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The Art of Technology
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Video: Watch Ars glide awkwardly in an alleyway on a SoloWheel

8/1/2015 1:54pm
Ars Technica rides a SoloWheel. Video shot by Will Lemke of Propadata Films, edited by Jennifer Hahn. (video link)

SEATTLE—"You know you're in a sandal factory, right?" Luna Sandals founder "Barefoot" Ted McDonald said in a small retail room on a recent sunny day. The room is covered in photos of himself jogging, hiking, and exploring various exotic locales, and from there, he led me around the corner to a modest assembly and boxing room. At that time, the shop had no other customers, which I noticed because McDonald was moving around indoors by gliding on an electric, one-wheeled apparatus known as the SoloWheel.

McDonald has become a bug-eyed advocate—and official salesperson—for the device, and he made a point to ride it around as we talked, presumably to prove just how nimble and precise his motion can be on such hardware. It was effective—he could whip around and stop on a dime in impressive fashion—but in cities like Seattle, however, such advocacy isn't even so necessary. The single-wheeled devices, with no handles and two tiny flaps to stand on, have already started to become fixtures in hilly tech cities where people are buying into their efficient, glide-next-to-pedestrians style of movement.

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Where McDonald comes in is to encourage people to buy the models designed and manufactured by SoloWheel inventor and patent holder Shane Chen, as opposed to "around 150 knockoffs from Beijing," as McDonald described them. His sales pitch wasn't timid. This is a man who is obsessed with human motion, seemingly born from his experience as a marathon jogger (some of his stories were chronicled in the athletic-freaks-of-nature nonfiction book Born To Run), and his sales pitch vacillated from its technology and its efficiency to how it emulates the "runner's high" feeling he is obsessed with.

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The Magic Circle is a video game about the difficulty of making games

8/1/2015 11:00am

The world is largely colorless because the in-game developers couldn't agree on what color to make anything. Seriously.

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.related-stories { display: none !important; } There are surprisingly few video games about the process of making video games. Critically acclaimed movies like Argo and The Artist dramatize the work of Hollywood. Authors often love nothing more than writing about the struggles of fictional authors. But games have been slow to take that self-referential look at their own creation.

This is slowly beginning to change. In recent years, we've seen titles like Hack 'n' Slash and Code Hero turn the tedium and minutiae of computer programming into an actual game mechanic. We've also seen Game Dev Tycoon and Game Dev Story look at the making of games through a light-hearted business lens. The Magic Circle takes a bit from both camps, telling a fictional story of a troubled game's development from within that troubled, fictional game itself.

Even writing about The Magic Circle requires getting incredibly meta from the get-go. The game you play, The Magic Circle, is presented as the alpha, test version of "The Magic Circle," a massively multiplayer fantasy world that's been in development for over a decade by the time you get to it. The game-within-a-game is in incredibly rough shape, despite the development time, full of blocky, colorless graphics, placeholders where epic quests should go, animations controlled like puppets by human guides, and "puzzles" that are an insult to the name.

After a quick ten-minute trip through that alpha world, you dive in again in "Pro" mode and start to learn how the game-within-the-game got to this sorry state. The "live testbed" world you play in is overseen by members of the development team, who take the form of giant, unblinking eyes that float through the world and observe your actions. They're omnipotent gods here, but they're also flawed and fractured human beings in the real world, evidenced by the sounds of them squabbling through headsets while they monitor the test.

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New telemetry suggests shot-down drone was higher than alleged

8/1/2015 9:00am

The pilot of the drone shot down Sunday evening over a Kentucky property has now come forward with video provided to Ars, seemingly showing that the drone wasn’t nearly as close as the property owner made it out to be. However, the federal legal standard for how far into the air a person’s private property extends remains in dispute.

According to the telemetry provided by David Boggs, the drone pilot, his aircraft was only in flight for barely two minutes before it was shot down. The data also shows that it was well over 200 feet above the ground before the fatal shots fired by William Merideth.

David Boggs provided this video to Ars, which he describes as his "statement." (video link)

Boggs told Ars that this was the maiden voyage of his DJI Phantom 3, and that his intentions were not to snoop on anyone—his aim was simply to fly over a vacationing friend’s property, a few doors away from Merideth’s property in Hillview, Kentucky, south of Louisville.

