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AT&T’s common carrier status helps it defeat data throttling lawsuit

8/29/2016 7:09pm

Enlarge (credit: Mike Mozart)

AT&T today won a major victory over the Federal Trade Commission, which was trying to punish AT&T for throttling the Internet connections of customers with unlimited data plans.

The FTC sued AT&T in October 2014, seeking refunds for customers who paid for unlimited data. The FTC said AT&T deceived customers by offering unlimited data plans and then throttling speeds once customers hit certain usage thresholds, such as 3GB or 5GB in a month. In response, AT&T claimed that the FTC had no jurisdiction over AT&T because of the company's status as a common carrier.

This argument was complicated. At the time, AT&T was a common carrier for landline phone and mobile voice service, but not for mobile Internet access. The Federal Communications Commission later reclassified mobile Internet as a common carrier service, which put it under a stricter FCC regime but exempted AT&T from FTC oversight.

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Microsoft’s fancy new outlook.com, planned for this year, now delayed until next

8/29/2016 6:00pm

Enlarge / The updated Outlook.com experience that many of us don't have yet. (credit: Microsoft)

In May 2015, Microsoft announced a big overhaul was coming to its Outlook.com free mail service. The new look Outlook.com looked a lot closer to the Outlook Web Access component in Exchange. It had Exchange features like the Clutter folder for handling all those e-mails that aren't quite spam but aren't quite important, pinned and flagged mail, new calendar views, and a better mobile interface that supports swipe-based gestures. In February 2016, this new experience was announced as being out of beta, and Microsoft rolled it out immediately to new users in North America. Everyone else was scheduled to be upgraded by the end of summer.

It looks like that's not the plan any more. The upgrade has been partially performed, and some users have been upgraded while others have not. A new error message (spotted by Twitter user gwydionjhr) suggests that those who don't have the update by now won't get it for quite a while. While attempting to share calendars, users have noticed that sharing between non-upgraded and upgraded users isn't possible, and this situation apparently won't be remedied until the first half of 2017.

It's not clear what the hold-up is or why the roll-out is taking longer than expected. The rollout is a big one behind the scenes, with Microsoft saying that the new system uses "Office 365-based infrastructure" and that there are hundreds of millions of accounts to migrate. Certainly the scale of what Microsoft is doing is certainly significant, but the delays are also frustrating, especially for anyone wanting to share calendars.

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Kaepernick’s anthem sit-down will be discussed thanks to Madden announcer patch

8/29/2016 5:25pm

Enlarge / What exactly will Madden NFL '17 have to say about Colin Kaepernick in its next "live commentary" patch update? We'll find out soon enough. (credit: bmward_2000 via Flickr)

For years, EA Sports' major-league games have included downloadable weekly updates to address real-life issues like injuries and player trades. This year, the company's biggest American series, Madden NFL, is going one step further by adding a human touch to these weekly add-ons—updated commentary tracks. Over the course of the 2016-17 NFL season, you'll hear the game's narrators, real-life sports analysts Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin, remark on current football events. And if this week's any indication, they won't focus only on the biggest news in touchdowns, trades, and tackles.

On Monday, Gamespot confirmed the next commentary update for Madden NFL '17 will include discussion about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's choice to sit down during the pre-game singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, something he has done during the NFL preseason. The mention will be "brief," according to a quoted EA Sports representative, and it will be included to reflect "our commitment to authenticity." The Gamespot report didn't confirm exactly when the next commentary patch would go live for players of the PS4 and Xbox One game.

What Davis and Gaudin decide to talk about will be very telling for EA Sports' first year of "live commentary" for a major league sport. Perhaps the duo will mention Kaepernick's own explanation for the sit-down, which he said was inspired by oppression of black people across the US. Kaepernick went on to promise he'd continue sitting through anthems until "this country is representing people in the way that it’s supposed to." The EA Sports duo could also mention that former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh offered a mixed response to Kaepernick's actions, or they can draw upon a pile of quotes from other players that show both support and opposition to Kaepernick's stance. Who knows—the duo could even mention black American athletes protesting civil rights issues in past decades.

