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Thimbleweed Park is like discovering a new game from LucasArts’ heyday

5/22/2016 2:00pm

Use cheese with walking pizza.

Do you remember the first time you played your favorite game? For me, it was the NES version of Lucasfilm Games’ Maniac Mansion in the early ‘90s. The point-and-click adventure was brutally hard, and it would take me years of on-and-off play to figure the entire mansion out. But I’d never seen anything like it before, and I was immediately enthralled.

We can’t get back our first experience with beloved games, but for fans of old-school adventure games, there’s something close: Thimbleweed Park.

Successfully Kickstarted in 2014, Thimbleweed Park is a classic-style point-and-click adventure from Maniac Mansion creators and industry vets Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. These two didn’t just make some of the most memorable games of all time; they created the SCUMM engine used by LucasArts adventure games throughout the ‘90s, setting the stage for titles like Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Gilbert and Winnick recently showed off their new creation publicly and spoke to us a bit about the reaction so far.

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Review: Garmin’s Vivoactive HR is more hardcore than Fitbit’s Surge

5/22/2016 1:00pm

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

Garmin makes over 25 different fitness wearables that range from $99 to as high as $699. You can say this for Garmin—confusing as that lineup can be, the company has made a device for everyone.

The goal of its newly released $250 Vivoactive HR is to compete directly with the king of fitness trackers: Fitbit. With the same price and a nearly identical design, the Vivoactive HR and Fitbit's Surge go head-to-head in nearly every respect. By combining smartphone notifications with numerous fitness and sport tracking features, Garmin's new device is also stiff competition for other trackers like the Microsoft Band. The Vivoactive is neither the most expensive nor the cheapest product in Garmin's line, but for hardcore fitness enthusiasts, it could be the one that provides the best value for your money.

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Imzy is a community where people pay each other for being nice

5/22/2016 12:00pm

(credit: Nan Palmero)

Imzy is trying to be everything you want out of Internet community, minus the awfulness. Founded by a group of ex-Reddit employees, including Dan McComas and Jessica Moreno, the company has raised $3 million in investments, partnered with Lena Dunham and Dan Harmon's online communities, and attracted tens of thousands of users in closed beta. They did it based on one promise: they would not be like Reddit. What exactly that means depends on what you hated about Reddit in the first place.

For people like Dunham—whose email list known as Lenny Letter already has its own verified group in the new community—Imzy means being free from a lot of the harassment and trolling that haunts other platforms. Imzy CEO McComas told Ars via phone that part of the company's strategy is inviting a wide range of groups including Lenny Letter and Black Girls Talking to be part of Imzy from the start. "We're trying to get diverse groups to work with us now, because [as the company grows] you're only as diverse as your private beta. People tend to bring in people like themselves," he said. "If we waited a couple of years to address this, it would be too late. We would already have a cultural norm and that's tough to change." Essentially, Imzy is hedging against developing a community that would embrace groups like Reddit's racist r/CoonTown or the pro-rape subreddit r/rapingwomen. McComas added that a big part of their strategy is to pay community managers—they have a head of community and one community manager on staff already. "At Reddit, there was one staffer per 20 million unique visitors. We think we need a higher ratio of staff to community members."

But as McComas admits, creating good policies around community and diversity don't really rake in the dough. That's why the backbone of Imzy is going to be their tipping and payment system. Currently the beta allows users to tip moderators and other community members, but in the long term the idea would be for each community to figure out how it wants to use its payment system. Comedian Dan Harmon, creator of the cult hit Community, has an Imzy group called Harmontown where members can pay $5 to listen in while Harmon tapes his weekly podcast. In the future, McComas says, Imzy will get a cut of those kinds of payments. Over the longer term, with Imzy providing a variety of tools for buying and selling, groups might form around selling clothing, games, or art. Imagine joining a group devoted to homebrew telescopes, and meeting people there who would sell you their latest kits, to your exact specifications. For Imzy, that's the goal.

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Survive a wormhole in two-player video game W.U.R.M

5/22/2016 11:00am

Flying the W.U.R.M. (video link)

Walk into the room and you might be forgiven for asking, "This is my space ship?!"

W.U.R.M: Escape from a Dying Star is a low-fi, two-player space survival game that debuted the first week of May 2016 at Culture Hub as part of Creative Tech week in New York City. The "ship" is fashioned from foam and 3D-printed materials in the middle of an empty space, while the screen ahead displays an ever-shifting, dynamically generated wormhole.

