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The Art of Technology
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Facebook tests laser-equipped drones, but they come in peace

3/27/2015 11:52am

Facebook and Google have both gotten into the aircraft business—or at least the unmanned aircraft business—in their efforts to blanket the planet with wireless Internet access. And at Facebook's F8 conference yesterday, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer said that the company had conducted its first successful tests of its drone-based Internet backbone and is preparing to move onto the next phase.

Facebook's unmanned aircraft will communicate both with each other and the ground using lasers instead of radio signals. The drones will be used in Facebook's effort to reach billions of people in areas currently without reliable Internet access, "allowing everyone in the world to participate in the Internet,"Schroepfer said.

The drone program, codenamed Aquila, is the result of Facebook's purchase of the British unmanned systems design firm Ascenta—the company that currently holds the record for the longest solar-powered flight. The aircraft has a wingspan comparable to that of a 737, Schroepfer said, and the weight of a small car. Schroepfer told attendees that the completely solar-powered drones would "loiter at very high altitudes and beam down backbone Internet access."

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Photog who got $1.2M copyright verdict against AFP won’t get legal fees

3/27/2015 11:38am

Daniel Morel's photos from the Haiti earthquake were widely distributed by news agencies after he put them on Twitter. After Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Getty Images realized the photos were being distributed without permission, they tried to put out a "mandatory kill" notice telling members to delete all Morel photos from their databases, but it was too late.

Morel sued for copyright infringement. After a 2013 jury trial, he was awarded $1.2 million, the maximum that was available to him under a damages framework set by the judge. A post-trial order (PDF), published Monday and reported yesterday by legal blogger Venkat Balasubramani, indicates that Morel won't be able to collect attorneys' fees. "Morel fought a fair fight and won," wrote US District Judge Alison Nathan in her order. However, it was a "close case on the merits" and involved "novel legal issues," so piling on attorneys' fees wouldn't be appropriate in this case.

"Academics and practitioners are... coming to terms with the implications of social media and traditional copyright law," Nathan stated.

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Intel and Micron’s 3D NAND promises SSDs “greater than 10TB”

3/27/2015 11:14am

Intel and Micron are partnering up for new NAND flash chips for SSDs, and the early results look promising. The companies' 3D NAND technology, which stack up 32 layers of floating gate flash cells, enables NAND dies with capacities of up to 256 gigabits (32GB) of data in MLC mode or 384 gigabits (48GB) in TLC mode. Most NAND dies today offer a maximum capacity of 128 gigabits (16GB).

Our article about SSD technology explains the difference between MLC and TLC flash if you don't already know, but the short version is that TLC NAND can store more data in the same amount of space but is generally less durable (though they both can last for a pretty long time).

The increased density offered by these new flash chips will result in SSDs with much larger capacities than today's. Intel and Micron say that standard 2.5-inch SSDs could store up to 10TB of data—modern mainstream drives top out at around 1TB. Smaller "stick of gum"-sized drives suitable for Ultrabooks and mini desktops could go up to 3.5TB. Most of these drives stop at around 512GB today.

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Valve to offer HTC Vive Developer Edition for free

3/27/2015 11:08am

With its Rift development kit program, Oculus has charged $300 to $350 to tens of thousands of developers (and doubtless some ultra-early-adopting consumers) who wanted to get their hands on early versions of the headset. Valve is going in a different direction with the Vive VR headset it's developing in conjunction with HTC, offering an early Developer Edition for free to qualified developers.

So far, Valve and HTC have seeded kits to a handful of specially chosen developers, including Owlchemy Labs (Aaaaaa! For The Awesome), Bossa Studios (Surgeon Simulator, I Am Bread), Fireproof Games (The Room), and Cloudhead Games (The Gallery). Others will have to wait; "more info and 'sign up' forms will be available to all interested developers, big or small, via a new site coming soon," Valve spokesperson Doug Lombardi told Ars Technica. The current hope is to get the sign-up site up and running next week, Lombardi says.

Approved developers will get a Developer Edition kit that "will be free, at least initially," Lombardi said. Those kits will start shipping later in the spring as part of an "ongoing effort" to get the development hardware out widely ahead of a planned 2015 consumer launch. The decision to release it for free is interesting given that HTC Connected Products Marketing Executive Director Jeff Gattis recently said consumers should expect "a slightly higher price point" for the final version of the hardware.

