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“When it’s done”: How Blizzard dragged Overwatch across the launch threshold

5/25/2016 8:40am

Even the largest heroes don't feel constrained on Overwatch's maps.

Overwatch goes into full launch this week after one of the most successful beta tests in gaming history, attracting nearly 10 million players in the open beta (and more during a smaller closed beta). Yet deciding to release the game, which was ready for release after more than two years of development, was still tough, Assistant Game Director Aaron Keller told Ars.

"It's really hard to say you're finished with something, especially something you're so invested in and passionate about like the team is," he said in a recent interview. And after announcing the final release date in March, the pressure of the development cycle really came to a head. "After that, it was like 'Oh my gosh, we're not going to get to work on it any more, there's this huge list of features we want to add.' We had to really focus to get everything in that we wanted to."

Despite the expected last-second rush, though, Keller said that the core of Overwatch has changed remarkably little overall over the course of development. "Early on the first hero that we made was Tracer, and the first map we made was Temple of Anubis," he said. "Those were being worked on concurrently. One day we got both of them in, and just with Tracer running around an unfinished map it was fun."

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Blow that data monolith to smithereens with microservices and database swarms

5/25/2016 8:15am

As culture constantly shows us, monoliths are a tricky thing to deal with. (credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM))

Imagine one huge, monolithic relational database—say, a MySQL or Oracle installation—squatting in the middle of an organization's business like Jabba the Hut. The big blob is kind of comforting. Its massive gut keeps all the data all in one place, making it an attractive integration platform.

The problem is that the blob only speaks the language of structured data: SQL. Integrating it with non-relational and unstructured data can be an adventure. And because of its size and structure, adapting it to new tasks can be slow going at best. Unfortunately, nowadays, such blobs must move.

The world of apps is in constant flux and, with it, so are the demands on data. APIs are constantly changing to meet those demands (a social media connection here, a new mobile platform there). But throughout all this, core business can't be bogged down; it has to move fast. And that's where microservices—the dissection of the data monolith into agile little services—come in.

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Intel’s quad-core “Skull Canyon” NUC is a workstation for the size-obsessed

5/25/2016 7:00am

Intel's quad-core "Skull Canyon" NUC.

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Every year when Intel refreshes its NUC mini PCs, it releases more models meant to cover a wider range of needs. There are cheap fanless NUCs, NUCs that can fit in full-size hard drives, and mainstream NUCs that are essentially little Ultrabooks inside boxes. This year is the first where Intel has tried to release a quad-core workstation-class NUC itself instead of leaving that field to OEM partners.

This PC, also known as “Skull Canyon” because of Intel’s history of using skulls to promote performance-focused products, is quite a bit different from the other NUCs. It needs more space for cooling, so it’s around twice as wide as standard NUCs (though it’s a little shorter). But with that increased size comes a lot more flexibility and performance.

Pricing and building

Like other NUCs, the Skull Canyon version is sold as a “PC kit,” which means you have to add your own RAM, SSD, and operating system before you can actually use the thing. Assuming you want to equip it with fast PCI Express SSDs and a healthy amount of RAM, you’ll end up spending nearly $1,000—around $650 for the NUC itself, another $180 or so for a 256GB Samsung 950, $60-ish for 16GB of DDR4 RAM (the box supports up to 32GB), and $100 for your Windows 10 license if that’s the operating system you prefer to use.

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Microsoft bangs the final nail in Nokia Devices’ coffin, will lay off 1,850

5/25/2016 5:00am

Satya Nadella and former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop during happier times. Elop got the boot in 2015.

The last remaining vestiges of Nokia at Microsoft are being closed down as the company "streamlines" its smartphone hardware business. "Up to 1,850" people will lose their jobs (1,350 in Finland, 500 elsewhere) as the company essentially exits the phone market.

Microsoft bought Nokia's Devices and Services business in 2013 for $7.1 billion. In July last year, Microsoft laid off 7,800 of the staff from that acquisition and took an impairment charge of $7.6 billion. The remaining feature phone portion of the business was sold off last week for $350 million. With today's announcement, the smartphone hardware business is being all but wiped out. There will be one last impairment charge of approximately $950 million, of which $200 million is severance pay.

CEO Satya Nadella insists that the company is still working in the phone space, but in a much narrower way, saying "We are focusing our phone efforts where we have differentiation—with enterprises that value security, manageability and our Continuum capability, and consumers who value the same."