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Four hundred miles with Tesla’s autopilot forced me to trust the machine

5/22/2016 10:00am

Enlarge / Supercharging at my usual stop in Columbus. (credit: Lee Hutchinson)

A few weeks ago, I finally tried Tesla Motors' "autopilot" feature. A Tesla rep and I tooled around Houston's I-45 in a Model X crossover SUV for 15 minutes, just long enough to test the vehicle's adaptive cruise/automatic lane-keeping wizardry. Once I toggled on the autopilot, the rep relaxed by checking e-mail on her phone. This sent a clear message: keep an eye on the dumb journalist when he's driving the $140,000 SUV, but once the machine takes over, everything’s fine.

As we pulled back into the showroom (or whatever Texas’ insane dealership protection laws demand Tesla call the places it’s not allowed to sell or service vehicles), I told the rep that I was driving to Austin soon; Autopilot would be just the thing for the long stretches of empty road out on I-10 and TX-71. Without missing a beat, she offered me a loaner Model S.

Ars has officially driven a Model S with autopilot before, but only under controlled circumstances. The Austin trip would let me take the car out for nearly four hundred miles of driving in a big mix of traffic scenarios. Plus, I'd get to log more cockpit time in a Tesla. Of course I said yes. Who wouldn’t?

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Children with weak future planning are more likely to be involved in crime

5/22/2016 9:00am

(credit: flickr user: MIKI Yoshihito)

If you were asked whether you’d prefer to be given $140 today or $1400 in five years' time, the smart answer is obvious. But immediate cash can be really tempting: perhaps you have expensive car repairs looming or you want to buy a gift for someone—that $140 would do the trick. It can be easy to justify cheating your future self out of $1260 in the face of instant gratification.

The tendency to ignore or discount the value of a future benefit is called "time discounting." Plenty of research suggests that time discounting can be linked to criminal behavior, which is the ultimate example of choosing an immediate reward despite an abstract risk of losses. Although the link is intuitive, it still needs confirmation through empirical research, because so many things that seem intuitive turn out to be wrong.

Investigating this question is a tough gig, though. You could test people’s time discounting behaviors and look at their criminal records, but even if you found a link, you wouldn't know whether the time behaviors led to the crime, or vice versa. Ideally, you need to find a way to test children’s time discount rates, and then wait to see if they get involved in crime as adults (and whether this tendency lasts past the adolescent crime peak).

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Billion-dollar social media inheritance goes bad in Vertigo’s Unfollow

5/22/2016 8:00am

As the first collected edition of Unfollow hits comic book stores this week, the high concept behind DC/Vertigo's social media thriller threatens to overshadow the comic itself. A pitch like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Battle Royale meets social media" sounds cooked up by an overeager marketing consultant as much as it does the recipe for a compelling story.

Yet it works. As proven by this week's 140 Characters printed collection of the first six issues, the comic moves with a speed, subtlety and self-awareness that belies its elevator pitch. The result can stand alongside previous Vertigo hits such as Y: The Last Man, Scalped, and Grant Morrison's The Invisibles. Like those titles, Unfollow is simultaneously of the moment and timeless, making a big point about big subjects while also telling a genre story filled with pulpy thrills in a way that only comics can.

In large part, Unfollow works because writer Rob Williams leans into the sticky parts of the series' DNA (including tongue-in-cheek references to Willy Wonka's golden tickets) while steering the larger tale in another direction. Unfollow begins with Larry Ferrell, bazillionaire founder of social media empire Headspace, choosing 140 users at random to inherit his fortune upon his death. Should one of them die, their share will be split equally between the remaining inheritors. But that's just the MacGuffin.

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How Stellaris fails to solve strategy gaming’s “bad luck” problem

5/21/2016 5:23pm

When every game of Stellaris is set up semi-randomly, it's hard to make sure every game is interesting.

My favorite memory from a grand strategy game comes from the original Master of Orion. It happened late in an epic campaign, in which the entire galaxy had been colonized and everyone was cozy in an alliance. The galaxy had been at peace for a while, if tenuously, with me as one of the surviving seven or so empires.

Then, suddenly, the game triggered a random event that caused my ambassador to try to kill a rival leader. The tenuous peace was shattered, war was declared, and two massive alliances tore the galaxy in half. It was like World War I in space after the assassination of some alien archduke.

