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Ars Technica
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Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 29 min 39 sec ago

Review: fierce and fun Warrior Nun is a perfect Fourth of July binge-watch

July 3, 2020 - 7:50pm

A young woman gains extraordinary powers when a divine artifact is accidentally embedded in her back, and finds herself reluctantly battling demons on Earth in Warrior Nun, a new Netflix series based on the comic books by Ben Dunn. It sounds like a cheesy premise, but this adaptation is anything but. It's a fiercely fun, entertaining, occasionally thought-provoking series that will have you hooked and eager for a second season.

(Mild spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

As we previously reported, the first issue in Dunn's manga-style comic book series, "Warrior Nun Areala," debuted in 1994. The series largely features Sister Shannon Masters, a modern-day crusader for the Catholic Church's (fictional) Order of the Cruciform Sword. In the series mythology, the Order dates back to 1066, when a young Valkyrie woman named Auria converted to Christianity. Renamed Areala, she selects a new avatar every generation to carry on her mission of battling the agents of hell. Sister Shannon is the Chosen One. It's like Buffy the Vampire Slayer got religion.

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Schools already struggled with cybersecurity. Then came COVID-19

July 3, 2020 - 3:30pm

Enlarge / "School" is probably going to look something like this for a whole lot of families in the coming weeks. (credit: Rafael Ben-Ari | Getty Images)

This time last year, Jaggar Henry was enjoying the summer like so many other teens. The 17-year-old had a job, was hanging out with friends on the weekends, and was just generally spending a lot of time online. But then, at the end of July, Henry combed his hair, donned a slightly oversized Oxford shirt, and appeared before his school district's board in Polk County, Florida—one of the larger school districts in the United States—to outline a slew of security flaws he had found in its digital systems. His presentation was the culmination of months of work and focused on software used by more than 100,000 students.

Those vulnerabilities have been fixed, but Henry, who now works full time on education technology, says that his experience illustrates the challenges facing school districts across the United States—and a problem that's grown more acute in the wake of COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has had major cybersecurity implications around the world. Tailored phishing attacks and contact-tracing scams prey on fear and uncertainty. Fraudsters are targeting economic relief and unemployment payments. The stakes are higher than ever for ransomware attacks that target health care providers and other critical infrastructure. For businesses, the transition to remote work has created new exposures and magnified existing ones.

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How mobile games crushed consoles

July 3, 2020 - 3:00pm

Enlarge / Apparently, enough people bought Fortnite's wholly optional outfits and dance moves to fuel $100 million of prizes for the game's first year of esports tourneys. (credit: Epic Games)

The coronavirus crisis has proved a bonanza for video game makers, as shut-in consumers turn to digital distractions in greater numbers and for longer sessions than ever before.

But while the sector’s big listed groups such as Nintendo, Activision Blizzard, and Take Two have enjoyed share price rises of more than 25 percent since early March, a clutch of mobile gaming studios, many privately held, have enjoyed the real windfall. Along with the sudden rise in leisure time among a ready market of more than two billion smartphone owners, they have reaped the rewards of a plunge in mobile advertising prices as other corporate sectors slashed their marketing budgets.

“That gave a huge opening for companies like ours,” said Alexis Bonte, group chief operating officer at Stillfront, a free-to-play gaming group based in Stockholm whose share price has more than doubled since mid-March. “We got a double effect—the increased organics [usage growth] but also the effect of more efficient marketing . . . It was huge.”

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Stellar deepfake thriller The Capture lands in USA thanks to NBC Peacock

July 3, 2020 - 2:00pm

NBC Peacock, the 370th streaming service to debut in the past 12 months, will publicly launch on July 15 after an Xfinity-exclusive soft launch earlier this year. That means it’s time to review the service’s exclusive series—though in the case of The Capture, one of Peacock’s most captivating launch options, that “exclusivity” is regional.

Unlike Peacock offerings like Brave New World and Intelligence, The Capture is an import for American viewers, having already aired on the online-only BBC Three in autumn 2019. But it’s still decidedly current: a mystery thriller that revolves around deepfake technology and government distrust.

Due process versus “real” videos

By turns enthralling and suspenseful, The Capture is the sort of show one could easily binge in an afternoon. (In fitting BBC fashion, the series’ first season runs a lean six episodes.) It stars Holliday Grainger (Strike) as DI Rachel Carey, an SO15 officer on loan to Homicide & Serious Crime, who finds herself embroiled in the case of former Lance Corporal Shaun Emery, played by Callum Turner (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald).

