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The Art of Technology
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The downside of “Drill, baby, drill!”—degraded North American ecosystems

4/24/2015 12:12pm

The number of oil and gas wells drilled within central Canada and central USA has continued to rise, with an average of 50,000 new wells per year since 2000. These wells bring economic benefits and expectations of at least a temporary energy security. However, the benefits also come with a downside: the potential loss or degradation of local ecosystems.

Recently, a team of scientists explored this threat, providing the first empirical analysis of the consequences of drilling on our ecosystem. In their new study, high resolution satellite data of vegetation dynamics was combined with industry data and publicly available historical records of oil and gas well locations. The research team also evaluated patterns of land-use change and water use.

The team first investigated changes in the amount of carbon fixed by plants and then accumulated in biomass. Changes in this process were examined because carbon fixation and accumulation are fundamental to the life cycle on Earth.

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Microsoft’s console business falters a bit in early 2015

4/24/2015 11:29am

After showing competitive performance during the important holiday season, Microsoft has seen sales of Xbox hardware falter a bit in the new year so far. Shipments of Xbox consoles were down 20 percent year-over-year for the first quarter of 2015, with 1.6 million units shipped worldwide, according to newly released financial statements.

Microsoft no longer breaks out its overall Xbox sales between the Xbox One and the aging Xbox 360, but we can still try to extrapolate the split from previous data. The Xbox 360 sold just 800,000 units worldwide in the first quarter of 2014, and those sales probably fell between 40 and 66 percent this past quarter based on trends from previous and current console transitions. That means the Xbox One sold an estimated 1.12 to 1.34 million units for the quarter, roughly in line with the 1.2 million it sold a year ago.

Keeping sales flat isn't a bad result for the Xbox One, all things considered, but it likely won't be enough for Microsoft to narrow Sony's still-growing lead in overall PS4 sales. Sony announced in early March that it had sold 1.7 million PS4s to consumers worldwide just in the first two months of the year (and overall shipments to stores were likely a bit higher than that). That suggests the PS4's quarterly hardware shipment performance will easily dwarf Microsoft's Xbox One performance when Sony announces its quarterly earnings next week.

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iFixit: Replacing the Apple Watch’s battery is easy, replacing the S1 is hard

4/24/2015 10:51am

For as much as we've heard about the Apple Watch in the last month, we've heard almost nothing about the stuff that makes it (figuratively) tick. Apple mentioned the S1 "System in Package" back in September when it unveiled the watch, but the company has said almost nothing about it since, and we didn't know anything about battery capacity or the other components. Today, the teardown mages at iFixit have answered at least a few questions in their teardown of a 38 mm Apple Watch Sport, though concrete information about the S1's inner workings continues to elude us.

Some components were actually fairly easy to remove and replace. Though it's difficult to disconnect the display cable, the watch's screen comes off easily once you've heated the glue that holds it in place. The 205 mAh battery (around two-thirds to one-half the size of the batteries in Android Wear watches, which tend to run between 300 and 400 mAh) is easily lifted out and disconnected, since it's only held in place with light adhesive. The 42 mm model will have a slightly larger battery, but we don't know its exact capacity just yet.

Removing the S1 package is difficult enough that we probably wouldn't try it at home. iFixit

Those components are the ones that will need to be replaced the most often, so it's good that they're pretty easy to get at. Unfortunately, the rest of the watch is harder to crack. The various cables, Taptic Engine, speaker, and buttons aren't too hard to remove aside from being tiny (and the fact that they're held in with minuscule tri-wing screws), but the S1 is a glued-in octopus of cables that's hard to remove without breaking stuff. Even once it was out, iFixit couldn't get a closer look at it—the silver cap isn't a heat spreader, but a "solid block of plasticky resin."

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Op-Ed: In defense of Tor routers

4/24/2015 9:31am

A recent Ars Technica Op-Ed post by Nicholas Weaver took a harsh view on Tor routers, calling their basic premise flawed. We acknowledge that Tor routers are not a privacy silver bullet; we’ve been vocal about the need for people to use privacy add-ons with their web browsers. But I feel Weaver's article was one-sided and overstated the case against Tor routers; many of the arguments he made against them could be applied to VPNs as well.

Some of Weaver's points of contention were:

  • If you want protection from your ISP, you should use a VPN;
  • A personal VPN hosted on Amazon EC2 is a reasonable choice;
  • VPN providers offer “better performance and equal privacy”;
  • Many Tor exit nodes are malicious (implying that some VPN providers aren’t);
  • Browser fingerprinting can break the anonymity of Tor without the Tor Browser Bundle; and
  • Tor router makers are money-grabbing scumbags.

