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Ars Technica
Syndicate content Ars Technica
Serving the Technologist for more than a decade. IT news, reviews, and analysis.
Updated: 56 min 41 sec ago

Sun’s closest solo star may have company

November 14, 2018 - 10:53pm

Enlarge / The position of Barnard's star relative to the Earth and its other neighbors. (credit: IEEC/Science-Wave/Guillem Ramisa)

From the phenomenal success of the Kepler mission and a proliferation of ground-based telescopes, we now know that planets are common in our galaxy. But the methods we've used to detect most of them are biased toward finding large planets that orbit close to their host stars. The farther a planet is, the less its gravity pulls at the star and the less light it blocks out when it passes between that star and Earth. Meanwhile, the focus has shifted to nearby stars, as astronomers have started building a catalog of targets for the next generation of telescopes.

These issues provide an intriguing backdrop for today's announcement that one of the closest stars to Earth has a super-Earth companion. Barnard's star is a red dwarf that is only six light years from our Solar System; only the three stars of the Centauri system are closer. But the new planet orbits far enough from Barnard's star that it had been missed by earlier attempts. The detailed follow-up that spotted it also hints at the possibility of a separate, more distant planet, and both could help inform our models of planet formation.

A new look

Barnard's star has been observed extensively over the years, partly because it's so close, partly because it's a prototypic example of a red dwarf star. These observations have included exoplanet searches, but nothing about the system stood out. But unless you observe a star regularly, there's a chance you won't happen to be looking at critical points in the planet's orbit.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

US travel ban blocking students from presenting their research

November 14, 2018 - 10:22pm

Enlarge / A poster grayed-out in protest at the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego. (credit: Twitter user: @Doctor_PMS)

At an academic conference, the question “where are you from?” can have many meanings. “For anybody who’s in science, that’s a complicated question,” says paleontologist P. David Polly. “Where are we now, where did we get our degree, where did we grow up, where did we get the other degree?” For many people in science, the list of answers will span multiple countries.

Because of this international culture, science is feeling the effects of increasing restrictions on international travel. At last week’s Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting in San Diego, a research poster drew a lot of attention: the bulk of the poster was grayed out, covered instead by a message from the author explaining that, as a citizen of Iran, she had been unable to enter the US to take part in the conference. “Science should be about breaking barriers,” she wrote, “not creating new ones.”

Tightening barriers

Leili Mortazavi, an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia, ran into the same barrier. When her work was accepted for presentation at SfN, she started the visa application process, but when she arrived at her appointment, she was told she was “ineligible to apply” because of her Iranian citizenship. “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a visa application or a background check,” she told Ars. But the current situation is one of “excluding everyone based on their place of birth and not caring if the reason for their traveling is legitimate or not.”

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

A powerful NASA telescope looked for ‘Oumuamua and didn’t find it

November 14, 2018 - 10:09pm

Enlarge / The object's unusual approach suggests it came from outside our Solar System. (credit: NASA/JPL)

Last week, some Harvard University scientists sparked widespread media attention about a possible alien origination for the mysterious interstellar object known as 'Oumuamua. At the end of a paper speculating about the object's observed movement, the authors presented "a more exotic scenario" suggesting that ‘Oumuamua may be "a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization."

As we reported at the time, this outlandish theory may have been catnip for online news editors, but there just wasn't much evidence to take it seriously. Now, thanks to some previously unpublished observations by NASA, we can further discount the idea.

The object now called 'Oumuamua made its closest approach to Earth in September 2017, and astronomers first spotted it in October of that year as it began moving away. In November, when NASA trained its Spitzer Space Telescope on where astronomers expected to find 'Oumuamua, it found nothing over the course of two months of observations in the infrared portion of the spectrum.

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Imminent Bitcoin Cash schism triggers cryptocurrency selloff

November 14, 2018 - 9:59pm

Many people doubt Craig Wright's claim to be Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto. (credit: BBC)

Bitcoin's price has fallen more than 12 percent over the last 24 hours to $5,400, the lowest price for the popular cryptocurrency in more than a year.

Bitcoin's plunge is part of a broader cryptocurrency sell-off. Ethereum has fallen more than 15 percent over the last 24 hours, while Bitcoin Cash is down 18 percent.

