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The best of the 2017 North American International Auto Show

1/14/2017 9:00am

A look at some of the highlights of the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Video shot and edited by Jennifer Hahn. (video link)

DETROIT—Once the crown jewel of the US auto industry, the annual North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) has lacked a bit of its usual luster in recent years. Like November's Los Angeles Auto Show, Detroit has felt the effect of many OEMs instead choosing to annually exhibit their work at the wider-reaching Consumer Electronics Show.

That said, there was still plenty to see in Detroit this year. We encountered replacements for best sellers like the Toyota Camry, BMW 5 Series, and Ford F-150. Kia grabbed plenty of attention on the eve of the show with its sporty Stinger GT. And, of course, there were concept cars. Whether outlandish or almost production-ready, these event staples lurked almost everywhere we looked.

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Reported “backdoor” in WhatsApp is in fact a feature, defenders say

1/13/2017 7:11pm


The Guardian roiled security professionals everywhere on Friday when it published an article claiming a backdoor in Facebook's WhatsApp messaging service allows attackers to intercept and read encrypted messages. It's not a backdoor—at least as that term is defined by most security experts. Most would probably agree it's not even a vulnerability. Rather, it's a limitation in what cryptography can do in an app that caters to more than 1 billion users.

At issue is the way WhatsApp behaves when an end user's encryption key changes. By default, the app will use the new key to encrypt messages without ever informing the sender of the change. By enabling a security setting, users can configure WhatsApp to notify the sender that a recently transmitted message used a new key.

Critics of Friday's Guardian post, and most encryption practitioners, argue such behavior is common in encryption apps and often a necessary requirement. Among other things, it lets existing WhatsApp users who buy a new phone continue an ongoing conversation thread.

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San Francisco sues local drone maker, drone maker then shuts down

1/13/2017 5:20pm

Enlarge (credit: Lily Robotics)

A San Francisco-based drone startup that raised $34 million in pre-orders folded on Thursday, the same day the company, Lily Robotics, was sued by the local district attorney in county court. The city accuses Lily Robotics of engaging in false advertising and unlawful business practices.

The company's story is reminiscent of the now-defunct Torquing Group, a Wales-based firm that raised $3.4 million (the largest European Kickstarter project to date) to build a drone called the Zano that ended up not going anywhere, either.

In 2015, Lily Robotics released a slick YouTube promo video demonstrating its drone, calling it the world’s first “throw-and-shoot camera.” It received widespread, breathless coverage from various other media outlets, ranging from Wired to TechCrunch. Lily Robotics' founders were named on the “Forbes 30 under 30” list in 2015. And in addition to its pre-orders, the startup took in $15 million in venture capital, according to CrunchBase.

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Windows 10 Creators Update’s high performance “Game Mode,” confirmed

1/13/2017 5:00pm

Enlarge / The announcement of the Creators Update in October 2016.

Mike Ybarra, head of platform engineering for Xbox, has revealed some of the gaming-oriented improvements coming to the Windows 10 Creators Update later this year.

Chief among the changes is a new "Game Mode" that will improve the performance of games—both traditional Win32 games and new UWP (Universal Windows Platform) games from the Windows Store. Hints of this mode have appeared in recent Insider Preview builds of Windows, but it's still not clear what the mode actually does or how it does it. Ybarra's post confirms that the feature is coming, saying that it's a "big update" for Windows, but he doesn't reveal what the mode will actually do to improve performance.

On the Xbox One, the Guide is being made instantly accessible with just a single press of the Xbox button. It's also being enhanced, including the ability to start recording GameDVR clips and change the recorded length. Background music controls are being added, and Cortana will have a new design.

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Still no ACA replacement plan, but GOP ads say it exists and is awesome

1/13/2017 4:38pm

Enlarge / President-elect Donald Trump meets with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) at the US Capitol. (credit: Getty | Zach Gibson)

A GOP-affiliated group is spending more than $1.4 million to run digital and television advertisements that laud a Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act—despite the fact that the party has yet to present any such plan, Roll Call reports.

