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Ars Technica
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Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 25 min 59 sec ago

More than just a new GT, the 2018 Lexus LC 500 is a marker for the future

February 21, 2017 - 10:55pm


The new Lexus LC 500 is a bold move for a company that's built a reputation on vehicles that excel at comfort but leave the performance stuff to a light dusting. It's a faithful evolution of the LF-LC concept car and a spiritual successor to the hand-built V10-engined LFA, just 500 of which were made. But the $100,000 LC 500 is real, tangible, and capable in ways that a $375,000 LFA never could be.

Think of the LC 500 as a statement of Lexus' engineering, as it will also provide the basic platform of the next-generation LS sedan and other rear-drive models of the future. But history will look on the LC chiefly as the first time Lexus' current design lexicon—dominated by that massive grille—actually works visually. There's some original thinking in there, with visual harmony uncommon to most other Lexus models. The tail lights, for instance, use 80 concentric-looking LEDs and internal mirrors that filter a certain amount of light to appear three-dimensional and almost like a jet's afterburners. You’d think the LC 500 gives the eye so many interesting visual details that it would seem fussy, but it doesn't.

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What do we know about the effects of medical marijuana?

February 21, 2017 - 9:33pm

Enlarge (credit: California Medical Cannabis Initiative)

BOSTON—Stacy Gruber of Harvard Medical School laid out the numbers: 28 states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws, 17 others allow some cannabis-based products, and eight states now allow recreational use. The US has turned into a grand experiment on the medicinal use of pot, even as the federal government's classification of the drug makes it extremely difficult to do good research on it.

But that doesn't mean research isn't getting done. Gruber and two other researchers described what they're learning about medicinal marijuana at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “This is the direction we’re headed," Gruber said, "and it’s good to be prepared.”

Canadian vigilance

Mark Ware of McGill University had a term for one way of tracking the effect of pot use: pharmacovigilance. Harmful side effects of drugs like acetaminophen and Vioxx weren't caught during clinical trials. Instead, they were identified by tracking the use of these drugs once they became available to the general population. This regular monitoring of drug users is what he called pharmacovigilance. It's the same process that has made us aware of the widespread abuse of prescription opioids.

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Subprime auto lender facing FTC inquiry over GPS-tracking kill switches

February 21, 2017 - 7:28pm

Enlarge (credit: jon collier)

The US Federal Trade Commission is investigating an auto lender that often requires subprime borrowers to have so-called GPS starter-interrupter devices enabled on purchased vehicles.

The so-called kill switches, which can monitor a vehicle's constant whereabouts, also have the remote ability to shut a car off and to prevent a car from starting. This makes it easy for lenders to repossess the car for missed payments. But this modern-day version of the repo-man raises both safety and privacy concerns.

The Credit Acceptance Corp. of Michigan said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing this month that it received a civil investigative demand from the FTC "seeking information on the Company’s policies, practices and procedures in allowing car dealers to use GPS Starter Interrupters on consumer vehicles. We are cooperating with the inquiry and cannot predict the eventual scope, duration or outcome at this time. As a result, we are unable to estimate the reasonably possible loss or range of reasonably possible loss arising from this investigation."

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Qualcomm’s new LTE modem will make gigabit download speeds easier to hit

February 21, 2017 - 6:24pm

Enlarge (credit: Qualcomm)

Last year around Mobile World Congress, Qualcomm announced the Snapdragon X16, billed as the company's first "gigabit" LTE modem. Most of you still don't have an X16 in your phones, though that will change in the next few months with the imminent arrival of the Snapdragon 835 processor and the flagship phones that use it. But Qualcomm has already moved on to the next thing, namely its new Snapdragon X20 modem—this chip bumps the maximum theoretical download speed from the X16's 1.0Gbps to 1.2Gbps, but more importantly it makes those gigabit speeds easier to actually hit.

The X20 hits those (at this point, still mostly theoretical) gigabit speeds by using many of the same tricks as the X16. Carrier aggregation and 4×4 MIMO antennas allow up to 12 streams of data to be received using between three and five 20MHz chunks of spectrum, up from 10 streams across three or four 20MHz chunks of spectrum in the X16. Use of 256-QAM instead of 64-QAM allows up to 100Mbps of data to be sent in each stream, adding up to 1.2Gbps of total bandwidth (a good, basic explainer of QAM, or Quadrature Amplitude Modulation, can be found here).