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Legendary games dev Charles Cecil, on consoles, Kickstarter, and the death of the 2D artist

8/1/2015 8:30am

It's hard to imagine a game as defiantly old-fashioned as Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse being released without the help of crowdfunding. While it bears the sharp high-definition visuals and steep production values of a modern game, you could just as easily imagine playing it under a veil of blocky pixels and low-fi voice acting. Most publishers wouldn't even give it a chance. Today's adventure game is less point-and-click, and more interactive story; the challenge of esoteric, abstract-thinking puzzles dumbed down in favour of a more accessible narrative.

This isn't always a bad thing of course: just look at the likes of Telltale Games' brilliant The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead. But the Kickstarter successes of Broken Sword 5 and Double Fine Adventure in 2012 showed that there's a small, but dedicated group out there that crave the challenging puzzles and quirky dialogue of a late-'80s and early-'90s adventure game. It's thanks to the likes of Kickstarter, Apple's App Store, and the openness of the PC platform, that these games can find a home.

For Charles Cecil MBE, famed developer and creator of the Broken Sword series, it was specifically Kickstarter and Apple's App Store that were the catalyst for reviving his company Revolution Software. iOS remasters of classic point-and-click games like Beneath a Steel Sky and Broken Sword sold well on the App Store, and set the company on a path towards its Kickstarter success with Broken Sword 5, a game that brought in nearly $800,000 (£500,000) and attracted over 14,000 backers.

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Mt. Gox head arrested over loss of 650,000 bitcoins

8/1/2015 1:23am

Mt. Gox head Mark Karpelès was arrested by Japanese police on Saturday, more than a year after the exchange folded amidst the loss of 650,000 bitcoins. Karpelès hasn't been formally charged but "police are alleging that he manipulated the company’s computer system to inflate its assets," The Wall Street Journal reported.

"Japanese media aired footage of Mr. Karpelès being led by police officers from his apartment before 7 a.m. Saturday," the Journal report said. "An official familiar with the investigation said authorities allege that Mr. Karpelès manipulated the balance of a company account and used it to counter orders from customers. Some of the coins that he said were lost may not have existed, the official said."

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NSA report shows China hacked 600+ US targets over 5 years

7/31/2015 5:15pm

NBC has released a 2014 slide from a secret NSA Threat Operations Center (NTOC) briefing—a map that shows the locations of "every single successful computer intrusion" by Chinese state-sponsored hackers over a five-year period. More than 600 US businesses and institutions were breached during that period.

The slide was provided to NBC by an unnamed "intelligence source," who said the briefing "highlighted China's interest in Google and defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, and in air traffic control systems... [and] catalogued the documents and data Chinese government hackers have exfiltrated," the network reported.

The report suggests that the NSA has been tracking Chinese cyber-attacks for years and that its own network surveillance of China gives the agency the ability to correlate those attacks with specific sources. The briefing shown to NBC listed locations for the sources of each of the "exploitations and attacks," NBC reported.

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Windows 10’s weirdly disjointed music, video, and store apps

7/31/2015 5:05pm

Windows 8 was the first Windows to include a Store, along with a pair of new apps: Music and Video. While those apps had some nice features, they were both designed for the hard sell, better suited to being storefronts than media players.

Windows 8.1 shook up the store and included brand new Music and Video apps. Store features weren't gone, but they were no longer the priority.

Windows 10 shakes up the store again. The Music and Video apps have shed the Xbox branding that they used in Windows 8 and are now "Groove Music" and "Movies and TV." If we thought the effort to sell was a little too overwhelming in the Windows 8 apps, the Windows 10 ones swing too far in the other direction.

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Report: Russian agency launches probe against same-sex kiss, family emoji

7/31/2015 4:57pm

After giving the world's gay community quite possibly its most iconic studly-man image in decades, the Russian government has since gone on a legislative and regulatory tear against all things gay. This week, the controversial "gay propaganda" bill that President Vladimir Putin signed into law in 2013 was linked to an apparent effort by a Russian agency to discover pro-gay communications on social networks, especially those that include emoji and emoticons with same-sex kisses and family images with two dads or two moms.