I'll address each of these in turn; some of them are good points, others not as much. I may be biased because we make a Tor router, and I think we’ve made a pretty good device. But I’ve tried to be as fair as I can here and acknowledge the limits of Tor routers.

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NSA spied on EU politicians and companies with help from German intelligence

4/24/2015 9:21am

Germany's intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), has been helping the NSA spy on European politicians and companies for years, according to the German news magazine Der Spiegel. The NSA has been sending lists of "selectors"—identifying telephone numbers, e-mail and IP addresses—to the BND, which then provides related information that it holds in its surveillance databases. According to the German newspaper Die Zeit, the NSA sent selector lists several times a day, and altogether 800,000 selectors have been requested.

The BND realized as early as 2008 that some of the selectors were not permitted according to its internal rules, or covered by a 2002 US-Germany anti-terrorism "Memorandum of Agreement" on intelligence cooperation. And yet it did nothing to check the NSA's requests systematically. It was only in the summer of 2013, after Edward Snowden's revelations of massive NSA and GCHQ surveillance, that the BND finally started an inquiry into all the selectors that had been processed.

According to Der Spiegel, investigators found that the BND had provided information on around 2,000 selectors that were clearly against European and German interests. Not only were European businesses such as the giant aerospace and defense company EADS, best-known as the manufacturer of the Airbus planes, targeted, so were European politicians—including German ones.

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The promise—and massive challenge—of making games for the Apple Watch

4/24/2015 9:00am

When the iPhone was first announced in 2007, Apple didn't sell the pocket computer as a gaming device. Many observers were skeptical the smartphone would ever become an important part of the game industry, scoffing at its lack of physical buttons and limited hardware power compared to handhelds like Sony's PlayStation Portable. The App Store that would make games widely available on the device wasn't even available until the follow-up iPhone 3G, released one year later.

Of course, the iPhone (and its smartphone ilk) is one of the most important platforms in the gaming business today, with hundreds of thousands of titles ranging from casual megahits to hardcore console ports to indie darlings to forgettable shovelware and everything in between. The phone's role in the market has become so important that even Nintendo plans to start making smartphone games this year, competing directly with its own Nintendo 3DS titles.

This week, Apple officially launches the Apple Watch. Once again, gaming is not a marketing focus for this Apple device. Playing games doesn't even seem to be a particularly important use case for the hardware maker. The initial WatchKit SDK appears ill-suited to making games that take full advantage of the smartwatch, and the market for games played on a minuscule screen, while holding your wrist upright, is unproven to say the least.

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Comcast admits defeat, terminates Time Warner Cable merger agreement

4/24/2015 8:48am

Comcast and Time Warner Cable announced the termination of their merger agreement this morning, ending the proposed combination of the nation's two largest cable companies. Comcast had lobbied on behalf of the merger for more than a year but faced opposition from the Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission.

“Today, we move on. Of course, we would have liked to bring our great products to new cities, but we structured this deal so that if the government didn’t agree, we could walk away," Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in the company's statement. "Comcast NBCUniversal is a unique company with strong momentum. Throughout this entire process, our employees have kept their eye on the ball and we have had fantastic operating results. I want to thank them and the employees of Time Warner Cable for their tireless efforts. I couldn’t be more proud of this company and I am truly excited for what’s next.”

The deal was structured so that Comcast would not have to pay a breakup fee to Time Warner Cable.

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25 years of the Hubble Space Telescope

4/24/2015 7:45am

Twenty five years ago today, the Hubble Space Telescope was taken to orbit by the Space Shuttle Discovery. It wasn't an easy road to space for the observatory, and NASA would shortly discover troubles with its primary mirror that would raise questions about whether it could ever live up to its initial promise. At one point, so many onboard gyroscopes had failed that scientific observations had to be stopped.

But Hubble was a rarity: a space-based telescope that was designed for servicing. Five missions over the course of its time in space have not only replaced critical hardware like batteries and pointing devices, but have completely replaced the onboard instrument suite with updated equipment. Five servicing missions have allowed Hubble to make contributions to countless discoveries—in many cases, the discoveries couldn't have been made without it.

Delays and defects

Hubble's successor in orbit, the James Webb Space Telescope, has been plagued with massive cost overruns. It's currently running over five years late for its planned launch, and costs have nearly quadrupled, getting so bad that Congress threatened to kill it a few years back. This might make you wonder why NASA couldn't get its act together the way it did on the Hubble.