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The bat-virus détente

July 3, 2020 - 1:00pm

Enlarge / Researchers examine a bat as part of their search for dangerous animal pathogens in the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative Lab in Yaounde, Cameroon. (credit: Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

For several weeks in March, Arinjay Banerjee would eat breakfast at 6am and then drive the empty roads of Toronto to a restricted-access lab. Then he’d ready himself for work, donning three layers of gloves, a helmeted mask kitted with an air-purifying respirator, and a surgical-style gown.

The interlocked doors and special filtered ventilation system of the lab, fitted with alarms should air circulation malfunction, are designed to stop outward air flow. After eight hours at the bench, Banerjee would put aside his scrubs and boot covers for sterilization, change out of his work sneakers and return to a basement apartment in the home of a colleague.

The stringent conditions in that Toronto lab—only one level below the most secure in the biosafety hierarchy—were crucial. Banerjee, a virologist, was on a team working to isolate the SARS-CoV-2 virus from one of the first patients in Canada. As the pandemic unfolded, he almost felt safer suited up in the containment lab than he did when out in the world.

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Rocket Report: SpaceX faces South Texas review, the Angara A5 costs too much

July 3, 2020 - 12:00pm

Enlarge / SpaceX has launched the Falcon 9 rocket 88 times, including 11 times in 2020. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann)

Welcome to Edition 3.06 of the Rocket Report! On Saturday, Americans will celebrate the Fourth of July with preposterously small solid rockets. Readers of this report, however, will know that every day of the year is worth celebrating with rockets. And there's plenty of news to go around this week, so let's get to it.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Weather forces a very long delay in Vega launch. The European rocket firm Arianespace has been trying to launch a Vega rocket carrying dozens of small satellites for the better part of a year. Most recently, unfavorable upper-level winds scuttled three different launch attempts in late June. On Wednesday, Arianespace seemed to throw up its hands in frustration and postpone the flight until August 17, "when the forecast is expected to be more favorable based on modeling of the winds."

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EVO 2020 game tourney canceled, co-founder fired [Updated]

July 3, 2020 - 1:55am

Enlarge (credit: EVO)

EVO—the long-running video game tournament dedicated to fighting-game series like Street Fighter and Tekken—was rocked by departures on Thursday in the wake of startling allegations lodged against its co-founder.

Shortly afterward, the man in question, Joey Cuellar, apparently acknowledged these accusations of sexual assault against a minor in a brief, frank post on social media. This was swiftly followed by EVO firing Cuellar from the organization and canceling EVO 2020's online tournaments outright.

After accusations came departures

Capcom announced its decision to withdraw all participation from EVO 2020 on Thursday evening, minutes after NetherRealm Studios, the developers of the Mortal Kombat and Injustice series, did the same. That means tentpole games Street Fighter V and Mortal Kombat 11 will no longer be played; the latter game figured largely into EVO's transition to an online-only event, owing to its reputation for superior netcode. Mane6, the developers behind new EVO participant Them's Fightin' Herds, followed suit shortly after.

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NY partygoers get subpoenas after stonewalling COVID-19 contact tracers

July 2, 2020 - 11:07pm

Enlarge / This picture taken on April 5, 2019, shows nurses waiting for patients at the Rockland County Health Department in Haverstraw, Rockland County, New York, amid a measles outbreak. (credit: Getty | JOHANNES EISELE )

Test, isolate, trace, quarantine: these are the bedrock public health measures proven effective at stamping out an infectious disease before it flares to the point where the only option left is to foist draconian lockdowns on whole populations.

The World Health Organization and public health experts have uttered and re-uttered the strategy ad nauseam since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in January. And health officials in many places followed the advice, quickly testing those at risk, isolating those infected, tracing people with whom patients had contact, and quarantining anyone exposed. It’s a strategy that requires leadership and resources but also public cooperation and commitment from everyone to do their part to defeat a common viral enemy for the greater good. With all of that, the strategy works. The places that followed the advice and largely stood together—Hong Kong and South Korea, for instance—are among those that have been the most successful at containing the devastating new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

The United States, meanwhile, did not take the advice, and the virus has spread widely, triggering lockdowns and now re-lockdowns. So far, the US has recorded over 2.7 million cases and more than 128,000 deaths—and counting. The country has more than 25 percent of the cases globally, while only having around 4 percent of the world’s population. Still, the lesson has not sunk in.