The big difference for the X20 is that wireless operators can use more combinations of licensed and unlicensed LTE spectrum to actually hit gigabit speeds. The graphic above shows all of the combinations of licensed (yellow) and unlicensed (red) spectrum that can be mixed and matched to reach 1.0 or 1.2Gbps. In theory, operators could offer gigabit LTE speeds using just 10MHz of licensed spectrum, a feature enabled by the modem's 5x carrier aggregation. From the press release:

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Top Gear teases its new season, starting in March

February 21, 2017 - 6:14pm

(credit: BBC)

Bored now that The Grand Tour's first season is done? In need of some arty, slow-motion shots of tires being converted into smoke? Hang in there, because the BBC's Top Gear is almost back. Last season ended in some ignominy. Ratings were awful, and Chris Evans took responsibility and duly fell on his sword. But there was plenty to like about the show in the post-Clarkson era, particularly Chris Harris and Rory Reid. Top Gear must have listened to the Internet, because it's giving the pair much more to do this season, alongside Matt LeBlanc.

Season 24 features the usual array of supercars: the Bugatti Chiron, Ford GT, and Ferrari FXX K, to name but three. And we can look forward to road trips through Kazakhstan, Cuba, and Nevada, among others.

Obviously the Stig will be back, and we're particularly looking forward to an episode involving Sabine Schmidt trying to overtake a million pounds' worth ($1,250,000) of supercars on the Nürburgring armed with nothing more than a Volkswagen Golf GTI and Reid in the passenger seat counting.

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The long wait to send a probe to Pluto, and what we’ve found

February 21, 2017 - 6:04pm

(credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

BOSTON—Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto, started his talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting by showing off the Hubble Space Telescope's best image of Pluto. It was greeted by laughter, as it took only seconds for the audience to count the dozen pixels that contained actual data. “You may laugh again," Stern said. "We wrote numerous papers based on this image.”

He's now got a lot more data to work with, though he had to be very patient to get it. Not only did it take months to get all the data from New Horizons back to Earth, but it took decades to get the probe approved in the first place. Stern shared that tale with his audience in Boston.

Expanding Horizons

The astronomy community periodically gets together to do what are called Decadal Surveys, which help NASA set priorities for future missions. But as Stern put it, these surveys consider “many more good ideas than there is budget to execute.” So, Pluto missions had appeared in them five times without being approved. But a variety of data on Pluto trickled in even without a visit, and this gradually built the case for sending hardware there.

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AT&T says its merger with Time Warner is exactly what customers want

February 21, 2017 - 5:54pm

Enlarge / AT&T will own a bunch of new media properties if it is allowed to buy Time Warner. (credit: Aurich Lawson)

With AT&T planning to avoid a Federal Communications Commission review of its merger with Time Warner, Senate Democrats led by Al Franken (D-Minn.) recently asked the company to prove that the acquisition will benefit Americans.

AT&T gave its response on Friday with a letter that describes the merger’s promised benefits—including targeted advertising.

“More relevant advertising in ad-supported video services” is one of the customer benefits highlighted by AT&T in its letter. The company previously courted controversy by scanning customers' Web browsing in order to deliver personalized ads. Customers had to pay at least $29 a month extra to opt out of the personalized ads, but AT&T ultimately ended that program late last year.

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Tragic FDA reports of sick babies reveal toll of homeopathic products

February 21, 2017 - 5:42pm

Enlarge (credit: Philippa Willitts)

Food and Drug Administration reports obtained by STAT through a Freedom of Information Act request detail the heart-rending stories of babies and toddlers who became severely ill or died after taking homeopathic teething products—which, as Ars has reported, the FDA has found to contain inconsistent amounts of toxic belladonna, aka deadly nightshade.

The reports describe more than 370 infants becoming ill, with symptoms including twitching, seizing, losing consciousness, and turning blue. The illnesses have required emergency treatment and in some cases babies being airlifted to hospitals. Many of the symptoms are consistent with belladonna poisoning, which is known to cause seizures, vomiting, difficulty breathing, lethargy, excessive sleepiness, muscle weakness, skin flushing, constipation, difficulty urinating, blurred vision, and confusion.

In response to warnings last year from the FDA, Hyland’s stopped distributing the products in the US. However, Hyland’s has continued to insist that the products are safe and has refused to recall them. They can still be found in some retailers and online.