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Kleiner Perkins asks Ellen Pao for nearly $1 million in costs after trial

4/23/2015 8:44pm

Famed Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins is asking its former employee Ellen Pao for $972,814 in costs after Pao lost in a high-profile gender discrimination jury trial against Kleiner. The firm has said that it will waive the request for costs if Pao, who is currently the interim CEO of reddit, agrees not to appeal the jury's decision.

In 2012, Pao filed a lawsuit saying that she experienced harassment and sexism while working for Kleiner that the firm failed to discourage. She claimed that Kleiner didn't promote her and instead promoted three less-qualified men after she complained about her treatment, and she also claimed that the company fired her in retaliation after she sued them for gender discrimination. Pao asked for $16 million in damages from lost wages.

After a five-week trial this March, the jury ruled that Kleiner did not discriminate against Pao because of her gender.

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Microsoft beats Q3 estimates, but profits decline on strong dollar, weak PCs

4/23/2015 8:14pm

In its third quarter of the 2015 financial year, Microsoft announced revenue up 6 percent to $21.73 billion, with a gross margin up 1 percent to $14.57 billion. Operating income declined 5 percent, however, to $6.60 billion, with earnings per share down 10 percent to $0.61. This beats estimates of around $21.06 billion revenue, and $0.51 earnings per share.

The increased revenue was attributed primarily to cloud and server software growth, with Office 365 continuing to expand, and Windows Server, System Center Server, and SQL Server in particular showing strong performance. Offsetting this was a sharp decline of Windows revenue to consumers, and smaller declines in corporate Windows and Office sales.

Microsoft said that a $190 million cost due to the continued restructuring and integration of Nokia's Devices and Services business reduced operating income, as did the continued strength of the US dollar.

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Potent, in-the-wild exploits imperil customers of 100,000 e-commerce sites

4/23/2015 7:27pm

Criminals are exploiting an extremely critical vulnerability found on almost 100,000 e-commerce websites in a wave of attacks that puts the personal information for millions of people at risk of theft.

The remote code-execution hole resides in the community and enterprise editions of Magento, the Internet's No. 1 content management system for e-commerce sites. Engineers from eBay, which owns the e-commerce platform, released a patch in February that closes the vulnerability, but as of earlier this week, more than 98,000 online merchants still hadn't installed it, according to researchers with Byte, a Netherlands-based company that hosts Magento-using websites. Now, the consequences of that inaction are beginning to be felt, as attackers from Russia and China launch exploits that allow them to gain complete control over vulnerable sites.

"The vulnerability is actually comprised of a chain of several vulnerabilities that ultimately allow an unauthenticated attacker to execute PHP code on the Web server," Netanel Rubin, a malware and vulnerability researcher with security firm Checkpoint, wrote in a recent blog post. "The attacker bypasses all security mechanisms and gains control of the store and its complete database, allowing credit card theft or any other administrative access into the system."

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170-year-old champagne provides clues to past winemaking

4/23/2015 6:34pm

Divers discovered bottles in a shipwreck off the Finnish Aland archipelago in the Baltic Sea in 2010. After tasting the bottles on site, the divers realized they were likely drinking century-old champagne. Soon after, 168 unlabeled bottles were retrieved and were identified as champagnes from the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin (VCP), Heidsieck, and Juglar (known as Jacquesson since 1832) champagne houses. A few of the recovered bottles had been lying horizontal in close-to-perfect slow aging conditions.

Discovery of these wines, likely the oldest ever tasted, unleashed a flood of questions. When were these wines produced? What winemaking processes were in use at the time? Where was the wine going when the shipwreck occurred?

An analytic approach

A team of scientists gathered to search for the answers through the application of current analytical techniques, an approach called archaeochemistry. Using a combination of targeted and nontargeted modern chemical analytic approaches, the researchers aimed to uncover aspects of the winemaking practices.

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ARM details its new high-end CPU core, Cortex A72

4/23/2015 6:00pm

LONDON—At its annual, somewhat exclusive Tech Day event, ARM has detailed its new high-performance CPU core: Cortex A72. In simple terms, the A72 is a faster, more efficient, and smaller version of the Cortex A57. The first 16nm FinFET mobile SoCs with the Cortex A72 CPU will likely ship in 2016, fabricated by TSMC. In the words of Mike Filippo, ARM's chief architect for Cortex A72, "Our focus on A72 was to achieve next-gen performance and pull a ton of power out of the design. We did that in spades."