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Commerce Inspector General says “Sharpiegate” report being blocked

July 2, 2020 - 8:36pm

Enlarge / Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. (credit: NASA HQ PHOTO / Flickr)

Last month, we covered the results of a NOAA investigation into scientific integrity violations associated with its handling of President Donald Trump’s self-inflicted hurricane controversy.

The problems started when Trump incorrectly tweeted that Alabama was likely going to be impacted by Hurricane Dorian. After seeing an influx of questions, the Birmingham National Weather Service office tweeted a clarification. Rather than simply correcting the mistake, the White House insisted that the President was right, an insistence that eventually led to his marker-amended forecast map, presented from the Oval Office.

NOAA’s issue was that its leadership released an unsigned statement that sided with President Trump, criticizing the Birmingham office for speaking “in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

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Can’t afford to fly to space? Settle for smelling like it

July 2, 2020 - 8:10pm

Enlarge / "Listen—do you smell something?" (credit: QAI Publishing)

If you ask a US Navy submariner the most visceral part of the underwater and underway experience, you'll get the same answer almost every time—it's the smell. "Eau de Boat," as we sailors called it, is a unique combination of diesel fuel, machine oil, laundry hamper, and flatulence. To the best of my knowledge, nobody's ever attempted to bottle and sell Eau de Boat—but a Kickstarter campaign is trying to do the same thing for space travel.

But why, though?

In late June, the US National Space Council's Executive Secretary Scott Pace expressed his desire to support companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin in developing minimal commercial space tourism—brief suborbital round trips which take a few people above the atmosphere, then return them to the same spot they started. Virgin Galactic even plans to send some NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, eventually.

But these are likely to be small and expensive affairs that very few people will get to experience, for several more decades at least. In the meantime, space enthusiasts can more accessibly and affordably experience the ISS to some degree in virtual reality. Even with six degrees of freedom, the experience is sharply limited.

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Heated seats as a service? BMW wants to sell car features on demand

July 2, 2020 - 7:55pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson)

I'm all too aware that connected cars aren't a popular topic around these parts, and that's unlikely to change with today's news. BMW is planning to move some features of its new cars to a subscription model, something it announced on Wednesday during a briefing for the press on the company's digital plans.

It's not an entirely new idea to the auto industry—Tesla has pioneered the idea of shipping vehicles with hardware that can be enabled at the time of purchase or later on for a fee. And BMW has done something similar in the past with infotainment features; for a while, if you wanted access to Apple CarPlay, you had to pay an $80 yearly subscription until the automaker abandoned that idea.

But those were for digital services—now the Bavarian carmaker has plans to apply that model to features like heated seats. BMW says that owners can "benefit in advance from the opportunity to try out the products for a trial period of one month, after which they can book the respective service for one or three years." The company also says that it could allow the second owner of a BMW to activate features that the original purchaser declined.

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Police infiltrate encrypted phones, arrest hundreds in organized crime bust

July 2, 2020 - 7:42pm

Enlarge / It is not specified if Encrochat users were required to stand in silhouette or otherwise apply film-noir style lighting while using their encrypted phones to do crime. (credit: Catherine Falls Commercial | Getty Images)

Almost 750 individuals in the UK have been arrested so far after an international coalition of law enforcement agencies infiltrated an encrypted chat platform in which the suspects openly discussed murder, arranged hits, illegal drug purchases, gun sales, and other alleged crimes.

The UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) today announced the results of an investigation it dubbed Operation Venetic. UK agencies, taken together, have to date arrested 746 suspects and seized 77 guns, two metric tons of drugs, 28 million illicit pills, 55 "high value" cars, and more than £54 million ($67.4 million) in cash.

The arrests followed a breakthrough into an encrypted communications platform, Encrochat, used widely in the European underground. "The infiltration of this command and control communication platform for the UK’s criminal marketplace is like having an inside person in every top organized crime group in the country," NCA Director of Investigations Nikki Holland said in a written statement. "This is the broadest and deepest ever UK operation into serious organized crime."

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Grab an excellent Razer Viper gaming mouse for a new low of $50

July 2, 2020 - 7:16pm

Enlarge (credit: Ars Technica)

Today's Dealmaster is headlined by a new low price on the Razer Viper, one of our favorite wired gaming mice for most players. Originally retailing for $80, it's currently available for $50. This is $10 cheaper than its previous best price, which we've seen the device hit on multiple occasions.