The Russian-newspaper story was reported in the United States by Vocativ on Wednesday. It explained that the country's Roskomnadzor media-watchdog agency reached out to a pro-government youth activism group, known as Young Guard of United Russia, and asked its members to essentially snitch on anybody whose social media posts broke the country's Article 6.13.1 law, which forbids, among other things, "propaganda of homosexuality among minors."

According to the original Russian report, the uncovered letter sent to this activism group by Roskomnadzor Deputy Head Konstantin Vladimirovich Marchenko contained specific guidances about emoji on Facebook, along with his concerns that "most" social media users are minors—even though a cursory glance at not-so-concrete surveys reveals that most Russian social media users are not minors and are therefore not under the purview of the law in question. We, like Vocativ, also wonder whether Marchenko's request made any mention of the eggplant emoji in this regard.

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We’re hiring! Are you a grade-A gadget lover and tech reviewer in NYC?

7/31/2015 4:45pm

Friends! Arsians! Lend me your ears—and your résumés, because we are a-hiring!

Ars is looking to hire a tech reviewer and gadgetologist to join our butt-kicking gadget review team. Perks of the job include being able to argue about Android in-person with Ron Amadeo, hear wisdom from Andrew Cunningham's Reviews Cat, touch Peter Bright's glorious beard, and maybe even down some Soylent shots with me in a well-ventilated location. We need someone who's sharp, tech-savvy, personable, and who doesn't mind appearing on camera, since you're going to see a lot more video on Ars in the near future.

There are two catches: first, this is not an entry-level job. We need someone who's been in the reviewing game before, at least a bit, and we need to see some writing samples. Second: you have to be in the New York City area, no exceptions.

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Researchers craft atom-thick version of a junction used in transistors

7/31/2015 4:15pm

The discovery that it was possible to isolate graphene, a single-atom thick sheet of carbon, has opened the door to the development of a variety of atomically thin materials, many with distinctive properties. But developing devices using these 2D materials is challenging. A lot of the traditional techniques for manipulating their behavior either don't work or require that the 2D material be linked to bulkier, three-dimensional hardware.

Now, some researchers may have taken a tiny step toward developing a device that's entirely one atom thick. They've managed to create a key electrical junction, used in devices like diodes and transistors, from two different 2D materials. The border between these materials is atomically sharp, and the sheets themselves are only a few hundred picometers deep.

The device in question is called a p-n junction. It's formed at the boundary between (wait for it) p-type semiconductors and n-type semiconductors. The p-type tends to have "holes" that are missing an electron, while the n-type is characterized by an excess of electrons. Normally, these are formed by "doping," or adding small numbers of other atoms to a crystal of silicon. They're key components of diodes, transistors, LEDs, and photovoltaic cells, so being able to produce them is critical to pretty much all of modern electronics.

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Facebook: Our drones will use lasers to deliver 10Gbps Internet access

7/31/2015 3:07pm

Facebook has made significant progress in a project to build solar-powered drones that can deliver Internet connectivity using a mix of lasers and radio signals, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced yesterday.

"I'm excited to announce we’ve completed construction of our first full scale aircraft, Aquila, as part of our effort," Zuckerberg wrote. "Aquila is a solar powered unmanned plane that beams down Internet connectivity from the sky. It has the wingspan of a Boeing 737, but weighs less than a car and can stay in the air for months at a time. We've also made a breakthrough in laser communications technology. We've successfully tested a new laser that can transmit data at 10 gigabits per second. That's ten times faster than any previous system, and it can accurately connect with a point the size of a dime from more than 10 miles away."Obviously, that 10Gbps would be shared among multiple users, but it could connect a lot of people to the Internet.

The network will operate similarly to Google's Project Loon. While Loon uses balloons instead of drones, the aircraft in both networks distribute signals to each other to increase range.

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Warrantless mobile phone location tracking heads to Supreme Court

7/31/2015 3:00pm

The US Supreme Court is being asked to resolve once and for all whether the authorities need a court warrant under the Fourth Amendment to obtain a suspect's cell-site location data records.

The case the justices were asked to review Friday concerns a Florida man who got a life term for several robberies in a 2012 case built with his mobile phone's location data the police obtained without a warrant.

The case has big privacy implications for anybody who carries a mobile phone. According to the government, that device may be tracked at will without the Fourth Amendment's probable cause standard being met.