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Hacks all the time. Engineers recently found Yahoo systems remained compromised

February 21, 2017 - 4:45pm

Some five months after Yahoo disclosed a security breach that exposed sensitive data for 500 million accounts, some of its systems remained compromised, according to a report published Tuesday. The report said that in light of the hacks, Verizon would knock $350 million off the price it would pay to acquire Yahoo's Internet business.

"A recent meeting between technical staff of the two companies revealed that some of Yahoo’s systems were compromised and might be difficult to integrate with Verizon’s AOL unit," The Wall Street Journal reported, citing unnamed people. Verizon remains concerned that the breaches may hamper user engagement and in the process make the assets less valuable. Yahoo responded by cutting $350 million from the original $4.83 billion price tag, bringing the deal value to about $4.48 billion. It wasn't clear precisely when the meeting occurred.

In a release issued jointly by Yahoo and Verizon, the companies said neither the breaches nor any losses arising from them will be taken into account in determining whether a "Business Material Adverse Effect" has occurred or whether certain closing conditions have been satisfied. In addition to the $350 million price cut, the companies agreed to split the costs of responding to the breaches.

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Pluto scientists are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore

February 21, 2017 - 4:12pm

Enlarge / Just one of ... 110 planets in the Solar System? (credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

It's no secret that Alan Stern and other scientists who led the New Horizons mission were extremely displeased by Pluto's demotion from planet status in 2006 during a general assembly of the International Astronomical Union. They felt the IAU decision undermined the scientific and public value of their dramatic flyby mission to the former ninth planet of the Solar System.

But now the positively peeved Pluto people have a plan. Stern and several colleagues have proposed a new definition for planethood. In technical terms, the proposal redefines planethood by saying, "A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters." More simply, the definition can be stated as, “round objects in space that are smaller than stars."

Here's the thing about the new definition—a lot of bodies in the Solar System meet the criteria. Pluto does, of course, but so do many moons, including our own around Earth. There are also dozens of objects discovered in the Kuiper Belt, beyond Pluto's orbit, that meet the definition. In fact, the tally of "planets" under the new definition is now 110 and rising. (Also, Obi-Wan Kenobi would be proven correct. The Death Star would indeed be no moon but rather a planet, too.)

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Blizzard ends support for Windows XP and Vista

February 21, 2017 - 3:19pm

Enlarge (credit: Jeff Christensen / ContributorChristensen/WireImage)

If you took all the remaining Windows XP and Vista users in the world—a surprisingly robust 10 percent—and placed them in a Venn diagram with those that play Blizzard games, the intersection would likely be very, very small.

And yet, despite Microsoft ending mainstream support for XP and Vista in 2009 and 2012 (Windows XP limped on with security updates until 2014), Blizzard has continued to support World of Warcraft, StarCraft 2, Diablo 3, Hearthstone, and even Heroes of the Storm under the decrepit operating systems.

Or, at least it did. Beginning "later this year," Blizzard will sunset support for those games under XP and Vista. The change will be rolled out on a "staggered schedule," with Blizzard promising to post individual notices for each game. The games will refuse to run on an unsupported operating system once support ends.

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Apple accuses EU of a litany of “breaches” in defense of Irish tax deal

February 21, 2017 - 3:09pm

Enlarge / Street art graffiti seen in Dublin complaining about Apple avoiding tax payments in the European Union. (credit: William Murphy)

Apple has attempted to school the European Commission on how it interprets Irish law, by lodging no less than 14 pleas in its challenge against competition officials in Brussels who have ordered the iPhone maker to pay Ireland €13 billion (£11.1 billion) in back taxes.

The company claimed that the commission was wrong in its conclusion that Apple's tax arrangements with Dublin had amounted to a sweetheart deal for more than a decade, thereby breaking state aid rules.

Apple, in a bold dismissal of the case, is seeking a full or partial annulment and wants the commission—which is the executive arm of the European Union—to pay its legal costs.

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IBM’s Watson proves useful at fighting cancer—except in Texas

February 21, 2017 - 2:59pm

Enlarge / Dr. Abraham Schwarzberg, MD, chief of oncology at Jupiter Medical Center in Palm Beach County, Florida, reviews recommendations generated by IBM Watson for Oncology. (credit: Jupiter Medical Center)

IBM’s Watson is on the move. With the new ability to quickly develop clever personalized treatment strategies for cancer patients, Watson is making its debut in hospitals around the world—from the US to India, Korea, and China. Earlier this month, a medical center in Jupiter, Florida, announced it too was welcoming the famed, Jeopardy-winning computing system into its hospital rooms.

