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The Art of Technology
Updated: 3 hours 16 min ago

More Uber drivers file labor lawsuits: One claims he makes only $80 per week

2/11/2016 9:51am

The Uber driver app on the windshield of UberX driver. (credit: The Washington Post / Getty Images)

Back in September 2015, a federal judge certified a class-action lawsuit against Uber—if the plaintiffs are successful, former and current California drivers would be declared as employees rather than contractors. If Uber loses, it would represent a sea change for the company and for the entire so-called "sharing economy."

Uber’s newfound employees would be entitled to a number of benefits under federal law. Those perks would include, among others, unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, the right to unionize, and most importantly, the right to seek reimbursement for mileage and tips. Those added expenses would certainly factor into Uber’s estimated valuation of $63 billion.

Since the case, O’Connor v. Uber, was certified, the startup has been hit with an additional 13 federal proposed class-action lawsuits nationwide—most of which have been filed by one New York-based firm. One case in Philadelphia was filed as recently as this month. These cases appear to be interested in riding the coattails of one successful suit, which could mean big bucks for attorneys and expanded benefits for Uber drivers.

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BBC confirms full Top Gear cast, including Sabine Schmitz and Chris Harris

2/11/2016 8:41am

At long last, the BBC has revealed the full cast for Top Gear, which is scheduled to return in May this year.

If you were expecting just one other presenter alongside Chris Evans and Matt LeBlanc, you're in for a surprise. Not only have Sabine Schmitz (the first female Top Gear presenter in 15 years!) and Chris Harris been confirmed, but there are also two more presenters joining the team: Formula 1 commentator Eddie Jordan, and Rory Reid. If we include the Stig that brings the total cast count to seven—almost as many as the original Top Gear series...

Sabine Schmitz is probably the most exciting addition to the team. The Queen of the Nurburgring made quite an impression when she previously appeared on Top Gear, driving a diesel Ford Transit van around the German track at a terrifying clip.

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Data analysis of GitHub contributions reveals unexpected gender bias

2/11/2016 7:30am

GitHub's octocat knows how to fly a jet pack but still has some gender issues. (credit: GitHub)

With more than 12 million users, GitHub is one of the largest online communities for collaborating on development projects. Now a team of researchers has done an exhaustive analysis of millions of GitHub pull requests for open source projects, trying to discover whether the contributions of women were accepted less often than the contributions of men. What they discovered was that women's contributions were actually accepted more often than men's—but only if the women had gender-neutral profiles. Women whose GitHub profiles revealed their genders had a much harder time.

The researchers are American computer scientists whose work was approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB), a group that determines whether experiments on human subjects are ethical or not. They've published a pre-print of their GitHub analysis on PeerJ today and offered a deep look at how they did it.

Finding men and women on GitHub

First, they needed a dataset. Luckily, the GHTorrent dataset contains public data on GitHub users, pull requests, and projects up to April 1, 2015. The group writes that they "augmented this GHTorrent data by mining GitHub’s webpages for information about each pull request status, description, and comments." But they had just one problem. GitHub profiles do not include gender information. So the researchers determined the genders of over 1.4 million users by linking their e-mail addresses with G+ profiles that list a gender. They write:

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New report contends mandatory crypto backdoors would be futile

2/11/2016 7:00am

An estimated 63 percent of the encryption products available today are developed outside US borders, according to a new report that takes a firm stance against the kinds of mandated backdoors some federal officials have contended are crucial to ensuring national security.

The report, prepared by security researchers Bruce Schneier, Kathleen Seidel, and Saranya Vijayakumar, identified 865 hardware or software products from 55 countries that incorporate encryption. Of them, 546 originated from outside the US. The most common non-US country was Germany, a country that has publicly disavowed the kinds of backdoors advocated by FBI Director James Comey and other US officials. Although the Obama administration is no longer asking Congress for legislation requiring them, it continues to lobby private industry to include ways law enforcement agencies can decrypt encrypted data sent or stored by criminal or terrorism suspects.

The authors said that they found no reason to believe the quality of encryption products developed abroad are any better or worse than their counterparts in the US or in the UK or France, whose officials have also hinted they favor encryption backdoors. The conclusion of their survey—which the researchers said represents the lower bound of the number of encryption products available worldwide—was that criminals or terrorists who are savvy enough to use encryption would also be smart enough to choose a product that isn't subject to mandatory backdoor laws. The result, the authors argued, is that US competitiveness would be harmed with little benefit to national security.