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Faster booting, smaller footprint make Windows 10 an easy upgrade for old PCs

7/31/2015 2:45pm

ars.AD.queue.push(["xrailTop", {sz:"300x251", kws:["bottom"], collapse: true}]);A whole bunch of people are going to upgrade to Windows 10. Not everyone. But when you offer free Windows via a nag message delivered to over 80 percent of the user base, you’re going to attract people who wouldn’t have driven to MicroCenter to buy an upgrade DVD.

Especially if you bought an eligible PC in Windows 7’s heyday, you will probably be installing the new OS on five- or six-year-old hardware that has long since been forgotten about by the company that sold it to you. Or maybe you bought something during the post-Chromebook era, where Windows PCs dipped back into netbook territory in their quest for a low price tag.

We installed Windows 10 on a few of these kinds of systems to see what you can expect, at least if you’re comparing a clean install to a clean install. Current users of both Windows 7 and Windows 8 should expect to recover a few gigabytes of drive space, a few megabytes of system RAM, and a few precious seconds of boot time.

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Appeals court: Actually, Newegg did win that case

7/31/2015 1:55pm

Newegg is famous for fighting patent trolls, and the company is currently trying to win fees from several cases where it has won or the troll has given up.

In one of those cases, Newegg fought a non-practicing entity called Pragmatus Telecom, which dropped its case against Newegg before discovery was complete. Newegg asked for attorneys fees but was rejected by the Delaware district court, which found that Newegg wasn't the "prevailing party"—in other words, it hadn't really won the case at all, so it couldn't be granted fees.

Today the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned (PDF) that order, meaning Newegg will get a second shot at collecting fees. While the order is nonprecedential, the chance of defendants being awarded fees is changing the economics of the patent-trolling business.

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New attack on Tor can deanonymize hidden services with surprising accuracy

7/31/2015 1:42pm

Computer scientists have devised an attack on the Tor privacy network that in certain cases allows them to deanonymize hidden service websites with 88 percent accuracy.

Such hidden services allow people to host websites without end users or anyone else knowing the true IP address of the service. The deanonymization requires the adversary to control the Tor entry point for the computer hosting the hidden service. It also requires the attacker to have previously collected unique network characteristics that can serve as a fingerprint for that particular service. Tor officials say the requirements reduce the effectiveness of the attack. Still, the new research underscores the limits to anonymity on Tor, which journalists, activists, and criminals alike rely on to evade online surveillance and monitoring.

"Our goal is to show that it is possible for a local passive adversary to deanonymize users with hidden service activities without the need to perform end-to-end traffic analysis," the researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Qatar Computing Research Institute wrote in a research paper. "We assume that the attacker is able to monitor the traffic between the user and the Tor network. The attacker’s goal is to identify that a user is either operating or connected to a hidden service. In addition, the attacker then aims to identify the hidden service associated with the user."

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ISPs: Net neutrality rules are illegal because Internet access uses computers

7/31/2015 12:25pm

Internet service providers yesterday filed a 95-page brief outlining their case that the Federal Communications Commission’s new net neutrality rules should be overturned.

One of the central arguments is that the FCC cannot impose common carrier rules on Internet access because it can’t be defined as a “telecommunications” service under Title II of the Communications Act. The ISPs argued that Internet access must be treated as a more lightly regulated “information service” because it involves “computer processing.”

“No matter how many computer-mediated features the FCC may sweep under the rug, the inescapable core of Internet access is a service that uses computer processing to enable consumers to ‘retrieve files from the World Wide Web, and browse their contents’ and, thus, ‘offers the ‘capability for... acquiring,... retrieving [and] utilizing... information.’ Under the straightforward statutory definition, an ‘offering’ of that ‘capability’ is an information service," the ISPs wrote.

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King’s Quest: A Knight to Remember is a journey of a thousand quips

7/31/2015 12:10pm

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During the 1980s and ‘90s, Sierra Entertainment’s adventure series King's Quest weaved a momentously important tapestry into the medium of interactive storytelling—one that I am more-or-less entirely unfamiliar with. My whole understanding of the series comes from some brief time with King's Quest VII: The Princeless Bride, played when my aunt would bring her computer around to my grandparents' house for Christmas.

What I remember from my brief exposure to those games is more of a general impression than any specific characters or story beats. The first part of Activision's reboot/reimagining/retelling works with that limited recall quite nicely, however. It tells the story of Graham, who Wikipedia explains is a returning protagonist from the first few games, as he first enters the kingdom of Daventry.