Cryptocurrency markets are jittery ahead of a high-stakes "hard fork" of Bitcoin Cash. Rival factions are pushing different, mutually incompatible versions of the spinoff cryptocurrency, and the two versions are scheduled to create separate, competing versions of the blockchain starting on Thursday. The schism could create confusion among users and damage the reputation of the cryptocurrency.

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

To complement the new Windows 10 dark theme, Microsoft is adding a light theme

November 14, 2018 - 9:51pm

Enlarge / The new Windows 10 light theme. (credit: Microsoft)

While end users have been customizing the color schemes of their computers for decades, we've lately seen operating system developers follow their users' lead with built-in, first-party support for dark themes. The dark theme was a big part of the appeal of macOS Mojave, and dark theme support in applications such as Windows Explorer was no less welcome.

With the next feature update of Windows 10, codenamed 1H19 and likely to ship in April next year, Microsoft is going a step further, with the introduction of a light theme. The light theme also comes with a new wallpaper (an iteration of the default Windows 10 wallpaper), and it will brighten up certain areas of the operating system that have always tended be dark regardless of the theme being used.

If the screenshot is anything to go by, it's going to be a good-looking theme, too.

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Microsoft wants Azure to be the multiplayer server solution for every platform

November 14, 2018 - 9:37pm

Enlarge / Sea of Thieves is a game already using Azure for its server hosting and scaling. (credit: Rare)

Microsoft today launched a preview of PlayFab Multiplayer Servers, a new Azure-based service giving game developers dynamic, on-demand scaling of multiplayer servers.

Microsoft bought Seattle-based PlayFab earlier this year with a view to using it to expand Azure's reach in the gaming world. PlayFab is building all the cloud-based infrastructure needed for today's games: matchmaking (using the same algorithms as Xbox Live to try to group players of similar skill together), leaderboards, server hosting, player identity/profile management, commerce, and so on. Broadly speaking, the intent of PlayFab is to let games developers focus on their games, taking care of the server-side work for them. PlayFab's services are platform agnostic, and Microsoft has preserved this aspect: there are SDKs for Xbox, Windows, PlayStation, Switch, iOS, and Android.

At the time of the purchase, PlayFab ran atop Amazon's AWS. Some parts still do, but others have moved to Microsoft's own Azure. The Multiplayer Server feature, released in preview today, is one of the services on Azure. Microsoft has more Azure data centers in more parts of the world than Amazon or Google, which in turn means that Azure servers should generally be closer to where the players are. This should ensure lower latency and a better gaming experience for games on those servers.

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Essential will sell your phone’s missing headphone jack back to you for $150

November 14, 2018 - 9:29pm

Essential

How badly do you want a headphone jack on your smartphone? Android creator Andy Rubin's smartphone startup, Essential, is still alive after laying off 30 percent of its staff, and it's still producing products. The latest is a headphone jack attachment called the "Audio Adapter HD" for the company's only standalone product, the ill-fated Essential Phone. The Essential Phone doesn't have a headphone jack built into the device, but it does have a modular accessory system that this headphone jack can click onto. So if you really, really want to use wired audio, you can fork over a $150 for this accessory. That price seems just a bit excessive considering the entire phone has had fire sales for $250 and $224.

The Essential Phone is compatible with the usual headphone jack dongles, so this add-on is being pitched as an artisanally crafted accessory for the discerning audiophile. The company says the "limited edition" accessory is "handcrafted" and made from "100% machined titanium." Inside is the beloved 3.5mm audio jack and a high-quality DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) from ESS Sabre. You'll also get three free months of the Tidal HiFi music service. Besides the higher-quality DAC, the other advantage this attachment offers over the usual USB-C dongle is the ability to charge the device and listen to music at the same time! What a concept.

Read 2 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Original Command & Conquer devs will remaster series’ first games in one package

November 14, 2018 - 8:07pm

Enlarge / No gameplay yet—just familiar logos (which we slapped onto a sweet, fiery explosion). (credit: EA / Getty)

After soft-announcing a new Command & Conquer project last month, EA has taken the wraps off a plan that will (hopefully) satisfy that '90s real-time strategy series' biggest fans. Production has officially begun on a full remaster of the first two Command & Conquer RTS games—the 1995 original and the 1996 sequel Red Alert—with all the games' expansion packs included as part of the complete package.