Ever since then, I’ve been looking for a game that combines complex strategic systems with random events so magnificently. It’s a difficult combination to find and perhaps an even harder one to design. Designing a game that’s both random and consistently engaging is a problem I thought about constantly during my recent time with Stellaris, Paradox’s latest epic space strategy game.

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Errant concentrated sunbeam starts fire at solar thermal plant in the desert

5/21/2016 12:30pm

(credit: Brightsource Energy)

This week, some misaligned mirrors at the biggest solar thermal energy plant in the US caused an electrical fire that took out one of the plant's three boiler towers. The fire comes as the plant has been under pressure from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for failing to meet its productions targets in the two years since the plant opened.

The solar thermal plant, called the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, is distinct from photovoltaic solar plants in that it doesn't use solar panels. Instead, it relies on an array of 78-square-foot mirrors, known as heliostats, to direct the hot desert sun to one of three 459-foot-high boiler towers. The heat creates steam in the boiler towers, which powers generators to create energy, which is then sold to PG&E and Southern California Edison.

On Thursday morning around 9:30 am, according to the Associated Press, some poorly-aimed heliostats focused the sun's energy about two-thirds of the way up the tower instead of at the boiler at the top of the tower. This caused electrical cables to catch fire, melting and scorching steam ducts and water pipes on the tower. Even though the plant reported that its personnel put the fire out within 20 minutes, NRG Energy told the Associated Press that it did not know when the tower would be back online. A second tower is also down for maintenance, leaving only one boiler tower producing energy for Ivanpah.

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Cop sued for drawing gun on man filming him

5/21/2016 11:00am

July 29 confrontation between Rohnert Park officer David Rodriguez and resident Don McComas. (credit: YouTube)

It's been months since Ars reported about a Northern California police officer who unholstered his gun and looked ready to shoot a man whose crime appeared to be nothing more than filming that officer scouring the neighborhood.

Officer David Rodriguez was placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation by officials from Rohnert Park, a city about 50 miles north of San Francisco. But his job was restored after the police department said the law enforcement official did nothing wrong. The video of the incident went viral and has been seen nearly half a million times on YouTube alone. The incident, in which Rohnert Park resident Don McComas and the officer were both filming each other, underscores that we are indeed living in a YouTube society—one in which there is distrust between the public and police, and one where footage speaks louder than words.

McComas is now suing the officer and the city of Rohnert Park for unspecified damages over the July 29 incident, among other things claiming a breach of his constitutional right of assembly and speech. McComas claims he was in front of his own residence putting a trailer to his vehicle when Rodriguez, who the department said was searching for parking scofflaws, drove up. McComas began filming with a mobile phone.

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NASA misses a chance to promote the best-ever ad for the space station

5/21/2016 10:00am

A sunrise showcases the Earth's thin, thin atmosphere.

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The movie A Beautiful Planet lives up to its name. Earth is a planet, it is beautiful, and arguably it has never looked this good before. To capture imagery for this IMAX movie, NASA delivered 4K cameras to the space station in 2014, marking the first time 4K resolution cameras have been used to make a commercial film in orbit. Nevertheless, if you’re remotely interested in space, you’ve probably seen images and videos like these before.

That’s because astronauts have been taking amazing photos of planet Earth, with increasingly sophisticated cameras, during the 15 years the International Space Station has given them a semi-permanent platform to do so. Two years ago, NASA even activated several commercial HD video cameras on the exterior of the station to provide around-the-clock views of the planet in high definition. Earth—our pale blue dot, the cradle of humanity, an oasis of life in a cold, dark universe—has become an easy story to tell.

What has proven far more difficult for NASA and journalists to capture is the immensity and scope of the International Space Station. Even though it flies only a few hundred miles above Earth, the station still advances human spaceflight. Yet the station remains an abstract concept when compared to something as concrete as a rocket launch or a space shuttle. Is the station a tin can? Is it cramped? Just what is it like to live aboard?

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Car Seat Headrest is an ideal product of the Bandcamp generation

5/21/2016 8:00am

"Vincent" by Car Seat Headrest from the new album Teens of Denial. (This is the online video cut, here is the full version.)

Car Seat Headrest's Teens of Denial, released yesterday on Matador Records, sounds like 2002. To these ears at least, it brings to mind the debut album from turn-of-the-century alternative hero Ben Kweller (Sha, Sha). While being perfect soundtracks for a windows-down spring drive, these records also make you think. Thoughtful yet obtuse lyrics cause you to ponder a track long after it ends, and the compositions seem to offer new musical ideas every listen as they eschew typical song formats and instrumentations.

