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Ars Technica
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Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 3 min 29 sec ago

As coal stalls, Wyoming considers new environmental clean-up rules

September 20, 2018 - 10:20pm

Enlarge / GILLETTE, Wyo.: A truck loaded with coal is viewed from the Eagle Butte Coal Mine Overlook which is operated by Alpha Coal. The area is a large producer of coal. Gillette uses the moniker of "The Energy Capital of the Nation". (Photo by (credit: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Wyoming's Land Quality Advisory Board voted to limit so-called "self-bonding" in the state, a practice that allows coal and other mining companies to avoid putting up any collateral to reclaim land when the company is done with the mine. The new proposed rules will go through a public comment period and then need to be signed by the governor of the state to take effect, according to the Casper Star-Tribune.

The board's passage of the proposed rules is somewhat surprising in a coal-heavy state, because it could potentially raise the cost of coal mining in Wyoming for some companies. However, there is political support for more stringent environmental rules after a number of coal companies filed for bankruptcy in recent years. Although no companies ended up abandoning mine cleanup to the state, the specter of hundreds of millions of dollars of cleanup in the event of another coal downturn has left regulators eager to limit how much damage the state could be on the hook for. The five-person advisory board voted 4-1 in favor of limiting self-bonding. The board member who voted against limits to self-bonding works for Peabody Energy, a major coal producer in the state.

The limits wouldn't do away with self-bonding in Wyoming. Instead, to qualify for self-bonding, a coal company would have to have a strong credit-rating and would be expected to run the mine for at least five more years. The Star-Tribune notes that credit ratings for coal firms also factor in the health of the market, so the state of Wyoming wouldn't have to independently evaluate the larger economic risks to a mine going under.

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Cody Wilson reportedly trying to rent an apartment in Taiwan, per local media

September 20, 2018 - 9:30pm

Enlarge / Cody Wilson (right), the founder of Defense Distributed, spoke to reporters in Austin on August 28. (credit: Nathan Mattise)

After skipping his flight back to the US in the wake of accusations of sexual assault against a minor, Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson attempted to rent an apartment in Taipei this week, according to United Daily News (Chinese, Google Translate), a Chinese-language media outlet based in Taiwan.

That article indicates that Wilson appears to have initially passed himself off as an American student living in the city. But after Wilson seemed to have secured an apartment by making an initial down payment, the rental agency reportedly recognized him and called the authorities. UDN writes that area police and Taiwan's Criminal Investigation Bureau are now trying to again locate Wilson.

On Wednesday, police in Austin, Texas, first announced that they had a warrant out for the arrest of the 3D-printed gun pioneer on that allegation of sexual assault of an underage girl. At a press conference later that afternoon, the Austin Police Department revealed that Wilson’s last known location was Taiwan and that the department was not sure whether Wilson had gone to Taiwan on legitimate business or whether he was expressly trying to flee the United States.

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GPS tracked the land sink under the weight of Hurricane Harvey’s rain

September 20, 2018 - 9:29pm

Enlarge (credit: US Coast Guard / Flickr)

Shortly after Hurricane Harvey unleashed its flooding on Houston, we wrote about a remarkable observation shared by a scientist on Twitter: the weight of all that floodwater had measurably depressed the Earth’s crust. This week, a more detailed study of that observation was published in the journal Science Advances.

A team of researchers led by Chris Milliner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory extended its analysis to the weeks after the hurricane and found that the network of sensitive GPS sensors could actually track the volume of floodwater as it receded.

While bedrock is commonly considered representative of concepts like “firm” and “unmovable,” it has some compressibility when the forces are big enough. This “elastic” behavior explains how the land surface around Houston could sag slightly under the weight of Harvey’s prodigious rainfall.

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Top drone: Reaper scores drone kill in air-to-air missile test

September 20, 2018 - 9:15pm

Enlarge / The MQ-9 Reaper isn't a fighter aircraft. But it could soon be armed to take out other drones, helicopters, or other aircraft, after a successful kill with a heat-seeking missile in a November 2017 test. (credit: US Air Force)

The US Air Force has revealed that an MQ-9 Reaper uncrewed aircraft successfully shot down a smaller drone with a heat-seeking air-to-air missile in a test last November. The details, provided by Col. Julian Cheater, commander of the 432nd Wing, came in an interview with at the Air Force Association's Air, Space, and Cyber Conference in Washington, DC, yesterday.