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Mr. Robot’s tech guru: “My job is to outsmart this hive of geniuses”

8/29/2016 4:45pm

Enlarge / Darlene in "succ3ss0r." Not pictured here (or anywhere in this week's episode): Elliot. (credit: Michael Parmelee/USA Network)

Warning: This piece contains minor spoilers for the most recent episode of Mr. Robot (S2E8)

Mr. Robot staff writer and technical producer Kor Adana doesn't sleep much (four and a half hours is realistic while in the midst of production). Part of that comes from sheer volume of work. Adana holds the high-profile role of coming up with the show's famed hacks. He's involved in everything from generating an idea and recruiting consultants through the feasibility testing and onscreen portrayal. The entire process can take three or four months for a mere three or four seconds on-screen. On top of that, Adana also works to clear various technical products appearing on the show, leads Mr. Robot's many Easter egg initiatives, and contributes to the overall narrative (including writing an episode this season).

But nerves about Mr. Robot's reception week to week don't quite help Adana relax either, and this latest episode created more stress than usual. One week after the show ended on a cliffhanger with a gigantic plot reveal, Mr. Robot's most recent hour never even addressed the situation. Perhaps even more remarkably, it marked the first episode where main character Elliot Alderson didn't appear on-screen for a single second. As Adana tells Ars on this week's Decrypted podcast:

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Meet USBee, the malware that uses USB drives to covertly jump airgaps

8/29/2016 3:26pm

Enlarge / Illustration of USBee, in which an ordinary, unmodified USB drive (A) transmits information to a nearby receiver (B) through electromagnetic waves emitted from the drive data bus. (credit: Guri et al.)

In 2013, a document leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden illustrated how a specially modified USB device allowed spies to surreptitiously siphon data out of targeted computers, even when they were physically severed from the Internet or other networks. Now, researchers have developed software that goes a step further by turning unmodified USB devices into covert transmitters that can funnel large amounts of information out of similarly "air-gapped" PCs.

The USBee—so named because it behaves like a bee that flies through the air taking bits from one place to another—is in many respects a significant improvement over the NSA-developed USB exfiltrator known as CottonMouth. That tool had to be outfitted with a hardware implant in advance and then required someone to smuggle it into the facility housing the locked-down computer being targeted. USBee, by contrast, turns USB devices already inside the targeted facility into a transmitter with no hardware modification required at all.

"We introduce a software-only method for short-range data exfiltration using electromagnetic emissions from a USB dongle," researchers from Israel's Ben-Gurion University wrote in a research paper published Monday. "Unlike other methods, our method doesn't require any [radio frequency] transmitting hardware since it uses the USB's internal data bus."

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Facebook fires human editors, algorithm immediately posts fake news

8/29/2016 2:20pm

Enlarge / This morning, Trending promoted this as its top story related to the trending topic "Megyn Kelly." The story was up for several hours, and is completely false. (credit: Washington Post)

Earlier this year, Facebook denied criticisms that its Trending feature was surfacing news stories that were biased against conservatives. But in an abrupt reversal, the company fired all the human editors for Trending on Friday afternoon, replacing them with an algorithm that promotes stories based entirely on what Facebook users are talking about. Within 72 hours, according to the Washington Post, the top story on Trending was about how Fox News icon Megyn Kelly was a pro-Clinton "traitor" who had been fired (she wasn't).

The original accusations of bias came from a disgruntled ex-editor at Facebook, who leaked internal Trending training materials to Gizmodo. The training package offered tips on, among other things, how to curate news from an RSS feed of reputable sources when the stories provided by Facebook users were false or repetitive. Though the human editors were always expendable—they were mostly there to train the Trending algorithm—they were still engaging in quality control to weed out blatant falsehoods and non-news like #lunch. And after Trending latched on to the fake Kelly scoop, it appears that human intervention might still be required to make Facebook's algorithms a legitimate source of news after all.

In a post about the changes, Facebook said the early move to eliminate human editors was a direct response to "the feedback we got from the Facebook community earlier this year," an oblique reference to the raging controversy unleashed by the Gizmodo revelations. Facebook explained that the new, non-human Trending module is personalized "based on a number of factors, including Pages you’ve liked, your location (e.g., home state sports news), the previous trending topics with which you’ve interacted, and what is trending across Facebook overall." Instead of paying humans to "write topic descriptions and short story summaries," the company said "we’re relying on an algorithm to pull excerpts directly from news stories." Which is why millions of Facebook readers this morning saw the "news" that Megyn Kelly is a traitor who has been fired.

