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Airbnb and NYC bury the hatchet

12/4/2016 9:50pm

(credit: Open Grid Scheduler / flickr)

Home-rental startup Airbnb has ended a legal battle with New York City, its largest market.

Airbnb sued New York City and the state of New York in October, just hours after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill authorizing fines of up to $7,500 against those who violate the city's short-term rental laws. The company dropped the lawsuit against the state but continued to spar with the city until the two sides reached an agreement on Friday.

New York City officials have made clear to the company that the fines will be levied against individual hosts who break the rules, not against Airbnb itself. Airbnb has also agreed to help enforce a "one host, one home" policy in New York that would limit hosts to only renting out one home.

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County coroner asks Oakland fire families to preserve DNA for comparison

12/4/2016 7:30pm

Enlarge / The fire at the 1300 block of 31st Ave., Oakland, California, as seen late Friday evening and into the early hours of Saturday. (credit: @OaklandFireLive)

Police and firefighters in Oakland, California, are using surveillance tools like drones, usually reserved for criminal investigations, to ascertain damage and identify victims from a deadly fire that broke out Friday night.

The blaze engulfed a local warehouse, dubbed "Ghost Ship," which had unofficially been converted to a music venue. The structure fire is believed to be among the worst in the country in recent years.

At a 3pm press conference on Sunday, Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said there had been 33 official deaths recorded, and he estimated that "35 to 40 percent" of the building had been searched and was still being searched.

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Apple is “excited” about the potential of self-driving cars

12/4/2016 2:20pm

(credit: Andrew Cunningham)

Conflicting rumors of Apple's connected car plans have been swirling for some time. But a new letter written by Apple's director of product integrity Steve Kenner to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sheds some light into the company's plans. In the letter, Kenner writes that Apple is "excited" about the potential of automated transportation and that the company is "investing heavily" into machine learning that could support such systems.

"Apple uses machine learning to make its products and services smarter, more intuitive, and more personal," Kenner states in the letter. "The company is investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation."

Apple states that companies making self-driving vehicles and connected cars should follow "rigorous safety principles," however those rules shouldn't prevent companies from making "consequential progress." Also, the letter emphasizes the necessity of sharing "crash and near-misses" data to improve this technology, but that shouldn't compromise user privacy.

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Yooka-Laylee first impressions: A rush job, but polished in the right places

12/4/2016 1:00pm

Enlarge / Yooka (the lizard) and Laylee (the bat) run around their game's opening level, Tribalstack Tropics. (credit: Playtonic Games)

ANAHEIM, California—Upcoming video game Yooka-Laylee is set to bring the 3D platformer genre back in a big way next year, but can it live up to high expectations? The game’s team of ex-Rare developers charmed fans into coughing up £2.1 million of crowdfunded money last year, mostly on the promise of reviving the glory of Banjo-Kazooie. Are we anywhere near a true “Banjo-Threeie” here?

That’s a tough question to answer after only a 20-minute demo, which I got to test at this weekend's PlayStation Experience event. For now, my dive into the game’s opening level has revealed a mix of humor, charm, rough production values, and darned good gameplay.

Laylee, ease my worried mind

Gliding over the game’s opening level is honestly as fun as this (admittedly sweetened) screenshot looks.

Yooka-Laylee’s opening world, called Tribalstack Tropics, plays like a heaping helping of N64 platformer comfort-food—with the added juice of modern 3D hardware, of course. After I hopped, ran, and spun over a variety of familiar platforming challenges, I reached the sunny, green level’s mountain peak, and then I was told to jump all the way down. And jump I did—while holding the game’s hover-jump button to glide long and fall far. The game, running on a PlayStation 4, kept draw distances high during this whole sequence, and I was delighted by the sense of scale. (Soon after, I found out I could run into a warping door to get back to the top and hop all over again. Whee!)

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Tornado outbreaks are getting more violent

12/4/2016 12:00pm

Enlarge (credit: The National Severe Storms Laboratory)

A tornado may cause localized destruction, but the most severe problems come when a storm system spawns multiple tornadoes. This creates what's called a tornado outbreak, which spreads destruction across a wider area. Now, a new study suggests that the most violent tornado outbreaks are on the rise. But the researchers behind the study see no indication that the rise in tornado outbreaks is connect with our warming climate.