The ads have been launched by the American Action Network, a conservative advocacy group linked to House GOP leadership. These materials say the unidentified plan will create a health insurance system that has “more choices,” “better care,” and “lower costs” than the ACA. The ads began running Thursday and Friday in districts of vulnerable Republicans, GOP leaders, and “rank-and-file” Republicans from very conservative states.

The roll out of the ads coincides with voting in the Senate and House on budget resolution legislation that paves the way for defunding and dismantling the ACA through a budget reconciliation process. The party is expected to go ahead with repealing the ACA despite not having a replacement plan in place.

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The “Asgard archaea” are our own cells’ closest relatives

1/13/2017 4:00pm

Hospital-associated Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria. (credit: NIAID)

Thanks to microscopy, early biologists were able to make a binary distinction: there were eukaryotes and bacteria. The former had large, complex cells with internal compartments, while the latter were largely featureless. Which raised an obvious question: how did that apparently giant leap in complexity come about? While DNA sequencing provided some hints as to the relations among different branches on the tree of life, the unique features of eukaryotes and the genes that enabled them appeared to have no real antecedents.

Until recently, that is. Last year, a hydrothermal vent in the Arctic named Loki's Castle yielded organisms that picked up the name Lokiarchaea. Now, researchers have used Lokiarchaea's genome to find a large group of related species that they are naming the Asgard superphylum. Genetically, these organisms are the closest relatives of complex cells. The relationship is so close that all organisms with complex cells may simply be one branch of this group.

Domain names

One of the big ideas in biology is what's called the three domains of life. Genetic data revealed that we couldn't simply divide all living things into complex eukaryotes and simple bacteria. Instead, two very distinct groups lurked behind the seemingly simple cell architecture we used to call bacteria. While one of these groups retained the name bacteria, the second was called archaea to reflect its distinct lineage from early in life's history. Bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes thus made up the three domains of life.

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Toyota’s all-new 2018 Camry tries (and may succeed) to excite

1/13/2017 3:15pm

The all-new eighth-generation Toyota Camry. (video link)

DETROIT—Several things come to mind when I think of the Toyota Camry. It's reliable, competent, ubiquitous even; the Camry has topped sales charts for a decade and a half now. But it's not the most exciting thing on four wheels; it's a car that is sometimes referred to as a driving appliance. Toyota has evidently decided to do something about that perception. At the launch of the eighth-generation Camry at this year's North American International Auto Show, the company announced the new car has gained "emotionally charged design and performance experience."

In other words, it's supposed to be fun to drive and has gained some needed visual flair.  According to the car's Chief Engineer, Masato Katsumata, "In order to create something that stirs people’s soul, we’ve laid out the concept of a new sedan that provides fun and excitement behind the wheel." The new Camry uses the same Toyota New Global Architecture platform as last year's Prius, and it's now lower, wider, and more sleek than the outgoing car.

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Wearables show what “healthy” means for you—then tell if you’re not

1/13/2017 3:08pm

Geneticist Michael Snyder, wearing seven biosensors. (credit: Stanford Medicine, Steve Fisch)

There’s been plenty of hope and buzz in the recent years that wearable technology will upend healthcare as we know it. Commercial devices strapped to our persons will—makers promise—empower individuals to monitor and control their own health, plus they'll help guide the care people receive by medical professionals.

But so far, there’s been a rather noticeable gap between the data we collect on our little devices and better health and healthcare for most. Does your doctor really care about or know what to do with your Fitbit data? Is your Apple Watch making you healthier?

Often, when people use wearables, “they get all excited for about three months, and then they stop looking at them,” precision medicine expert Michael Snyder of Stanford told Ars.

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Killing net neutrality at FCC is “not a slam dunk,” departing chair says

1/13/2017 2:55pm

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. (credit: FCC)

In his final speech before leaving the Federal Communications Commission, Chairman Tom Wheeler today made the case for why net neutrality rules are working and said that Republican commissioners won't necessarily have an easy time overturning the rules.

"Contrary to what you might have heard, reversing the Open Internet rules is not a slam dunk," Wheeler said at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC. "The effort to undo an open Internet will face the high hurdle, imposed by the Administrative Procedure Act, of a fact-based showing that so much has changed in just two short years that a reversal is justified."

The speech's full text is available here.

