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After 100 years, scientists are finally closing in on Einstein’s ripples

2/4/2016 8:00am

The 4km "west" arm of the LIGO interferometer stretches into the foggy distance. (credit: Eric Berger)

LIVINGSTON, La.—The rain began to fall as Joe Giaime and I scrambled down a lonely rise, back toward the observatory’s main building. It wasn’t so much rain as a hard mist, characteristic of the muggy weather southern Louisiana often sees in January when moisture rolls inland from the Gulf of Mexico. As gray clouds fell like a shroud over the loblolly pines all around us, Giaime mused, “Well, I guess you’ve already gathered that we’re in the middle of nowhere."

Middle of nowhere happens to be ground zero in the search for gravitational waves, which were first posited by Albert Einstein a century ago and may soon become one of the hottest fields in science. Livingston is remote in terms of geography, but as humans scan the heavens for gravitational waves this forest is practically the center of the physics universe.

Because of general relativity, we understand that large masses curve spacetime, kind of like standing in the middle of a trampoline distorts the fabric. When massive, dense objects in space accelerate, such as black holes or neutron stars, they create ripples in the fabric of spacetime. These ripples carry gravitational radiation away from the very massive objects, and the radiation then propagates through the Universe. This Louisiana observatory, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO, exists to try to measure these subtle ripples.

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I am weirdly excited about this new Seth Rogen space comedy

2/3/2016 6:42pm

Seth Rogen demonstrates his Kylo Ren lightsaber joint.

Seth Rogen, Bill Hader, and Zach Galifianakis are set to star in a new astronaut movie called The Something, and I'm unreasonably excited about it.

I say "unreasonably" because the movie is written and directed by Rodney Rothman, who wrote 22 Jump Street and Grudge Match, a decidedly mixed bag when it comes to awesomeness. Still, the first-time director has pulled together an impressive cast for a comedy and that could make all the difference.

All we know about the plot so far is that it's about a group of three male astronauts who have been drifting in space for years... until they come upon another spaceship. Given that the official summary emphasizes that the astronauts are all male, my guess is that we can expect some lady alien shenanigans in that other spaceship. Or lady somethings, anyway.

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Jury: Apple must pay $626 million to patent troll VirnetX

2/3/2016 5:49pm

An East Texas jury has ruled that Apple must pay patent-holding company VirnetX $625.6 million for infringing four patents. It's a massive verdict for VirnetX, a company that has no products and makes its money solely through patent litigation.

The verdict form (PDF) shows the jury found Apple infringed on every patent claim that was at issue. The first question was how much Apple should pay for infringement related to two VirnetX patents that it had already been ruled to infringe, and the jury held Apple should pay $334.9 million. The panel also found in VirnetX's favor on other, disputed patent claims, and ordered Apple to pay another $290.7 million for infringing those. The accused products included Apple's VPN on Demand, FaceTime, and the iMessage service.

The VirnetX v. Apple showdown may be one of the last of its kind in which a "patent troll"-style company is able to wrest a nine-figure jury verdict from a tech company. Patent trolling still abounds and is increasingly concentrated in East Texas. But the ability to get huge verdicts has been dampened by changes in case-law, particularly the Supreme Court's 2014 Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank decision that made it easier for defendants to get software patents thrown out of court.

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US takes first steps toward approving babies with three genetic parents

2/3/2016 5:29pm

In this magnified image of mouse cells, the nucleus is blue, the mitochondria are green, and the cell walls are red. Every cell has hundreds or even thousands of mitochondria producing energy. (credit: D. Burnette, J. Lippincott-Schwartz/NICHD)

Today a panel of scientists released a report recommending that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approve testing for a medical procedure known as mitochondrial replacement, which could prevent dangerous genetic diseases in newborns. The procedure, already approved in Great Britain, still has a long way to go before final approval in the US.

A microscopic organ transplant

Though critics say it will send us down a slippery slope of "gene editing," there is in fact no gene editing involved in mitochondrial replacement. Instead, it's more like a microscopic version of an organ transplant.

Mitochondria are called "organelles" because they play an organ-like role in the cell. A bit like a miniature stomach, mitochondria break down molecules to provide energy for the entire body. Mitochondria are also the only part of the cell that contains DNA, other than the nucleus. Some biologists believe this is because mitochondria were once separate cells, absorbed in a process called endosymbiosis during a very early phase in cellular evolution, which nevertheless retained a shred of DNA over the billions of years since that merging.

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Take-Two Interactive accused of infringing tattoos in NBA 2K video games

2/3/2016 5:16pm

LeBron James in full tattoo glory on the cover of NBA2K14.