But, there’s one place where Watson isn’t moving: The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. In fact, Watson is frozen there. And it’s more than just a computer glitch.

According to a blistering audit by the University of Texas System, the cancer center grossly mismanaged its splashy program with IBM, which started back in 2012. The program aimed to teach Watson how to treat cancer patients and match them to clinical trials. Watson initially met goals and impressed center doctors, but the project hit the rocks as MD Anderson officials snubbed their own IT experts, mishandled about $62 million in funding, and failed to follow basic procedures for overseeing contracts and invoices, the audit concludes.

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Battle of the buds: How Apple AirPods stack up against other wireless earbuds

February 21, 2017 - 12:00pm

Enlarge (credit: Valentina Palladino)

Apple's iPhone 7 isn't the first phone to ship without a headphone jack. But the iPhone 7 is definitely the most important and popular phone to discard the headphone jack, and Apple is dragging the industry toward a wireless future, whether we like it or not. At least the company provided its own solution, eventually: its $159 AirPods are one of the newest truly wireless earbuds you can buy. By "truly wireless," we mean they're just two buds that sit in both ears without anything connecting them. Much like other Apple technology, AirPods are not the only truly wireless buds on the market. They're certainly not the only regular wireless buds available.

But again, like other Apple technologies, AirPods have a unique spin that sets them apart from the competition. Apple hopes to convince consumers that its buds are the best to pair with their iPhones, but consumers have many options to choose from when it comes to competing wireless earbuds. I tested a handful of wireless buds to see how the AirPods stack up in terms of ease of use, comfort, music quality, and battery life. I've done an anecdotal assessment of music quality for all the buds I reviewed. I spent hours with each pair, listening to a variety of music including pop, rock, jazz, and classical in environments with different levels of outside noise.

Specs compared: AirPods and competitors Device AirPods Powerbeats3 Skybuds Verve One Price $159 $199 $219 $199 Onboard call and music controls Voice with Siri only Inline remote, voice with Siri Onboard buttons, can access Siri and Google Now Onboard buttons, can access Siri and Google Now Interchangeable ear tips No Yes Yes Yes Included charging case Yes No Yes Yes Local music storage No No No No Built-in mic Yes Yes Yes Yes Compatibility Android and iOS Android and iOS Android and iOS Android and iOS Battery life 5 hours 12 hours 4 hours 4 hours Battery life with charging case 24 hours N/A 12 hours 24 hours

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Chinese solar exports fall in 2016 with global anti-dumping measures

February 21, 2017 - 1:12am

Enlarge (credit: Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Lab)

Chinese financial and business news site Caixin Media wrote that Chinese solar equipment exports fell 10 percent between 2015 and 2016. The statistics came from Zhang Sen, the secretary general of the solar division within China’s Chamber of Commerce for Imports and Exports of Machinery and Electronic Products, who spoke at a seminar late last week.

Zhang apparently attributed the drop to anti-dumping and anti-subsidy policies from the US, the EU, Australia, Canada, India, and Turkey, as well as to China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which was designed to encourage Chinese investment in neighboring economies. According to Caixin, the result of that initiative was that “solar power equipment such as panels and batteries have been manufactured and exported by other countries and thus don’t count as exports as such.”

The US and other countries have imposed tariffs on Chinese solar products for years. A large jump in tariffs came in 2012 when the US Commerce Department decided that Chinese manufacturers were wrongly undercutting US solar manufacturers. That year, many Chinese solar companies were hit with punitive tariffs of around 30 percent on equipment imported by the US. American solar panel manufacturers complained that Chinese manufacturers were taking advantage of massive loans from China’s state-run banks and counting on demand from foreign countries whose governments subsidized solar panels.

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Making a different case for guns as a public health issue

February 20, 2017 - 11:08pm

Enlarge / Close-up of a shotgun. (credit: Big Swede Guy)

BOSTON—Because both criminal violence and gun rights have become contentious political topics, research on the health and safety aspects of gun ownership in the US is barely funded. In fact, many have questioned whether it should be studied at all. But Northeastern University's Matthew Miller used a talk at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to argue that there's an area where the data shows a clear link between gun access and public health and that this topic reveals some hints as to how to better manage safety.

The issue in focus is suicide.

While the focus on gun safety has been in terms of violent crimes, suicide is actually a larger problem. In 2015, it was the 10th leading cause of death, and half of the suicides occurred through the use of firearms. That's roughly 22,000 of them—4,000 more than were killed in all forms of homicide. This large difference has held steady for several decades.

