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Industry & Technology

Amazon battles Microsoft over military cloud

BBC Technology News - 1 hour 34 min ago
It wants to pause a contract awarded by the Pentagon to Microsoft until a court rules on its appeal.

FBI 'persuaded Apple to halt iCloud encryption'

BBC Technology News - 4 hours 8 min ago
Apple was reportedly working on the encryption feature two years ago but the FBI objected.

Deepfakes: A threat to democracy or just a bit of fun?

BBC Technology News - 13 hours 9 min ago
Deepfakes, or computer-generated images of people, can be dangerous for democracy, warn experts.

Ancient African skeletons hint at a “ghost lineage” of humans

Ars Technica - 14 hours 8 min ago

Enlarge / A 1994 photograph of the excavations that yielded the skeletons at Shum Laka. (credit: Pierre de Maret)

Understanding humanity's shared history means understanding what happened in Africa. But figuring out what happened in Africa has been a difficult task. Not every area is well represented in the fossil history, and most African environments aren't conducive to the preservation of ancient DNA. DNA sequencing of modern African populations lags behind other regions, in part because DNA sequencing hardware is more common elsewhere. Finally, as in many other areas, massive migrations within the continent have helped scramble the genetic legacy of the past.

Now, researchers are describing a new window into our collective past: DNA from ancient skeletons found in a rock shelter in West Africa. The skeletons come from a location and time that are both near the origin of the Bantu expansion that spread West African peoples across the entirety of Africa but have little in common with Bantu-speaking populations. Yet, at the same time, they provide hints of what might have happened very early in humanity's history, including the existence of a lineage of archaic humans we've not yet identified.

Right time, right place

The skeletons come from a site called Shum Laka, which is located in a grassland area of Cameroon. For those not up on their African geography, Cameroon is located at the angle where West Africa meets Southern Africa. This is also the region where the Bantu people put together a collection of agricultural and metallurgical technologies that allowed them to sweep across the rest of the continent, leaving their linguistic and genetic mark on many other populations.

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Sonos sunsets several smart speakers’ software support, spurring storm

Ars Technica - January 22, 2020 - 11:14pm

Enlarge / The Sonos Connect:Amp in what is soon to be its natural setting: a room filled with old stuff that may or may not work. (credit: Sonos)

Sonos has been slinging smart speakers—and tech for connecting them—to dedicated fans since 2005. This week, however, Sonos announced the end of software support for its older product lines, and many of those once-loyal customers are furious.

Software support for "legacy" product lines will end in May of this year, Sonos said Tuesday in a corporate blog post and an email sent to customers. The list of products being forced off into the tech sunset includes original Zone Players, Connect, and Connect:Amp (launched in 2006; includes versions sold until 2015), first-generation Play:5 (launched 2009), CR200 (launched 2009), and Bridge (launched 2007).

Owners of an affected product basically have two options. Either they can take advantage of Sonos' "Trade Up" program to snag a discount on new Sonos stuff, or they can keep using their old product with the understanding that inevitably, certain functions will simply begin to fail over some long, unspecified period of time.

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The Mount Vesuvius eruption was so hot, one man’s brain turned to glass.

Ars Technica - January 22, 2020 - 11:00pm

Enlarge / Plaster casts of victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. (credit: Flory/iStock/Getty Images)

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, the heat was so extreme in some places that it vaporized body fluids and exploded the skulls of several inhabitants unable to flee in time. Now, archaeologists have determined that the heat also fused brain tissue into glass in one victim. The discovery is described in a new short paper in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The eruption released thermal energy roughly equivalent to 100,000 times the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, spewing molten rock, pumice, and hot ash over the the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in particular. Pliny the Younger wrote of "broad sheets of flame" and a rain of ash in a letter to the historian Tacitus (the letter is the sole surviving eyewitness account of the disaster). 