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A $50 device is breaking North Korean government’s grip on media

3/27/2015 10:45am

When a North Korean defector and the Human Rights Foundation planned to distribute Sony Pictures' The Interview to North Korea via balloon air-drops of DVDs and USB sticks late last year, they knew there was a good chance that the movie would be seen by at least some of the secretive country's citizens. That's because the North Korean government hasn't been able to stop the spread of low-cost digital media players smuggled in from China—many of them manufactured almost exclusively for the North Korean black market.

Reuters reports that an inexpensive portable DVD and digital video player, dubbed the "notel" by North Koreans (a portmanteau of notebook and television), is available widely on the North Korean black market for about 300 Chinese yuan—roughly $50. The devices have a small built-in LCD display, can be easily concealed, and can be recharged from a car battery.

A North Korean defector told Reuters that he had smuggled 18,000 notels into North Korea in 2014, and that the factory that made them was probably only still in business because of North Korean demand, since the devices have gone out of style in China.

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British users can sue Google in UK over “secret tracking”

3/27/2015 10:12am

The UK's Court of Appeal has confirmed an earlier landmark High Court decision that a group of British consumers using Apple's Safari browser to access Google's services can sue the US company in the UK. Google has always argued that the appropriate forum for such cases is in the US, so this sets an important precedent for future legal actions against foreign companies operating in the UK.

The UK Court of Appeal's ruling clears the way for the group known as "Safari Users Against Google's Secret Tracking" to proceed with its claim for compensation. The group alleges, "Google deliberately undermined protections on the Safari browser so that they could track users' internet usage and to provide personally tailored advertising based on the sites previously visited."

The claimants in the original High Court case said they suffered "by reason of the fact that the information collected from their devices was used to generate advertisements which were displayed on their screens. These were targeted to their apparent interests (as deduced from the information collected from the devices they used). The advertisements that they saw disclosed information about themselves. This was, or might have been, disclosed also to other persons who either had viewed, or might have viewed, these same advertisements on the screen of each Claimant's device."

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AT&T’s plan to watch your Web browsing—and what you can do about it

3/27/2015 9:00am

If you have AT&T’s gigabit Internet service and wonder why it seems so affordable, here's the reason—AT&T is boosting profits by rerouting all your Web browsing to an in-house traffic scanning platform, analyzing your Internet habits, then using the results to deliver personalized ads to the websites you visit, e-mail to your inbox, and junk mail to your front door.

In a few select areas including Austin, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri—places where AT&T competes against the $70-per-month Google Fiber—Ma Bell offers its own $70-per-month "GigaPower" fiber-to-the-home Internet access. But signing up for the deal also opts customers in to AT&T’s “Internet Preferences” program, which gives the company permission to examine each customer’s Web traffic in exchange for a price that matches Google's.

AT&T charges at least another $29 a month ($99 total) to provide standalone Internet service that doesn’t perform this extra scanning of your Web traffic. The privacy fee can balloon to more than $60 for bundles including TV or phone service. Certain modem rental and installation fees also apply only to service plans without Internet Preferences.

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Childhood abuse victims don’t always grow up to be abusers

3/27/2015 7:00am

It’s a widely held belief that people who were abused as children are more likely to grow up to abuse their own children, but a new study in Science suggests a more complex picture. Different kinds of abuse and neglect have different patterns of intergenerational transmission, and there’s reason to think that certain families are scrutinized more than others, leading to biased reporting.

The widespread belief in intergenerational transmission is not completely unfounded. A number of studies have found evidence that abuse victims are more likely to abuse, but the overall picture is mixed: many other studies have found no such link. Understanding what causes child abuse is obviously vital to finding solutions, so it’s an essential question for researchers to resolve.

Part of the problem is that this is an incredibly difficult subject to study. Asking people to self-report their experience of abuse as children, or their tendency to abuse as adults, will obviously produce answers rife with inaccuracies. On the other hand, not all instances of abuse are reported officially and not all reported abuses have sufficient evidence to result in criminal charges.