In more detailed terms, the Cortex A72 CPU pairs a three-wide, in-order front end with a five-wide, out-of-order back end (i.e. 8-issue). This is significantly wider than the A57, resulting in higher single-threaded performance. Along with the new architecture, ARM has "re-optimized every logical block from Cortex A57" to reduce power consumption and area (i.e. die size), which in turn reduces static power losses through leakage.

Cortex A72 block diagram, with some enhancements highlighted ARM

Drilling down into some of the more significant logical block changes: ARM says the A72 has a much better branch prediction, around 20 percent better than the A57. There's also a reworked 3-way L1 cache that's "almost as powerful as direct-mapped cache," and a much smaller (~10 percent) and reorganized dispatch unit.

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Steam Workshop lets users sell mods, but only shares 25 percent of revenue

4/23/2015 4:12pm

Online game store Steam unlocked the hit game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a temporary, weekend-long freebie for all its users on Thursday, and the reason was so that fans might put their cash elsewhere. As of this morning, the game's Steam Workshop section, full of user-made content like mods, turned into a marketplace where creators and fans can assign prices to their creations and directly make cash—a first for the Steam service.

Up until today, the Steam Workshop allowed fans to tinker with compatible games and upload their creations, additions, and updates for the sake of free downloads. What changed today is that those creators can now, after filling out a "tax interview" and providing a bank account that accepts US dollars, charge users whatever price they please for their new levels, their visual overhauls, and their flaming swords. A creator can still leave their wares on the service as freebies, or they can choose either a static price or a "pay what you want" structure. Should a buyer not be satisfied with a mod, they can request a refund within 24 hours of purchase.

The Steam Workshop launched in 2011 as a way for fans to upload weapon and item designs for the game Team Fortress 2; Valve then chose its favorites, along with favorites as voted by fans, to be added to the official game, at which point DLC payments would go into those creators' pockets. Other non-Valve games include this "golden gate" user-generated sales functionality, as well, but Skyrim is the first—and currently only—Steam game where users can bypass the game's developers and sell their add-ons without any creative approval. (Should an unethical modder try selling other users' Skyrim creations via this updated Steam Workshop, they can file a DMCA Takedown Notice directly through Valve's site.)

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Xiaomi’s $205 Mi 4i mirrors the iPhone 5C design, claims 1.5-day battery

4/23/2015 4:03pm

The Mi 4i comes in white, blue, black, yellow, and pink.

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Last night, Xiaomi announced it's tackling the low-end phone market in India with a new product called the Mi 4i. It looks just a little like a certain Apple product, but the specs and pricing are what make this interesting. $205 (Rs.12,999) gets you a 5-inch 1080p LCD, an eight core, 64-bit Snapdragon 615, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, a 13MP rear camera, 5MP front camera, dual SIM support, and—perhaps the most eye-popping stat—a 3,120mAh battery.

Most companies only seem concerned with packing as big of a spec sheet into a phone as possible. The battery is often an afterthought (the Galaxy S6 has a 1440p screen and a 2550 mAh battery, while the Galaxy S5 had a bigger 2800mAh battery). The Mi 4i spec sheet strikes a balance we would like to see manufacturers hit more often—Xiaomi claims the device will last a day and a half. There's no telling how true that is until (unless?) we get our hands on one, which will be difficult since the device is only for sale in India.

The company says it "put considerable effort into fitting the highest battery capacity possible" into the device, which, frankly, is something all OEMs should strive for. The size doesn't seem to have suffered too much. At 7.8mm thick, it's still in the range of the ~7mm iPhone 6 and much thinner than the 9mm iPhone 5c. Again, to all manufacturers out there, we will gladly trade thinness for battery.

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All Android Wear watches have Wi-Fi chips, but some won’t get Wi-Fi support

4/23/2015 3:55pm

Android Wear is getting a big update that enables a top-level app list, always-on apps, a hands-free scrolling gesture, and it's also enabling Wi-Fi support. Wi-Fi is coming not just in the software; a lot of existing devices will have their Wi-Fi functionality enabled—but not all of them.

Every Android Wear smartwatch has a Wi-Fi chip, because they use smartphone SoCs. These all-in-one processors put the CPU, GPU, RAM, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and a bunch of other things on a single chip. Smartwatches that use these SoCs get all these features whether they need them or not, and things they don't need are disabled.

