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The Art of Technology
Updated: 1 hour 56 min ago

How Comcast became a powerful—and controversial—part of the Internet backbone

7/17/2014 9:00am
Aurich Lawson

There’s no bigger Internet service provider in the United States than Comcast, and perhaps none is more controversial.

Comcast has struggled to win the hearts of its TV and Internet subscribers for years, regularly faring poorly in customer satisfaction surveys. Yet, somehow it has managed to become an even bigger lightning rod over the first half of this year.

The latest controversies involve a crucial part of the Internet that many Americans are likely unfamiliar with: the interconnections between last-mile Internet service providers like Comcast and the companies that distribute traffic from content providers such as Netflix.

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Air Force research: How to use social media to control people like drones

7/17/2014 7:45am
The same math that researchers use to control swarms of drones can be used, in theory, to control you on social media. Doodybutch

Facebook isn’t the only organization conducting research into how attitudes are affected by social media. The Department of Defense has invested millions of dollars over the past few years investigating social media, social networks, and how information spreads across them. While Facebook and Cornell University researchers manipulated what individuals saw in their social media streams, military-funded research—including projects funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Social Media in Strategic Communications (SMISC) program—has looked primarily into how messages from influential members of social networks propagate.

One study, funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), has gone a step further. “A less investigated problem is once you’ve identified the network, how do you manipulate it toward an end,” said Warren Dixon, a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering and director of the University of Florida’s Nonlinear Controls and Robotics research group. Dixon was the principal investigator on an Air Force Research Laboratory-funded project, which published its findings in February in a paper entitled “Containment Control for a Social Network with State-Dependent Connectivity.”

The research demonstrates that the mathematical principles used to control groups of autonomous robots can be applied to social networks in order to control human behavior. If properly calibrated, the mathematical models developed by Dixon and his fellow researchers could be used to sway the opinion of social networks toward a desired set of behaviors—perhaps in concert with some of the social media “effects” cyber-weaponry developed by the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ.

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Darwin’s complete Galapagos library posted online

7/16/2014 4:40pm
Charles Darwin's massive ship library, including astounding drawings of species from far-off lands, meant he rarely had to come above-board while sailing on the Beagle in the 1830s. Darwin Online

Charles Darwin's five-year journey to and from the Galapagos Islands ended in 1836. While that was over two decades before the publication of On the Origin of Species, he credited his time on board the Beagle as a formative experience for his theory of evolution. That extended trip wasn't only spent studying local wildlife, especially during lengthy voyages at sea to and from home—Darwin also devoured a library of more than 400 volumes of text.

While many of those books were referenced in his later research, they were not preserved as a collection once the Beagle returned to England, leaving a gap in our understanding about the books and studies that kept Darwin's mind occupied during such an historic era. Now, thanks to the painstaking efforts of a two-year Beagle project funded by the government of Singapore, that complete on-ship library has been transcribed and posted at Darwin Online, the world's largest repository of Darwin-related texts and writings.

The library, which was stored in the same cabin as Darwin's bed and desk during his journey, totaled out at 195,000 pages by the time researchers at the National University of Singapore assembled the full collection (and these weren't exactly picture books, with only 5,000 corresponding illustrations). The complete list is quite astounding, made up of atlases, history books, geology studies, and even a giant supply of literature. Darwin also enjoyed a few books in French, Spanish, and German, along with a book in Latin about species and a Greek edition of the New Testament.

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Bitcoin pool commits to 40% hashrate limit after its 51% breach

7/16/2014 4:33pm

Bitcoin pool announced on Wednesday that “it is not aiming to overcome 39.99 [percent] of the overall Bitcoin hashrate."

This marks a clear departure from the large pool’s recent flirtations with 51 percent. If that threshold is crossed for sustained periods of time, it concentrates power in ways that Bitcoin’s decentralized design normally does not allow.

“If approaches the respective border, it will be actively asking miners to take their hardware away from and mine on other pools,” the statement continues. “ will encourage other mining pools to write similar voluntary statements from their sides.”

