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Ars Technica
Syndicate content Ars Technica
Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 5 min 6 sec ago

Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering game that puts the fun in undermining democracy

1 hour 19 min ago

AUSTIN, Texas—Josh Lafair hasn't even voted yet, but he probably knows more about gerrymandering than most. To start, given that his family's from Austin, Texas, politics has never been a taboo subject around the Lafair dinner table. And in 2017, after the Lafairs watched another uncompetitive congressional election play out in their oddly shaped district (TX-10), Josh and his siblings had an idea: Is there a good gerrymandering board game out there? Could we make our own?

Ars Gaming Week 2019 View more stories

"Political games turn a lot of people off—political games tend to be really gimmicky,” says Lafair, the youngest (18) of the three siblings behind Lafair Family Games. “So while we did want this to be a game about gerrymandering, we also wanted to make a well-designed game. We wanted board gamers to think, ‘Oh, this is a good game. I’ll actually play this.’”

Mapmaker isn't the first title from Lafair Family Games, as older brother Louis invented the popular Pathwayz as a kid (more recently while at Stanford, he even developed an AI that can literally beat him at his own game). But Josh was so young he simply served as "chief guinea pig" on that one, and he considers Mapmaker the first game he truly had a hand in designing. Recently, before Lafair debuted Mapmaker to the masses at Gen Con 2019, he walked Ars through the game's creation while simultaneously taking us to task in a one-on-one battle.

Read 18 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Guidemaster: Navigating the hazy world of gaming laptops in 2019

1 hour 34 min ago

Enlarge / Amid the chaos of the Ars Gaming Week testing lab, we took a moment to snap a photo of some of our preferred gaming laptops. But are they right for you? Not necessarily! Hence, here's our careful guide on the topic. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

Welcome to Ars Gaming Week 2019! As a staff full of gamers and game-lovers, we'll be serving up extra reviews, guides, interviews, and other stories all about gaming from August 19 to August 23.

Putting together an ideal gaming desktop computer isn't always the easiest task, but at least it's a controlled kind of chaos. When building a PC, we can individually rank each component type—from CPUs to GPUs, from speakers to monitors—and aspiring builders can feel out their options for each within hearty system-builder guides. Barebones budgets, small form factors, pricey beasts: we can offer tips for each, then let shoppers mix and match those recommendations as they see fit.

The same cannot be said for gaming laptops. There's no simple way to break out and individually test laptops' big-ticket components, and singling out one gaming laptop is tough in a sector that has often suffered from bulk, heft, expense, and ugly designs. When you buy into one good thing in a gaming laptop, you're buying into its every other element, good and bad, with no ability to swap. How much worse does that get when you're stuck with a firm budget?

Read 49 remaining paragraphs | Comments

After canceling one upgrade, Minecraft gets another—and it’s Nvidia RTX exclusive

5 hours 9 min ago

On Monday, Mojang and Nvidia kicked off this week's Gamescom gaming conference by unveiling a substantial update for the blocky, mega-popular game Minecraft: a visual patch coming exclusively to owners of Nvidia RTX graphics cards for the game's Windows 10 version. This comes seven days after another similar patch, which would have been free for all Xbox and Windows players, was canceled after two years of delays.

And while that canceled "Super Duper" patch looked impressive, this one takes the intentionally chunky, lo-fi Minecraft to an entirely new level, thanks to a heavy emphasis on ray tracing. All of Nvidia's RTX graphics cards include a dedicated core designed to efficiently map out massive amounts of light bounces in 3D imagery. This core's effects on Minecraft might be the most impressive yet for an RTX-compatible game.

The upgrade's reveal trailer shows exactly how this "path tracing" patch will look in action, with more realistic looking models for light bouncing and reflection. The game's pixellated "gold" blocks now glisten like gold. Reflective materials now mirror whatever mobs walk near them. Light cast upon different kinds of materials will naturally glow, and underground caverns will now smolder in impressive red light seeping from nearby lava flows.

Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments

What does Amazon’s “Top Brand” badge actually mean?