The Air Force's Air Combat Command has been exploring ways to arm the MQ-9 with air-to-air weapons since 2003. That was when the Air Force was preparing to issue a contract to General Atomics for the uncrewed aircraft, which was known at the time as the Predator-B. Much of the problem has been that the MQ-9, which is flown over a satellite communications link by Air Force operators, lacks the kind of sensors a fighter aircraft would use to track and target other aircraft. Its Lynx multimode radar is a synthetic aperture radar intended for tracking surface targets on land and sea and for providing ground imaging—but not for searching for other aircraft. Its other sensors (other than navigational cameras) were intended for tracking things below as well. And the MQ-9 lacks the sort of electronic-warfare sensors and countermeasures of crewed combat aircraft.

However, the Reaper's Multispectral Targeting System (MTS) has proven to be usable for tracking some types of flying targets. In 2016, the latest version of MTS, the MTS-C, successfully tracked missile launches in a test conducted by the Missile Defense Agency. The MTS-C added long-wave infrared to the short and medium infrared wavelength sensors used in previous versions, allowing the sensor to track "cold body" objects.

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Big nutrition research scandal sees 6 more retractions, purging popular diet tips

September 20, 2018 - 8:39pm

Enlarge / Broken plate with knife and fork on white background. (credit: Getty | PM Images)

Brian Wansink, the Cornell nutrition researcher who was world-renowned for his massively popular, commonsense-style dieting studies before ultimately goingdown in flames in a beefy statistics scandal, has now resigned—with a considerably slimmer publication record.

JAMA’s editorial board retracted six studies co-authored by Wansink from its network of prestigious publications on Wednesday, September 19. The latest retractions bring Wansink’s total retraction count to 13, according to a database compiled by watchdog publication Retraction Watch. Fifteen of Wansink’s other studies have also been formally corrected.

Amid this latest course in the scandal, Buzzfeed reported today that Wansink has resigned from his position at Cornell, effective at the end of the current academic year. The announcement comes a day before Cornell planned to release its findings from an internal investigation into his work.

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Amazon announces 11 new and refreshed Echo-branded gadgets—like a wall clock

September 20, 2018 - 8:25pm

Sam Machkovech

SEATTLE—"Echo Dot is the best-selling speaker ever."

With that simple assertion, Amazon made no bones about its aspirations to keep making Echo-branded devices—and proceeded to unveil a significant number of voice-activated and connected-home products and technologies, with a mix of existing products and all-new ones.

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Tesla Model 3 earns five-star NHTSA crash rating

September 20, 2018 - 8:10pm


A video of a Tesla Model 3 crashing is rarely cause for celebration. But today it is, because the videos are of recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) safety tests, which the littlest Tesla just aced. Whether it was front impact, side impact, or rollover testing, the Model 3 performed to a T, earning the full five stars on each test.

We probably should not act particularly shocked: both Tesla Model S and Model X also scored top marks in NCAP testing. What's more, the very layout of battery EVs affords them inherent advantages.

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Senate can’t protect senators, staff from cyber attacks, Wyden warns

September 20, 2018 - 7:45pm

Enlarge / The Senate's IT security team can't protect senators' and staffers' own devices and accounts. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wants to change that. (credit: Martin Falbisoner / Wikimedia Commons)

Sen. Ron Wyden has been a squeaky wheel about the US Senate's weak security posture for a while. In April, the Oregon Democrat raised objections over the lax physical security measures for Senate staff—including ID badges that just have pictures of smart chips like those on other access cards used across government agencies, rather than actual chips, and provide no access controls. Now, as the November mid-term election approaches, Wyden has written a letter to Senate leadership decrying the lack of assistance that the Senate's own information security team can provide in protecting senators' accounts and devices from targeted attacks, even as evidence mounts that such attacks are being staged.

According to Wyden, his office had discovered that "at least one major technology company" had recently detected targeted attacks against members of the Senate and their staffers—and that these attacks had apparently been staged by groups tied to foreign intelligence agencies.

Microsoft reported thwarting spear-phishing attacks staged by a group tied to Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) against members of the Senate in August. And the US Senate's own systems have been targeted in the past, including a June 2017 effort by the same GRU group (known as "Fancy Bear," "Pawnstorm," and "Sofacy") that created a server spoofing the Senate's own Windows Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS), according to a report from Trend Micro.