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Woman shoots drone: “It hovered for a second and I blasted it to smithereens.”

8/29/2016 2:10pm

Enlarge / Jennifer Youngman (not pictured here), used a 20-gauge shotgun like this one to down the drone. (credit: Valerie Hinojosa)

With a single shotgun blast, a 65-year-old woman in rural northern Virginia recently shot down a drone flying over her property.

The woman, Jennifer Youngman, has lived in The Plains, Virginia, since 1990. The Fauquier Times first reported the June 2016 incident late last week. It marks the third such shooting that Ars has reported on in the last 15 months—last year, similar drone shootings took place in Kentucky and California.

Youngman told Ars that she had just returned from church one Sunday morning and was cleaning her two shotguns—a .410 bore and a 20-gauge—on her porch. She had a clear view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and neighbor Robert Duvall’s property (yes, the same Robert Duvall from The Godfather). Youngman had seen two men set up a card table on what she described as a “turnaround place” on a country road adjacent to her house.

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FCC admits defeat in municipal broadband, won’t appeal court loss

8/29/2016 12:45pm

(credit: Getty Images | Yuri_Arcurs)

The Federal Communications Commission has decided not to appeal a court decision that allows states to impose laws restricting the growth of municipal broadband.

The FCC in February 2015 voted to block laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that prevent municipal broadband providers from expanding outside their territories, but the states convinced a federal appeals court to keep the laws in place. The FCC could have asked for another appeals court review or gone to the Supreme Court but will instead let the matter drop.

"The FCC will not seek further review of the [US Court of Appeals for the] Sixth Circuit's decision on municipal broadband after determining that doing so would not be the best use of Commission resources," an FCC spokesperson told Ars today. The decision was also reported yesterday in The New York Times.

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Study shows one way that scientific progress is broken

8/29/2016 12:20pm

The classic model of scientific progress is that the field advances when new findings contradict or supersede old ones. But a new study reveals that this process isn't working today—at least, not in scientific journals, where most data is shared with colleagues. Indeed, the researchers found that "rebuttals scarcely alter scientific perceptions about the original papers."

For the study, a group of researchers looked at the citation rates on seven marine biology papers about fisheries. Citation rates are often used as a proxy for the "importance" of a scientific paper, with the notion that the more a paper is cited, the more influential it is. Each paper had been the subject of a rebuttal, also published in a scientific journal. The researchers wanted to know whether these rebuttals affected citation levels on the original papers—and, perhaps more importantly, whether they convinced people to question the interpretation of data in the original papers.

It turns out that rebuttals don't seem to affect the scientific community's understanding of the original papers in any way. "The original articles were cited 17 times more frequently than the rebuttals, an order of magnitude difference that overwhelms other factors," write the study authors in Ecosphere. "Our test score results emphasize that rebuttals have little influence: even the rare few authors who happened upon the rebuttals were influenced only enough to move from whole-hearted support of the original article (a score of five) to neutrality (a score of three), despite the fact that all of the rebuttals argue that the interpretations of data in the originals were incorrect. Astonishingly, 8 percent of the papers that cited a rebuttal actually suggested that the rebuttal supported the claims of the original article, an observation which may give pause to those contemplating writing a rebuttal in the future."

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“See you on the 7th”: Apple announces date for new announcements

8/29/2016 12:10pm

Enlarge (credit: Apple)

Apple has just send out press invitations for its next product event, which is happening at 10am Pacific on September 7 in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. This has become Apple's go-to event space in recent years, replacing smaller venues like the Moscone Center, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Apple's own town hall event space (the latter of which was officially retired earlier this year when the iPhone SE was announced).

New iPhones are a sure bet for the event—this year's models aren't expected to deviate too far from the existing iPhone 6S and 6S Plus design, but they're said to include better cameras, faster chips, and no headphone jack. Along with that new hardware, we can also expect release date announcements for macOS Sierra, iOS 10, watchOS 3, and tvOS 10.