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1,500 Windows 3.1 shareware apps are now free, immortalized on your browser

2/10/2016 11:55pm

Earlier this week, Internet Archive software collector and historian Jason Scott answered our phone call to talk about one of his latest efforts: the Malware Museum, which offered online passersby a glimpse at how nearly 80 classic viruses worked once they infected an MS-DOS computer. We enjoyed picking his brain about the collection and told him so, at which point he stopped us from hanging up the phone.

"I have one more drop for you," Scott said. "On Thursday, we're going to put up a bunch of Windows 3.1 software. What we did for MS-DOS, we're doing for Windows 3.1."

We were immediately intrigued, remembering exactly what Scott and his slew of volunteers did for MS-DOS and other computing and gaming platforms. Thanks to that team's efforts, thousands of seemingly lost pieces of software had found new life, all brought back to life with free downloads and a mighty fine Web browser emulation solution. From beloved classics like Oregon Trail to cult hits like Karateka, the collection's thousands of titles seemed to have it all.

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Twitter’s Monthly Active User base shrank in Q4

2/10/2016 8:34pm

(credit: Shawn Campbell)

Although Twitter posted revenue of $710.5 million (PDF) in the fourth quarter of 2015—a result that narrowly surpassed the company’s high-bar projection from the previous quarter—the social media company posted a net loss of $90 million for the fourth quarter.

Worse, however, were the company’s user base statistics. Twitter reported that its Monthly Average Users (MAU) essentially remained flat from Q3 to Q4, but if Twitter subtracted its SMS-only customers (who are largely based in India and Brazil and don’t see ads the way mobile customers do), that MAU number fell to 305 million per year, down from 307 in the previous quarter.

Twitter executives were quick to point out, however, that the monthly active user base had increased in January to Q3 levels. On the call, a Twitter executive attributed the rebound to the first quarter being a historically strong quarter for Twitter given the number of live events like award shows, sporting events, and other big celebrations that fall in that time period.

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Moore’s law really is dead this time

2/10/2016 8:22pm

Gordon Moore's original graph, showing projected transistor counts, long before the term "Moore's law" was coined. (credit: Intel)

Moore's law has died at the age of 51 after an extended illness.

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made an observation that the number of components in integrated circuits was doubling every 12 months or so. Moreover, as this site wrote extensively about in 2003, that the number of transistors per chip that resulted in the lowest price per transistor was doubling every 12 months. In 1965, this meant that 50 transistors per chip offered the lowest per-transistor cost; Moore predicted that by 1970, this would rise to 1,000 components per chip, and that the price per transistor would drop by 90 percent.

With a little more data and some simplification, this observation became "Moore's law": the number of transistors per chip would double every 12 months.

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Tesla posts loss in Q4 but expects to be in the black “starting next month”

2/10/2016 7:32pm

Model 3 concept art.

On Wednesday afternoon, Tesla Motors posted a 4th quarter net loss (PDF), but the company’s CEO Elon Musk assured investors that Tesla expects to see "positive cash flow starting next month" and to be profitable again by Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) standards in Q4 2016. Although the company's stock was down 3 percent at close of market, after-hours trading favored the stock price by 9.5 percent.

The company also confirmed that it would officially announce the highly anticipated Model 3 on March 31. Tesla added that it was on track for production and delivery of the budget-oriented car by late 2017.

According to the company’s quarterly financial statement, it made $1.75 billion in revenue in Q4 2015 (or $1.21 billion according to GAAP standards, which treat leased vehicles differently), and $5.29 billion (or $405 billion, GAAP) for the 2015 year as a whole. Still, the company posted a net loss of $114 million in Q4 (or $320 million, GAAP).

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Mississippi lawmaker admits his education bill is to protect creationism

2/10/2016 7:17pm

Mississippi is the latest US state to see a bill introduced that would protect teachers who injected bogus information into science classes. In that regard, there's nothing new; South Dakota beat it to the punch this year. The text of the bill is also unremarkable, fitting right in to the family tree of similar legislation that's been introduced over the years (see sidebar).

What is unusual in this case is that the lawmaker behind the bill is being very upfront about his purposes. “I just don’t want my teachers punished in any form or fashion for bringing creationism into the debate," Representative Mark Formby told The Clarion-Ledger. "Lots of us believe in creationism.” The bill he introduced would protect teachers from any disciplinary actions triggered by their discussion of it into the classroom.