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EPA shields auto fuel efficiency goals from Trump administration—for a time

1/13/2017 2:45pm

(credit: Amy Marbach)

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it had finalized the rules governing fuel efficiency for vehicles made until 2025. The rules ratchet up the fuel efficiency numbers that automakers must meet over the span of the next eight years. By 2025, automakers will have to hit an overall 51.4 mpg average efficiency rating for their fleet, which translates to about 36 mpg in real-world driving conditions—a bump of 10 mpg from what US fleets get today.

The decision comes just a week before the Trump administration takes office. President-elect Donald Trump has not commented on the EPA’s fuel efficiency guidelines, but automakers had been hoping that the EPA would delay signing off on this rule so that his administration might relax fuel efficiency standards out to 2025. Trump has denied the existence of climate change—a factor in the EPA’s fuel efficiency decisions—despite the preponderance of evidence showing that climate change is real and human-caused.

Although a Trump administration could reverse the EPA’s new rules, doing so will be significantly harder than if the EPA had left the process for finalizing its December recommendations up to the new administration.

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Virginia “Broadband Deployment Act” would kill municipal broadband deployment

1/13/2017 12:31pm

Enlarge / Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. (credit: Getty Images | Joe Daniel Price)

Virginia lawmakers are considering a bill called the "Virginia Broadband Deployment Act," but instead of resulting in more broadband deployment, the legislation would make it more difficult for municipalities to offer Internet service.

The Virginia House of Delegates legislation proposed this week by Republican lawmaker Kathy Byron (full text) would prohibit municipal broadband deployments except in very limited circumstances. Among other things, a locality wouldn't be allowed to offer Internet service if an existing network already provides 10Mbps download and 1Mbps upload speeds to 90 percent of potential customers. That speed threshold is low enough that it can be met by old DSL lines in areas that haven't received more modern cable and fiber networks.

Even if that condition is met, a city or town would have to jump through a few hoops before offering service. The municipality would have to pay for a "comprehensive broadband assessment," and then issue a request for proposals giving for-profit ISPs six months to submit a plan for broadband deployment. After receiving proposals from private ISPs, the local government would have to determine whether providing grants or subsidies to a private ISP would be more cost-effective than building a municipal broadband network.

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Private company says it is fully funded for mission to the Moon

1/13/2017 12:17pm

An artist's concept of Moon Express' MX-1 lander on the surface of the Moon. (credit: Moon Express)

Any organization wishing to accomplish a major spaceflight goal must address two basic sets of problems—rocket science and political science. And while the technical challenges of spaceflight are considerable, it’s arguable that political science remains the greater of these two hurdles. Building spacecraft and rockets requires lots of money, after all, and due to international law they can’t just be launched from anywhere to anywhere.

So it is no small achievement for the private, US-based Moon Express to have conquered the political science part of sending a rover to the Moon. Last August, after a lengthy regulatory process, the company received permission from the US government to send a commercial mission beyond low Earth orbit. And on Friday, the company announced that it has successfully raised an additional $20 million, meaning it has full funding for its maiden lunar mission. “Now it’s just about the rocket science stuff,” said company co-founder and Chief Executive Bob Richards. That, he realizes, remains a formidable challenge.

Moon Express is one of five entrants in the Google Lunar X Prize competition to finalize a launch contract. Each of the teams is competing to become the first to send a rover to the lunar surface by the end of this year, have it travel 500 meters, and transmit high-definition imagery back to Earth. First prize is $20 million.

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Volvo’s autonomous Drive Me research project gets underway

1/13/2017 11:59am

Video shot and edited by Jennifer Hahn. (video link)

DETROIT—Volvo is among the leaders of the pack of automakers when it comes to autonomous driving. The various advanced driver assists in its current XC90 and S90 are some of the best we've tested, and the carmaker recently linked up with Uber to develop redundant systems in self-driving cars. But before there was the Uber collaboration, there was Drive Me, a multiyear research program that the company will use to look at how it, as a car maker, can contribute to a "sustainable society." In the video above, we speak to Trent Victor, senior technical leader of crash avoidance at Volvo, about the program.