What's more, development is being spearheaded by Petroglyph Games, a studio formed from the ashes of original C&C development studio Westwood.

"This is getting the band back together," Petroglyph Audio Director Frank Klepacki said in an announcement video on Wednesday. "This is how it should be. We were all there from the inception of it."

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Ahh, summer—ramlibacter season

November 14, 2018 - 6:07pm

Enlarge / Even mundane activities can allow microbes to catch a ride on the wind. (credit: Christopher Griner)

Your gut isn’t the only place that harbors a community of microbes. There are also microbiomes coating your skin and most household, industrial, and commercial surfaces. There's even a community hanging out in the lower atmosphere. Scientists in Spain have monitored this airborne microbiome by taking rain and snow samples every two weeks for seven years at a site in the central Pyrenees. The samples were then run through a DNA sequencer to reveal the airborne microbiome. They found that the bacteria, archaea, protists, and fungi all varied predictably by season.

In the wintertime, microbes frequently had marine origins, coming primarily from the Atlantic, although these were mixed in with bugs from forest and other terrestrial sources. Overall, the winter atmospheric microbiome was the most diverse, and that diversity included the highest levels of pathogens in any season.

In the summer, the microbiome was more regional, coming from the Mediterranean as well as fresh water, cropland, and cities. There was more pollution in the summer; the scientists monitored atmospheric levels of chemicals, including nitrates and sulphates, in addition to microbes. One of the most abundant and recurring taxa over the seven summers was Ramlibacter, related to a bacterium first isolated in 2011 from meteorite fragments buried in the sands near Tatouine, in Tunisia. It is specifically adapted to live in hot, dry, desert climes, so the researchers suggested that it could be used as a forensic signature for “summertime in Europe—African dust in the air.”

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Galaxy mergers hide ravenous supermassive black holes

November 14, 2018 - 5:33pm

Enlarge / When galaxies collide. (credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team)

Black holes are… um, black. The point of a black hole is that the force of gravity is strong enough to prevent light from escaping its grasp. But the matter that is being sucked into a black hole is not at all happy about its fate. The matter gets hot and bothered and starts to glow very brightly before it reaches the black hole. This produces what are called luminous accreting black holes.

Most black holes are proud of themselves, sucking down matter right before our very eyes. But others are shy and seem to hide their antisocial behavior, raising questions about whether they were actually there. It turns out that these murderous monsters are hiding behind the gas clouds created by galaxy collisions. It took a serious amount of detective work to penetrate the fog.

Introducing the eyewitnesses

Astronomers have long recognized that not everything in the Universe happens slowly. Sure, our Sun will be stable for billions of years, but when things start to go wrong, they go downhill quickly (use your remaining eight minutes wisely). Likewise, when something big gets sucked into a black hole, it sends a last desperate SOS in the form of a bright X-ray flash.

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Comcast forced to pay refunds after its hidden fees hurt customers’ credit

November 14, 2018 - 5:18pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich / Getty)

Comcast has agreed to pay $700,000 in refunds "and cancel debts for more than 20,000 Massachusetts customers" to settle allegations that it used deceptive advertising to promote long-term cable contracts, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced yesterday. "Comcast stuck too many Massachusetts customers with lengthy, expensive contracts that left many in debt and others with damaged credit," Healey said.

The Massachusetts AG alleged that Comcast violated state consumer protection laws by "fail[ing] to adequately disclose the actual monthly price and terms of its long-term contracts for cable services, including failing to disclose to customers that the company could increase the price of certain monthly fees at any point during the long-term contracts."

Comcast advertised a $99 lock-in rate "but did not adequately disclose equipment costs and mandatory monthly fees" that would add to monthly bills, and "failed to adequately disclose that the fees could increase while the customer was locked into the long-term contract," the AG investigation found.

Read 6 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Walmart agrees to work with Ford on self-driving grocery delivery pilot

November 14, 2018 - 5:10pm

Enlarge (credit: Ford)

Ford is working with Postmates and Walmart on a pilot program for self-driving grocery deliveries, the companies announced on Wednesday.