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The last nuclear reactors under construction in the US are facing opposition

September 20, 2018 - 6:59pm

Enlarge / Vogtle unit 3. (credit: Georgia Power)

Two nuclear reactors are under construction at Vogtle's nuclear power plant in Georgia, and they are a lonely pair in a stagnating US nuclear industry. Now, leaders of municipalities and utilities that are on the hook to buy electricity from Vogtle's new reactors are saying they want the project stopped to save their customers from having to shoulder the cost burden.

The three major owners of the construction project are expected to vote on whether to keep it or cut losses in the coming days.

Costs for Vogtle and its sister reactors at the Summer nuclear power plant in South Carolina ballooned to well over their roughly $7 billion estimated cost, and when reactor-maker Westinghouse went bankrupt last year, the projects faced a choice: end construction and move on or keep on trucking in the hopes that further construction costs could be limited.

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Bing starts serving AMP pages as Google prepares to reduce its control

September 20, 2018 - 6:45pm

Enlarge / Bing on a mobile device showing the AMP-powered carousel and an AMP story served from Bing's cache. (credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft's Bing search engine has started showing AMP pages to mobile searchers in the US. Pages using the proprietary tech will now be prominently displayed in search listings on the mobile website. Previously, Microsoft made limited use of AMP in some of its mobile apps but didn't use it on the Web.

AMP ("Accelerated Mobile Pages") is a project spearheaded by Google to improve the performance and embeddability of mobile content. It imposes tight restrictions on the scripting that pages can use, and it performs special handling of embedded images and media. To do this, Google uses a number of proprietary extensions to HTML, and AMP content all gets cached. Google serves AMP pages from its own servers, Bing uses Microsoft's servers, and Cloudflare also has an AMP caching service.

Though there is widespread acknowledgement that AMP is addressing real problems—the abundance of trackers, advertisements, and client-side scripts makes many webpages bandwidth-heavy and slow to load—many within the industry are unhappy at the proprietary, Google-controlled extensions, regarding them as anathema to the open Web.

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Dealmaster: Take 25 percent off a bunch of popular Nintendo Switch games

September 20, 2018 - 6:20pm

Enlarge (credit: TechBargains)

Greetings, Arsians! Courtesy of our friends at TechBargains, we have another round of deals to share. Today's list is headlined by a set of deals on high-profile Nintendo Switch games at Walmart and Amazon, including The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze, Splatoon 2, Kirby Star Allies, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and Mario Tennis Aces. All of them are 25 percent off, which works out to a $10-15 discount for each.

Not every game up there will be to everybody's liking—the competitive online focus of Mario Tennis Aces is a far cry from cutesy puzzles of Captain Toad, for instance—and most Switch (or Wii U) owners have probably played at least a few of these already. But if you're in need of something new to play, all the above titles are at least worth checking out. Go have a look at our reviews if you're on the fence about one in particular.

The catch here is that these discounts only apply to the physical copies of each game. That shouldn't be a dealbreaker for most—you'll use up less of the Switch's meager 32GB of internal storage—but it's worth noting that Nintendo just added the ability to share Switch downloads across consoles. Still, given that these games are going for full price in the Nintendo eShop and are tied for new lows here, waiting a couple days and dealing with a cartridge may be worth it.

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Guitar Hero TV’s planned shutdown spurs false advertising lawsuit

September 20, 2018 - 5:12pm

Enlarge / Just one of the hundreds of "Guitar Hero TV" songs that will no longer be playable in a few months.

A customer who bought Guitar Hero Live late last year has brought a proposed class-action lawsuit against Activision accusing the publisher of false advertising and other violations regarding the coming December shutdown of the game's online streaming "Guitar Hero TV" (GHTV) mode.

Activision announced that shutdown back in June, and we noted at the time that the move will make 92 percent of the game's playable songs permanently inaccessible. In the federal lawsuit, filed this week in Los Angeles, plaintiff Robert Fishel argues Activision's marketing led him to believe the game would be "playable online indefinitely or, at least, for a reasonable length of time from the date of release."

The lawsuit highlights Guitar Hero Live marketing that describes the Guitar Hero TV mode as "an always-on music video network... running 24-hours a day, seven days a week" with "a continuous broadcast of music videos" and "new videos continually added to the line-up." Marketing materials also promise that "you’ll be able to discover and play new songs all the time."

