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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 14 min ago

Sea of Thieves makes a weak, meandering first impression

March 24, 2018 - 5:15pm

Enlarge / High boredom on the high seas. (credit: Rare)

Sea of Thieves leaves a bewildering first impression, a magnificent second one, and, so far, a disappointing lasting taste. The piratical goof-'em-up does almost nothing to explain itself, and much of the game’s joy is in discovering how to navigate and progress through its multiplayer pond. The problem is, once you learn the basics, you just as quickly find Sea of Thieves provides very little in the way of interesting goals and tasks to perform.

This goes beyond a lack of content to a more basic dearth of interactivity. The very first seconds of your buccaneer career are marred with strange, artificial limitations that continue to pockmark the rest of the game. In a game where progression is largely about unlocking cosmetics, for instance, you’re not allowed to customize your own character. Sea of Thieves simply boots up a load of randomly generated avatars which you can re-roll as many times as you like before making your final choice.

After loading a scallywag not quite to my liking, I was greeted by 20 seconds of on-screen text, the game’s limited excuse for a tutorial. That text explained how to access my inventory, where to pick up quests, and... that’s about it. Essentials like the finer points of sailing control and just how the quest system works are blank spaces that have to be filled in by the player (or the players, if you’re playing with friends or strangers, as you really should).

Open eyes, open ocean

After some solo bumbling on my boat, trying to figure out just how to make it go, I intuited that the sails were likely roped to whatever control mechanism Sea of Thieves provided. Sure enough: I traced those rope lines between mast and bulkhead to find the “controls.” From there, it was mostly smooth, entirely enjoyable sailing.

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Sticking to your diet? This tooth-mounted food sensor could transmit the truth

March 24, 2018 - 4:00pm

Logan Garbarini models the 2x2 mm sensor that monitors ingested fluids and transmits information wirelessly. (credit: Fio Omenetto, Tufts University)

With this latest wearable gadget, you could really sink your teeth into tracking your diet and health.

A tiny tooth-mounted sensor can wirelessly transmit radio frequency data about the foods you’re noshing, reporting on sugar, salt, and alcohol in real-time. The creators, led by biomedical engineer Fiorenzo Omenetto of Tufts University, hope that the dental device will someday help consumers and researchers make “conclusive links between dietary intake and health.” They report their prototype in a study that will be published next week in the journal Advanced Materials.

Omenetto’s team has long been working on such radio frequency sensors—ones for the skin, brain, and surgical implants. It made sense to move to the mouth, Omenetto tells Ars. “There are a plethora of markers in the mouth that… are very relevant to our health states,” he said. But the team was in talks with the nutrition researchers at Tufts that they thought “’gee, wouldn’t it be great if you could track your diet.’”

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NBA Jam, Sonic 1, Ultima Online remembered with rare stories, concept art

March 24, 2018 - 3:00pm

SAN FRANCISCO—With every year of the Game Developers Conference, there comes a rash of panels. This being a developer- and coder-centric event, they focus largely on niche game-design topics like rendering techniques, procedural generation, and art pipelines. That's all informative and thorough, well and good, but one animator's treasure can be another programmer's trash.

For nerdy panels that have something to offer everyone, we look to GDC's classic postmortems: the stories of long-ago games from the designers who led the projects and still remember a lot from those '70s, '80s, and (now) early '90s games.

This year's two best GDC postmortems landed firmly in the early '90s, with one of the games in focus, NBA Jam, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Both postmortem'ed franchises exploded as rebellious, industry-shifting upstarts during their era, and as such, their GDC origin stories included plenty of attitude and jokes. Even better, the staffers for both of these series came with reams of data in hand—and in one case, there might be delectable, super-rare EPROMs to follow.

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The Mac gaming console time has forgot

March 24, 2018 - 2:00pm

Enlarge / Nope, that's not an Xbox, Playstation, or even a Dreamcast... (credit:'s Museum)

Apple in mid-1993 was reeling. Amidst declining Mac sales, Microsoft had gained a stranglehold over the PC industry. Worse, the previous year Apple had spent $600 million on research and development, on products such as laser printers, powered speakers, color monitors, and the Newton MessagePad system—the first device to be branded a "personal digital assistant," or PDA. But little return had yet come from it—or indeed looked likely to come from it.