It would make sense for a warming climate to influence tornado activity. After all, higher temperatures mean more energy in the atmosphere, potentially powering the storms. But past studies have produced mixed results when it comes to tornado activity. There's not a significant trend in the number of tornadoes or the frequency of outbreaks (defined as six or more tornadoes that occur in rapid succession). At the same time, tornadoes are occurring in more of the year, and the number of tornadoes in outbreaks has become increasingly variable.

A team of researchers from Columbia University (Michael Tippett, Chiarra Lepore, and Joel Cohen) decided to look at this last figure more carefully. They collected data on the number of storms in outbreaks in the period between 1965 and 2015. While there was no trend in the number of outbreaks, the number of tornadoes per outbreak has gone up across that time period. Not only was the mean number of tornadoes per outbreak going up, but the more extreme outbreaks—the ones with the most storms—were increasing the fastest.

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Why do hunters choose not to shoot?

12/4/2016 11:00am

Enlarge / A red deer in Norway (credit: flickr user: Jörg Hempel)

Hunting animals, like deer, is often important to keeping their population at a reasonable size. In areas where natural predators are few or nonexistent, the only way to control populations of certain species is through human hunting.

Human hunters behave differently from natural predators though. For instance, natural predators aren’t interested in trophy hunting, so they don’t target animals that would look good on their walls. Natural predators also aren’t reluctant to kill the young, whereas human hunters tend to avoid this. And human hunters may make other decisions about what to kill based on factors we don't really understand.

To understand how these factors might influence prey populations, a group of researchers in Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands published a paper that tries to predict hunters’ behavior.

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Hear the pulse: Heart rate monitoring fitness earbuds tested

12/4/2016 10:00am

Video shot/edited by Jennifer Hahn. (video link)

This year, more heart rate monitors have made their way into fitness trackers than ever before. All the major companies—Fitbit, Garmin, and Polar, among many others—have made heart rate monitoring more accessible by putting it into devices that cost less than $200 (many of them less than $150). Most of these devices are wristband wearables—but as 2016 ends and 2017 approaches, audio giants are getting into the mix. Workout headphones and earbuds have been around for a while, but now big names including Bose and JBL are making fitness earbuds that also track heart rate.

Why the ears?

You have the right to be skeptical about pulse-sensing earbuds. Before we get into why earbud-based monitors are becoming more prevalent, let's take a look at your current options. Most of the heart rate monitors widely available now are in chest straps or wrist-based wearables. The former is considered to be more accurate most of the time since straps are secured to the torso and close to your heart.

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Watch Captain Marvel kick butt in Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite gameplay premiere

12/4/2016 1:16am

Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite: Gameplay reveal trailer

ANAHEIM, Calilfornia—After a week of teases and leaks, Capcom confirmed on Saturday that its long-running fighting series, Marvel vs. Capcom, would receive a sequel in 2017. The announcement came during the kickoff panel at this weekend's PlayStation Experience expo, but the cooler stuff came later at the evening's Street Fighter V world finals tournament.

The crossover sequel, dubbed Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, received its world premiere gameplay trailer on Saturday night, and it was introduced by Street Fighter V director Yoshinori Ono. "After you watch this, you might not be able to go to sleep tonight," Ono told the crowd.

Captain Marvel? More like Captain Marvelous.

The 1:30 trailer might not have been insomnia-inducing, but it was definitely far from a lullaby. The game now only lets players create teams of two, as opposed to the prior games' three-on-three fights, and the trailer showed Capcom favorites Mega Man and Ryu squaring off against Marvel superheroes Iron Man and Captain Marvel.

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In new lawsuit, Instacart shoppers say they were regularly underpaid

12/3/2016 1:15pm

(credit: Kristin Sloan)

On Thursday, 12 Instacart “shoppers” across 11 states filed a proposed US federal class-action lawsuit against the San Francisco startup, alleging a breach of state and federal labor laws.

The Instacart lawsuit is one of several currently targeting so-called “sharing economy” startups, and they all get at the same question: can workers be accurately classified as independent contractors, or should they properly be designated as employees? In Instacart’s case, customers order groceries online, but those groceries are then picked up and delivered by the company’s shoppers. So, should those shoppers be treated as employees?