"We are exploring how self-driving vehicles can deliver many everyday goods such as groceries, diapers, pet food and personal care items," Ford said in a press release.

The grocery delivery pilot experiment will be based in Miami, where Ford's self-driving car company, Argo, is already testing self-driving vehicles. Ford had been testing self-driving deliveries with Postmates prior to this announcement.

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Cave acoustics can help sculpt more realistic sounds in digital space

November 14, 2018 - 4:46pm

Enlarge / Slim pickings: A search for “cave” in Altiverb sampling software shows Howe’s Cavern in NY and two locations in Malta, in addition to several human-made structures. (credit: Yuri Lysoivanov)

Sound is very much an ephemeral phenomenon. So when acoustician Yuri Lysoivanov wanted to capture the unique acoustics of natural caves, he lugged all his recording equipment to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky to analyze the reverberations and resonances. He described this experience at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Victoria, Canada, earlier this month.

Reverberation is a critical design element, especially for performance spaces. It's not the same as an echo, which is what happens when a sound repeats. Reverb is what happens indoors when sound can't travel sufficient distance to produce those echoing delays. Instead, you get a continuous ring that gradually "decays" (fades).

American audio engineer Bill Putnam was the first person to use "artificial reverb" for commercial recording in the late 1940s with the Harmonicats' "Peg o' My Heart"—achieved by placing a microphone and loudspeaker in the recording studio's bathroom. (Bathroom and subway tiles have excellent reverberation, which is why buskers have their favorite spots in New York City's subway stations.) Today, one of the most popular digital techniques is called convolution reverb, which uses recordings of the acoustics of real spaces to produce highly realistic simulations of those spaces.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Spotify officially releases first version of its Apple Watch app

November 14, 2018 - 3:14pm

Enlarge (credit: Valentina Palladino)

After rolling out wearables apps across other platforms over the past few weeks, Spotify just released the first iteration of its Apple Watch app. The watchOS app will be rolling out to Apple Watch users over the next week, and you must have the latest version of the Spotify iOS app on your iPhone to download the app.

Much like Spotify's other wearable device apps, the program for the Apple Watch focuses on controlling playback on your iPhone from the watch. Users can pause, play, skip, and rewind their music, podcasts, and other tracks. They can also tap a heart icon to add new music that they stumble upon to their libraries. Most of these features, aside from adding music to your library, are available in Apple's native Now Playing app that lets users control playback from nearly any audio source on their connected iPhone.

The Apple Watch app also has Spotify Connect support, which lets users manage connections and playback with Bluetooth devices. Directly from the watch, you can choose which devices—like laptops, speakers, headphones, and others—you want to play music.

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Memristors built with 2-nanometer-thick parts

November 14, 2018 - 12:45pm

When two blocks are set down on top of each other, they're oriented so that they have nine intersections. (credit: Pi et al.)

Phase-change memory seems to offer the best of both worlds: the speed of current RAM with the permanence of a hard disk. While current implementations are too expensive for widespread use, researchers have been doing interesting things with test hardware. Its distinct properties have allowed people to perform calculations and train neural networks, all in memory. So finding out how to make phase-change memory more efficient could open some new approaches to computing.

This week, a collaboration between scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Brookhaven National Lab is publishing a paper describing how it made a tiny set of memristors that acts similar to phase-change memory. The features of the memory are only two nanometers across, and they can be separated by as little as 12nm—below the cutting edge of processor manufacturing. The down sides? So far, the team has only made nine bits at a time, and they're made using platinum.

On the grid

Key to this new work are tiny sheets of platinum only two nanometers thick—that's just over 11 atoms of the element. While platinum is rather pricey, the thin sheets provide extremely low resistance. The researchers measured each sheet at about 10,000 times less than the expected resistance of a similar-thickness carbon nanotube. And the authors say they can manufacture the sheets in the appropriate dimensions with a 100-percent efficiency.

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Spectre, Meltdown researchers unveil 7 more speculative execution attacks

November 14, 2018 - 2:50am

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Back at the start of the year, a set of attacks that leveraged the speculative execution capabilities of modern high-performance processors was revealed. The attacks were named Meltdown and Spectre. Since then, numerous variants of these attacks have been devised. In tandem, a range of mitigation techniques has been created to enable at-risk software, operating systems, and hypervisor platforms to protect against these attacks.