Other hardware announcements are definitely possible—practically all of Apple's products are a year or more old at this point—but rumors have been less-than-consistent. A new Apple Watch model and new MacBook Pros are on the more likely end of the spectrum, but the larger iPad Pro and most of the Mac lineup are at least a year old, and a few of the Macs are even older. The fourth-generation Apple TV box is around a year old too, but Apple has never updated its set-top box on a regular yearly cadence the way it has with many of its other products.

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Climate simulations show effects of releasing permafrost carbon

8/29/2016 12:07pm

Enlarge / Lakes formed by melting permafrost, on peatland. In Hudson Bay, Canada. (credit: Steve Jurvetson)

During the last deglaciation, between roughly 21,000 and 10,000 years ago, there was a rise in atmospheric carbon. This surge brought CO2 levels up to where they were in preindustrial times and contributed to the warming that ended the glacial period. But there's a significant item missing from this picture: we don't know where the carbon came from.

Researchers had suggested that changes in the distribution of ice, driven by alterations in Earth's orbit and tilt, altered the ocean’s capacity to absorb CO2. But a new paper performed a model-driven analysis of past changes in carbon levels and come up with a somewhat different answer. The authors' simulations showed that, when a permafrost carbon component was included, it was possible to reproduce the atmospheric CO2 levels seen in ice core measurements—suggesting that carbon released by melting permafrost contributed to the rise of CO2.

Carbon accounting

Data from the ice cores can help narrow down the possibilities, because it records something called δ13C (delta-thirteen-C), which is essentially a measure of the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 in the atmosphere. (It’s mathematically a bit more complicated, but that’s the basic idea). As this ratio is influenced by biological activity, it can give some clues about the carbon's source. Even with these clues, however, previous simulations have failed to narrow down the possibilities. The researchers suspected that was because these weren't taking into account an important mechanism: change in permafrost.

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After Illinois hack, FBI warns of more attacks on state election board systems

8/29/2016 11:55am

Enlarge / An FBI "Flash" memorandum on state Board of Elections site warns of attacks on two states so far and asks for other states to check their logs.

Someone using servers in the US, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands stole voter registration from one state's Board of Elections website in June and  attacked another state's elections website in August, according to a restricted "Flash" memorandum sent out by the FBI's Cyber Division. The bureau issued the alert requesting other states check for signs of the same intrusion.

The "Flash" memo, obtained by Yahoo News, was published three days after Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson offered state officials assistance in securing election systems during a conference call. According to Yahoo's Michael Isikoff, government officials told him that the attacks were on voter registration databases in Illinois and Arizona. The Illinois system had to be shut down in July for two weeks after the discovery of an attack; the registration information of as many as 200,000 voters may have been exposed. No data was stolen in the Arizona attack, but malware was reportedly planted on the site.

While saying the Department of Homeland Security was unaware of any specific threat to election systems, Johnson offered states assistance from the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) "to conduct vulnerability scans, provide actionable information and access to other tools and resources for improving cybersecurity," a DHS spokesperson said, describing the conference call. "The Election Assistance Commission, NIST, and DOJ are available to offer support and assistance in protecting against cyber attacks."

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Man and machine driving together in harmony: The 2017 Volvo S90

8/29/2016 11:35am
  • Say hello to the Volvo S90. Jonathan Gitlin

Volvo is on somewhat of a roll right now. Under Chinese ownership since 2010, the Swedish car maker has invested $11 billion in all-new vehicle and engine architectures, and the results have been impressive. First out of the gate was the XC90 SUV, one of the best in class, complete with an extremely good infotainment system and plenty of semi-autonomous driver assists. Now, Volvo has followed it up with the S90, a low-slung sedan built on the same Scalable Product Architecture. After spending some time with the S90 on the traffic-filled lanes of Long Island, we can report that the Swedes offer an intriguing alternative to the mid-range luxury offerings from BMW or Mercedes.