August 18, 2019 - 1:30pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Leon Neal)

Amazon's biggest asset can also be a headache for its customers. The so-called "everything store" really does sell almost any item consumers might want, but it's often cumbersome and time-consuming to sort through them all. To avoid "choice overload," the retail giant has come up with certain signals designed to help people distinguish high-quality products from the rest. They include star ratings and product reviews, as well as "Amazon's Choice," a mysterious badge bestowed on some individual items, which has recently become the subject of scrutiny from lawmakers. Now, Amazon is testing a new signifier, called "Top Brand." But no one seems to know what, exactly, a "Top Brand" is, and Amazon won't say.

Amazon has long given customers the ability to search by "Top Brands," but the products previously weren't distinguished by a special badge in search results. Now, if you search for "swimming goggles," for instance, Amazon may return several pairs from Speedo whose photos bear a "Top Brand" badge. Here's the weird part: the longstanding "Top Brands" search filter isn't quite the same thing as the newer "Top Brand" badge. Here's an example: if you look up "women's belts" on Amazon and filter for "Top Brands," you may notice that not all of the results actually receive the Top Brand badge. How can a company be a Top Brand in one sense but not in another?

(credit: Louise Matsakis via Amazon)

Amazon says the discrepancy exists because the Top Brand badge is only a feature within Amazon Fashion, the part of its website dedicated to clothes, accessories, and luggage, while the Top Brands search filter is available across the entire marketplace. It makes sense for Amazon to try out this new badge feature specifically for fashion, since consumers are generally brand-conscious when shopping for things like handbags and shoes. But since not all women's belts are within the fashion category, they're not eligible for the Top Brand badge, even though Amazon might consider them to be Top Brands generally. Confusing, right?

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I put myself through hell as an IPCC convening lead author, but it was worth it

August 18, 2019 - 1:00pm

Enlarge / A view of the building of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), hosting the 50th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on August 8, 2019 in Geneva. (credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

In my day job, I am a scientist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland studying things such as how agriculture contributes to climate change and what we can do about it. Recently, though, I found myself in Geneva, to take part in my fourth “adoption plenary” for a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report in question was the recent Special Report on Climate Change and Land, and I was one of its 15 convening lead authors, responsible along with two others for a 300-page chapter on links between desertification, land degradation, food security and climate change. The adoption plenary is the process by which the 195 governments who are part of the IPCC reach consensus on the wording of a much shorter (40 or so page) “Summary for Policymakers” (SPM) of an entire IPCC report, and thereby adopt its findings.

The process of approval is gruelling for all concerned: it’s allocated five days, with an additional reserve day allocated which is often used. During this period, every word of the policymakers’ summary has to be agreed and approved, line-by-line, with delegates from all governments in the room.

Read 13 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Report: US expected to give Huawei another 90-day export license

August 17, 2019 - 9:35pm

Enlarge (credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Back in May, the US government placed an export ban on Huawei barring US companies (and companies using US-origin technology) from doing business with the Chinese tech giant. Because Huawei still has customers to support in the smartphone and cellular infrastructure business, the US Department of Commerce gave Huawei a 90-day exemption on the ban, allowing it to support its existing customers. That 90-day license was issued on May 20, 2019, so it expires this Monday, August 19. Now what?

Trade War! USA v. China

View more stories According to a report from Reuters, the US Government is just going to kick the can down the road again and give Huawei another 90-day extension to support its customers. Sources tell Reuters the deal is "expected" to be renewed this weekend, pending a call between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping

Back in May, the department of commerce described the exemption, saying "The Temporary General License grants operators time to make other arrangements and the Department space to determine the appropriate long-term measures for Americans and foreign telecommunications providers that currently rely on Huawei equipment for critical services. In short, this license will allow operations to continue for existing Huawei mobile phone users and rural broadband networks."

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New Attack exploiting serious Bluetooth weakness can intercept sensitive data

August 17, 2019 - 2:56pm

Enlarge

Researchers have demonstrated a serious weakness in the Bluetooth wireless standard that could allow hackers to intercept keystrokes, address books, and other sensitive data sent from billions of devices.