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McDonald’s ex-CEO: $15/hr minimum wage will unleash the robot rebellion

5/24/2016 8:24pm

An artist's approximation of ex-McDonald's CEO Ed Rensi in his Fox Business appearance on Tuesday. (credit: South Park Studios)

For years, economists have been issuing predictions about how automation will impact the world's job markets, but those studies and guesses have yet to make a call based on what would happen if a given sector's wages rose. Instead, that specific guesswork mantle has been taken up by a former McDonald's CEO who declared on Tuesday that a rise in the American minimum wage will set our nation's robotic revolution into motion.

In an appearance on Fox Business' Mornings with Maria, Ed Rensi claimed that a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour would result in "job loss like you can't believe" before ceding ground to our new robotic overlords. "I was at the National Restaurant Show yesterday, and if you look at the robotic devices that are coming into the restaurant industry—it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging French fries."

When pressed, Rensi admitted that he thinks "franchising businesses" like fast-food restaurants are already hurtling toward automation, saying that those businesses are "dependent on people who have low job skills that need to grow. If you can't get people a reasonable wage, you're gonna get machines to do the work. It's just common sense. It's going to happen whether you like it or not." He then insisted that an increased minimum wage will make robotic worker adoption "just happen faster."

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HP splits again, as Hewlett Packard Enterprise spins off IT services

5/24/2016 7:31pm

In 2014, Hewlett-Packard announced that it was splitting into two separate companies: Hewlett Packard Enterprise, selling servers and enterprise services, and HP Inc, selling PCs and printers. That split completed last year at the cost of more than 30,000 jobs. In a surprise announcement today, the company is about to embark on a second split: Hewlett Packard Enterprise is spinning off its IT services business.

The low-margin outsourced IT services business, which HP got into with its $14 billion acquisition of EDS in 2008, is to be merged with Computer Sciences Corp (CSC) to create a new company currently known only as SpinCo. HPE will own half of the new company, HPE CEO Meg Whitman will be on the new company's board, and HPE and CSC will each nominate half of the board members. CSC's current CEO, Mike Lawrie, will become CEO of the new company.

HPE says that the deal will save around $1 billion in operating costs. HPE shareholders will own shares in both companies, owning half of the combined company, with their stake valued at around $4.5 billion. They'll also receive a $1.5 billion cash dividend. Additionally, the merger will see some $2.5 billion in debt moved to SpinCo's books.

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Marijuana social network is denied listing on Nasdaq

5/24/2016 6:54pm

Nasdaq officials have told MassRoots, a sort of “Facebook for pot,” that it can't join the exchange.

The Denver-based social network has 775,000 users from the 24 states where marijuana is legal medicinally (including those states where it's also legal recreationally), who use the platform to find like-minded people in their area, learn about nearby dispensaries, and follow pot legalization news. MassRoots has said it meets the criteria for listing on Nasdaq—it has a $40 million market capitalization value and “well over 300 shareholders” through over-the-counter markets, according to CNN Money.

MassRoots alleges that the decision to deny the social media platform a place on Nasdaq was due to the fact that marijuana use and cultivation remains a federal crime. “On May 23, 2016, Nasdaq denied MassRoots' application to list on its exchange for being cannabis-related,” the company wrote. “We believe this dangerous precedent could prevent nearly every company in the regulated cannabis industry from listing on a national exchange, making it more difficult for cannabis entrepreneurs to raise capital and slow the progression of cannabis legalization in the United States.”

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An artist is growing a hand out of human stem cells

5/24/2016 5:12pm

Hand design from scan data and 3D modeling.

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It all started because Amy Karle wanted to grow her own exoskeleton. But after experimenting with 3D printing bones during an artist residency program through Autodesk's Pier 9 workshop in San Francisco, she set her sights on something a little smaller and more intimate. She decided to grow a human hand.

Karle has a lot of experience with human limbs, because she volunteers with a nonprofit group that 3D prints prosthetic arms for children and makes its designs available for free. She also works on medical instruments and told Ars that she's fascinated by objects that go inside the body, as well as how parts of our bodies can live outside us. With her new project "Regenerative Reliquary," currently on display at the Pier 9 space in San Francisco, she has brought all her obsessions together to create an actual hand grown from human stem cells on a 3D printed trellis.