The vast majority of the victims died of asphyxiation, choking to death on the thick clouds of noxious gas and ash. But a 2001 study in Nature estimated a temperature of 300° Celsius (572° Fahrenheit) for the pyroclastic surge that destroyed Pompeii, sufficient to kill inhabitants in fractions of a second. Back in 2018, we reported on the conclusion of University of Naples archaeologist Pierpaolo Petrone (one of the co-authors of the 2001 Nature paper) that inhabitants of Herculaneum may have suffered a similar fate.

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Tesla overtakes Volkswagen as value hits $100bn

BBC Technology News - January 22, 2020 - 10:46pm
Tesla sold more than 367,000 cars last year, just a fraction of its competitors.

Jeff Bezos hack: UN experts demand probe of Saudi crown prince

BBC Technology News - January 22, 2020 - 9:48pm
The UN experts' call comes amid reports Mohammed bin Salman's phone was used to hack the Amazon boss.

Deepfake videos: Can you really believe what you see?

BBC Technology News - January 22, 2020 - 9:08pm
With deepfake technology, it is getting easier to turn yourself into somebody else on screen.

Valve opens up about Half-Life: Alyx, Source 2 engine on Reddit

Ars Technica - January 22, 2020 - 8:58pm

Enlarge / Valve released this promotional illustration for Half-Life: Alyx on Tuesday, thus revealing a bit more about the game's "Multi-tool" system we've mentioned in previous reports on the VR-exclusive game. (credit: Valve)

With approximately two months left to go until their next game's launch, the developers at Valve opened up to the throngs at Reddit for a thousands-strong "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) session on Wednesday. Unsurprisingly, most of the questions were ignored—especially ones that mentioned the number 3—but the team still revealed some new and interesting tidbits about March's upcoming VR-exclusive game Half-Life: Alyx.

Perhaps most importantly, the development team insisted that the game is still on schedule to launch in its announced window of March 2020. "With the exception of some tweaks to the absolute final scene, the game is done," an unnamed staff member said in one post. "We let the Valve Time happen before we announced the game." This statement alludes to the company's tradition of letting release schedules slip until a game reaches "it's done" territory, but that wasn't clarified in further answers.

That means the game's full suite of movement options within VR are complete, Valve said, "including things like Seated, Left-Handed mode, etc." The new game's suite of "accessibility" features are still being iterated on, particularly support for one-handed play.

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Sarcos offers fully mobile, insanely strong industrial exoskeletons

Ars Technica - January 22, 2020 - 8:21pm

Enlarge / Sarcos Robotics' Guardian XO is the closest thing we've seen in real life to the Power Loader Lieutenant Ripley used to such good effect in 1986's Aliens. (credit: 20th Century Fox)

The most interesting thing we saw at the Consumer Electronics Show this year was the back side of Delta Airlines' exhibit, where some Sarcos Robotics folks were putting the Guardian XO—a powered industrial exoskeleton—through its paces, and the adventurous (and patient) could wait for half an hour or so in line to operate one disembodied arm of the Guardian attached to a 50-pound suitcase.

Unfortunately, neither Sarcos nor Delta was about to let any journalists inside an actual Guardian XO. They had good reason, though—which became abundantly clear after we took a test run with a disembodied, statically mounted Guardian XO right arm. The suits aren't just designed to be incredibly strong—they're also designed for long-term, ergonomically correct operation that won't destroy backs and knees the way a career in the military or heavy industry tends to. That's great if you're a trained professional trying not to injure yourself—not so great if you're a random enthusiast suddenly given 20:1 muscular amplification in a densely packed crowd of thousands.

That term—20:1 muscular amplification—is a little misleading. The Guardian XO isn't really 20 times as strong as a construction worker. The promotional materials we've seen rate the exosuit for weights that aren't out of the question for a very strong human—200lbs total, 100lbs per arm, 50lbs per arm at full extension—but inside the Guardian XO, you're handling those weights while working no harder than you might in a light office environment.