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Nintendo’s physical DLC: Supply-limited toy needed for new gameplay puzzles

3/26/2015 9:09pm
Ars Technica's own Sam Machkovech bought a Toad Amiibo as soon as he could. What? Stop judging him. He's a grown-up. He can own whatever toys he wants. Sam Machkovech

Since its November launch, Nintendo's Amiibo toy line has mostly been used to unlock cosmetic bonuses in Wii U and Nintendo 3DS games. That changed last week with a downloadable update to Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, whose new puzzle-filled mode requires a supply-limited Toad figurine to unlock.

The new "hide-and-seek" mode, while admittedly simple, strays significantly from its source game. It asks players to rotate and scour the game's small, detailed levels to find a hidden, animated "pixel Toad" icon somewhere on the walls. Once you see one, tap it on the gamepad's screen to clear the challenge; these, like a Where's Waldo book, range from stupidly easy to "holy crap where the heck is Toad" hard, especially since the icon sometimes runs around the level. As of press time, this mode only unlocks with a Toad Amiibo; other Mario series toys will only unlock boring old bonus lives in the game.

A quick glance at sites like Amazon, Best Buy, and Gamestop shows that the Toad figure is already hard to come by online and low in stock at brick-and-mortar locations; it hasn't risen to $100-plus gold Mario levels, but Captain Toad completists may want to rush to get in on the hide-and-seek action. We have asked Nintendo whether the company plans to make this mode available without the Amiibo or whether to expect more intense Amiibo-specific game content in the near future, and we'll update this report with any response.

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Noose around Internet’s TLS system tightens with 2 new decryption attacks

3/26/2015 8:22pm

The noose around the neck of the Internet's most widely used encryption scheme got a little tighter this month with the disclosure of two new attacks that can retrieve passwords, credit card numbers and other sensitive data from some transmissions protected by secure sockets layer and transport layer security protocols.

Both attacks work against the RC4 stream cipher, which is estimated to encrypt about 30 percent of today's TLS traffic. Cryptographers have long known that some of the pseudo-random bytes RC4 uses to encode messages were predictable, but it wasn't until 2013 that researchers devised a practical way to exploit the shortcoming. The result was an attack that revealed small parts of the plaintext inside an HTTPS-encrypted data stream. It required attackers to view more than 17 billion (234) separate encryptions of the same data. That was a high bar, particularly given that the attack revealed only limited amounts of plaintext. Still, since the researchers demonstrated the attack could decrypt HTTPS-protected authentication cookies used to access user e-mail accounts, Google and other website operators immediately took notice.

Now, researchers have figured out refinements that allow them to recover RC4-protected passwords with a 50-percent success rate using slightly more than 67 million (226) encryptions, a two-order of magnitude reduction over the previous attack used to recover secure cookies. The exploits—laid out in a paper published last week titled Attacks Only Get Better: Password Recovery Attacks Against RC4 in TLS—work against both Basic access authentication over HTTPS and the widely used IMAP protocol for retrieving and storing e-mail.

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Salesforce abandons all future Indiana plans following passage of SB 101

3/26/2015 6:32pm

On Thursday, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff announced plans to avoid the state of Indiana for any future company events following the passage of that state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"Today we are canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination," Benioff wrote on his personal Twitter account. He then emphasized his "employees' and customers' outrage" over the bill and said that he would "dramatically reduce" the company's investment in Indiana as a result.

Benioff spent much of Thursday posting links to stories about the bill's passage, most of which referred to its discriminatory aspects and its potential negative impact on Indiana's LGBTQ community. He also urged technology CEOs to "pay attention to what is happening in Indiana and how it will impact your employees and customers."

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German pro basketball team relegated to lower division due to Windows update

3/26/2015 5:55pm

A second-tier German professional basketball team has been relegated to an even lower tier as a result of being penalized for starting a recent game late—because the Windows laptop that powered the scoreboard required 17 minutes to perform system updates.

The March 13 match between the Chemnitz Niners and the Paderborn Baskets was set to begin normally, when Paderborn (the host) connected its laptop to the scoreboard in the 90 minutes leading up to the game.

In an interview with the German newspaper, Die Zeit (Google Translate), Patrick Seidel, the general manager of Paderborn Baskets said that at 6:00pm, an hour and a half before the scheduled start time, the laptop was connected "as usual."