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Congresswoman defends “states’ rights” to protect ISPs from muni competition

7/16/2014 4:05pm
US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Mississippi State University Libraries

UPDATE: The House today approved Blackburn's proposal by a vote of 223-200, according to The Hill. It would still need Senate approval to become law.

US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) wants to make sure the Federal Communications Commission never interferes with "states' rights" to protect private Internet service providers from having to compete against municipal broadband networks.

Twenty states have passed laws making it difficult for cities and towns to offer their own broadband Internet services, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has pledged to use his agency's authority to "preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband."

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Mathematics makes strong case that “snoopy2” can be just fine as a password

7/16/2014 3:55pm
Florencio et al.

By now, most readers know the advice cold. Use long, randomly generated passwords to lock down your digital assets. Never use the same password across two or more accounts. In abstract terms, the dictates are some of the best ways to protect against breaches suffered by one site—say, the one that hit Gawker in 2010 that exposed poorly cryptographically scrambled passwords for 1.3 million users—that spread like wildfire. Once hackers cracked weak passwords found in the Gawker database, they were able to compromise accounts across a variety of other websites when victims used the same passcode.

A team of researchers says the widely repeated advice isn't feasible in practice, and they've provided the math they say proves it. The burden stems from the two foundations of password security that (A1) passwords should be random and strong and (A2) passwords shouldn't be reused across multiple accounts. Those principles are sound when protecting a handful of accounts, particularly those such as bank accounts, where the value of the assets being protected is considered extremely high. Where things break down is when the dictates are applied across a large body of passwords that protect multiple accounts, some of which store extremely low-value data, such as the ability to post comments on a single website.

Employing even relatively weak, 40-bit passwords (say, one with eight lower-case characters) across 100 accounts is equivalent to recalling 1,362 randomly chosen digits or 170 random eight-digit PINs, something that's well beyond the capabilities of most people. Reducing the number of bits by choosing more memorable passwords such as "password123" and "123456" helps ease the burden. But even then, users must have under their control 525 bits just to remember which weak password goes with which account. That's more than double what's required to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards. Yes, people can use password managers, but those available in the cloud may be susceptible to online attacks, and those that aren't Web-based lose one of the major advantages of passwords, which is their ability to be entered across any client device.

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Apple agrees to pay $450 million in e-book antitrust deal

7/16/2014 3:44pm

Apple agreed Wednesday to pay $450 million to settle an antitrust lawsuit accusing the company of conspiring with publishers to set the price of e-books.

The proposed deal is part of a case in which the Justice Department and several states sued Apple and five top publishers. But the payout to consumers could unravel if a federal appeals panel overturns a lower court ruling that Apple is liable.

"We did nothing wrong and we believe a fair assessment of the facts will show it," Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet told Reuters.

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Verizon claims common carrier rules would require Web services to pay ISPs

7/16/2014 3:38pm

Verizon is making an alarmist argument in its response to the Federal Communications Commission's network neutrality proposal. Classification of broadband as a common carrier service—a step called for by public interest groups who want to prevent ISPs from charging Web services for faster access to consumers—would instead require ISPs to charge Netflix, YouTube, and other Web services for network access, Verizon claims.

This goes a bit further than claims previously made by ISPs, who have been imploring the FCC to avoid reclassifying broadband as a "telecommunications service," a move that would subject them to common carrier rules under Title II of the Communications Act.

In addition to saying that utility-style regulation would stifle network investment, the ISPs have generally argued that reclassification would force the FCC to apply every possible Title II rule to broadband. That isn't true, as telecommunications experts such as Harold Feld of Public Knowledge have explained. The legal concept of "forbearance" means that the FCC can classify broadband as a Title II service and then choose which regulations to apply.