Classifying such workers as employees rather than contractors would entitle them to a number of benefits under federal law. This includes unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, the right to unionize, and, most importantly, the right to seek reimbursement for mileage and tips. This reclassification would also incur new and significant costs for Instacart and other affected companies, including Uber and Lyft. An on-demand cleaning service, Homejoy, shut down last year just months after it was hit with a similar labor lawsuit.

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Op-ed: Stop pretending there’s a difference between “online” and “real life”

12/3/2016 11:00am

Enlarge / My face is made of internet. (credit: Fiona Staples)

Sometimes I get into one of those conversations about the Internet where the only way I can reply is to quote from The IT Crowd: "Are you from the past?" I say that every time someone asserts that the online world is somehow separate from real life. You'd be surprised how much this comes up, even after all these years of people's digital shenanigans leading to everything from espionage and murder to international video fame and fancy book deals.

But now that the U.S. has a president-elect who communicates with the American people almost exclusively via Twitter and YouTube, it's really time to stop kidding ourselves. Before the election, many of us (including me) would have shrugged off the fake news stories piling up in the margins of our Facebook feeds. Nobody takes that stuff seriously, right? The election of Donald Trump and several recent tweets from the House Science Committee are two strong pieces of evidence that, yes, people do.

In reality, politics have straddled the digital and meatspace for decades. Though government officials may have just learned about "the cyber," people working in computer security have been dealing with criminal and whimsical incursions into their systems since the late 20th century. It was 1990 when the infamous Operation Sundevil swept up innocents in a massive Secret Service dragnet operation to stop carders. The Stuxnet worm, which affected physical operations of centrifuges at a uranium enrichment plant in Iran, is only the most obvious example of how digital ops can have consequences away from the keyboard.

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Kate Rubins just scienced the @$!# out of the International Space Station

12/3/2016 10:00am


The International Space Station fills several roles for NASA—providing a toehold in outer space for human activity, testing closed-loop technologies for long-duration spaceflight, and developing international partnerships. But perhaps the station's biggest selling point is science. It was, after all, designated a national laboratory in 2005. And what does a lab need? Scientists.

Yet despite the vastly increased diversity of the astronaut corps since the early, macho days of the Mercury 7, many astronauts today are still fighter pilots, engineers, and surgeons. Relatively few are bonafide research scientists. But Kate Rubins is, and she spent 115 days on the space station this summer and fall. Before becoming an astronaut, Rubins trained in molecular biology and led a laboratory of more than a dozen researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She and her team specialized in viruses such as Ebola and Marburg, and their field work took them to Central and Western Africa.

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Ars Cardboard’s 2016 board game gift guide

12/3/2016 9:00am


Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games. Check out our complete board gaming coverage at

The frenzied holiday gift-shopping season is now in full swing, and board gamers across the globe are dusting off their Kallax shelves in preparation for the cardboard bounty that surely awaits them. It’s left to you, Friend of the Gamer, to make those dreams come true.

Whether your giftee is a longtime gamer or a brand new convert, Ars Cardboard is here with a list of games to please players of every stripe. We've broken your friends and family into tidy little categories and provided a main pick and some alternatives for each demographic. Our main picks focus on titles released in the last year or two, but we dug into some older titles for our expanded picks. To boot, most games on this list are friendly to tabletop newbies.

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Jury deadlocked in trial of cop filmed killing fleeing suspect

12/2/2016 6:17pm

Jurors in a Charleston, South Carolina, courtroom said Friday they were deadlocked on whether to convict a white South Carolina police officer on trial for shooting an African-American man in the back. The video taken last year by a passerby was viewed online millions of times.

Michael Slager (credit: YouTube)

Defense attorneys for Michael Slager, a 35-year-old North Charleston officer, called for a mistrial in the murder case, while the judge has ordered the 12-member panel to continue deliberating. All the while, a single juror wrote a note to the presiding judge that he or she could not, "in good conscience, approve a guilty verdict."