The rights holders of tattoos on NBA superstars Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and other professional basketball players are suing Take-Two Interactive, alleging that the maker of the NBA 2K video game series and other titles is infringing their artwork. The federal copyright infringement lawsuit accuses the video game maker of copyright violations because it has not licensed the tattoos from Solid Oak Sketches.

The suit is a maximalist approach to intellectual property. But it's not the first to assert copyright infringement of tattoos in a video game or on the silver screen. That said, all the cases concerning tattoo copyright infringement have settled out of court, and none have come to an ultimate in-court resolution. That's a legal fact that even Solid Oak Sketches notes in its lawsuit.

"The issue of tattoo copyrightability has yet to be decided upon in court due to numerous settlements preventing a final judicial opinion," the rights holder noted in its filing.

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Google Fiber gives free gigabit Internet to poor people

2/3/2016 4:43pm

A Kansas City resident and her son, two of the first people to get free gigabit Internet from Google Fiber. (credit: Google)

Google Fiber today said it will provide free Internet access at gigabit speeds to residents in affordable housing.

Google Fiber was already providing free Internet in public housing, but speeds were limited to 5Mbps downloads and 1Mbps uploads.

Today's announcement said that's being pushed up to 1Gbps downloads and uploads, a speed that normally costs $70 a month. The free gigabit Internet is being rolled out first to West Bluff, a property in Kansas City, Missouri. Google partnered with the Housing Authority of Kansas City on the project.

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Former Energy Department employee admits trying to spear phish coworkers

2/3/2016 4:33pm

This carp was not paranoid enough. (The person pictured has nothing to do with the case reported in this post.) (credit: Wikipedia)

A former Department of Energy employee has pleaded guilty to federal charges that he attempted to infect 80 current DOE employees with malware so foreign hackers could take control of computer systems that held sensitive information related to nuclear weapons, officials said Wednesday.

Charles Harvey Eccleston, 62, pleaded guilty to one count of attempted unauthorized access and intentional damage to a protected computer, according to a statement issued by officials with the US Department of Justice. The statement said the man, who previously worked for both the DOE and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, plotted to compromise federal computer networks by sending current employees highly targeted e-mails that he believed contained links to malware that would give hackers remote access. Such campaigns are often referred to as spear phishing because they target a specific individual, often referring to them by name and referencing specific interests of job duties.

Prosecutors said the plot came to their attention in 2013 after Eccleston entered an unnamed foreign embassy in Manila, Philippines and offered to sell a list of more than 5,000 e-mail addresses of officials, engineers, and employees of a US government agency. Undercover FBI agents posing as embassy employees then worked to build a criminal case against the former employee, who prosecutors said was terminated from his employment at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2010. To make the e-mail more convincing, it posed as an advertisement for a conference related to nuclear energy. According to the press release:

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General Motors made a lot of money in 2015

2/3/2016 3:49pm

(credit: General Motors)

Things are looking pretty good at General Motors these days. The US' largest car maker just reported its Q4 2015 results: $6.3 billion in net income, a big jump over the $1.1 billion it earned during the same period in 2014. Net income for 2015 was $9.7 billion.

That's good news for shareholders—GM earned $5.91 per common share—and also for GM's hourly workers. The 49,600 GM employees who are members of the United Auto Workers union are in line for up to $11,000 in bonus payments as a result of the company's success.

"It was a strong year on many fronts, capped with record sales and earnings, and a substantial return of capital to our shareholders," said chairman and CEO Mary Barra. "We continue to strengthen our core business, which is laying the foundation for the company to lead in the transformation of personal mobility. We believe the opportunities this will create in connectivity, autonomous, car-sharing and electrification will set the stage for driving value for our owners for years to come."

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New 3D-printed 9mm semi-automatic pistol debuts

2/3/2016 2:14pm

On Sunday, a West Virginia carpenter who goes by the name "Derwood" released a new video (above) of his "Shuty-MP1" firearm, a small semi-automatic 9mm weapon that is almost entirely 3D-printed with inexpensive PLA plastic. The only parts of the gun that are metal are the steel barrel and springs.

Derwood's gun illustrates the evolution of 3D-printed firearms, which have rapidly evolved in nearly three years since the debut of the simple Liberator and the printed AR-15 lower receiver.

"This gun has been a work in process for about a year now," Derwood told Ars. He posted a video of its assembly last week.

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Head of Google Search retires, artificial intelligence chief to take over

2/3/2016 2:02pm

(credit: Amit Singhal)

Amit Singhal, Google’s SVP for search, is leaving the company after fifteen years. Singhal has long been in charge of Google's flagship product, and he famously rewrote Google's page ranking algorithm in 2001. He was also a big driver of Google's Star Trek ambitions.