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Fossils of strange Cambrian predator preserved with brain impressions

7/16/2014 3:20pm
The new species, showing the eyes (upper and lower center) and a single clawed appendage (top left). Peiyun Cong

The animals of the Cambrian are noted for being a collection of oddballs that are sometimes difficult to match up with anything currently living on Earth. But even among these oddities, Anomalocarids stand out (as their name implies). The creatures propelled themselves with a series of oar-like paddles arranged on their flanks, spotted prey with enormous compound eyes, and shoveled them into a disk-like mouth with large arms that resided at the very front of their bodies—although some of them ended up as filter feeders.

We've identified a large number of anomalocarid species, many of which appear to have been the apex predators of their ecosystems. Yet for all our knowledge of them, there's a key issue we haven't clarified: how do they relate to any species that might exist today? New fossils from a Cambrian era deposit in China have revealed three samples of a new species that are so exquisitely preserved that their discoverers can trace the animals' nerves. And the structure of the brain reveals affinities for two completely different types of organisms.

The new species, Lyrarapax unguispinus, is a relatively small anomalocarid at only about eight centimeters long. Like others of this group, it's got a set of distinctive features, such as a neck, large compound eyes, and large frontal appendages, in this case shaped a bit like claws. Just past the neck, it's got two large segments that look a bit like the fins on the sides of animals like dolphins.

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Swedish court upholds arrest warrant for Julian Assange

7/16/2014 2:49pm

A Swedish judge has upheld the arrest warrant issued for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

“The Court has decided that there is still probable cause concerning the suspicions directed towards JA (unlawful coercion, sexual molestation and rape, less serious incident) and that there is still a risk that he will fail to appear or in some other way avoid participation in the investigation and the following proceedings,” the Stockholm City District Court said in a statement on Wednesday.

The Australian remains wanted in Sweden for questioning relating to alleged sex offenses dating back to 2010—however, Assange has not yet been formally charged with a crime. According to Assange’s own September 2013 affidavit, he stated that the women that he slept with specifically said they were not accusing him of rape and that police “made up the charges.”

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Amazon accidentally reveals it’s working on an e-book subscription service

7/16/2014 2:44pm
The cached page for Kindle Unlimited, an e-book subscription service that appears to be in the works. Google cache

Amazon is in the middle of testing a new e-book subscription service dubbed Kindle Unlimited, GigaOm reported on Wednesday. The program would offer access to 600,000 titles and cost members $9.99 per month.

The Kindle Boards forum surfaced screenshots of test pages that revealed the program was in the works. Subscribers would get access to audiobooks as well as e-books, though the screenshotted pages didn't specify how many of the latter. Titles shown on the demo page include Moneyball, Water for Elephants, and Twelve Years a Slave.

Kindle Unlimited would be entering competition with services like Oyster, which costs $9.95 per month and gives access to "over 500,000 books," and Scribd, which has over 400,000 books for $8.99 per month. It would also be moving on Audible's territory, which has a catalog of 150,000 audiobooks available for $14.95 per month.

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Senate passes cell phone unlocking bill without opposition

7/16/2014 1:15pm

It could soon finally be legal to "unlock" cell phones and move from one carrier to another. The US Senate passed a bill last night under "unanimous consent" rules that would make it clear that unlocking phones is legal.

The bill was passed without controversial language about "bulk" unlocking that would have made it difficult to build a business around unlocking phones. It also directs the Librarian of Congress to "consider whether other wireless devices, like tablets, should be eligible for unlocking."

The House of Representatives passed a related bill in February that did include the "bulk unlocking" language that advocacy groups like Public Knowledge objected to. Now the two houses of Congress will need to sync up the bills so a version can be sent to President Barack Obama for a signature.

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Divinity: Original Sin is an odd mix of old- and new-school RPG design

7/16/2014 1:10pm

Last year, the developers behind the Divinity RPG series took to crowdfunding sites with promises of a truly old-school role-playing game. They described a project along the lines of Ultima, Baldur’s Gate, and Neverwinter Nights, the 2D isometric-camera epics that defined a golden age of digital swords and sorcery on the PC. The Divinity series started out in that vein, with the decade-old original serving as a sort of fantasy Fallout, but it has since evolved into a 3D action-RPG franchise that lagged behind the likes of Dragon Age. Still, there were plenty of Kickstarter backers that felt a return to older-era RPG design was just the trick for Larian Studios.