We recommended the Razer Viper in our tech-enthusiast gift guide last holiday season, and we currently recommend its wireless equivalent, the Razer Viper Ultimate, as the best gaming option in our wireless mouse buying guide. While there are plenty of cheaper mice out there, even at this deal price, the Viper is a decidedly premium device both in terms of comfort and performance.

Its biggest draw is that it's supremely lightweight: at 69 grams, the Viper is quick to slide around without locking you into the "honeycomb" design of most other ultralight mice. It's not too large for smaller hands, and its slightly humped design is contoured in a way that should work well with all grip types. (Though it'll likely be more comfortable with a claw or fingertip grip than a palm grip, especially if you have large hands.) Its rubberized sides help you keep a better grip on the device, and the design is truly ambidextrous, with two customizable side buttons on its left and right. And while the Viper is primarily made of plastic, it's smooth to the touch and feels sturdily put together.

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Undulating their bodies keeps flying snakes from tumbling out of control

July 2, 2020 - 6:48pm

How flying snakes glide by swimming through the air.

Flying snakes can glide as far as 78 feet (24 meters) without tumbling out of control because they undulate their bodies mid-flight, as if they were swimming through the air. This seems to be a specialized strategy to stabilize their flight rather than an evolutionary remnant of general snake behavior, according to a new paper in the journal Nature Physics. The work could eventually lead to a new, improved control template for dynamic flying robots.

Co-author Jake Socha of Virginia Tech has been studying these fascinating creatures for about 20 years. The peculiar gliding ability of these snakes—there are five known species, including Chrysopelea pelias and Chrysopelea paradisi—was first noted by a British scientist in the late 1800s, who observed one gliding through his tea garden in southeast Asia one day. But scientists had paid little attention to determining the precise physics and biomechanics at play until Socha published a 2002 paper outlining his preliminary findings on the fundamental aerodynamics.

Socha found that the snake will push its ridge scales against the tree trunk, using the rough surface to maneuver up to a branch. Then it dangles its body off the end of the branch and contracts sharply like a spring to launch itself into the air. The initial angle of inclination as the snake is hanging determines the flight path. To ensure maximum gliding distance, the snake will suck in its stomach and flatten its body, curving inward like a Frisbee to create lift, undulating its body in an S-shaped motion, which serves to increase the air pressure underneath.

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House OKs $100B broadband plan with $50 monthly discounts for poor people

July 2, 2020 - 6:33pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Bonilla1879)

The US House of Representatives yesterday approved $100 billion worth of broadband funding as part of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill.

The broadband portion is modeled on the Democrats' "universal fiber" plan we wrote about last week. The plan includes $80 billion in fiscal year 2021, money that the Federal Communications Commission would use to fund high-speed broadband projects in unserved and underserved areas. Funded projects would have to provide 100Mbps download and upload speeds, along with low latencies, conditions that would spur fiber-to-the-home development.

The bill has additional money for broadband-deployment loans, grants for states to pursue digital-inclusion projects, Wi-Fi on school buses, and network equipment for schools and libraries. It also includes a $9 billion Broadband Connectivity Fund to provide $50 monthly discounts for low-income broadband users, and $75 monthly discounts for low-income households in Tribal lands. The broadband portions of the infrastructure bill are in this set of amendments.

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Apple throws in another Mac Pro GPU configuration: The AMD Radeon Pro W5500X

July 2, 2020 - 6:23pm

Apple has added a new GPU configuration option for its Mac Pro desktop tower: AMD's Radeon Pro 5500X. It's a mid-range pick amid the other configurations available on this machine.

The W5500X adds $200 over the base config (which has the Radeon Pro 580X, the same found in some high-end iMacs) and comes with 8GB of GDDR6 memory. Other options include the Radeon Pro W5700X ($600 more than the base config), the Radeon Pro Vega II ($2,400), and the Radeon Pro Vega II Duo ($5,200), as well as dual-GPU variants of the W5700X, Radeon Pro Vega II, and Radeon Pro Vega II Duo configurations.

This is the copy Apple provides to explain the W5500X to potential buyers:

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RIP to the Google Pixel 3a, which is officially discontinued

July 2, 2020 - 6:13pm

Google is no longer selling cheap phones. At least, that's the temporary situation the company is in now, thanks to the (probably planned) discontinuation of the Pixel 3a and the (definitely unplanned) delays of its successor, the Pixel 4a. 9to5Google first noticed that the phone was pulled from the Google Store yesterday, and Google confirmed to several outlets that the phone is officially no longer for sale.