Dubbed Key Negotiation of Bluetooth—or KNOB for short—the attack forces two or more devices to choose an encryption key just a single byte in length before establishing a Bluetooth connection. Attackers within radio range can then use commodity hardware to quickly crack the key. From there, attackers can use the cracked key to decrypt data passing between the devices. The types of data susceptible could include keystrokes passing between a wireless keyboard and computer, address books uploaded from a phone to a car dashboard, or photographs exchanged between phones.

KNOB doesn't require an attacker to have any previously shared secret material or to observe the pairing process of the targeted devices. The exploit is invisible to Bluetooth apps and the operating systems they run on, making the attack almost impossible to detect without highly specialized equipment. KNOB also exploits a weakness in the Bluetooth standard itself. That means, in all likelihood, that the vulnerability affects just about every device that's compliant with the specification. The researchers have simulated the attack on 14 different Bluetooth chips—including those from Broadcom, Apple, and Qualcomm—and found all of them to be vulnerable.

Read 19 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Wind power prices now lower than the cost of natural gas

August 17, 2019 - 1:45pm

Enlarge (credit: NREL)

This week, the US Department of Energy released a report that looks back on the state of wind power in the US by running the numbers on 2018. The analysis shows that wind hardware prices are dropping, even as new turbine designs are increasing the typical power generated by each turbine. As a result, recent wind farms have gotten so cheap that you can build and operate them for less than the expected cost of buying fuel for an equivalent natural gas plant.

Wind is even cheaper at the moment because of a tax credit given to renewable energy generation. But that credit is in the process of fading out, leading to long-term uncertainty in a power market where demand is generally stable or dropping.

A lot of GigaWatts

2018 saw about 7.6 GigaWatts of new wind capacity added to the grid, accounting for just over 20% of the US' capacity additions. This puts it in third place behind natural gas and solar power. That's less impressive than it might sound, however, given that things like coal and nuclear are essentially at a standstill. Because the best winds aren't evenly distributed in the US, there are areas, like parts of the Great Plains, where wind installations were more than half of the new power capacity installed.

Read 13 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Surprise! Uber and Lyft don’t like NYC’s new ride-hail rules

August 17, 2019 - 12:11pm

Enlarge / The Uber ride-sharing app is seen on a mobile phone on February 12, 2018. (credit: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who took the helm of the controversial company back in 2017, is known for being pretty unflappable. He was even upbeat during the company’s second quarter earnings call, when he was charged with explaining why Uber posted more than $5 billion in losses in just a few months’ time.

But in response to one analyst’s question, about how the regulations in New York had affected the company’s bottom line, Khosrowshahi got a bit spicy, at least for Khosrowshahi. “I think anyone who tells you that the changes in New York City are good is…” he trailed off for a moment. “It’s malarkey, frankly.”

One person’s malarkey is another’s sensible policy decision. Nearly a decade after ride-hail companies began exploiting the gray areas of decades-old taxi regulations around the country, Uber and Lyft have found themselves subject to increasingly strict rules in the Big Apple.

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Google Drive will introduce long-asked-for file shortcuts feature

August 17, 2019 - 12:10am

Enlarge / Google offers a suite of cloud collaboration services, but Drive is at the heart of it all. (credit: Google)

Soon, Google will add one of the most commonly requested features to its Drive file hosting, sharing, and collaboration service: shortcuts. These will allow users to create pointers to files from either the same drive or another, separate shared drive.

The new feature will work just like shortcuts in Windows—they are pointers to a file stored in another location. The shortcut can be stored anywhere without impacting the location of the original file. Google gave this example in its blog post announcing the feature:

If Paul in marketing shares a document from his team’s shared drive with the entire sales team, Greta in sales can create a shortcut to that document in her own team’s shared drive. Previously, because documents can’t be owned by two shared drives, Greta would need to create a copy of the document for her team’s shared drive, which could then quickly become out of date.

Google writes that supported content types for shortcuts include Docs, Slides, Sheets, JPGs, PDFs, folders, and Microsoft Office files.