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Video: “Delta V,” our new series on all the happenings in the heavens, is live

September 20, 2018 - 4:45pm

Video edited by Kevin Gallagher. Click here for transcript. (video link)

During the last decade or so, there has been an incredible amount of money, time, and energy put into revitalizing the launch industry, both in the United States and around the world.

Less than a decade ago, no company had ever developed an orbital rocket on its own and successfully launched a payload into orbit. SpaceX finally accomplished that feat in September 2008, opening the floodgates of private investment. The aerospace world today is radically different as a result, with more than 100 companies now seeking to build orbital rockets of varying size, scope, and capacity.

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New Doctor Who trailer shows first female Doctor is still the boss

September 20, 2018 - 4:22pm

Doctor Who is coming back for its 11th season (since the modern reboot) next month, featuring the first-ever female Doctor (Jodie Whittaker). The BBC just released a new trailer, and it's clear from the footage that we've got a delightfully fresh take on the classic series ahead, while still keeping the most iconic elements that have made Doctor Who so enduring.

There were hints here and there over the last few seasons that, while the Doctor might have typically appeared in male form, a female incarnation was certainly possible. Count me among the longtime advocates for a female Doctor, particularly because it opens up an entirely new angle to the storytelling. It's one thing for a white male Time Lord to show up at various points in history. It's quite another for a strange woman to show up in, say, medieval England. So there's an opportunity for new kinds of conflicts and poignant shifts in relationships.

We got a taste of that during David Tennant's tenure as the 10th Doctor. In "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood," the Doctor takes the guise of a humble schoolteacher in 1913 London to escape detection by the so-called Family of Blood, who are pursuing him across time and space in hopes of draining his life force so they might survive. His companion, Martha, guards his Time Lord essence (in the form of a fob watch), since he will have no recollection of his no-human existence. But Martha is black (and female), which limits her own undercover identity options to that of a lowly maid in the school, scrubbing floors despite her medical degree. And, well, she's treated accordingly.

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Major Antarctic ice sheet shrank when it wasn’t much warmer than now

September 20, 2018 - 3:42pm

Enlarge (credit: NASA)

Are the big ice sheets in Antarctica stable in the face of the warming we've already committed to? That's a more serious question than it might sound. The continent is thought to hold enough ice to raise ocean levels by over 55 meters if it were to melt—enough to drown every single bit of coastal infrastructure we have and send people migrating far inland from the present-day shoreline.

But the melting of this ice is a complicated process, one that depends on things like the dynamics of glaciers as they push through coastal hills, the shape of the seafloor where the ice meets it, and the slope of the basins the ice sheets sit in. It's tough to reason out how much ice would be lost for a given bit of warming. As a result, we're left with historical comparisons—the last time it warmed by that amount, how much ice did we lose?

This week, we got some new information on this topic courtesy of a detailed study of Antarctica's Wilkes Subglacial Basin. The work showed that it wasn't so much the amount of warming the ice experienced; it was how long it stayed warm.

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Amazon Echo subwoofer and Alexa-capable smart plug may be on the way

September 20, 2018 - 3:10pm


Amazon seems to have given us a glimpse into some of its new, unreleased products. Listings on Amazon UK show a new Echo Sub, a subwoofer designed to work with Echo speakers, and a new Amazon Smart Plug, a socket adapter with Alexa capabilities, both with an availability date of October 11. Amazon has since removed the listings, but reports from Pocket-lint show images and details of the two new devices.

The Echo Sub looks like a fatter version of Amazon's Echo speaker, almost like a clone of Apple's HomePod. The wireless subwoofer includes a 6-inch down-firing woofer and 100W of bass, tech that would certainly improve the quality of existing Echo speakers. Some complained after Amazon released the updated version of the original Echo last year, claiming its sound quality was subpar.

Listed within the device's description is stereo pairing, a feature that hasn't been available to Echo speakers yet. Currently, users can only group multiple speakers together to fill a room with sound, but they won't get that rich, complex left/right stereo sound. It appears that will be possible with the Echo Sub connected to two compatible Echo devices.