Google was supposed to have a replacement by now. Google's new cheap phone, the Pixel 4a, was expected to be announced at Google I/O 2020, the same show that launched the Pixel 3a. That would have happened in May, and while the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to Google I/O and every other public gathering, that still doesn't quite explain why it's July now and the Pixel 4a is still missing in action. It's possible that Google is having COVID-related supply issues, but other manufacturers like HTC, Motorola, and Huawei have had launches lately.

The Pixel 3a launched in May 2019 and was a real crowd-pleaser. After killing the Nexus line and only selling expensive Pixel phones for years, Google returned to the budget market with the $400 device. The cheaper phone had the same great camera as the more expensive Pixel 3, and the same great Google-Android build with a three-year update plan. There were only small budget concessions like a slightly slower SoC and a plastic body, but neither of those were a major downside. Google's cheap phone was maybe a little too good (or maybe the expensive phones were not good enough): there wasn't much reason to pick a more expensive Pixel 3 or 4 over a Pixel 3a.

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2K breaks gaming’s de facto $60 ceiling, asks $70 for next-gen NBA 2K21

July 2, 2020 - 4:56pm

Enlarge / Artist's conception of consumer reactions to NBA 2K21's $70 asking price.

A new generation of video game consoles may come with a new standard price point for big-budget games. That's the impression 2K Games is giving, at least, with today's announcement that the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 versions of NBA 2K21 will come in at an MSRP of $69.99.

That price point is $10 higher than the $59.99 asking price for the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the same game, which are due to launch September 4. And an NBA 2K spokesperson confirmed to Ars Technica that the premium pricing is based on what it sees as the increased value represented by the power of new consoles.

"We believe our suggested retail price for NBA 2K21 on next-generation platforms fairly represents the value of what's being offered: power, speed, and technology that is only possible on new hardware," the representative told Ars Technica. "While we are confident that NBA 2K21 will be a monumental leap forward for the franchise and a standout visual showcase on next-generation consoles, we recognize that it's our responsibility to prove this value to our fans and NBA 2K players."

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LIGO is so sensitive it shudders with the quantum noise of light

July 2, 2020 - 3:16pm

Enlarge / The mirrors of LIGO are a bit large to be experiencing quantum effects. (credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab)

Quantum effects are generally thought of as small and fragile. Typically, we're only able to detect them when things are tiny and kept near absolute zero, and they're swamped by non-quantum effects outside of those conditions. Mostly. In Wednesday's issue of Nature, researchers are reporting that quantum effects can be detected in some very large objects: the 40kg mirrors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO.

The paper details how researchers were able to detect noise in the mirrors of LIGO caused by quantum fluctuations in the light reflecting off them. And by adding some specially prepared light, the researchers limited that noise, allowing increased sensitivity in the detection of gravitational waves.

Putting on the squeeze

There are plenty of sources of noise in the LIGO hardware. Key hardware sits inside a vacuum chamber, but we can't really eliminate all stray molecules from bumping into it. The mirrors are kept at room temperature, so there's some thermal noise that's always interfering with our measurements. And then there's quantum noise. LIGO is based on mirrors separated by kilometers reflecting laser beams back and forth multiple times. And those laser beams are composed of photons that obey the rules of quantum mechanics.

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Tesla stock leaps again on unexpectedly strong delivery numbers

July 2, 2020 - 3:04pm

Enlarge / A Tesla facility in Lathrop, CA. (credit: Andrei Stanescu / Getty)

Tesla has surprised Wall Street again with better-than-expected delivery numbers. The electric carmaker delivered 90,650 vehicles in the second quarter of 2020, up slightly from the 88,400 vehicles delivered in the first quarter. This despite the fact that Tesla's main factory in Fremont, California, was shut down by county officials for the first half of the quarter.

Tesla's stock leapt at the news. After closing at a record high of $1,120 yesterday, Tesla's shares rose above $1,200 in pre-market trading on Thursday morning.

While Tesla's Q2 deliveries were up from the previous quarter, they're down slightly from the 95,200 vehicles produced in the second quarter of 2019. Tesla also delivered more cars in Q3 and Q4 of 2019 than it did last quarter. That presumably reflects the effects of the coronavirus over the last two quarters, as well as the phaseout of the federal tax credit for purchasing a Tesla. The credit fell by half on June 30, 2019 and phased out completely on December 31.

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