A research team—including many of the original researchers behind Meltdown, Spectre, and the related Foreshadow and BranchScope attacks—has published a new paper disclosing yet more attacks in the Spectre and Meltdown families. The result? Seven new possible attacks. Some are mitigated by known mitigation techniques, but others are not. That means further work is required to safeguard vulnerable systems.

The previous investigations into these attacks have been a little ad hoc in nature: examining particular features of interest to provide, for example, a Spectre attack that can be performed remotely over a network or Meltdown-esque attack to break into SGX enclaves. The new research is more systematic, looking at the underlying mechanisms behind both Meltdown and Spectre and running through all the different ways the speculative execution can be misdirected.

Read 15 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Man pleads guilty to swatting attack that led to death of Kansas man

November 14, 2018 - 1:55am

Enlarge (credit: Chatsimo / Getty Images)

Federal prosecutors in Kansas announced Tuesday that a 26-year-old Californian has admitted that he caused a Wichita man to be killed at the hands of local police during a swatting attack late last year.

Swatting is a way to harass or threaten someone by calling in a false threat to law enforcement, and, when successful, it usually results in a police SWAT team showing up needlessly at its victim's house.

According to the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Kansas, Tyler Barriss pleaded guilty to making a false report resulting in a death, cyberstalking, and conspiracy. He also admitted that he was part of "dozens of similar crimes in which no one was injured."

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

What is going on with California’s horrific fires?

November 13, 2018 - 11:05pm

Enlarge / Wildfire smoke blows westward on November 9. (credit: NASA)

Late last year, California experienced terrible—and in the case of the October Tubbs Fire, record-setting—wildfires. The fires were especially intense due to an unusually late start to the rainy season, which left vegetation dry as seasonal mountain winds kicked up like bellows in a forge.

This year, the situation has repeated. The Camp Fire in Northern California not only broke last year’s all-time record for structures burned, it also broke a much older record for the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. And in Southern California, the Hill and Woolsey Fires have burned through homes on the north side of Los Angeles.

So what is going on with these extreme fires? Are they just chance or part of a trend? President Trump, via his Twitter account, has repeatedly blamed California for its fires and claimed that environmental policies for water use or forestry are somehow responsible. But these claims make no sense to anyone working in the state—or anyone who knows that forest fires aren’t put out by hose-carrying fire engines. In reality, many factors contribute to the current situation. And climate change is one of them.

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Dealmaster: Take 22% off an Nvidia Shield TV 4K media streamer

November 13, 2018 - 8:37pm

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 deal on Nvidia's Shield TV, which is currently down to $140. That's a $40 discount, tied for the lowest price we've seen for the 4K media streamer.

The Shield TV has been around for a few years, but it's still the box to own if you want Android TV. Nvidia continues to support the device with regular updates, and the hardware remains more than fast enough to keep everything smooth. While Roku and Amazon offer 4K HDR streamers for far less, the Shield is more flexible when it comes to local file support, with a couple of USB ports for connecting external peripherals and the ability to serve as its own Plex server.

It works with both the Google Assistant and Alexa—the latter requires a pre-existing Alexa device—and can be paired with a tuner to show live TV. The Shield also works like a pseudo game console with Nvidia's GeForce Now streaming service, though this deal doesn't include the company's game-controller accessory. The only glaring downside is that it lacks Dolby Vision HDR, unlike the Apple TV 4K.

Read 6 remaining paragraphs | Comments

We unbox the $200 “power armor” Fallout ’76 version so you don’t have to

November 13, 2018 - 8:07pm

Sam Machkovech

A surprise showed up at my doorstep last night: the Fallout '76 "power armor" edition, arriving ahead of the game's official launch at 12:01am tomorrow morning (Wednesday, November 14). The PC version's $200 special edition has been sold out at many retailers for quite some time, as it was announced well before the game began receiving more public scrutiny. [Update: GameStop is still selling the console version of the set.]

But even though its sticker price includes a DLC-loaded version of the retail game, most of its cost is made up of Fallout series swag. Even if you're wary about the game's buggy beta period, is there still enough here to justify the insane cost for a series diehard?

Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments


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