Under the skin, the S90 shares a lot with its high-riding SUV sibling. The chassis makes use of lots of high-strength boron steel. The four-cylinder engines are carried over, from the 250hp (187kW) turbocharged T5 to the 316hp (236kW) turbo- and supercharged T6, with a plug-in hybrid T8 version due later this year. You get the same (excellent) Sensus infotainment system and an interior that shares a lot with the SUV, but for a few welcome improvements.

As befits a company investing heavily in autonomous and semi-autonomous driving, the 2017 S90 comes with Volvo's very latest consumer-ready system, called Pilot Assist II. It's installed as standard across the range, and it's extremely good, even compared to the version found in the 2016 XC90s we drove earlier this year. The limitations of the previous iteration are gone—you no longer need a car in front of you for the system to work, and it no longer shuts off at 37mph (60km/h). Combined with a lane keeping assist that no longer bounces you from one side of your lane to the other, this is a Volvo that drives with you.

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T-Mobile quadruples tethering speed on “unlimited” plan—to 512kbps

8/29/2016 11:20am

(credit: T-Mobile)

The new $70-per-month "unlimited data" plans announced by T-Mobile USA this month came with some big limits. Mobile hotspot speeds were to be throttled to 128kbps unless customers paid more, and online video resolution reduced to 480p unless customers paid extra to unlock high-definition video.

But after a wave of criticism from those who think T-Mobile is violating net neutrality and others who think the new deal just isn't that good, the carrier today announced some changes. It's a mixed bag, though, as there is apparently no way to permanently enable high-definition video, and T-Mobile is killing an option that would have let customers buy high-speed hotspot data in 5GB increments.

"The best way to run your company is to shut up, listen to your customers, and then do what they say!" T-Mobile CEO John Legere said in the announcement.

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EpiPen maker Mylan reveals generic—it’s only triple the price

8/29/2016 9:58am

Enlarge / Heather Bresch, chief executive officer of Mylan. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Facing public and political wrath for steep price hikes on life-saving EpiPens, the devices’ manufacturer, Mylan, announced Monday that it will offer a cheap generic. But the generic isn’t that cheap.

Since Mylan bought EpiPens in 2007, the company has increased the price from around $50 for a single pen to a little more than $600 for a two pack—a more than 400 percent increase in costs. The new generic option, which the company said will be identical to EpiPens and available in a few weeks, is a two-pack with a list price of $300. That’s half of the current list price for a two pack, but still triple the 2007 cost of the devices.

EpiPens—auto-injectors that deliver a dose of epinephrine to reverse deadly allergic reactions, namely anaphylaxis shock—cost just a few dollars to make and have not changed considerably since Mylan acquired them. Since the price hikes, Mylan has raked in more than $1 billion in revenue each year. The company's chief executive, Heather Bresch, saw her salary increase by more than 600 percent, topping $18 million last year. She’s one of the highest paid executives in the industry.

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Fitbit’s Charge 2 and Flex 2 are next-gen trackers that blend fitness and style

8/29/2016 9:00am

Enlarge (credit: Valentina Palladino)

The rumors were true: Fitbit isn't done for the year. The company just announced two new fitness trackers that add second iterations of existing products to its lineup: the Charge 2 and the Flex 2. The Charge 2 is an improved Charge HR, now with new features, a larger display, and interchangeable bands, while the swim-capable Flex 2 is an upgraded Flex with a completely new design that focuses on versatility.

Let's start with the Charge 2: its biggest physical improvement is the 1.5-inch display that replaces the Charge HR's small, narrow screen. It's like a wider version of the Fitbit Alta's display, finally big enough to show the time at the top and tap-to-scroll stats beneath it. Those stats include steps, heart rate, active time, and more. The Charge 2's bands are interchangeable, so you can swap the silicone, active band for more fashionable leather and jewelry-like bands. However, since the Charge 2 is just a wider version of the Alta, its overall attractiveness is in the eye of the beholder.

The Charge 2 has new software and tracking features that the Charge HR doesn't have. Its connected GPS lets it pair with your smartphone's GPS to map running routes and get better distance calculations, while its interval workout mode lets you to customize routines that alternate bursts of intense exercise with periods of low-intensity activity. The Charge 2 also has reminders to move, while calling, texting, calendar alerts, and activity profiles are accessible from the band's display. These profiles let you quickly track your most-completed exercises, like running, walking, biking, Pilates, and more. You decide which appear on the band and which don't.