The Newton's unreliable handwriting recognition was quickly becoming the butt of jokes. Adding to the turmoil, engineering and marketing teams were readying for a radical transition from the Motorola 68k (also known as the 680x0) family of microprocessors that had powered the Mac since 1984 to the PowerPC, a new, more powerful computer architecture that was jointly developed by Apple, Motorola, and IBM. Macs with 68k processors wouldn't be able to run software built for PowerPC. Similarly, software built for 68k Macs would need to be updated to take advantage of the superior PowerPC.

It was in this environment that COO Michael Spindler—a German engineer and strategist who'd climbed through the ranks of Apple in Europe to the very top layer of executive management—was elevated to CEO. (The previous CEO, John Sculley, was asked to resign.) Spindler spearheaded a radical and cost-heavy reorganisation of the company, which harmed morale and increased the chaos, and he developed a reputation for having horrendous people skills. He'd hold meetings in which he'd ramble incoherently, scribble illegible notes on a whiteboard, then leave before anybody could ask a question, and his office was usually closed.

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Leaked data suggests Uber self-driving car program may be way behind Waymo [updated]

March 24, 2018 - 1:30pm

Enlarge (credit: Uber)

Insiders have long viewed Uber as a laggard in the driverless car race, but internal documents obtained by The New York Times suggest that the company's self-driving car program may be even further behind its rivals than had been publicly known.

The key statistic: prior to last Sunday's fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona, Uber's self-driving cars in Arizona were "struggling" to go 13 miles between interventions by a safety driver—known as a disengagement.

The Times points out that, in 2017, Waymo's self-driving cars in California traveled 5,600 miles between incidents in which a driver had to take over for safety reasons. Cruise, GM's self-driving car subsidiary, had a safety-related disengagement once every 1,250 miles in the state. We don't know either company's statistics in Arizona because Arizona law doesn't require them to be disclosed.

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Spirit Island review: Finally, an anti-colonialist board game

March 24, 2018 - 1:00pm

Enlarge / Get off my island.

A side effect of Euro-style board games’ preoccupation with European history as a theme is that many such games hinge on colonialism. Most board games are not “pro-colonialist,” of course, but simulating a long history of European imperialism necessarily means that a lot of us sit around on game nights trying to figure out the most efficient way to exploit the resources (and sometimes, uncomfortably, the people) of a newly “discovered” land.

Spirit Island, a cooperative strategy game for one to four players, flips this well-worn script on its head. Instead of playing as settlers building out villages and roads in a new land, you and your friends take on the role of god-like elemental spirits charged with protecting the island's various landscapes from those pesky invaders, who are controlled by the game itself. It’s kind of like a complex, wildly asymmetric Pandemic—but here, people are the disease.

The island's natives are there to help you fight back when they can, but it's mostly up to you and your teammates to destroy the settlers' fledgling cities, remove the blight they introduce as they ravage your pristine lands, and gain more and better powers to help you on your way. Gameplay is driven by cards, and as the game progresses, you'll get more and better powers and strike more and more fear into the invaders' hearts. Drive them off to win.

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Nine Iranians indicted by US for hacking to steal research data

March 23, 2018 - 11:20pm


Today, the Department of Justice announced charges against nine Iranian nationals connected to the Mabna Institute, a company which an FBI spokesman said was "created in 2013 for the express purpose of illegally gaining access to non-Iranian scientific resources through computer intrusions." The stolen data was largely acquired from universities, but academic journal publishers, tech companies, other private companies, government organizations, and the United Nations were targeted as well.

The hacking campaign was central to a line of business at Mabna Institute, which acts as a sort of pirated JSTOR for the Iranian academic and research community. Mabna, the indictment claims, "was set up in order to assist Iranian universities [and] scientific and research organizations to obtain access to non-Iranian scientific resources." In that capacity, DOJ attorneys claim, "The Mabna Institute contracted with Iranian governmental and private entities to conduct hacking activities on their behalf."

In addition to acquiring research that the US and other countries banned access to in Iran and providing it to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the principals of Mabna also sold both stolen research documents and access to hacked organizations' online libraries through and—websites controlled by Abdollah Karima, one of the principals of Mabna Institute. Over a four year period, Manba Institute is alleged to have gained access to computers at over 300 universities—roughly half of them in the United States—while gathering up a total of 31.5 terabytes of research data. Additionally, about 7,996 university accounts were compromised—about 3,768 of them at US universities.

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Cambridge Analytica’s London offices raided by British investigators

March 23, 2018 - 11:05pm

Enlarge / The offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London. Facebook expressed outrage over the misuse of its data as Cambridge Analytica, the British firm at the center of a major scandal rocking the social media giant, suspended its chief executive. (credit: Brais G. Rouco/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

British enforcement officers have entered the London headquarters of Cambridge Analytica, according to The Guardian and the BBC.