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PayPal agrees to pay $7.7 million for alleged sanctions violations

3/26/2015 4:57pm

On Wednesday afternoon, PayPal reached a settlement with the US Treasury Department, agreeing that it would pay $7.7 million for allegedly processing payments to people in countries under sanction as well as to a man the US has listed as involved in the nuclear weapons black market. The company neither confirmed nor denied the allegations, but it voluntarily handed over its transaction data to the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

In its settlement agreement with PayPal, the Treasury accused the company of failing to screen its in-process transactions until 2013. Although the company made moves to prevent transactions involving sanctioned countries as early as 2006, its policies were lax until, in July 2011, the company implemented a “short term fix” in which PayPal could "scan live transactions for sanctions-related keywords and evaluate any potential matches while the completed payments were held in a pending status.”

That short-term fix didn’t prove to be up to snuff in keeping forbidden transactions from being processed, however, and between 2009 and 2013 PayPal ended up processing nearly 500 transactions worth more than $40,000 for goods and services going to Cuba, Iran, and Sudan, as well as $7,000 in transactions involving Kursad Zafer Cire, a Turkish man on the US State Department’s list of Weapons of Mass Destruction proliferators. According to a Treasury Department enforcement information page, PayPal’s short-term fix filter flagged Cire’s transactions seven times, but it wasn’t until the seventh instance that PayPal blocked his account.

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Gallery: The bicoastal industrial tech labs road show (with robots!)

3/26/2015 2:33pm


33 more images in gallery

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ars.AD.queue.push(["xrailTop", {sz:"300x250", kws:[], collapse: true}]);Two labs, two coasts, two climates. My tour of GE's Global Research operations involved in developing what the company calls the "Industrial Internet" took me to places a bit less exotic than Shanghai and Munich. But like Lee Hutchinson, my schedule also kept me mostly indoors—first at GE Software in San Ramon, California, and then at GE Global Research's facilities in Niskayuna and Schenectady, New York. I got a break in between to catch my breath, and the lull was extended a bit by a mid-February snowstorm that kept me pinned in Baltimore for a few extra days.

While cloud computing is not very photogenic, I did get a close look at what GE is doing in the realm of human interface design work based on the cloud analytics company data scientists and developers are creating in San Ramon. I also got to play around with some of the hardware that it interacts with—in a very controlled environment, mind you. Safety goggles were required for a simulated gas turbine plant experience.

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Colliding galaxy clusters offer strongest case yet for dark matter

3/26/2015 2:00pm

In the ongoing quest to understand dark matter, collisions between clusters of galaxies provide a great testing ground. We learned quite a bit about dark matter from observations of the Bullet Cluster, and now a new study provides further insight by looking at dozens of galaxy cluster collisions, further constraining models of dark matter in which the individual particles collide with each other.

The conventional model of dark matter is that it’s cold—meaning that the particles are moving relatively slowly—and the particles don’t interact with each other much, if at all. This model has for the most part been incredibly successful in predicting a wide range of phenomena, from the behavior of galaxies up to the large-scale structure of the Universe. There is, however, some data which seems to conflict with the model. For one thing, the model predicts that there should be higher dark matter density toward the centers of galaxies and galaxy clusters, and our observations do not match those predictions.

There are a number of possible resolutions to this conflict. Some of them involve potential processes involving the ordinary (baryonic) matter in those galaxies. Others involve slightly different versions of the cold dark matter model. One possibility in the latter category is that dark matter is self-interacting—dark matter particles can collide with each other more often than is commonly thought.

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Australian government minister: Dodge new data retention law like this

3/26/2015 1:35pm

The Australian Parliament has passed a series of amendments to the country's Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, requiring "telecommunications service providers to retain for two years telecommunications data (not content) prescribed by regulations."

The two-year retention period equals the maximum allowed under the EU's earlier Data Retention Directive that was struck down last year by the Court of Justice of the European Union for being "a wide-ranging and particularly serious interference with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data." This month, the European Commission announced that it had no plans to introduce a new Data Retention Directive, although Member States are still able to introduce their own national legislation.