"You have a duty to make every reasonable effort to reach a unanimous verdict," Judge Clifton Newman told panelists, who began hearing the case a month ago. The jury began deliberating Wednesday.

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Trump’s health pick, Tom Price, sparks bitter infighting among doctors

12/2/2016 4:40pm

Enlarge / Tom Price, R-Ga., speaks at a signing ceremony for the "Restoring Americans Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act of 2015" at the US Capitol in Washington in 2016. Rep. Price, who is also a physician, is the sponsor of the legislation, which is designed to eliminate key parts of President Barack Obama's health care law and stop taxpayer funds from going to Planned Parenthood. (credit: Getty | Congressional Quarterly )

President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of six-term Congress member Tom Price (R-Ga.) for secretary of health and human services has inflamed the medical community bigly this week, causing widespread and bitter infighting.

Price is not a particularly shocking pick by Trump—the Congressman is one of the fiercest Obamacare critics, and Trump vowed during his campaign to quickly repeal and replace the mammoth healthcare law. Beyond that, Price, a former orthopedic surgeon, has maintained strong conservative positions on healthcare policy. He opposes abortion rights and regulations on tobacco, for instance. But he also belongs to a small, fringe, ultra-conservative and conspiracy-laden group called the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). Among other things, this group decries evidence-based medicine, Medicare, and Medicaid, plus it has peddled discredited, dangerous notions including that vaccines cause autism.

In light of some or all of those facts, many in the medical community were left aghast and fuming by support of Price’s nomination from top medical associations, namely the powerful American Medical Association (AMA) and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). In the past few days, thousands of doctors have signed letters and petitions, condemned the groups’ support, and publicly quit the AMA. The hashtag #NotMyAMA has gathered steam on Twitter.

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There’s a new DDoS army, and it could soon rival record-setting Mirai

12/2/2016 3:55pm

Enlarge (credit: ellenm1)

For almost three months, Internet-of-things botnets built by software called Mirai have been a driving force behind a new breed of attacks so powerful they threaten the Internet as we know it. Now, a new botnet is emerging that could soon magnify or even rival that threat.

The as-yet unnamed botnet was first detected on November 23, the day before the US Thanksgiving holiday. For exactly 8.5 hours, it delivered a non-stop stream of junk traffic to undisclosed targets, according to this post published Friday by content delivery network CloudFlare. Every day for the next six days at roughly the same time, the same network pumped out an almost identical barrage, which is aimed at a small number of targets mostly on the US West Coast. More recently, the attacks have run for 24 hours at a time.

While the new distributed denial-of-service attacks aren't as powerful as some of the record-setting ones that Mirai participated in, they remain plenty big, especially for an upstart botnet. Peak volumes have reached 400 gigabits per second and 200 million packets per second. The attacks zero in on layer 3 and layer 4 of a target's network layer and are aimed at exhausting transmission control protocol resources.

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Buffer overflow exploit can bypass Activation Lock on iPads running iOS 10.1.1

12/2/2016 2:00pm

Enlarge / The iPad Air 2 and Mini 4. (credit: Andrew Cunningham)

Apple's Activation Lock feature, introduced in iOS 7 in 2013, deters thieves by associating your iPhone and iPad with your Apple ID. Even if a thief steals your device, puts it into Recovery Mode, and completely resets it, the phone or tablet won't work without the original user's Apple ID and password. This makes stolen iDevices less valuable since they become more difficult to resell, and it has significantly reduced iPhone theft in major cities.

The feature has been difficult to crack, but a new exploit disclosed by Vulnerability Lab security analyst Benjamin Kunz Mejri uses a buffer overflow exploit and some iPad-specific bugs to bypass Activation Lock in iOS 10.1.1.

When you're setting up a freshly reset iPad with Activation Lock enabled, the first step is to hit "Choose Another Network" when you're asked to connect to Wi-Fi. Select a security type, and then input a very, very long string of characters into both the network name and network password fields (copying and pasting your increasingly long strings of characters can speed this up a bit). These fields were not intended to process overlong strings of characters, and the iPad will gradually slow down and then freeze as the strings become longer. During one of these freezes, rotate the tablet, close its Smart Cover for a moment, and then re-open the cover. The screen will glitch out for a moment before displaying the Home screen for a split second, at which point a well-timed press of the Home button can apparently bypass Activation Lock entirely (but it will have to be extremely well-timed, since the first-time setup screen will pop back up after a second).