With Singhal leaving, John Giannandrea, Google's head of artificial intelligence, is taking over the search division. Re/code is reporting that with the change, Google will merge the search and artificial intelligence divisions. Giannandrea previously led the effort to introduce the Knowledge Graph—a machine learning that gives you a direct answer rather than a list of links—to search. Today the Knowledge Graph powers answers to the "OK Google" voice queries that appear on just about every consumer-facing Google OS.

Moving the artificial intelligence unit in with search is certainly an eyebrow-raising move. Machine Learning seems to be taking over all of Google lately. Google Deepmind is building a general artificial intelligence that is smart enough to learn and beat various games. It recently open sourced TensorFlow, a software library for machine intelligence, and machine learning technology in Google Inbox can even write short replies to e-mails for you.

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eBay has no plans to fix “severe” bug that allows malware distribution [Updated]

2/3/2016 1:03pm

(credit: Check Point Software)

eBay has no plans to fix a "severe" vulnerability that allows attackers to use the company's trusted website to distribute malicious code and phishing pages, researchers from security firm Check Point Software said.

The vulnerability allows attackers to bypass a key restriction that prevents user posts from hosting JavaScript code that gets executed on end-user devices. eBay has long enforced the limitation to prevent scammers from creating auction pages that execute dangerous code or content when they're viewed by unsuspecting users. Using a highly specialized coding technique known as JSFUCK, hackers can work around this safeguard. The technique allows eBay users to insert JavaScript into their posts that will call a variety of different payloads that can be tailored to the specific browser and device of the visitor.

"An attacker could target eBay users by sending them a legitimate page that contains malicious code," Check Point researcher Oded Vanunu wrote in a blog post published Tuesday. "Customers can be tricked into opening the page, and the code will then be executed by the user's browser or mobile app, leading to multiple ominous scenarios that range from phishing to binary download."

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Under Armour’s Gemini 2 sneakers make running smarter without extra baggage

2/3/2016 1:00pm

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

Under Armour has been quietly building a connected fitness empire for a while. Over the past couple of years, the sports apparel company has purchased MyFitnessPal, Endomondo, and MapMyRun, and recently it launched a number devices at CES to accompany those integral software pieces. One of those things—the $150 Speedform Gemini 2 smart running shoes—are smart in the most subtle way. The shoes have sensors built into their soles, allowing them to track running stats including distance, calories, and pace.

Since Under Armour has been designing athletic wear for years, it's a strategic move to take one of its most beloved sneaker designers and incorporate connected components into it. While the shoes are more limited than other $150 fitness trackers, they make up for it by being especially convenient.

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Senators blast Comcast, other cable firms for “unfair billing practices”

2/3/2016 12:46pm

(credit: Alyson Hurt)

Six Democratic US senators today criticized Comcast and other TV and broadband providers for charging erroneous fees, such as cable modem rental fees billed to customers who bought their own modems. The senators have written a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler asking the commission to "stop unfair billing practices."

Last year, more than 30 percent of complaints to the FCC about Internet service and 38 percent of complaints about TV service were about billing, wrote Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

The senators described Comcast, the nation's largest cable and broadband company, as a repeat offender. "We are troubled upon hearing complaints of consumers being charged the modem rental fee after they have returned the rented equipment to Comcast or being charged the rental fee having never rented a modem in the first place," the senators wrote. "Not only are the majority of customers using automatic payment systems and may not personally authorize every erroneous charge, many consumers report having to call and remedy this problem throughout several billing cycles. In fact, customer help boards found online at Comcast’s Help and Support Forum contain complaints about this exact problem."

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Google Play Music Podcasts are live for some users

2/3/2016 12:35pm

Enlarge / The Android component for Google Play Music Podcasts. Note the new "Podcast" option in the navigation drawer. (credit: Android Police)

If you remember a few months ago, Google announced it would be jumping back into the podcast arena with "Google Play Music Podcasts." It launched a site to take RSS submissions from content creators and promised the product would be launching "soon." That product now appears to be live for some users.

Google hasn't made an announcement yet, but Android Police has screenshots of the Android component, which lives inside the Google Play Music app. If you have Play Music version 6.3 and (critically) have the server-side switch for podcasts turned on, you'll see a new section in the navigation drawer called "podcasts."

The section contains a searchable podcast catalog, which allows you to subscribe and auto-download shows. The Now Playing screen has been tweaked with 30-second skip and rewind buttons, and the app will alert you when new shows arrive and start downloading. For now, it seems the podcast section is pretty bare bones, feature-wise. There's no variable playback speed, no importing of existing RSS lists, and search isn't limited to just podcasts.