But Teens of Denial couldn't possibly exist 15 years ago—least of all because songwriter Will Toledo hadn't yet turned 10 years old. Toledo instead stands as a "new" voice among a younger generation of musicians (ala Chance The Rapper, age 23, or Torres, age 25) who grew up alongside our current digital music ecosystem. As such, Car Seat Headrest's first original album for a label represents a culmination of many changes the industry has gone through in the past decade-plus: instant accessibility to vast catalogues; the democratization of recording and releasing; the need to share it all immediately.

And if Teens of Denial stands as a sign of the times, things have turned out all right for us fans.

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From drone racers to pinball: Maker Faire Bay Area 2016 doesn’t disappoint

5/21/2016 6:00am

This life-size automaton was a hit.

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SAN MATEO, Calif.—Maker Faire never gets old. While we only scratched the surface after a 90 minute walk through the fairgrounds, the drone racing was the coolest thing that we saw on Friday afternoon. Every 10 minutes, a few drone pilots would sit with headsets and zoom their aircraft through a netted raceway, replete with an illuminated track. (Check the video below!)

We also liked some of the clothing and craft wares, like cool kids' hoodies, and these gorgeous earthenware. If you're at all interested and you're anywhere near the Bay Area, the event continues Saturday and Sunday—it's well worth the price of admission.

The MegaBots in action. (video link)

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Oculus workaround to play on HTC Vive rendered inoperable by app update

5/20/2016 8:40pm

(credit: iFixit)

Currently, only two virtual reality platforms exist on Windows PCs: the Oculus Rift and the SteamVR-powered HTC Vive. Each set has its strengths and weaknesses, but until recently, they at least both offered limited compatibility with their rival's software stores. Oculus headset users can pick through compatible games on the SteamVR store and interface, while HTC Vive wearers could install a fan-made patch to play Oculus software.

SteamVR still plays nice, but the other side changed its tune on Friday with a major Oculus app update for Windows PCs, complete with advertised "updates to platform integrity checks." It didn't take long for the team behind that aforementioned HTC Vive patch, dubbed "Revive," to announce that those "integrity checks" appeared to block users' access to Oculus games on unauthorized hardware.

"Oculus has added a check [to look for] whether the Oculus Rift headset is connected to their Oculus Platform DRM," Revive developer "CrossVR" posted to the Vive Reddit community on Friday. "While Revive fools the application [into] thinking the Rift is connected, it does nothing to make the actual Oculus platform think the headset is connected."

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Terrorists no longer welcome on OneDrive or Hotmail

5/20/2016 6:46pm

Microsoft outlined new anti-terrorism policies today. Terrorists are no longer welcome to use Microsoft's online services, and the company will remove terrorist content when it's reported to be on the company's systems.

With the change, terrorist content joins hate speech and the advocacy of violence against others as expressly prohibited. Microsoft says that it will be using the Consolidated United Nations Security Council Sanctions List to determine whether something is terrorist or not; content posted by or in support of the individuals and groups on that list will be prohibited.

The policy for Bing will be different; links to terrorist content will be removed only in response to a takedown demand compliant with local law.

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Vermont on the cusp of enacting the country’s first anti-Shkreli law

5/20/2016 6:05pm

(credit: CSPAN)

In a matter of weeks, Vermont could be the first state to require drug makers to justify steep price increases for medications.

The bill that would set that requirement has already passed through both houses of the state’s legislature and now only requires the final sign off from Governor Peter Shumlin, who the AP reports is likely to sign the bill. Shumlin is expected to decide on whether to sign by early next month.

The bill was inspired by the recent rage-inducing trend among pharmaceutical companies to dramatically up the price of drugs without clear reasoning—beside price gouging. The most notable case was that of Martin Shkreli, who as the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals decided last fall to increase the price of a decades-old anti-parasitic drug from $13.50 a pill to $750 overnight. Shkreli has since stepped down from Turing and currently faces several criminal charges unrelated to drug pricing, but he became a poster-child for the greed of the pharmaceutical industry.

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Incensing critics, Google engineer ends push for crypto-only setting in Allo

5/20/2016 5:30pm

(credit: Yuri Samoilov)

A co-leader on Google's product security team has waved a piece of red meat in front of already frothing privacy advocates by deleting part of a blog post saying he wished the Allo messenger app the company announced Wednesday would provide end-to-end encryption by default.