Despite that move away from retaining communications metadata by the EU and continuing concerns in the US about the National Security Agency's bulk phone metadata spying program, the Australian government was able to push through the amendments implementing data retention thanks to the support of the main opposition party. Labor agreed to vote in favor of the Bill once a requirement to use special "journalist information warrants" was introduced for access to journalists' metadata, with a view to shielding their sources. No warrant is required for obtaining the metadata of other classes of users, not even privileged communications between lawyers and their clients. Even for journalists, the extra protection is weak, and the definition of what constitutes a journalist is rather narrow—bloggers and occasional writers are probably not covered.

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Is it legal for US military to scan the public’s computers for kid porn?

3/26/2015 1:10pm

A federal appeals court is having second thoughts about its decision frowning on the US Navy for scanning every computer in the state of Washington accessing Gnutella, a large peer-to-peer network.

The September decision (PDF) thwarted a child pornography prosecution that began when a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent in Georgia discovered the illicit images on a civilian's computer in Washington state. The agent was using a law-enforcement computer program called RoundUp to search for hashed images of child pornography.

Following the court's 3-0 decision, the Department of Justice petitioned for a rehearing. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals agreed Wednesday to revisit the dispute with a larger, 11-judge panel.

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Samsung and HTC flagships to duke it out in US stores on April 10

3/26/2015 1:00pm

We'll have a heavyweight retail battle on our hands in a few days. The new flagships from Samsung and HTC are hitting US stores on the same day—April 10.

Preorders for the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge start tomorrow, March 27. All four big carriers have signed up to carry both Samsung phones, and it sounds like participating carrier stores and Best Buys will have in-store demo units tomorrow, too. Samsung has a store finder for participating locations here.

Samsung has left the pricing up to the carriers, but so far we've seen T-Mobile chime in with monthly payment plans that total $679.92 for the 32GB S6 and $779.76 for the 32GB S6 Edge, with prices going all the way up to $959.83 for the 128GB Edge. It looks like the Edge costs $100 more than the flat S6, and each tier of storage (32, 64, and 128) costs around $80-100 more than the tier below it.

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A review of Android for Work: Dual-persona support comes to Android

3/26/2015 11:50am

If you work in an office environment, you probably know a few people—maybe a lot of people—with two smartphones. One is a personal phone full of pictures of the family, games, social networking, and sports stuff, and the other is a company-issued smartphone full of e-mail, appointments, contacts, and documents. With two phones, your IT department has full control over your work data and can remotely wipe it, and they never get to see your personal pictures or other information. It's a workable setup, but the downside is all the duplication—you have two phones, two chargers, and almost no free pocket space. The other alternative is BYOD—Bring Your Own Device—in which the IT department takes over and installs a bunch of company software to your personal phone.

There is a better way, though, and it's called a "dual-persona smartphone"—a way to have separate work and personal data on a single device. Blackberry was the first to have it baked into the OS in BB10, but in terms of OSes that users actually want to use, it's been left up to often-clunky third-party solutions.

With Android 5.0, Google laid the groundwork for dual-persona support right in the OS with "managed profile" APIs, and now there's a more complete solution from the company called "Android for Work."

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Graphene allows strange form of ice to occur at room temperature

3/26/2015 11:39am

We are all familiar with water, and we see it every day in many forms: in the bulk as a glass of water, in the crystal phase as ice, and the vapor phase as steam. While the behavior of these phases seems predictable, water is an unusual substance that behaves unlike any other small molecule we know of. This fact is particularly notable when water is viewed at small-length scales or confined to small compartments.

An international team of scientists recently discovered some intriguing structural characteristics of water confined in graphene nanocapillaries. In these studies, the researchers deposited a graphene monolayer on a small grid, added a small amount of water, and then covered it with another monolayer of graphene. This sample was left overnight to allow excess water to evaporate, eventually bringing the graphene layers together so that only a small amount of adsorbed water remained between them. The water left behind showed some unusual structural properties.

Structural characteristics of water are influenced by hydrogen bonding among adjacent water molecules. In the liquid state, water exhibits a partially ordered structure. In the crystal state, water molecules begin to conform to more rigid lattice structures, forming ice. As ice, the water molecules typically take on a geometry that is a three-dimensional “tetrahedral” structure, which basically looks like a square pyramid.

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