Were they right? Not exactly. That’s not because Divinity: Original Sin stinks—far from it—but because calling the game an “old-school RPG” isn’t entirely accurate. The giant adventure might best be described as “multi-school”—both system- and narrative-based, both ‘90s and modern, cribbing from all of your questing favorites and adding its own takes.

The world of Divinity: Original Sin is as detailed as later Ultima games, but with a combat system that has much more tactical complexity. Original Sin’s hand-drawn aesthetic looks a lot like Baldur’s Gate and the Infinity Engine games, but those games certainly didn’t have a thousand different items to pick up for crafting, let alone dozens of skills, attributes, and perks to level up. Meanwhile, newer games like Dragon Age: Origins included some detailed character development, but they didn’t have long battles filled with intricate, turn-based tactical combat or the creation of multiple, distinct party members.

There’s a lot going for this game—its size, its scope, its presentation, its fresh take on co-op questing, and its ability to achieve a lot of ambitious goals without stumbling. (I also like the talking cats that dole out quests.) But determining whether you’ll fall for Divinity: Original Sin will probably come down to how you feel about the way it handpicks its older- and newer-era elements.

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Under RIAA threat, radio “aircheck” historical archive at a crossroads

7/16/2014 12:51pm

ReelRadio, a radio-streaming site dedicated to historical "aircheck" demos, has come under fire from the Recording Industry Association of America, igniting a licensing squabble that places the site's future in doubt.

Founded in 1996, the site (which still looks like it's nearly 20 years old) streams "scoped" and "unscoped" announcer airchecks. On Wednesday, the site said it would suspend the streaming of unscoped content.

Scoped airchecks are edited and play an announcer's voice with the music removed and are fair use to stream. The unscoped ones, which include the music, are at the center of the dispute between the RIAA and the site's president, Richard Irwin. More than 1,147 "unscoped" airchecks are now unavailable following a copyright infringement and licensing flap with the recording studios.

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Model 3 will be Tesla Motors’ electric car for the masses

7/16/2014 12:14pm
The Tesla Model S. Expect the Model 3 to be 20% smaller than this big sedan. Steven Michael

There have been rumors about a low-cost version of Tesla Motors’ electric vehicles for almost as long as there have been Tesla Motors electric vehicles. So far, all of the cars produced by the California company have played north of the $70,000 mark—sometimes far, far north (the Model S P85+ we were loaned to review for a weekend had an as-tested price of $121,870). The next vehicle Tesla is producing, the "falcon-wing-doored" crossover Model X, will have a similarly high sticker price. But the next car, which has previously been unofficially called the "Model E," was supposed to be priced more reasonably—down where many people could purchase one without needing to take out a second mortgage.

As first reported by Auto Express this morning, Tesla Motors CEO and founder Elon Musk has now dropped some solid confirmation on not just the name of the upcoming fourth Tesla vehicle, but also some of its capabilities. It will be officially named the "Model 3," it will start out retailing for about $35,000, it will be about 20 percent smaller than the current Model S, it will have a range of at least 200 miles, and it is expected to be revealed in 2016 for sale in 2017.

"We had the Model S for sedan and X for crossover SUV, then a friend asked what we were going to call the third car,” Musk joked to Auto Express. "So I said we had the model S and X, we might as well have the E….and then Ford sued us saying we wanted to use the Model E—I thought, this is crazy, Ford’s trying to kill sex!"

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Invasive kudzu drives carbon out of the soil, into the atmosphere

7/16/2014 11:50am
Katie Ashdown

An invasive species of plant called “the scourge of the South” has a new strike against it. Recent research shows that the impact of kudzu is more troublesome than had been previously thought. When it takes over ecosystems, this invader causes soil to surrender its carbon, releasing it as greenhouse gas.