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One immune cell type appears to attack any type of cancer

Ars Technica - January 22, 2020 - 7:57pm

Enlarge / False-colored image of an electron micrograph of a T cell. (credit: NIAID)

While cancerous cells look a lot like normal human cells, they're still different enough that the immune system regularly attacks them. Obviously, this attack sometimes bogs down, allowing cancer to thrive and spread. Figuring out how to get the immune system back on track has been a major focus of research, and success in the area has been honored with a Nobel Prize.

Despite these successes, many patients aren't helped by the newer immune-focused therapies, raising questions of what else we still need to figure out to help cancer patients. A new paper highlights something we may have missed: a class of immune cells that appears to be primed specifically to attack cancer. But the finding raises questions about what it is on cancer cells that the immune cells are recognizing and why they fail to keep cancer in check.

Finding cancer killers

The start of this work was pretty simple: a large international team of researchers grew a mix of immune cells called "T cells" in the presence of cancerous cells and looked for cells that grew rapidly. This rapid growth is typically a sign that the immune cells have been activated by something they recognize—in this case, the cancer. They identified one particular lineage of T cells that grew well and named it MC.7.G5, confirming yet again that most scientists don't belong in the creative industries.

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Leaked images show Xbox Series X is missing Xbox One’s HDMI input

Ars Technica - January 22, 2020 - 6:38pm

Enlarge / Yup, the Xbox Series X has ports, alright. (credit: NeoGAF / CurryPanda)

Last month, when Microsoft gave us our first glimpse of the Xbox Series X housing, the photo angles provided notably left out the rear of the console—you know, the part with all the ports for wires and such. Now, a message board leak has apparently revealed what that back side will look like, including a few changes from the old Xbox One line.

The images of an "Xbox Product Name Placeholder PROTOTYPE - NOT FOR SALE," originally posted by NeoGAF user Curry Panda, were later confirmed as authentic by Brad Sams at (who has a strong track record of reporting accurate internal information about Microsoft's plans). That makes this leak different from a glimpse of the Series X's backside shown by AMD at CES earlier this month—AMD later admitted that imagery "was not sourced from Microsoft and does not accurately represent the design or features of the upcoming console."

The biggest apparent change from the Xbox One to the Xbox Series X, port-wise, is the lack of the HDMI input that allowed for "pass-through" TV programming on all Xbox One models (and the accompanying IR output that allowed the Xbox One/Kinect to act as a TV remote). That's not a huge surprise, considering how quickly Microsoft stopped stressing this functionality after a major Xbox-as-set-top-TV-box push back in the console's early years. The Series X is also missing the dedicated Kinect port that was already removed from the Xbox One S and Xbox One X, meaning you'll seemingly need a discontinued USB adapter for those particular backward-compatible games.

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Monty Python’s Terry Jones joins the choir invisible

Ars Technica - January 22, 2020 - 6:20pm

Enlarge / Terry Jones playing the organ au naturel in Monty Python's "Blackmail" sketch. (credit: Python (Monty) Pictures | BBC)

Monty Python’s Terry Jones died at age 77 on January 21 at his London home.

Born in Colwyn Bay, Wales, Jones got his comedy start at Oxford University, playing in revues with fellow future Monty Python member Michael Palin. After graduation, he worked as a writer on a handful of BBC shows, including The Frost Report, and he performed on Do Not Adjust Your Set along with The Complete and Utter History of Britain. But it was his work with Python that he is primarily remembered for.

During Python’s original four-year run, Jones generally wrote with Michael Palin, and the two would bring their work in progress to the entire group to read through and workshop the material. (John Cleese and Graham Chapman also wrote together, while Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam generally worked alone.) It was in that crucible that Jones, along with the other Pythons, honed their sketch-writing and comedic-timing skills to produce timeless comedy.

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After a 1-month delay, the new Moto Razr will be out February 6

Ars Technica - January 22, 2020 - 5:26pm

The Moto Razr has a new release date. After announcing a delay just a few days before it was planned to go on sale in December, Verizon now says the new-school flip phone will go up for pre-order January 26, with an in-store date of February 6. It's still $1,499.99.