Volvo chose this year's North American International Auto Show to hand over the first set of keys in the Drive Me program. It's in the process of recruiting 100 families in Gothenburg, Sweden, but the first lucky family is the Hains. Over the next few years, the Hains and the other participating families will be testing out a number of different research vehicles like the XC90 SUV seen in the video. In addition to testing out new iterations of self-driving systems, the vehicles will also be fitted with sensors and data loggers in the cabin to monitor the occupants.

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Your screen time is in another castle: Nintendo’s remote parent-control app

1/13/2017 11:37am

Enlarge / Lol at Bowser's tiny iPhone.

After Nintendo's major Switch system event on Thursday, the game maker quietly published a cute, Bowser-filled video that unveiled a first for the company—and, honestly, for any game console: an app designed to track and control how the system is used.

This app, uncreatively named Nintendo Switch Parental Controls, is clearly targeted at parents who have kids playing the new home-portable hybrid. The app-reveal video, which Nintendo has published at its "Nintendo Switch family fun" page, shows an animated 3D Bowser grimacing and growling at the Bowser Jr. character while a narrator explains how the Parental Controls app, coming to iOS and Android, will let parents keep tabs on kids' play.

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New report details SpaceX’s enormous launch and Internet ambitions

1/13/2017 10:42am

Enlarge / On March 4, 2016, SpaceX launched the SES-9 satellite on its Falcon 9 rocket from Florida. (credit: SpaceX)

A privately held company, SpaceX has kept its finances largely shrouded from public view since its founding nearly 15 years ago. But now The Wall Street Journal has obtained financial documents that provide a revealing look at the company's successes—and struggles—as it has sought to remake the global launch industry this decade.

The report, which reviewed finances for the company from 2011 through 2015, shows SpaceX made a modest profit until its catastrophic accident in 2015, when a Falcon 9 rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded during its ascent to orbit. Despite revenues of nearly $1 billion in 2015, the company lost $260 million, the newspaper reported. Financial results for 2016, when SpaceX lost another rocket on the pad during a static fire test, were not available but are likely to be similarly grim.

Beyond the financial data, the documents also provide some detail about the plans company founder Elon Musk has for growth in his rocket launch business—and beyond. Musk, who still retains 54 percent of the company's ownership, has targeted 27 launches for 2017 and projects the company will launch 52 rockets by the year 2019.

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Lawyer sues Chicago police, claims they used stingray on him

1/13/2017 9:04am

Enlarge / A Chicago Police car, as seen in 2003. (credit: Tim Boyle / Getty Images)

A local attorney has sued the City of Chicago and numerous police officials in a proposed federal class-action lawsuit, claiming that he and countless others were unconstitutionally searched when the police used a cell-site simulator without a warrant.

In the suit, Jerry Boyle, who describes himself as an “attorney and longtime volunteer legal observer with the National Lawyers’ Guild,” alleged that while attending the “Reclaim MLK Day” event in Chicago nearly two years ago, his phone was targeted by the Chicago Police Department’s device, better known as a stingray. Boyle argued that his Fourth Amendment and First Amendment rights were violated as a result.

Stingrays are used by law enforcement to determine a mobile phone's location by spoofing a cell tower. In some cases, stingrays can intercept calls and text messages. Once deployed, the devices intercept data from a target phone along with information from other phones within the vicinity. At times, police have falsely claimed the use of a confidential informant when they have actually deployed these particularly sweeping and intrusive surveillance tools. Often, they are used to locate criminal suspects.

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Many Americans don’t know what the ACA does, but they still support it

1/13/2017 8:54am

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Aaron P. Bernstein )

As Republican lawmakers set the legal groundwork for a swift dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, a new NPR/Ipsos poll (PDF) found that most Americans still don’t have a firm grasp of the law—and what’s at stake.

The law’s biggest success was that the number of uninsured dropped to the lowest rate in United States history—just 9 percent. But when Americans were asked how the ACA affected the number of uninsured, 51 percent got it wrong, responding either that the number of uninsured increased, stayed the same, or that they didn’t know.