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SETI has observed a “strong” signal that may originate from a Sun-like star

8/29/2016 8:55am

Enlarge / The RATAN-600 radio telescope, in Zelenchukskaya, Russia. (credit: Wikimedia commons)

It remains only the barest of probabilities that astronomers have just found evidence of extraterrestrial, intelligent life. Nevertheless, in the community of astronomers and other scientists who use radio telescopes to search the heavens for beacons of life there is considerable excitement about a new signal observed by a facility in Russia.

According to Paul Gilster, author of the Centauri Dreams website, the Italian astronomer Claudio Maccone and other astronomers affiliated with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence have detected "a strong signal in the direction of HD164595." HD 164595 is a star of 0.99 solar masses about 95 light years from Earth, with an estimated age of 6.3 billion years. The system is known to have at least one planet, HD 164595 b, which is similar in size to Neptune and orbits its star in 40 days. Other planets may exist in the system as well.

The observation was made with the RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, in southern Russia, Gilster reports. He cautioned that the evidence is very preliminary:

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How fair are your dice?

8/29/2016 8:37am

Enlarge (credit: Q Family)

We've all been there: you're at a pick-up roleplaying group at your local game shop, and that noisy munchkin to your right—who is playing some kind of half-dragon triple-multiclassed character from an out-of-print rulebook that he found a PDF of online—seems to roll more than his fair share of natural 20s. Okay, maybe we haven't all been there, but let me tell you: it's annoying when someone appears to be awfully lucky with their rolls.

The issue is slightly less pronounced with board games, where everyone tends to use the same pool of dice, but having dice regularly come up high or low can obviously affect how the game plays out.

Putting aside cases of intentional cheating, did you know that dice—particularly polyhedral dice like d20 or d8—are almost universally unbalanced? Some are more balanced than others, but as you'd expect from mass-produced objects, small flaws in manufacturing and materials nearly always push each individual die either above or below the expected average roll.

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Philips’ Hue motion sensor lets you walk to turn on your lights

8/29/2016 2:30am

Enlarge (credit: Philips)

Philips knows that building a smart home lighting ecosystem doesn't mean just bombarding the market with different types of Wi-Fi-connected light bulbs. On the heels of the introduction of Hue wall switches last year, Philips has just debuted the new Hue motion sensor for its lighting system. The tiny square sensor is meant to be placed anywhere in the home where you'd want lights to automatically come on whenever someone walks past.

The device is self-explanatory, but it really comes to life when paired with the Hue app. The motion sensor can be placed anywhere to control up to two rooms of lights. It has a motion detection range of about 5 meters, or 16.5 feet, so whenever anyone walks near it, lights turn on. While you could set the motion sensor just to control, say, your bathroom lights so you don't have to fumble for a switch in the middle of the night, you can also set the switch to turn on both the bathroom and hallway lights so your entire nighttime trip to the can is illuminated. While the sensor has limited field-of-motion detection, it can control the lights in any part of your home, so walking through your front door could trigger your upstairs bedroom lights to turn on.

Since the motion sensor controls full rooms of lights, it can also be set to turn on a specific scene if you have the Hue multicolor smart bulbs. In the app, you can set these scenes using multiple different lights emitting different colors to get the best ambience for certain events, such as getting ready for bed or waking up in the morning. With the motion sensor, those scenes can be triggered whenever you walk near the sensor, so you don't have to go into the app to bring them up.

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Selfies in voting booths: Depending on where you live, they may be illegal

8/28/2016 1:45pm

(credit: NicoleKlauss)

"Dude, check out who I voted for!"

We soon could be seeing a lot more selfies with that caption. That's because legislation legalizing ballot selfies in voting booths landed on California Gov. Jerry Brown's desk on Friday.

Assembly Bill 1494 amends California law that, for now, says "a voter shall not show" a ballot "to any person in such a way as to reveal its contents." The new law awaiting the governor's signature says "a voter may voluntarily disclose how he or she voted if that voluntary act does not violate any other law." The measure passed the state Senate earlier this year and the state Assembly last week on a 63-15 vote.

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