To critics, the deletion by Thai Duong amounted to tacit admission that his employer was willfully choosing to leave messages sent by the vast number of Allo users open to government surveillance. The critics have argued that because end-to-end encryption will be turned off by default and turned on only in an incognito mode, most users will never avail themselves of the protection.

In a blog post published shortly after Wednesday's announcement, Duong said the move would benefit people who want their messages to be processed by an artificial intelligence agent that would offer auto-replies based on the content of the messages. A built-in digital assistant, for instance, might automatically suggest nearby restaurants or available movies when parties are making plans, but only if the encryption feature is turned off. Then Duong went on to say something that he later deleted from the post:

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Google’s Project Ara phone no longer upgradable, new dev units ship this fall

5/20/2016 5:20pm

The Project Ara Developer Edition.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—After numerous delays, Google's modular smartphone concept, Project Ara, is still kicking inside Google. At its I/O conference, the company announced another developer kit for the device (called only the "Developer Edition") due out in 2016. The consumer version has received yet another delay, however, this time to 2017.

Pictures and a signup page for the Developer Edition are up on a new Ara website, and this update will replace the current "Spiral 2" dev kit. Project Ara started in 2013 and, like all ATAP projects, it was expected to take two years. The initiative was delayed past its 2015 deadline when it failed to deliver on a promised Puerto Rican pilot (where the phone was going to be sold out of food trucks). Now in 2016, Project Ara is delayed again to a supposed 2017 consumer launch, but there's going to be heavy redesigns to make that happen.

Most of the modular promises have been toned down—now all the "base components" of a smartphone are built into the Ara body, just like a normal smartphone. The Ara body contains a fixed CPU, GPU, antennas, sensors, battery, and display. The Ara page says this "frees up more room for hardware in each module," but it also removes Ara's promise of upgradability. The modules will now be for the camera and speakers, along with accessories to the base smartphone like a fingerprint reader or an extra display.

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Giant pandas may be nearing extinction because of messed up microbiomes

5/20/2016 4:23pm

(credit: Adrien Sifre)

For giant pandas, there’s nothing like having friends in low places. The bears rely on chummy relations with their gut microbes to extract nutrients from their vegetarian diet, but an annual switch from noshing bamboo stalks to leaves can plunge the pandas' gut microbes into disarray. According to a study of panda poop, this switch potentially causes one grizzly problem.

The authors of the study suggest that the microbial mayhem explains why the bears occasionally poop out their intestinal mucosal linings amid that seasonal shift. The slimy dumps likely expunge broken microbiomes, clearing the way for the bears to forge fresh microbial alliances. Based on the numbers of gooey poops in captive bears, however, that yearly bowel reboot often doesn’t go well, leaving many pandas suffering from chronic inflammation, intestinal ulcers, and unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms. And those gut troubles often coincide with mating season and pregnancies, the researchers report in Frontiers in Microbiology.

If the hypotheses hold up in further studies, the findings may help explain why pandas are notoriously bad breeders—it’s likely hard to get in the mood if you’re battling stomach cramps, bloating, and mucus poops. Currently, there are only a couple thousand giant pandas in the wild.

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Microsoft has finally found a legal path to publishing Minecraft on Chinese PCs

5/20/2016 3:28pm

Minecraft's iconic Steve character will finally land on Chinese computers and smartphones thanks to a licensing deal with a Chinese game publisher. (credit: Sam Machkovech)

When Microsoft opened its wallets in 2014 and traded $2.5 billion for Mojang, the public by and large nodded their heads in agreement. Right, the makers of Minecraft. Those dudes are worth a lot of money.

But any doubters who questioned that sky-high valuation saw a new feather drop onto Microsoft's cap this week: Minecraft's PC and smartphone versions are finally coming to China. On Friday, Microsoft and Mojang announced the beginning of a "five-year exclusive partnership" with Chinese software publisher NetEase, Inc to roll the game out onto Chinese computer and smartphone marketplaces.The game's Chinese rollout date and release details have yet to be announced, and neither company confirmed how much money exchanged hands for the deal.

China isn't hurting for games originally published in the West, but Minecraft is arguably the world's most popular video game. Microsoft was able to publish the game on Xbox One consoles late last year, but those consoles have yet to penetrate the Chinese market to the extent that PCs and smartphones have, and the fact that even Microsoft had to license the game to someone else as opposed to launching it from its own Shanghai campus is a stern reminder of what roadblocks stand in the way of Western software developers.

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