Phandroid got in contact with most of the Android Wear OEMs to see which watches get Wi-Fi. The Moto 360, Sony SmartWatch 3, and LG's new Watch Urbane are in, while the Asus ZenWatch and early adopters of LG products—the LG G Watch and LG G Watch R—are being left out. Samsung, which made the Gear Live, hasn't responded.

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Creepy but legal phone-tracking company gets wrist slap for empty privacy promise

4/23/2015 3:45pm

A company that tracks customers as they walk through retail stores reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission this week after it found itself in regulatory cross-hairs for reneging on its promise to notify customers in-store that they could opt out of the tracking.

Nomi Technologies (now known as Nomi Corporation after its merger with video intelligence company Brickstream in October) deploys sensors throughout a participating retail store or relies on existing Wi-Fi access points to collect the MAC addresses of all the smartphones in the area searching for a Wi-Fi signal. Nomi stores a “hashed” MAC address but keeps the hash unique to the phone so that if the customer returns to the store later, or visits another participating retail store, or even passes by a participating store, Nomi can track that device over time.

According to the FTC complaint (PDF), in addition to collecting the MAC address hash, Nomi can also determine the phone's signal strength and the device manufacturer. It takes note of the phone's proximity to a sensor and the date and time that the phone is observed, as well. Add that all up and you get a pretty clear picture of who your customers are and how they shop, something that brick-and-mortar shops are eager to learn with more precision as they compete with online retailers.

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Comcast will reportedly abandon Time Warner Cable acquisition

4/23/2015 3:14pm

Comcast is going to abandon its attempt to buy Time Warner Cable, with an announcement to be made as soon as tomorrow, Bloomberg reported today, citing anonymous sources.

When asked if the report is accurate, a Comcast spokesperson told Ars, "We have no comment."

"Comcast Corp. is planning to walk away from its proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable Inc., people with knowledge of the matter said, after regulators decided that the deal wouldn’t help consumers, making approval unlikely," Bloomberg wrote.

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Details revealed about major Elite: Dangerous overhaul: “Power Play” in May

4/23/2015 2:45pm

One of the caveats about Internet spaceship game Elite: Dangerous is that it requires players to be good at self-direction—there isn’t a substantial framework of guidance to point players in the right direction as they fight, trade, or explore their way to riches. However, it looks like that will change pretty significantly with the upcoming release of the "Power Play" expansion.

The latest of the game’s planned three major free expansions, "Power Play" takes the Elite: Dangerous background lore and GalNet news broadcasts—currently flavor text that can be mostly ignored—and elevates them into a central component of gameplay, transforming the game’s universe into a galactic chessboard of competing factions with which players can ally. Factions—called "Powers"—will offer missions to players, and players can fight, trade, or explore their way to higher influence within their chosen Power.

In addition to gaining direct rewards like discounts on trade goods and ship upgrades, players will gain rank and influence within Powers commensurate with their participation. With enough influence, players will be able to directly affect what their Power does next. Each week, the major Powers goals will be assessed along with the next week’s goals set, and players with high rank will be able to have what Elite: Dangerous executive producer Michael Brookes calls "a lot of say" in what the Power does next.

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Apple opens up the Apple Watch App Store with “more than 3,000 apps” [Updated]

4/23/2015 1:57pm

The App Store tab in the Apple Watch app originally offered a list of prominent apps but no other sorting or search options.

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Update: A few hours after going live, the simple "App Store" tab shown in the screenshots above was silently updated with featured categories and a search function like the ones in the regular App Store. We've added another shot showing what the store currently looks like.

Original story: Look at the release notes for some recent iOS app updates, and you'll see that developers have quietly been adding Apple Watch support for a couple of weeks now. Today, Apple is officially taking the wraps off the Apple Watch arm of the App Store, and it's now accessible through the Apple Watch app on iPhones 5, 5C, 5S, 6, and 6 Plus running iOS 8.2 or 8.3. According to The Wall Street Journal, the store contains "more than 3,000" watch apps for early adopters to download, and many of those are from major players like Instagram, Twitter, Uber, The New York Times, Evernote, Wunderlist, and a variety of other media outlets and businesses.

If you launch the Apple Watch app and go to the App Store tab, it presents you with a long list of major apps but, oddly, no apparent search function or any kind of organization. The apps are represented by their round Apple Watch icons, and if you tap them, you'll be able to see screenshots of the watch app above screenshots of the iPhone app. Remember, at this point all watch apps are contained within iPhone apps, and you install these apps to your phone rather than directly on your watch. The iPhone then takes care of the rest of the syncing.

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