In most cases, the people behind these bills avoid publicly admitting their intentions. In that way, they can pretend that the language of the bill (which ostensibly protects scientific information) has a purely secular purpose. By giving the game away—the language is a sham, and the bill is meant to allow proselytizing in the science classroom—Formby has created a record that will undoubtedly resurface should his bill pass and trigger a lawsuit.

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Feds nail webcam on utility pole for 10 weeks to spy on suspect

2/10/2016 6:47pm

(credit: Maëlick)

A federal appeals court is upholding the firearms conviction of a Tennessee man whose brother's rural farm was monitored for 10 weeks straight by a remote-controlled camera the authorities installed on a utility pole 200 yards away—without a warrant.

The decision (PDF) by the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals affirms the nine-year sentence of a man named Rocky Houston, who was caught by the camera as being a felon in possession of a gun. The man was on a Roane County Sheriff's Office watch list after he was cleared of murder charges following a gun battle that left a Roane County law enforcement official dead in 2006.

"There is no Fourth Amendment violation, because Houston had no reasonable expectation of privacy in video footage recorded by a camera that was located on top of a public utility pole and that captured the same views enjoyed by passersby on public roads," Judge John Rogers wrote for the unanimous court, which ruled 3-0 to uphold Houston's 2014 conviction. "The ATF agents only observed what Houston made public to any person traveling on the roads surrounding the farm. Additionally, the length of the surveillance did not render the use of the pole camera unconstitutional, because the Fourth Amendment does not punish law enforcement for using technology to more efficiently conduct their investigations. While the ATF agents could have stationed agents round-the-clock to observe Houston’s farm in person, the fact that they instead used a camera to conduct the surveillance does not make the surveillance unconstitutional."

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The Earth cracked apart in a forest, and it made a sound

2/10/2016 5:32pm

(credit: Wayne Pennington/Michigan Technological University)

With no warning, a hellish rumble announces a crack in the ground, opening to a yawning chasm as the walls spread, crumble, and disappear into the abyss—fortunately, this particular seismic disaster occurs only in cartoons. (And ridiculous movies.) But tone down the special effects a bit and then try to put yourselves in the shoes of some residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in October 2010.

Early in the morning, folks just north of Menominee, Michigan, heard a loud noise and felt a shake. In that part of the country, a grain elevator explosion is more likely than an earthquake. But when someone went out to finish cutting up a large tree that had come down in a storm two weeks previous, they found a huge crack had opened up in the Earth. It wasn’t going to swallow anybody whole, but you could probably have lost a cell phone in there.

The “Menominee Crack” was a little longer than a football field, over half a meter wide in places, and approached 1.7m deep. It ran through a forested area that had previously been flat. The crack actually sat atop what was now a six-foot-high ridge, with trees on either side now tipping slightly away from vertical. If you look carefully, you can actually see it in satellite imagery.

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NASA’s asteroid mission isn’t dead—yet

2/10/2016 5:16pm

NASA's asteroid mission calls for a robotic spacecraft to grab a boulder from an asteroid and return it to cislunar space.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Back in 2010 President Obama wanted to distance himself from the space exploration programs of George W. Bush and his predecessors. Humans had been to the Moon, and while they would one day go to Mars, the president reasoned, they needed a more realistic near-term destination. He chose an asteroid.

“By 2025 we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space,” Obama said at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, during the one space policy speech he has given as president. “So we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.”

An asteroid offered a couple of key benefits. It was new—no human had visited one before. And with a shallow gravity well, it didn’t require expensive landers and ascent vehicles to get onto and off its surface. But there were also problems. Even after searching for a couple of years, scientists couldn’t find a suitable asteroid that came close enough to Earth for astronauts to reach it in a timely manner, and the Orion vehicle NASA was building could only support a crew for 21 days in deep space.

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Oculus Rift will ship with four-month Unity Pro trial

2/10/2016 4:30pm

Enlarge / Another Oculus bundled product: four months of Unity Pro. (credit: Oculus)

The creators of the Unity game engine kicked off a virtual reality focused event in Los Angeles on Wednesday, and it began with a wave of freebie announcements—perhaps most notably, the news that all Oculus Rift buyers will get four months of free, unfettered access to Unity Pro.