Alien invader

Kudzu is one of the most impressive invasive species in the world. Introduced to the US as a handful of plants in 1876, this invader now occupies over 3m hectares (over 11,500 sq. mi.) of land in the US, largely in the southeast of the country. It is estimated to be “consuming” land in the USA at a rate of 50,000 hectares (123,552 acres) per year.

If anything could be said to grow like a weed, it is kudzu, which can extend by up to a meter every three days. The plant moves across terrain like a wave, smothering everything in its wake—trees, utility poles, and even buildings.

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Panamanian ex-dictator sues Activision over Black Ops II appearance

7/16/2014 10:50am

The game industry isn't a stranger to lawsuits over unpaid use of personal likenesses, from NFL players seeking compensation from EA to Lindsay Lohan complaining over a lookalike in Grand Theft Auto V. Still, we're a bit confused by the claims in deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega's lawsuit over his appearance in Call of Duty: Black Ops II.

Courthouse News Service reports that Noriega filed a 13-page Superior Court suit against Call of Duty publisher Activision for using his image "without authorization of consent." According to the lawsuit, the game unfairly shows Noriega "as a kidnapper, murderer and enemy of the state" and "an antagonist and... the culprit of numerous fictional heinous crimes."

Noriega, of course, is well known as a brutal dictator and a key player in Central America's drug cartels in the '80s, when he also worked as a CIA informant. After being deposed in a US invasion in 1989, he was convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering in 1992, and he has been in prison ever since. In other words, Noriega's depiction in the game can't do much more to defame him than his actions already have.

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Tuesday Dealmaster has a 13.3-inch Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro for $1099

7/15/2014 6:15pm

Greetings, Arsians! Our partners at LogicBuy are back with a ton of deals for this week. The top deal is a 13.3-inch Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro (that's a laptop) for just $1099—that's $300 off the MSRP. The Yoga 2 isn't just a laptop though, thanks to a clever hinging system, it can fold alllll the way over and become a tablet. This and many more deals await you below.

Featured deal

Laptops and desktops

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Google+ kills off “real names” policy

7/15/2014 6:07pm

Google has decided to reverse its long-standing policy requiring users to use their real names to make profiles on the service as of Tuesday, according to a post shared on the official account. The move comes after Google+ head Vic Gundotra suddenly departed in April, marking the beginning of a shift for the service.

"When we launched Google+ over three years ago, we had a lot of restrictions on what name you could use on your profile," the post begins. As time went on, that rule softened to allow "established" pseudonyms and let YouTube users to bring their usernames over from the service.

Google+ has been criticized not only for preventing users from protecting their real identities, but causing confusion among them. In January, one transgender woman tried to send a text message to a colleague but sent a Hangout from her Google+ profile instead, outing her.

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Apple and IBM want you to use an iPhone at work, please

7/15/2014 5:55pm
Apple and IBM's new partnership is an effort to support iOS in large businesses. Andrew Cunningham

Apple and IBM are working together again. No, it's not a revival of PowerPC Macs—the two companies have entered into an agreement to strengthen Apple's position in large businesses using IBM's software, services, and partnerships.

The deal focuses mostly on things that will make iOS devices more palatable to people who are used to working with tightly controlled Windows PCs. IBM will offer "more than 100 industry-specific enterprise solutions including native apps" made specifically for the iPhone and iPad under the "IBM MobileFirst Solutions for iOS" banner, though the press release isn't specific about what kind of apps those will be or what they'll enable. IBM will offer analytics and mobile device management services to businesses as well.

Apple and IBM will also join forces to offer a new enterprise-specific version of AppleCare. Apple will offer users and IT workers round-the-clock phone support, and IBM will be able to provide on-site support and repair services. IBM will be able to sell and lease iOS devices to its clients.

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