A Knight to Remember, the first episode in this reboot’s five-piece season, is immediately striking. A cold open on the shot of our hero's wine-colored, cel-shaded cape gives way to a dip into a dragon-inhabited cave, with zero context for why—or really even what sort of game this is. While the original King's Quest games were point-and-click adventures—much like the LucasArts games that dominated my childhood—Activision's early shots of the game made it appear like something more action-oriented. I expected something like the Ron Gilbert directed effort, The Cave, which wrapped the same sort of irreverence as those old games in a puzzle platforming package.

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Expert electrical analysis: $340 audiophile cables test “marginal”

7/31/2015 12:00pm
Our listening test setup back in Vegas, in the process of being draped out of view of both audience and test participants. Here, the expensive Vodka and not-expensive Cable Matters cables were swapped back and forth between the listening laptop, into which was plugged our Grado RS2e headphones. Lee Hutchinson

Our cable adventure is coming to a close. First we took our two $340 AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet cables to Las Vegas and subjected one of them to a live listening test; listeners were unable to tell it apart from a $2.50 Ethernet cable of the same length. Then we took the cable we didn’t use on stage and gutted it, exposing its innards. We found an interesting mix of high craftsmanship (a thick polyethylene sheath, genuine S/FTP construction) and corner cutting (masking tape, unterminated shields).

But listening tests and exploratory surgery would only get us so far. What we needed to cap things off was some actual, for-real electrical analysis, and for that there was really only one place we could go: Kurt Denke and Blue Jeans Cable.

To be sure, we could have rented a Fluke analyzer and done some tests ourselves, but Denke and his company have a sterling reputation in the (surprisingly deep) world of cables. Perhaps most famous for standing up to Monster Cable’s lawsuit threats by telling the bigger company to go jump in a lake, Denke and his company produce high-quality tested cables of all kinds—and he’ll also test out your cables to see exactly how well they perform.

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Epic’s Tim Sweeney: Augmented reality will replace traditional screens

7/31/2015 10:58am

In recent years, major tech conglomerates like Facebook/Oculus, Sony, Valve, and Samsung have been bullish on virtual reality's ability to change the computing landscape. But Epic Games founder and Unreal developer Tim Sweeney seems much more convinced that augmented reality "will be the biggest technological revolution that happens in our lifetimes."

That doesn't mean Sweeney is down on VR, per se. Epic is working to integrate its popular Unreal Engine to work with many virtual reality headsets and has made VR demos like "Showdown" that show off the potential of devices like the Oculus Rift. "They will be adopted everywhere," Sweeney said of this first wave of VR headsets. "Oculus and the HTC hardware is so good, you can go for minutes at a time and not realize that a game world is not real."

But in statements at the Chinajoy gaming trade show this week (as reported by Venturebeat), Sweeney said he saw virtual reality as just the first step to a single, unified augmented reality platform that could replace our screen-filled digital world—if given "a full decade to play out."

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Ebola vaccine trial in Guinea suggests it’s 100% effective

7/31/2015 10:48am

Today, The Lancet released the results of a large field trial of a vaccine against Ebola, and the results are more than promising. Within the limitations of the study, the vaccine appears to be 100 percent effective. The results were so good that the trial itself has been stopped, and the vaccine is now being used to control the spread of the disease.

The vaccine is made by the pharmaceutical giant Merck, which licensed it from the Public Health Agency of Canada. It was developed through what has become a fairly standard approach. A harmless virus (vesicular stomatitis virus, or VSV) was engineered so that it also carried the gene for Ebola's major surface protein, simply called glycoprotein. When people receive the vaccination, a harmless infection follows, which triggers an immune response. This response targets not only VSV but the Ebola protein as well. Ideally, once the infection is eliminated, the immune system is able to recognize both VSV and Ebola.

The trial, performed in southern Guinea, ran from April through July 20th of this year (the analysis, paper writing, and peer review must have proceeded at a staggering pace). It used what is called a "ring" design: once an infected individual was identified, a ring of potentially exposed individuals around them was identified. These individuals lived with the infected one, had contact with them after symptoms appeared, or came in contact with their clothes, bedding, or bodily fluids.

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