The raid appears to have come after Wednesday's formal approval for a search warrant by a local judge.

"We are pleased with the decision of the Judge, and the warrant is now being executed," said an unnamed spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office, the United Kingdom’s data privacy watchdog, in a Friday statement. "This is just one part of a larger investigation into the use of personal data and analytics for political purposes. As you will expect, we will now need to collect, assess and consider the evidence before coming to any conclusions."

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Tumblr finally names the 84 accounts it says were Russian trolls

March 23, 2018 - 10:36pm

Enlarge (credit: Aditya Irawan/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On Friday, Tumblr published a list of accounts that it said were linked to "state-sponsored disinformation campaigns."

The list of 84 accounts appeared to have been suspended or deleted, and they are believed to be linked to Russian efforts to influence Americans in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Other tech companies, including Twitter, Facebook, and Google, have previously come forward and even testified before Congress concerning what they experienced on their platforms. However, Tumblr, which is owned by Oath (a Verizon subsidiary), has not.

In February, Special Counsel Robert Mueller released a 37-page indictment against the Internet Research Agency, a well-known Russian bot and troll factory, and named 13 Russians on charges of "conspiracy to defraud the United States," wire fraud, and bank fraud, among others. Tumblr, however, was not specifically named.

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A critical analysis of the latest cellphone safety scare

March 23, 2018 - 8:50pm

Enlarge / Maybe don't rush to throw away that scary death phone quite yet. (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty)

Last night, a fellow editor emailed me a link to yet another study purporting to show that cellphone use could be associated with cancer. This one was worth looking at in more detail, however, because it purported to see an increase in a specific cancer—the same type of cancer that was increased in a problematic US government study.

A quick glance at the study identified significant issues with its primary conclusion. Normally, at this point, the decision would be to skip coverage unless the study picked up unwarranted attention from the rest of the media. (See: Scott Kelly's DNA). But in this case, we thought we'd describe how we went about evaluating the paper, since it could help more people identify similar issues in the future.

Background checks

The first step in evaluating a scientific paper is to get ahold of a copy of the paper. Fortunately, this one has been placed online by an organization that consistently promotes the idea that cell phones create health risks. The Environmental Health Trust's involvement shouldn't be seen as a positive or a negative; they've promoted very low-quality material in the past, but the organization would undoubtedly promote higher quality studies if those agreed with its stance.

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In court, oil companies accept climate science but rewrite its history

March 23, 2018 - 8:32pm

Enlarge / Judge Alsup, here shown giving a talk about a judge he clerked with. (credit: US Courts)

Earlier this week, we took a crack at answering a federal judge’s questions about climate science for readers who may have asked similar ones. And on Wednesday, Judge William Alsup finally got his answers during a five-hour hearing.

The case was brought by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland against a handful of oil companies that those cities feel should help pay for the effects of sea-level rise. This claim centers on the idea that internal documents show the companies knew climate change was human-caused even as they publicly campaigned otherwise in the 1980s and 1990s.

Before the case gets rolling, Judge Alsup wanted each side to put their climate science cards on the table, establishing any disagreement on how our knowledge has evolved over time. He also wanted a few questions of his own answered about why we are certain humans are responsible for global warming.

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Tesla and SpaceX just scrubbed their Facebook pages

March 23, 2018 - 7:56pm

Enlarge / SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks at the International Astronautical Congress on September 29, 2017 in Adelaide, Australia. (credit: Mark Brake/Getty Images)

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has deleted the companies’ Facebook pages in response to the ongoing Cambridge Analytica brouhaha, joining some now-former Facebook users in their protest of the social media giant’s corporate behavior.

The move comes a week after revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a British data firm that contracted with the Donald Trump presidential campaign, retained private data from 50 million Facebook users despite claiming to have deleted it.

(credit: Cyrus Farivar)

New reporting on Cambridge Analytica has spurred massive public outcry from users and politicians, with even CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling it a "breach of trust." At least two lawsuits have been filed as a result.

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Chrome 66 will try to block unwanted noisy autoplaying video

March 23, 2018 - 7:40pm

Google is continuing to work to crack down on autoplaying video around the Web. On the one hand, having a new tab unexpectedly start squawking and making a racket is tremendously annoying. But on the other hand, we visit sites like YouTube explicitly to watch video and probably want those videos to play as soon as the page loads. Chrome 66, due for release in mid-April, will include a new heuristic system that will attempt to block noisy autoplaying video when it's unwanted while still permitting it on sites like YouTube and Netflix where the video is the entire purpose of the site.