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was on hand at the Vision Summit 2016 to confirm the news, pointing back to Oculus' original decision to offer shorter free trials to the VR headset maker's dev kit products. "For virtual reality, we knew a lot of the best ideas and applications weren't going to come from people that you could predict," Luckey told the Vision Summit crowd. "It was gonna come from people who would create things you wouldn't expect."

This news follows prior bundled-software announcements, including a copy of Eve: Valkyrie for every headset pre-order and a copy of the cute platformer Lucky's Tale with all headsets, which may help the slightest bit with the $600 headset's sticker shock.

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“Happy Birthday” is public domain, former owner Warner/Chapell to pay $14M

2/10/2016 4:19pm

(credit: From court records in Good Morning to You v. Warner/Chappell)

The public will soon be free to sing the world's most famous song.

Music publisher Warner/Chappell will no longer be allowed to collect licensing royalties on those who sing "Happy Birthday" in public and will pay back $14 million to those who have paid for licensing in the past, according to court settlement papers filed late Monday night.

The settlement is a result of a lawsuit originally filed in 2013 by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who challenged the "Happy Birthday" copyright. "Happy Birthday" has the same melody as "Good Morning to You," a children's song dating to the 19th Century. But despite the song's murky early history, music publisher Warner/Chappell has stuck to its story that the song was copyrighted in 1935, and a royalty had to be paid for any public use of it—until now.

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Yes, you can rely on Amazon’s new game engine during the zombie apocalypse

2/10/2016 3:48pm

BRAAAAIIINNNNS! (credit: Andrew Cunningham)

Since Amazon launched its free Lumberyard game engine yesterday, the world has been united in a single question: are we legally allowed to use the engine to operate life-saving infrastructure during the zombie apocalypse? After digging through Amazon's updated terms of service for the new engine, we can now confirm that the answer is a definitive "yes."

Don't believe us? Go to the Amazon Web Services TOS and scroll down to rule 57.10. There you'll see the following (emphasis added):

57.10 Acceptable Use; Safety-Critical Systems. Your use of the Lumberyard Materials must comply with the AWS Acceptable Use Policy. The Lumberyard Materials are not intended for use with life-critical or safety-critical systems, such as use in operation of medical equipment, automated transportation systems, autonomous vehicles, aircraft or air traffic control, nuclear facilities, manned spacecraft, or military use in connection with live combat. However, this restriction will not apply in the event of the occurrence (certified by the United States Centers for Disease Control or successor body) of a widespread viral infection transmitted via bites or contact with bodily fluids that causes human corpses to reanimate and seek to consume living human flesh, blood, brain or nerve tissue and is likely to result in the fall of organized civilization.

As obvious jokes hidden in legal boilerplate go, Amazon's efforts fall a little short of the Divinity: Original Sin EULA, which gave out rewards to the first 100 people who bothered reading through the boring language. And the humorous clause diverts attention away from other, potentially more worrying clauses therein, like the engine's collection of "information about system and server resources, features used in the integrated development environment, frequency and duration of use, geographic and network locations, and error and information messages."

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Your brain operates differently depending on the time of year

2/10/2016 3:13pm

(credit: Diana/Flickr)

Winter gloom and springtime glee are common seasonal swings. But beyond swaying how you feel, yearly cycles may also shift the way you think, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Comparing the cognitive function of 28 volunteers tested at different points in the year, researchers noted pronounced seasonal patterns in brain region activity. Namely, areas involved in working memory hit peak performance around the autumn equinox, and areas dealing with sustained attention crested around the summer solstice. Though it’s still early in the research to understand the significance of possible annual mental oscillations, the study hints at a previously unappreciated seasonal rhythm of the human brain that could affect learning and behavior.

For the study, researchers led by Pierre Maquet and Gilles Vandewalle at the University of Liège in Belgium recruited 28 healthy volunteers, split evenly by gender and all around 21 years old. To rule out the influence of daily rhythms and environmental factors, the researchers prepared the volunteers for the study by having them stay in the lab for 4.5 days. During this time, participants endured a 42-hour sleep deprivation routine in a dimly lit sound-proof room with no time cues.