Working with bioscientist Chris Venter in Pier 9's Bio/Nano Lab and Autodesk materials scientist John Vericella, Karle designed a bone trellis in CAD based on the dimensions of her own hand. This trellis, which looks like a cross between a skeleton and a piece of jewelry, is made from pegda, a hydrogel used as a cellular growth medium in petri dishes and elsewhere. Its structure is modeled on the trabecular structure of the spongy microlattices within bone that make it flexible. For several weeks, she and her collaborators worked on 3D printing a pegda trellis on the Ember printer that would hold together inside a bioreactor where cells could grow. In the gallery above, you can see the hand inside a bioreactor, as well as what the trellis looks like under magnification. Next, she needed a cell line to grow on the trellis. Karle told Ars that she'd hoped at first to harvest her own stem cells or to use cancer cells from a mouse. But both of those options raised safety issues, so she and the scientists settled for using human mesenchymal stem cells, extracted from bone marrow (of course you can order human stem cells online). Currently, Karle is culturing the cells, and the next step in her project will be to grow them on the hand trellis. Once the project is complete, Karle will post instructions on how to build your own hand on the DiY site Instructables.

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48-volt mild hybrids: A possible cure for diesel emissions cheats?

5/24/2016 5:01pm

Delphi has been testing its 48V mild hybrid system in this Honda Civic turbodiesel. (credit: Delphi)

It's clear that we need to make our passenger vehicles a lot more efficient if we want to avoid some of the very worst effects of climate change. And it's also becoming increasingly clear that diesel—which was once looked at in places like Europe as a panacea for this problem—might not be quite so groovy, what with rampant emissions cheating in the auto industry. Delphi, a major vehicle component supplier, thinks it has a real solution to help us with this, in the form of 48V "mild hybrids."

Climate change is such a big problem that even Donald Trump (who says he doesn't believe in it, publicly) is spending money to defend his properties from sea level rise. Although passenger vehicle emissions are only part of the carbon emission problem, in the US, Europe, and China regulators are taking the problem seriously, with increasingly strict fuel efficiency targets for all new cars. Here in the US, car makers have until 2025 to double their average fuel economy to 54.5mpg, but things are even tighter abroad. China has set 2020 for its deadline, by which time manufacturer averages have to be down to 117 grams of CO2 per km driven, and the following year the EU requires fleet averages of just 95g/km. And along with those targets come hefty financial penalties for missing them.

Several years ago, we took a deep dive into some of the technologies that automakers are looking at to get themselves out of this bind. These features included variable valve timing, small capacity turbocharged engines, gasoline and diesel direct injection, cylinder deactivation, and stop-start functions. But all of those features are being widely deployed across new vehicle fleets, and it's clear that they won't be enough. Of course, there's also the wide world of electrification, like plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and battery EVs, but adoption of EVs of all stripes remains insufficient to really move the needle—even accounting for Tesla's gigantic Model 3 presales. That's where the 48V mild hybrid comes in.

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Charter explains why it doesn’t compete against other cable companies

5/24/2016 4:33pm

(credit: Cole Marshall)

When Charter purchased Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, federal regulators forced the company to agree to some conditions designed to boost competition in the Internet service market. Charter, now the nation's second largest cable company behind Comcast because of the merger, is required to bring broadband of at least 60Mbps to at least 1 million homes and businesses where there's already a provider offering at least 25Mbps.

This is known as "overbuilding," something that happens infrequently enough that many Americans have only one choice for high-speed Internet. But when Charter fulfills the overbuilding requirement imposed by the Federal Communications Commission, it'll apparently do so without actually competing against other cable companies. Instead, Charter will enter the territory of phone companies like AT&T or Frontier, Charter CEO Tom Rutledge said.

Why is that? Because Charter might want to buy more cable companies later. And the FCC is less likely to approve a merger between two companies competing against each other.

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1.5 billion-year-old fossils reveal organisms of unusual size

5/24/2016 1:20pm

Just a couple of 1.56 billion-year-old fossils from southern China. (credit: Maoyan Zhu)

The Cambrian “explosion” of life around 540 million years ago is one heck of a story, in which a huge variety of animal body plans first appear in the fossil record. But the harder we look, the more interesting and incredible the Cambrian prequels become. Now, there's a report of organisms big enough to be easily visible yet dating back to more than 1.5 billion years ago.

The fuse to the Cambrian bomb was quite long and, at the very least, had some firecrackers tied to it. Single-celled eukaryotes, organisms with a nucleus and other complex internal structures, joined the bacteria and archaea around 1.5 billion years before the Cambrian. About 60 million years before the start of the Cambrian, a considerable batch of complex organisms appeared, although their relationships to Cambrian life are contentious.