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NASA chief alienates Senators needed to fund the Moon program

August 16, 2019 - 11:13pm

Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks in front of a large hydrogen tank Friday at Marshall Space Flight Center. (credit: NASA)

When Jim Bridenstine became administrator of NASA 16 months ago, critics questioned his willingness to defend NASA's climate science portfolio and his ability to move beyond the partisan politics that characterized his nearly three terms as a Republican from Oklahoma. Since that time, Bridenstine has largely answered those questions. He has stood up for science and sought to work across the aisle.

However, Bridenstine has stumbled where most thought he would succeed—selling and communicating NASA's programs to Congress. In particular, the administrator appears to have angered some key Republican legislators who will be needed to support increasing funding for the agency's Moon plans.

Angering Shelby

For example, in March 2019, Bridenstine revealed at a Congressional hearing that NASA was looking at using commercial rockets to launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon. This represented a bold move, as Congress has demanded that NASA build the large Space Launch System rocket, at great cost, to serve as Orion's launch vehicle.

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Undead hordes rise from the sea in delightfully campy Zombie Tidal Wave

August 16, 2019 - 8:55pm

SYFY hopes to do for zombies what all those Sharknado movies did for sharks with Zombie Tidal Wave.

Fans of SYFY's delightfully cheesy B-movies like Sharktopus and Sharknado, rejoice. This weekend, the network debuts its latest offering in the genre: Zombie Tidal Wave. The title pretty much says it all.

(Mild spoilers below.)

Director Anthony C. Ferrante is the mastermind behind the hugely popular Sharknado and its five (count 'em!) sequels—it's a franchise that now even has a theme park attraction in Malaysia called Sharknado Alive. So what's this latest movie about? The trailer (embedded above) reveals a few details. A mysterious substance oozes out from the ocean floor, and suddenly hordes of the undead are swimming to the surface, popping up in the shallows off a local beach to snack on some unsuspecting sunbathers just trying to enjoy the day.

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Check out the gory, cringy images the FDA wants to put on cigarettes

August 16, 2019 - 7:35pm

Enlarge / Sick kids, chest scars, and bloody urine are just some of the new warnings. (credit: FDA)

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday revealed 13 repulsive warnings it proposes adding to cigarette advertisements and packaging.

The graphic warnings are intended to deter smoking. They include short statements and “photo-realistic color images depicting some of the lesser-known health risks of cigarette smoking.” The depicted health risks include bladder cancer, prominent neck tumors, limb amputation, erectile dysfunction, type II diabetes, blindness, and heart and lung disease. The warnings would replace the standard Surgeon General’s warning, which the agency described as “virtually invisible” to consumers.

The FDA said the new warnings fulfill a mandate set by a 2009 law called The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA). The act required the agency to come up with fresh warnings for cigarette packages and ads to address the lingering public health issue.

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Apple sues company that sells “perfect replicas” of iOS without a license

August 16, 2019 - 7:10pm

Enlarge / An image from Apple's lawsuit shows a real iPhone X and Corellium's service running a virtual iPhone X. (credit: Apple)

Apple yesterday sued Corellium, a company that sells access to virtual machines that run copies of the operating system used in iPhones and iPads.

Corellium markets iOS virtualization as "a research tool for those trying to discover security vulnerabilities and other flaws in Apple's software," according to Apple's complaint (PDF) filed in US District Court for the Southern District of Florida. But "Corellium's true goal is profiting off its blatant infringement," Apple wrote. "Far from assisting in fixing vulnerabilities, Corellium encourages its users to sell any discovered information on the open market to the highest bidder."

Corellium offers access to copies of iOS in a cloud service and in private installations on a customer's premises, with the latter costing $1 million a year, the lawsuit said. "Corellium does so with no license or permission from Apple," the lawsuit said.

