intel is positioning its new Optane technology as the next big advancement in computer storage after SSDs, and today it's announcing the first consumer product based on the technology. The "Intel Optane Memory" drives are 16GB and 32GB M.2 sticks that can be paired with a larger SSD or HDD to speed up total system performance. Intel's Rapid Storage Technology allows your PC to see the two drives as one storage volume, and the software automatically caches important data to the faster drive.

The Optane Memory drives will be available to order on April 24th. A 16GB drive costs $44 while a 32GB drive costs $77.

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House could vote tomorrow to let ISPs sell your Web browsing history

March 27, 2017 - 4:41pm

Enlarge / US House of Representatives on October 29, 2015. (credit: Getty Images | Chip Somodevilla )

The US House of Representatives could vote tomorrow on whether to eliminate privacy rules that would have forced ISPs to get your consent before selling Web browsing history and app usage history to advertisers. The Senate voted to kill the rules on Thursday, so all that's left are decisions by the House and President Donald Trump.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) placed the legislation on the schedule for Tuesday. Legislative business is scheduled to begin at noon.

The legislation is S.J. Res. 34, a resolution invoking the Congressional Review Act in order to invalidate the Federal Communications Commission's privacy rules and prevent the FCC from issuing similar regulations in the future. The Senate vote was 50-48, with Republicans voting to kill the privacy rules and Democrats voting to preserve them.

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Doxed by Microsoft’s Users unwittingly shared sensitive docs publicly

March 27, 2017 - 4:31pm


On March 25, security researcher Kevin Beaumont discovered something very unfortunate on, Microsoft's free document-sharing site tied to the company's Office 365 service: its homepage had a search bar. That in itself would not have been a problem if Office 2016 and Office 365 users were aware that the documents they were posting were being shared publicly.

Unfortunately, hundreds of them weren't. As described in a Microsoft support document, "with, you can create an online portfolio of your expertise, discover, download, or bookmark works from other authors, and build your brand with built-in SEO, analytics, and email and social sharing." But many users used to either share documents within their organizations or to pass them to people outside their organizations—unaware that the data was being indexed by search engines.

You can probably see where I'm going with this and

— Kevin Beaumont (@GossiTheDog) March 25, 2017

Within a few hours, Beaumont, a number of other researchers, and Ars found a significant number of documents shared with sensitive information in them—some of them discoverable by just entering "passwords" or "SSN" or "account number."

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Critical thinking is one for the history books

March 27, 2017 - 4:14pm

Bigfoot cares for its young. (credit: Katy Kristin)

The world as a whole has become increasingly reliant on science to provide its technology and inform its policy. But rampant conspiracy theories, fake news, and pseudoscience like homeopathy show that the world could use a bit more of the organized skepticism that provides the foundation of science. For that reason, it has often been suggested that an expanded science education program would help cut down on the acceptance of nonsense.

But a study done with undergrads at North Carolina State University suggests that a class on scientific research methods doesn't do much good. Instead, a class dedicated to critical analysis of nonsense in archeology was far more effective at getting students to reject a variety of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. And it worked even better when the students got their own debunking project.

The study, done by Anne Collins McLaughlin and Alicia McGill, lumps together things like belief in astrology, conspiracy theories, and ancient aliens, calling them "epistemically unwarranted." Surveys show they're widely popular; nearly half the US population thinks astrology is either somewhat or very scientific, and the number has gone up over time.

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