The history of multi-cellular eukaryotes in between is hard to piece together, as extraordinary luck is needed to preserve evidence of their soft cell bodies for us to find. We have a couple examples of tiny multi-cellular organisms that may have been eukaryotes, but a new discovery from a team led by Shixing Zhu of the China Geological survey adds a big one to the family. The long, flat fossils they found in 1.56 billion-year-old rocks were up to a whopping 30 centimeters long and 8 centimeters wide.

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Navy takes delivery on super-destroyer, pushes up schedule for LCS “frigate”

5/24/2016 1:10pm

The proposed LCS frigate upgrade design from Austal, based on its Freedom class trimaran LCS hull.

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On May 20, the US Navy took delivery of the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), the first of a class of destroyers designed to take on the role once served by battleships. As the Navy prepares to commission the Zumwalt, the first of three ships from the $22 billion (£15 billion) DDG-1000 program, the service is accelerating its plans to produce 14 smaller ships—frigates that were ordered to be built by the Pentagon instead of the last set of the Navy's Littoral Combat Ships.

The LCS program has experienced a number of glitches over its lifetime—canceled weapons systems, mine-hunting systems that can't pass acceptance tests, failures of gears aboard two ships that left them stranded, and the realization that no one asked for hull corrosion protection on one variant.

The biggest problem the LCS faces, however, is that its capabilities that do work match up against a very specific class of adversary: something on the level of 1990s-era Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy patrol boats and suicide speedboats. And with the rise of China's blue-water navy and the growing tensions over claims in the South China Sea, the LCS is facing missions where the threat will be beyond its current capabilities.

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Twitter relaxes 140-character limit, just a bit

5/24/2016 12:59pm

(credit: Scott Beale)

While brevity is oft considered the soul of wit, Twitter has finally come through on the rumored character limit increase.

On Tuesday, Twitter formally announced that @-replies and media attachments (you know, those GIFs that the kids are crazy about these days) will no longer count against the 140-character limit. The San Francisco company also announced that users will soon be able to retweet and quote their own tweets. Links aside from those to other tweets will still count against the character limit, however.

“We’ll be enabling the Retweet button on your own Tweets, so you can easily Retweet or Quote Tweet yourself when you want to share a new reflection or feel like a really good one went unnoticed,” Todd Sherman, a senior product manager, wrote in the blog post.

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TSA official got $90K bonus despite long airport lines, security bungles

5/24/2016 12:53pm

(credit: frankieleon)

Kelly Hoggan. (credit: TSA)

Kelly Hoggan, the embattled head of security for the Transportation Security Administration, has been stripped of his duties, the House Oversight Committee announced Monday evening. The move comes nearly two weeks after a contentious committee hearing and as lawmakers learned that Hoggan had received $90,000 in bonuses despite security snafus and long lines at US airports.

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said, "These adjustments will enable more focused leadership and screening operations at critical airports in the national transportation system."

As passengers have been confronted by massive security lines at US airports, lawmakers found Hoggan had been awarded the bonus despite a Department of Homeland Security inspector general report highlighting “pitiful” security operations. The bonus was paid out in roughly $10,000 increments, prompting accusations of “smurfing.”

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City goes after council candidate over logo use in campaign flyers

5/24/2016 12:39pm

The City of Mesa is upset that Whittaker is using its three-tiered logo. (credit: Jeremy Whittaker for Mesa)

A well-known First Amendment lawyer has formally responded on behalf of a city council candidate in Mesa, Arizona, who is accused of abusing the city’s trademarked logo in his campaign literature.

In his Monday response letter, lawyer Paul Alan Levy informs the City of Mesa’s lawyer that “not every use of a trademark constitutes infringement, and the First Amendment protects Whittaker’s use of these logos for purposes of noncommercial political expression.” Levy represents political hopeful Jeremy Whittaker.

The dispute represents yet another seemingly overzealous attempt at restricting speech using intellectual property laws. Levy has proven successful at halting such cases: earlier this year he defended an anonymous YouTube user when the subject of the user's video, a Georgia dentist, attempted to reveal the user's identity.

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AT&T’s data caps impose harshest punishments on DSL users

5/24/2016 12:22pm

(credit: Mike Mozart)

AT&T's home Internet data caps got an overhaul yesterday when the company implemented a recently announced plan to strictly enforce the caps and collect overage fees from more customers. Customers stuck on AT&T's older DSL architecture will be facing lower caps and potentially higher overage fees than customers with more modern Internet service.