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Audi e-tron wins top crash rating, beating Tesla Model S and Chevy Bolt

August 16, 2019 - 6:23pm

Enlarge / Ars Technica's Jonathan Gitlin spotted this e-tron being prepared for crash testing during a visit to IIHS testing facilities. (credit: Jonathan Gitlin)

Crashes hurt car insurance companies' bottom lines, so the industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducts comprehensive crash tests to help consumers buy safe cars—and encourage the industry to raise its standards. The IIHS recently put Audi's new e-tron through its paces, and Audi boasts that the e-tron is the first fully electric car to win the organization's highest rating: Top Safety Pick+.

The IIHS conducts several different crash tests as well as evaluating a vehicle's headlights and crash prevention technology. The e-tron earned the highest possible mark, "good," for every one of the dozens of sub-categories in the IIHS report.

"The dummy's position in relation to the door frame, steering wheel, and instrument panel after the crash test indicates that the driver's survival space was maintained very well," the IIHS writes of one of its crash test results.

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Despite complaints, Epic stands behind Fortnite’s “anyone can win” mechs

August 16, 2019 - 4:41pm

Enlarge / Who's up for a game of Titanfall?

Epic is showing no signs of plans to remove the controversial mech-like B.R.U.T.E. from Fortnite, saying the powerful new combat option helps in the studio's mission "to bring players of all skill levels together to have a fun experience where anyone can win."

The launch of the B.R.U.T.E. earlier this month has been one of the biggest changes in the game's short history, letting two players team up in an armored automaton to hurl a barrage of missiles at relatively tiny, mech-less opponents. Angry players have been flooding online forums and social media with clips showing overpowered mechs destroying other players, claiming the addition is ruining the competitive balance of the game.

Epic has already tweaked the B.R.U.T.E. a bit in response to the complaints, adding a targeting laser to warn otherwise unsuspecting players of an incoming barrage. But in a new update posted yesterday, the Fortnite Team suggested the B.R.U.T.E. has actually been beneficial to their view of how the game should be balanced.

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Judge orders Georgia to switch to paper ballots for 2020 elections

August 16, 2019 - 4:13pm

Enlarge / An election official holds an electronic voting machine memory card following the Georgia primary runoff elections at a polling location in Atlanta, Georgia, US, on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. (credit: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Election security advocates scored a major victory on Thursday as a federal judge issued a 153-page ruling ordering Georgia officials to stop using its outdated electronic voting machines by the end of the year. The judge accepted the state's argument that it would be too disruptive to switch to paper ballots for municipal elections being held in November 2019. But she refused to extend that logic into 2020, concluding that the state had plenty of time to phase out its outdated touchscreen machines before then.

The state of Georgia was already planning to phase out its ancient touchscreen electronic voting machines in favor of a new system based on ballot-marking machines. Georgia hopes to have the new machines in place in time for a presidential primary election in March 2020. In principle, that switch should address many of the critics' concerns.

The danger, security advocates said, was that the schedule could slip and Georgia could then fall back on its old, insecure electronic machines in the March primary and possibly in the November 2020 general election as well. The new ruling by Judge Amy Totenberg slams the door shut on that possibility. If Georgia isn't able to switch to its new high-tech system, it will be required to fall back on a low-tech system of paper ballots rather than continue using the insecure and buggy machines it has used for well over a decade.

Read 24 remaining paragraphs | Comments

We’ve driven VW’s bright green smile machine, the electric ID Buggy

August 16, 2019 - 3:48pm

CARMEL, CALIF.—Do you remember that bright green electric beach buggy that Volkswagen showed off back in March? It's called the ID Buggy, and it's one of a growing number of ID-badged concepts from the automaker that show the way to its post-diesel future. It's a wildly different-looking bunch, yet each uses VW's new modular architecture for battery electric vehicles, called MEB. The ID Buggy is definitely the most left-field of the ID vehicles, even without the bright green bodywork. But under that one-off concept body is a production MEB powertrain, just like the one that will appear in the Europe-only ID 3 as well as the US-bound ID Crozz crossover and ID Buzz BEVs. But the craziest thing about the Buggy isn't the way it looks or that VW let me drive it. No, the craziest thing about the Buggy it's the fact that VW is actively exploring ways to put it into production.