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Straining a diamond makes silicon-based qubit behave

September 20, 2018 - 2:18pm

Enlarge / This is a diamond. It probably even has impurities suitable for making a qubit. It is not a quantum computer (credit: Roger Blake)

With the advent of toy quantum computers, I’ve been less interested in reporting on the developments of new qubit systems. That doesn’t mean I’ve been ignoring them. Instead, i'm seeing that lots of different types of qubits have deficiencies that are likely to lead to their abandonment at some point. Until I see those overcome, I tend to pay less attention.

Researchers are now reporting that they have overcome one of the major drawbacks in a silicon-doped diamond (SiV-) qubit. The qubit is no longer destroyed so easily and can be manipulated in ways that might make it quite flexible.

Qubits based around a defect in a crystal—in this case, caused by the placement of silicon in an otherwise all-carbon crystal—have been around for a while. But the qubit is way too sensitive to tiny vibrations called phonons. Phonons are basically the crystal’s way of moving heat around, so the amount of energy in a phonon is really tiny and hard to get rid of. Qubits that are readily destroyed by phonons are probably not very useful.

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Crowdfunding raises millions for quack cancer remedies, like coffee enemas

September 20, 2018 - 12:15pm

Enlarge / Bottles of herbal oils and dried plants used in alternative medicine. (credit: Getty | Martin Norris)

Doctors and clinics that peddle unproven, potentially harmful treatments to desperate cancer patients are pocketing millions thanks to donations collected on popular crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe. That’s according to data published recently in BMJ.

In just the UK, crowdfunding sites amassed around $10 million since 2012 for cancer treatments with an alternative-treatment element, the data indicate. Those figures were collected by the nonprofit organization the Good Thinking Society, which promotes scientific skepticism and rational thinking. Unfortunately, the group did not provide a similar tally for US-based donations. Earlier research had found that cancer patients who delay or skip conventional treatments in favor of "alternative" treatments have as much as a 5.7-fold increased risk of dying within five years than those who stick with conventional medicine.

Most of the crowdfunded treatments were administered at clinics in places such as the US, Germany, and Mexico, the Good Thinking Society found. The treatments included unproven “peptide vaccines” said to work against cancer cells, experimental immunotherapies, vitamin and mineral infusions, flax-seed and dangerous coffee enemas, various spa treatments, and dietary interventions, such as juice drinks. The treatments often cost patients anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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First hydrogen-powered train hits the tracks in Germany

September 20, 2018 - 11:30am

René Frampe, Alstom

French train-building company Alstom built two hydrogen-powered trains and delivered them to Germany last weekend, where they'll zoom along a 62-mile stretch of track that runs from the northern cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde, and Buxtehude. The new trains replace their diesel-powered counterparts and are the first of their kind, but they are likely not the last. Alstom is contracted to deliver 14 more hydrogen-powered trains, called Coradia iLint trains, before 2021.

The trains are an initial step toward lowering Germany's transportation-related emissions, a sector that has been intractable for policy makers in the country. But hydrogen fuel faces some chicken-and-egg-type problems. Namely, hydrogen is difficult to store, and making it a truly zero-emissions source of fuel requires renewable electricity to perform water electrolysis. The more common option for creating hydrogen fuel involves natural gas reforming, which is not a carbon-neutral process.

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iOS 12.1 beta suggests a new iPad is coming this fall

September 19, 2018 - 10:42pm

Enlarge / The 10.5-inch iPad Pro. (credit: Andrew Cunningham)

While exploring the Setup app in iOS 12, 9to5Mac discovered an identifier referring to an iPad labeled "iPad2018Fall". The identifier also added to a bevy of evidence and reports suggesting a new iPad Pro model is imminent.

That's not the only hint about new iPads in the iOS 12.1 beta, though. First of all, 9to5Mac found a daemon running in iOS 12.1 that seems to suggest support for syncing Memojis across iOS devices. While some people do have multiple iPhones, not many do, and syncing like this most often helps users keep things squared between an iPhone and an iPad. Today's iPads don't support Memojis, but tomorrow's might.

Further, developer Steve Troughton-Smith noted on Twitter that iOS 12.1 appears to include support for Face ID in landscape orientation. This would not be possible with existing iPhone hardware, suggesting that it might be coming in a future iPad with Face ID. He also pointed out an option for a virtualized 4K external display for the iPad Pro in Apple's iOS simulator. This lends support to an analyst report that the iPad Pro would use USB-C, not Lightning, as its primary port. That is still far from certain, though.

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