AT&T put a positive spin on the changes when it announced them in March, saying that it was increasing the monthly data limits imposed on most home Internet customers. This was technically true as AT&T already had caps for most Internet users. But previously, the caps were only enforced in DSL areas, so the limits had no financial impact on most customers. Now, a huge swath of AT&T customers has effectively gone from unlimited plans to ones that are capped, with an extra $10 charge for each additional 50GB of data provided per month.

The only customers who aren't getting an increase in their monthly data allowance are the ones who have been dealing with caps the past few years, according to AT&T's data usage website:

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Google’s Paris office raided by police in tax probe

5/24/2016 12:05pm

(credit: Getty Images)

Google’s Paris offices have been raided by hundreds of French investigators—the search giant is suspected of avoiding tax in the country to the tune of €1.6 billion (~$1.78 billion, £1.22 billion).

The French financial prosecutor’s office (Le parquet national financier, PNF) which carried out the raid in the early hours of Tuesday morning, confirmed that the searches were the result of a preliminary investigation opened in June last year into possible “aggravated tax fraud and organised money laundering.”

Google’s European headquarters are based in Ireland, which boasts a tiny 12.5 percent corporation tax—the lowest in the European Union.

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Samsung is done with Android Wear watches, says Tizen is the future

5/24/2016 11:36am

As one of the world's biggest electronics manufacturers, Samsung is an important partner if you're trying to get traction for a nascent operating system. When it comes to smartwatches, Google will have to make do without the Korean juggernaut—Samsung says it's done with Android Wear.

After a chat with Samsung executives, a report from Fast Company says that "no more Samsung Android Wear devices are in development or being planned." Samsung apparently sees its in-house operating system, Tizen, as the wearable future. The report says that Samsung executives are going with Tizen because it's "far more battery-efficient than Android Wear" and "the standard OS on other Samsung products from TVs to refrigerators."

Samsung has given Android Wear a single try: the square "Galaxy Gear Live" smartwatch, which was one of the first Android Wear devices. For Tizen, the company has released the Gear S2, the Gear S, the Gear 2, and the Galaxy Gear. Android Wear recently launched a developer preview of version 2.0, which features an all-new design, new text input options, and more standalone functionality for watches with LTE modems.

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Is “MH” Nintendo’s next handheld? There’s reason to doubt it

5/24/2016 11:11am

Artist's conception of the mysterious "MH" portable. Or a hacked-together portable N64. One of those.

A new report out of Japan could be the first indication of a new handheld console in the pipeline for Nintendo, with the codename "MH." But despite some breathless reports on the news, there is reason for skepticism.

The rumor mill got churning this time thanks to off-handed mention in a report from the business analysts at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley (published in Japanese here and here). A couple of translations of that report predict that future economic growth for Nintendo through the 2020 fiscal year will be driven by "the next generation game console NX and next generation portable game console MH (Tentative title) [or (temporary name), depending on the translation]."

The translated wording certainly seems certain enough, and the specificity of the codename suggests an actual product in the works at Nintendo rather than mere speculation. Still, it's pretty odd that the first public mention of a major new hardware initiative at Nintendo would come in an aside in a business analyst's note rather than from Nintendo itself.

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Four wild technologies lawmakers want NASA to pursue

5/24/2016 10:43am

A proposed helicopter could triple the distances that Mars rovers can drive in a Martian day. (credit: NASA)

Imagine a tissue-box sized device, with blades a few feet long, whirring to life after charging for a full Sol on Mars. It then flies ahead of a rover to search for hazards and targets of interest. Deeper in the solar system, on Europa, a large spacecraft lands near a fissure and drops small probes into the ocean far below. Beyond the Moon, a telescope with a specially fitted shade images an Earth-like exoplanet for the first time, possibly finding chemical markers of life. Finally, in a few decades, powered by hitherto undreamed-of propulsion, a spacecraft takes off for Alpha Centauri at a significant fraction of the speed of light.

It all sounds like science fiction, but a new budget for NASA proposed by the US House of Representatives includes seed money for all of these initiatives, some of which are receiving funding for the first time. The budget must still be reconciled with that of the Senate, but the House and Senate committees have worked well in the past to finalize NASA’s funding. Most of these concepts should therefore survive.

Ars caught up with the author of this budget Monday evening, John Culberson, a Texas Republican who represents one of the most conservative districts in the conservative state of Texas. He’s a proud member of the Tea Party and would like nothing more than to tear up Obamacare. But Culberson is also a science geek through and through, and while he’d like to cut the federal budget, he’d just as soon plough those savings into NASA to fuel new innovations.

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