Under the new policy, Google is defining four classes of video that will be allowed to autoplay. The first three categories are fairly straightforward. Silent videos with no audio content at all will always be allowed to autoplay. If a user interacts with a site (an action that includes tapping or clicking on a site, not merely scrolling on it), the site will be able to autoplay video during that browser session. Sites that are pinned to the Android home screen are also allowed to autoplay.

The fourth category is more complex. In the desktop browser, sites that are frequently used for media playback will be allowed to autoplay video, provided that the video meets certain criteria. Chrome will track each visit to such sites and make a record of interaction to play the video. To qualify for autoplaying, a user must have made at least five visits to a site and must have elected to play "significant" video on the site on at least 70 percent of those visits. If over time the number of video playbacks drops to below 50 percent, autoplay will be disabled on the site. Video is only deemed to be "significant" if it's larger than 200×140, has an audio track, isn't muted, and is on a visible tab.

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Blind cavefish seem to ignore insulin without health consequences

March 23, 2018 - 7:00pm

Enlarge (credit: Zachary Zakibe)

The Mexican tetra comes in different flavors. In normal river habitats, it’s a small, standard-looking, silvery fish. But some groups within the species have made their home in dark, food-scarce caves. Evolution has quickly rid these groups of their resource-hungry eyes and turned them into pinkish, chubby, blind cavefish—with a bunch of metabolic changes that help them survive in the extreme environment.

A paper in Nature this week reports that the cavefish are resistant to insulin, a condition that can cause damage on its own and is often a precursor to diabetes. But the fish somehow don’t suffer the same kinds of tissue damage that humans do when we have insulin resistance. The authors of the paper, led by Harvard geneticist Misty Riddle, report on how they tried to get to the bottom of the genetic mutations that contribute to this metabolic mystery. Their results show just how much variety exists in how different species respond to insulin—and that studying these fish more could help our understanding of diabetes.

High blood sugar

After you eat something, your blood sugar rises, and your pancreas releases insulin to deal with the increase. The insulin binds to specialized receptors, found on the surfaces of muscle, fat, and liver cells, telling them to absorb glucose from the blood. In between meals when blood glucose levels drop, a different hormone (glucagon) prompts the liver to release its stored glucose back into the blood.

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Chinese space station will fall to Earth within two weeks

March 23, 2018 - 5:40pm

Enlarge / Tiangong-1 altitude decay forecast as of March 22, 2018. (credit: ESA)

China's first space station may fall to the ground as soon as one week from now, and certainly within two, orbital debris experts with the European Space Agency (ESA) say. Scientists, however, still cannot predict with any confidence where pieces of the 10.4-meter long Tiangong-1 station, which is traveling at 17,000 km/h, will land.

The latest estimate from the ESA indicates the station will enter Earth's atmosphere between March 30 and April 3, at which time most of the station will burn up. However, the station is large enough—it weighed 8.5 tons when fully fueled but has since used much of that propellant—that some pieces will very likely reach the planet's surface.

Beyond the fact that the station will reach a final impact point somewhere between 42.8 degrees north and 42.8 degrees south in latitude and probably near the northern or southern extremity of those boundaries due to Tiangong-1's orbital inclination, it is not possible to say where on Earth the debris will land. However, the likelihood of it affecting humans is quite low. Scientists estimate the "personal probability of being hit by a piece of debris from the Tiangong-1" is about 10 million times smaller than the annual chance of being hit by lightning.

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Congress votes for spending bill without Trump energy cuts; Trump signs bill [update]

March 23, 2018 - 5:32pm

Enlarge (credit: CatLane / Getty Images)

On Friday morning, the US Senate passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill that could avert yet another government shutdown. Although the bill covers the breadth of US government activities, one interesting outcome of budget negotiations is that the spending bill reflects none of President Trump's most drastic proposed cuts to Department of Energy (DOE) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) renewable energy and early-stage energy programs.

In fact, the omnibus spending bill, which would secure funding out to September 2018, even increased the budgets of some renewable energy programs.

Update: Trump signed the bill Friday afternoon after threatening to veto it. Politico reported on Thursday that the president was in favor of the bill, but on Friday he tweeted that he might veto it due to the fact that the bill did not include funding for a border wall.