Bill Pierce, a senior director at APCO Worldwide, which advises health care companies on strategic communications, told NPR that the law’s shaky start with may have planted a bad seed in people’s minds. And the years-long rollout of the law helped create a disconnect. “By the time the insurance rate started to fall, a lot of minds were already set,” he said.

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Congress will consider proposal to raise H-1B minimum wage to $100,000

1/13/2017 8:44am

Enlarge / Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is one of two sponsors on an H-1B reform bill. He's pictured here at a House Republican Conference meeting in 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty)

President-elect Donald Trump is just a week away from taking office. From the start of his campaign, he has promised big changes to the US immigration system. For both Trump's advisers and members of Congress, the H-1B visa program, which allows many foreign workers to fill technology jobs, is a particular focus.

One major change to that system is already under discussion: making it harder for companies to use H-1B workers to replace Americans by simply giving the foreign workers a raise. The "Protect and Grow American Jobs Act," introduced last week by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. and Scott Peters, D-Calif., would significantly raise the wages of workers who get H-1B visas. If the bill becomes law, the minimum wage paid to H-1B workers would rise to at least $100,000 annually, and be adjusted it for inflation. Right now, the minimum is $60,000.

The sponsors say that would go a long way toward fixing some of the abuses of the H-1B program, which critics say is currently used to simply replace American workers with cheaper, foreign workers. In 2013, the top nine companies acquiring H-1B visas were technology outsourcing firms, according to an analysis by a critic of the H-1B program. (The 10th is Microsoft.) The thinking goes that if minimum H-1B salaries are brought closer to what high-skilled tech employment really pays, the economic incentive to use it as a worker-replacement program will drop off.

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“OK Facebook”—Why stop at assistants? Facebook has grander ambitions for modern AI

1/13/2017 7:30am

Enlarge / Even as the rare tech company without one of these on the market, Facebook could be pioneering everyday AI for users. (credit: Nathan Mattise)

Facebook will one day have a conversational agent with human-like intelligence. Siri, Google Now, and Cortana all currently attempt to do this, but go off script and they fail. That's just one reason why Mark Zuckerberg famously built his own AI for home use in 2016; the existing landscape didn't quite meet his needs.

Of course, his company has started to build its AI platform, too—it's called Project M. M will not have human-like intelligence, but it will have intelligence in narrow domains and will learn by observing humans. And M is just one of many research projects and production AI systems being engineered to make AI the next big Facebook platform.

On the road to this human-like intelligence, Facebook will use machine learning (ML), a branch of artificial intelligence (AI), to understand all the content users feed into the company’s infrastructure. Facebook wants to use AI to teach its platform to understand the meaning of posts, stories, comments, images, and videos. Then with ML, Facebook stores that information as metadata to improve ad targeting and increase the relevance of user newsfeed content. The metadata also acts as raw material for creating an advanced conversational agent.

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Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2 lead limited initial Switch game lineup

1/13/2017 1:29am

Enlarge / Thanks, Nintendo, for helping us sum up Mario Kart 8 Deluxe AND Splatoon 2 in one image! (credit: Nintendo)

We're still grappling with the load of information dumped on Nintendo fans after Thursday's major Switch console event, but we're starting to get a clearer picture of what games will land on the system—and how few of those will launch alongside the console on March 3.

1-2 Switch, Nintendo's latest motion-obsessed launch game.

It appears Nintendo will only have two first-party games ready for the system's March 3 worldwide launch—Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and 1-2 Switch. The former will launch simultaneously on the Nintendo Wii U, while the latter appears to be the usual Nintendo launch title meant to showcase an intriguing new controller via mini-games. In this case, the $49.99 1-2 Switch will be all about the Joy-Con controllers, and its players (apparently always duos) will square off against each other in motion-specific games that ask players to look directly at each other, as opposed to the screen. Gun slinging, yoga posing, dancing, and other mini-game activities were shown in the game's trailer.

Nintendo does have one more March game in its Switch lineup: the weirdly titled Snipperclips. Yes, Snipperclips, a game where you use your Joy-Cons to cut and draw little paper characters in order to solve puzzles. This could be a cute one, but it probably won't be huge, considering Nintendo didn't even mention it during the major event and has yet to upload any associated video. Instead, the company stuck it into its website with a price tag of $20.

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