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Get up to $1,000 off a new PC in Microsoft’s holiday promotions

12/2/2016 1:51pm

(credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft's 12 days of deals holiday season promotion starts at 12am Pacific on Monday, December 5. Each day has a different special offer, and some of the savings sound pretty big.

On two different days, including the opening Monday, certain Intel systems will be discounted by as much as $1,000. Certain Dell machines will be discounted by as much as 40 percent on the 11th day of the promotion, and, on the last day, Microsoft is cutting up to $200 off the Surface Pro 4 while throwing in a free $159 Type Cover.

There will be promotions covering tablets, laptops, Xbox One consoles, games, and even the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift VR headsets at various times through the month. Offers will be available online and in-store while stocks last, with the promotion of the day changing at midnight Pacific each day.

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Paris, Madrid, Athens, and Mexico City will ban diesel vehicles by 2025

12/2/2016 1:43pm

Enlarge / Paris as seen through a veil of smog, taken in early October. (credit: Getty Images | PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP)

You have to feel for the Europeans out there who own small diesel-engined cars. For years, car companies and governments have extolled the breed, discounting the fuel and promoting it as the way to achieve economical vehicles with acceptable carbon emissions. Then it turns out that diesel emissions—which include a lot more than just CO2—are actually really bad for us. Plus, cheating appeared to be rampant within the industry.

After pushing diesel cars for so long, a volte-face is now underway, including measures to ban diesel engines from Paris, Athens, and Madrid (as well as Mexico City, which we do realize is not in Europe).

The plan, announced in Mexico City during the C40 Mayors Summit which took place this week, follows restrictions recently enacted by the Parisian mayor to clean up that city's air quality. Over in Japan, Tokyo actually banned diesel engines at the turn of the century, although advances in engine technology and emissions controls have seen that relaxed in recent years.

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US House Science Committee tweets Breitbart climate misinformation

12/2/2016 1:37pm

Enlarge / You're doing it wrong. (credit: Charles Nadeau)

The current leadership of the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has a fraught relationship with climate science. Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), who chairs the committee, has used its subpoena powers to target NOAA climate scientists whose temperature dataset he does not like. He has also gone after the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts, who are pursuing a securities fraud investigation of ExxonMobil related to its public denial of climate change.

On Thursday, the committee’s Twitter account hopped on this anti-climate-science bandwagon. It tweeted a link to a story titled “Global temperatures plunge. Icy silence from climate alarmists” that was published by Breitbart—the hard-right, white-nationalist-supporting news outlet that saw its chairman, Steve Bannon, become President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist.

The article was written by James Delingpole, a columnist who has made a career out of insult-laden polemics against climate science. (In an episode of BBC’s Horizon, Delingpole famously admitted that he never reads scientific papers and called himself “an interpreter of interpretations.”) In this case, Delingpole mostly tacked a few put-downs onto quotes from a Daily Mail story written by David Rose—who also has a long history of writing deeply misleading stories about climate science.

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Lawyer sues 20-year-old student who gave a bad Yelp review, loses badly

12/2/2016 1:30pm

Enlarge (credit: Mambembe Arts & Crafts on Flickr)

When 20-year-old Lan Cai was in a car crash this summer, it was a bad situation. Driving home at 1:30am from a waitressing shift, Cai was plowed into by a drunk driver and broke two bones in her lower back. Unsure about how to navigate her car insurance and prove damages, she reached out for legal help.

The help she got, Cai said, was less than satisfactory. Lawyers from the Tuan A. Khuu law firm ignored her contacts, and at one point they came into her bedroom while Cai was sleeping in her underwear. "Seriously, it's super unprofessional!" she wrote on Facebook. (The firm maintains it was invited in by Cai's mother.) She also took to Yelp to warn others about her bad experience.

The posts led to a threatening e-mail from Tuan Khuu attorney Keith Nguyen. "If you do not remove the post from Facebook and any other social media sites, my office will have no choice but to file suit," he told her, according to a report in the Houston Press on the saga.

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