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Original Descent creators jump into the Kickstarter arena with Overload

2/10/2016 2:00pm

Enlarge / Blasting bots in the mines, just like old times. (credit: Revival Productions)

Descent-style "six degrees of freedom" tunnel shooters are undergoing a mini-renaissance. First, some of the Austin-based Star Citizen team jumped ship and started working on Descent: Underground, a multiplayer-focused prequel to the original game using the "Descent" name on license from Interplay. Next, UK indie studio Sigtrap Games announced Sublevel Zero, another Descent-like tunnel shooter—this one with blocky, retro-styled graphics and a focus on single-player.

We’ve played both, but as good as Descent: Underground and Sublevel Zero are shaping up to be, they’re missing something: the original development crew from Parallax Studios that worked on the original Descent and its sequels. We’ve been wondering since last year if Mike Kulas, Matt Toschlog, and the rest of the folks behind Descent were going to throw their virtual hats into the ring—and, as of this morning, they have. They’ve started a new company called Revival Productions LLC and launched a $300,000 crowdfunding campaign for a game called Overload.

Kickstarter trailer for Revival Productions' Overload.

Defending materials

The Overload Kickstarter, along with the game’s website, paints a pretty detailed picture of the kind of game Revival is developing. The game is not a sequel or prequel to Descent—Eric Peterson and Descendent Studios have the right to use the Descent name and are doing that with Descent: Underground—but is instead a new game in a new universe (Revival told Ars that its own attempts to license the Descent name from Interplay were unsuccessful). However, Overload will feature gameplay mechanisms that are undeniably Descent-y: zipping through underground mines in a small spacecraft, finding keys, opening secret doors, fragging robots, rescuing hostages, and finally blowing up a reactor and escaping the level before it collapses around your ears.

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Internet of Things to be used as spy tool by governments: US intel chief

2/10/2016 1:26pm

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (credit: CSPAN)

James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, told lawmakers Tuesday that governments across the globe are likely to employ the Internet of Things as a spy tool, which will add to global instability already being caused by infectious disease, hunger, climate change, and artificial intelligence.

Clapper addressed two different committees on Tuesday—the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee—and for the first time suggested that the Internet of Things could be weaponized by governments. He did not name any countries or agencies in regard to the IoT, but a recent Harvard study suggested US authorities could harvest the IoT for spying purposes.

"Smart devices incorporated into the electric grid, vehicles—including autonomous vehicles—and household appliances are improving efficiency, energy conservation, and convenience. However, security industry analysts have demonstrated that many of these new systems can threaten data privacy, data integrity, or continuity of services. In the future, intelligence services might use the loT for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials," Clapper said (PDF), according to his prepared testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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Slow start for HBO Now with just 800,000 subscribers

2/10/2016 12:41pm

(credit: Harrison Weber)

Time Warner had its fourth-quarter earnings call on Wednesday morning, and HBO, a subsidiary of the network, revealed some interesting information about its new standalone streaming service, HBO Now. The highly anticipated launch of HBO Now was expected to draw a huge following from cord-cutters. But Richard Plepler, the CEO of HBO, told investors and journalists that HBO Now had only attracted about 800,000 subscribers since the service launched in April.

Plepler said he was pleased with the growth, especially considering that HBO Now hasn’t yet been released on Playstation and Xbox platforms. He added that HBO Now also hasn’t yet released content from Jon Stewart, Bill Simmons, and the Vice Daily News Show, which he said was certain to drive subscriptions. Still, 800,000 subscribers could be seen as a slow start, especially considering that Plepler told investors in November 2014 that he was hoping to draw in four or five million new subscribers with HBO Now.

”We’re learning all the time… We see an enormous amount of subscribers ahead,” Plepler said on the call today, adding that, "HBO Now is an additive part of our growth strategy… We’re going to work in a multifaceted way to expand our sub[scriber] base.”

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Android app helps Iranians avoid morality police checkpoints

2/10/2016 12:24pm

Morals checkpoints reported in Tehran by users of Gershad. (credit: Gershad)

Community mapping applications come in all shapes and sizes. There are apps to help drivers avoid speed traps, maneuver around traffic jams, and find cheap gas. And now there's one that helps people avoid being pulled from their car by the Ershad—Iran's morals police.

Anonymous developers in Iran recently released an Android app that is intended to help young Iranians share intelligence about Ershad checkpoints. Called "Gershad," the app depends on crowdsourced reports from users to help others avoid being stopped, harassed, or even possibly beaten or arrested for failing to adhere to the Ershad interpretations of Islamic morality.

The app was highlighted by Nima Akbarpour, the presenter of Persian Click (a technology show on BBC's Persian service).

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