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DNC “lone hacker” Guccifer 2.0 pegged as Russian spy after opsec fail

March 23, 2018 - 5:00pm

Vladimir Putin at an award ceremony at the Museum of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency. A GRU officer was reportedly behind the creation of the Guccifer 2.0 persona. (credit: Office of the President of Russia)

Soon after the June 2016 announcement by CrowdStrike that the Democratic National Committee's network had been the victim of a long-running breach perpetrated by Russian intelligence agencies, someone going by the name "Guccifer 2.0" suddenly materialized to take credit for the breach. Guccifer 2.0 started leaking internal DNC documents soon after. Intelligence officials and security experts have previously insisted that Guccifer 2.0 was in fact part of a Russian intelligence information operations campaign and not, as the person or persons behind the blog and social media accounts associated with the Guccifer 2.0 identity insisted, a Romanian hacker inspired by the original Guccifer.

Now, the Daily Beast reports that intelligence officials had direct evidence of Guccifer's true identity. One of the individuals maintaining Guccifer 2.0's social media presence forgot to use a virtual private network to access a US-based social media platform, thus leaving an Internet Protocol address located in Moscow in the service's logs. Working from that address, a source told the Daily Beast's Spencer Ackerman and Kevin Poulsen that analysts were able to dig deeper and associate Guccifer 2.0 with a single individual: "a GRU officer working out of the agency’s headquarters on Grizodubovoy Street in Moscow," Paulson and Ackerman reported. (The GRU, or Russian General Main Staff Intelligence Directorate, is Russia's largest foreign intelligence agency.)

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Earwig’s wing inspires compact designs that fold themselves

March 23, 2018 - 2:56pm

Enlarge (credit: Dr. Jakob Faber, ETH Zürich)

I have to admit that even as someone who is fascinated by most insects, the earwig freaks me out. Upon seeing one, I'm typically too busy trying to squash it to notice any details about its anatomy. So it was a bit of a surprise to find out that not only do they have wings, but their wings are world record holders in a specific aspect of insect winginess: they take up the least space when folded compared to their extended size. The ratio between these states can reach as high as 18-to-one.

With that fact in mind, I was less surprised to find out that researchers have decided to study this bit of biology to see if they can derive any insights from what evolution has done with the earwig. In today's issue of Science, there is a report on what has been learned by three researchers: Jakob Faber and André Studart of ETH Zurich and Andres Arrieta of Purdue University. They find that, to mimic the earwig's wing, an origami-style folding approach won't do. Instead, they have designed and 3D-printed a selection of meta-stable designs that, with a small input of energy, rapidly flip between folded and unfolded states.

When many people, including most materials scientists, think of folding, their first thought is origami. But the research team found that the earwig's "exquisite natural folding system" behaves in a way that "cannot be sufficiently described by current origami models." Part of the issue is one of materials science: there are certain folding patterns in the wing that just can't be done by creating a crease in a single material or using the straight lines of origami. In addition, the wing is bi-stable, holding itself in place during flight with minimal input from muscles and folding up entirely without any muscular energy being expended.

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Police chief said Uber victim “came from the shadows”—don’t believe it

March 23, 2018 - 2:06pm

Enlarge / A frame from Brian Kaufman's video shows the spot where Elaine Herzberg was killed. (credit: Brian Kaufman)

On Sunday night, an Uber self-driving car killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. A key argument in Uber's defense has been that the road was so dark that even an attentive driver would not have spotted Herzberg in the seconds before the crash.

Herzberg "came from the shadows right into the roadway," Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday. "The driver said it was like a flash."

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Craigslist personals, some subreddits disappear after FOSTA passage

March 23, 2018 - 1:22pm

Enlarge / CEO of Reddit Alexis Ohanian attends WORLDZ Cultural Marketing Summit 2017 at Hollywood and Highland on July 31, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (credit: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for PTTOW!)

In the wake of this week’s passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) bill in both houses of Congress on Wednesday, Craigslist has removed its "Personals" section entirely, and Reddit has removed some related subreddits, likely out of fear of future lawsuits.

FOSTA, which awaits the signature of President Donald Trump before becoming law, removes some portions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The landmark 1996 law shields website operators that host third-party content (such as commenters, for example) from civil liability. The new bill is aimed squarely at Backpage, a notorious website that continues to allow prostitution advertisements and has been under federal scrutiny for years.

In a bizarre turn of events, the Department of Justice also warned the House in February 2018 that the bill "raises a serious constitutional concern," as it would apply retroactively—a seeming violation of the Constitution's ex post facto clause. Congress passed it anyway.

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