The new Moto Razr quickly became one of the most interesting upcoming devices when it was unveiled in November. It has a nostalgic flip phone design with a folding, flexible OLED display, a trick hinge mechanism that won't crease the display, and even a mode that replicates the old Razr UI. Just six days before the December 26 pre-order date, Motorola pumped the brakes on its smartphone project, saying it needed to "adjust Razr’s presale and launch timing to better meet consumer demand."

Several companies have released foldable smartphones now, but so far, every foldable device has seen significant delays and a limited release. The new flexible display technology is impressive, but it comes with a host of issues related to durability. First, folding glass is not a thing yet (though Corning is working on it) so these displays are all covered in a scratchable, pierceable plastic. Second, folding an OLED display in half puts stress on it, and it's unclear how much folding and unfolding these displays can take without failing. Finally, these devices need hinges that are bigger and stronger than anything that was fitted to a flip phone in the past, and that introduces a host of moving parts. Balancing all of these issues, working out the details of a new form factor, and doing this all for a reasonable price has proven difficult for the entire industry so far.

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The math of brewing a better espresso

Ars Technica - January 22, 2020 - 5:01pm

Enlarge / A new mathematical model sheds light on the optimal brewing process for espresso. (credit: Five Senses Coffee (Australia))

Skilled baristas know that achieving the perfect complex flavor profile for a delectable shot of espresso is as much art as science. Get it wrong, and the resulting espresso can taste too bitter or sourly acidic rather than being a perfect mix of each. Now, as outlined in a new paper in the journal Matter, an international team of scientists has devised a mathematical model for brewing the perfect cup, over and over, while minimizing waste.

"A good espresso beverage can be made in a multitude of ways," said co-author Christopher Hendon, a computational chemist at the University of Oregon. "The point of this paper was to give people a map for making an espresso beverage that they like and then be able to make it 100 times in a row."

There's actually an official industry standard for brewing espresso, courtesy of the Specialty Coffee Association, which sets out strict guidelines for its final volume (25-35mL, or roughly one ounce) and preparation. The water must be heated to 92° to 95°C (197° to 203°F) and forced (at a specific pressure) through a bed of 7 to 9 grams (about a quarter of an ounce) of finely ground coffee over the course of 20 to 30 seconds. But most coffee shops don't follow this closely, typically using more coffee, while the brewing machines allow baristas to configure water pressure, temperature, and other key variables to their liking. The result of all those variations in technique is a great deal of variability in quality and taste.

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Unauthorized Bread: Real rebellions involve jailbreaking IoT toasters

Ars Technica - January 22, 2020 - 3:05pm

Enlarge / Now that is some artisanal toast. (credit: Tor Books)

"Unauthorized Bread"—a tale of jailbreaking refugees versus IoT appliances—is the lead novella in author Cory Doctorow's Radicalized, which has just been named a finalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's national book award, the Canada Reads prize. "Unauthorized Bread" is also in development for television with Topic, parent company of The Intercept; and for a graphic novel adaptation by First Second Books, in collaboration with the artist and comics creator JR Doyle. It appears below with permission from the author.

The way Salima found out that Boulangism had gone bankrupt: her toaster wouldn’t accept her bread. She held the slice in front of it and waited for the screen to show her a thumbs-up emoji, but instead, it showed her the head-scratching face and made a soft brrt. She waved the bread again. Brrt.

“Come on.” Brrt.

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Sonos speaker update sparks anger

BBC Technology News - January 22, 2020 - 2:06pm
The firm will end updates for four of its older models, sold between 2006 and 2015.

Jeff Bezos hack: Saudi Arabia calls claim ‘absurd’

BBC Technology News - January 22, 2020 - 1:33pm
The Saudi crown prince's WhatsApp account has reportedly been linked to the data breach.

GM's Cruise unveils its first driverless vehicle

BBC Technology News - January 22, 2020 - 8:04am
The launch comes six months after Cruise delayed its self-driving vehicle service in San Francisco.

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