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Nintendo Switch retail boxes are an ocean of wasted space

February 20, 2017 - 10:40pm

We've finally received the Nintendo Switch here at Ars' Oribiting HQ, and while we're embargoed from telling you anything about the hardware or software at this point, we are allowed to talk about the physical game cartridges and their retail packaging. And when you open your first Nintendo Switch box, one thing immediately stands out: there is a lot of empty space.

Of course, packaging for physical video games has always had a decent amount of empty space. Historically, that's come partly out of a desire to include large instruction booklets and supporting material, and partly it's out of a marketing desire to make the product stand out on the shelves (we're looking at you, big box PC games).

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Hackers who took control of PC microphones siphon >600 GB from 70 targets

February 20, 2017 - 10:38pm

Enlarge (credit: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)

Researchers have uncovered an advanced malware-based operation that siphoned more than 600 gigabytes from about 70 targets in a broad range of industries, including critical infrastructure, news media, and scientific research.

The operation uses malware to capture audio recordings of conversations, screen shots, documents, and passwords, according to a blog post published last week by security firm CyberX. Targets are initially infected using malicious Microsoft Word documents sent in phishing e-mails. Once compromised, infected machines upload the pilfered audio and data to Dropbox, where it's retrieved by the attackers. The researchers have dubbed the campaign Operation BugDrop because of its use of PC microphones to bug targets and send the audio and other data to Dropbox.

"Operation BugDrop is a well-organized operation that employs sophisticated malware and appears to be backed by an organization with substantial resources," the CyberX researchers wrote. "In particular, the operation requires a massive back-end infrastructure to store, decrypt, and analyze several GB per day of unstructured data that is being captured from its targets. A large team of human analysts is also required to manually sort through captured data and process it manually and/or with Big Data-like analytics."

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Updated WhatsApp Statuses let you share photos and videos that disappear

February 20, 2017 - 7:15pm

Enlarge (credit: WhatsApp)

WhatsApp rolled out two-step verification last week, and now it's updating an existing feature to compete with Snapchat. The Facebook-owned messaging app announced today it's updating Statuses, which lets you tell friends where you are or what you're up to at the moment. New Statuses can include photos, videos, and gifs to make shared posts more fun and personal. These decorated or animated statuses disappear after 24 hours, making them akin to Snapchat Stories and story-sharing on Instagram (which is also owned by Facebook).

The Status update coincides with WhatsApp's eighth birthday (February 24), and the new feature will roll out to Android, iOS, and Windows users from now until that date. When WhatsApp first came out, the Status feature was its only feature, as the app was built to let friends and family know what you were doing or where you were. Once messaging was added, Status remained a text-only feature that you could update on a whim.

Now you can choose to add photos, videos, and animated gifs and scribble over them to add more personality to your statuses. Any update you make to your Status will remain on your account for 24 hours before it disappears. If you update it multiple times a day, that will create a string of status updates that are presented much like Snapchat and Instagram Stories. Friends can watch your status story and reply to you privately, but all one-to-one communication still has to be done within private messaging windows. Like every other correspondence in WhatsApp, all status updates are end-to-end encrypted.

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Teen’s selfie with the dying boy he shot leads to murder conviction

February 20, 2017 - 7:04pm

An 18-year-old Pennsylvania teen has been convicted of murdering his 16-year-old friend, and the incident came to light because the shooter posted a selfie with the dying boy via Snapchat.

Maxwell Morton (credit: Westmoreland County Jail)

Maxwell Morton faces up to 40 years in prison after being convicted of third-degree murder by a Westmoreland County jury last Thursday. Morton testified on his own behalf and said he did not intentionally kill Ryan Mangan in February 2015. Instead, Morton said, the boys were playing with what he thought was an unloaded handgun that he pointed at Mangan and fired.

During the four-day trial, Morton testified that he took the selfie to memorialize what happened to his "best friend." "Something in my head told me to take a picture of what happened," said Morton, who was 16 at the time of the murder. The selfie, taken with a mobile phone, shows Morton smiling in front of Mangan's body slumped in a chair. Defense attorneys unsuccessfully tried to exclude the picture from trial, but jurors were eventually shown the image. They spent six hours deliberating, and ultimately the jury did not believe the first-degree-murder allegations that the defendant had intentionally shot Mangan in the face.

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