Modular architectures have been all the rage among automakers for a while now. These are much more flexible than the platforms of old and are more like a giant box of parts and components that simplify the design process and the supply chain. VW Group has been all-in when it comes to modular architectures since it introduced its MQB platform in 2011, which provides the bone structure for everything from the diminutive Polo hatchback in Europe to the made-in-Chattanooga, Tennessee Atlas three-row SUV.

MEB is the newest of the company's architectures, and unlike the modular architecture that BMW's developing, this one is just for BEVs. (MEB will provide the bones for rear- and all-wheel drive BEVs for the VW, Skoda, and Seat brands. Meanwhile, Audi and Porsche are developing a separate architecture for bigger, faster, and more expensive BEVs.) As you might expect, at the heart of each MEB model is its lithium-ion battery pack. For the Buggy, that's a 62kWh pack, which powers a 150kW (201hp), 310Nm (227lb-ft) electric motor that drives the rear wheels. VW's press materials say that the buggy will go from 0-62mph (0-100km/h) in 7.2 seconds, reaching a top speed of 100mph (160km/h), with an estimated range of 155 miles (250km) on the WLTP test.

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How a new antibiotic destroys extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis

August 16, 2019 - 2:25pm

Enlarge / A security guard mans the gate January 23, 2008 of the ward of extreme drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB), a near-untreatable strain of the disease, at the Brooklyn Infectious Disease Hospital in Cape Town. The hospital is trying to take extra security measures to ensure patients with XDR stay there for treatment, instead of leaving to go back to their communities, still highly contagious. (credit: Getty | AFP)

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved a new antibiotic that, when combined with two existing antibiotics, can tackle the most formidable and deadly forms of tuberculosis. The trio of drugs treats extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB), along with cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) that have proven unresponsive to other treatments.

Tuberculosis is the single leading infectious killer in the world, infecting an estimated 10 million people in 2017 and killing 1.6 million of them. XDR-TB and MDR-TB are even more savage forms of the disease, which is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The drug-resistant strains of TB kill an estimated 60% and 40% of their victims, respectively.

MDR-TB strains can resist at least the two most powerful anti-TB drugs, isoniazid and rifampin. A strain gets into XDR-territory when it also becomes resistant to any fluoroquinolone drug, such as ciprofloxacin or levofloxacin, plus at least one of three injectable second-line drugs, which are amikacin, kanamycin, and capreomycin. Drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis infected an estimated 558,000 people in 2017.

Read 16 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus might be Netflix’s best nostalgia throwback yet

August 16, 2019 - 1:05pm

Of all the cartoon series produced by Nickelodeon in its decades of operation, none could have been more unlikely than Invader Zim. Creator Jhonen Vasquez had previously achieved cult fame and notoriety for producing two of the most twisted comic series of the late '90s, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Squee, full of gallons of black-and-white blood and utterly evil characters. Yep, that's a perfect fit for one of the biggest children's networks of all time.

That the series aired for a full year on Nickelodeon, packed full of dark comedy and sneering satire of complacent mainstream culture, is as baffling now as it was then. But that surprise has nothing to do with the series' inherent preteen-friendliness. Above all, Invader Zim worked because its wiry alien fingers tapped directly into the nonconformist weirdo tendencies that lurk in growing children. It respected the instincts of preteens—and understood their equal desires to feel smugly superior to authority while also acting as immaturely as possible. This concept wrapped deftly around a universe where one alien had sneaked onto the planet Earth—with the Vasquez twist that nobody other than the two main characters (the alien, Zim, and his Mulder-like rival, Dib) gave a damn.

This balanced juggling of topics—of maniacally cackling teen aliens, galactic-stakes battles over the universe, and bulbous creatures who both roll around in and vomit entire pizza pies—is not an easy thing to pull off. Thank the Almighty Tallest, then, that Invader Zim's return this week on Netflix is not a lazy cash-in on catch phrases or previous episodes. Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus may rank as Netflix's most impressive nostalgia rebirth to date.

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