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Toyota calls time on Scion sub-brand

2/3/2016 12:06pm

The C-HR concept car was shown off at last year's LA Auto Show. It's still going into production but will be branded as a Toyota.

7 more images in gallery

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Japanese car companies have been experimenting with US-market sub-brands for quite a while now. Toyota arguably owns the trend—and the most successful example—with Lexus, which rebranded Japanese-market Toyotas like the Soarer and Camry with a side helping of added luxury. Others followed suit (Nissan and Infiniti—Honda and Acura actually predated Lexus by three years), and Toyota tried it for a second time with Scion, a sub-brand aimed at the young. Today, the company announced that Scion is no more.

“Scion has had some amazing products over the years and our current vehicles are packed with premium features at value prices,” said Andrew Gilleland, Scion vice president. “It’s been a great run and I’m proud that the spirit of Scion will live on through the knowledge and products soon to be available through the Toyota network.”

In addition to more youth-oriented cars, Scion also let Toyota experiment with ideas like no-haggle pricing and a slimmed-down options list (not to be confused with the huge number of accessories for personalizing one's car).

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House Science Committee takes up climate change again

2/3/2016 11:58am

Invited witnesses prepare to testify about climate science and the Paris agreement.

Tuesday saw yet another congressional science committee hearing on the topic of climate change. At least the topic of this hearing, convened by House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas), was ostensibly focused on policy rather than arguing the science. The title was “Paris Climate Promise: A Bad Deal for America.” Of course, climate science still took some shots along the way.

Rep. Smith opened the hearing with what would be a recurring theme: the Paris agreement will damage the economy without much climate benefit. But Smith couldn’t resist bringing up his ongoing feud with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He said:

An example of how this administration promotes its suspect climate agenda can be seen at the National Oceanographic [sic] and Atmospheric Administration. Its employees altered historical climate data to get politically correct results in an attempt to disprove the eighteen year lack of global temperature increases.

NOAA conveniently issued its news release that promotes this report just as the administration announced its extensive climate change regulations. NOAA has refused to explain its findings and provide documents to this Committee and the American people. The people have a right to see the data, evaluate it, and know the motivations behind this study.

Here's a quick review: There’s no evidence that NOAA scientists did anything but their jobs, there is no eighteen-year lack of global temperature increases, the update to NOAA’s dataset had been in the works for years, NOAA provided Smith with personal explanations of how the work was done and why, all the data has been publicly available all along, and NOAA has provided him with the e-mails between staff (but not scientists) he demanded.

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Serial over-promiser Peter Molyneux promises to stop over-promising

2/3/2016 11:36am

Miss me?

Nearly a year after promising to "completely stop talking to the press," famed game designer Peter Molyneux is... talking to the press. Specifically, he's breaking his silence in a wide-ranging and reflective interview with Eurogamer to promote Godus Wars, a new real-time strategy twist on the faltering god game.

To be fair, a year is a long time for a serial over-promiser like Molyneux to keep publicly quiet about what he's working on. The direct cause of the long silence, as Molyneux himself admits directly to Eurogamer, was a February 2015 Rock Paper Shotgun interview that led off with the blunt question "Do you think that you're a pathological liar?"

"It was one of the most bruising moments of my life," Molyneux told Eurogamer. "My world changed after that interview. ... That was the point where I said, this is just not going to work. To be called a pathological liar, which he said at the start... it's just not going to work, because how do you ever gain people's trust and belief after a journalist says that?"

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Comcast shrugs off years of cord-cutting losses, adds 89K TV customers

2/3/2016 11:24am

(credit: Lynn Friedman)

Comcast has been steadily losing cable TV subscribers for years, but it turned things around in the most recent quarter by adding 89,000 video customers.

The 89,000 net additions in Q4 2015 was Comcast's best result on the video subscriber front in eight years, according to today's earnings release. Comcast did lose 36,000 video customers over the entire year, but even that was "the best result in nine years," Comcast said.

The broadband business continued to boom, meanwhile, with net additions of 460,000 in the quarter and 1.4 million for the year. Overall, Comcast now has 22.3 million video customers, 23.3 million Internet customers, and 11.5 million phone customers. The phone business added 139,000 subscribers in the quarter and 282,000 during the full year. Many of the additions came from existing customers adding a service. Comcast's total customer base increased by 281,000 in the quarter and 666,000 in 2015 for a new total of 27.7 million.

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Kangaroo Plus pocket PC one-ups Compute Stick with twice the RAM, storage

2/3/2016 11:14am

The Kangaroo mini PC and the dock it needs for most of its ports. (credit: Kangaroo)

Intel's most recent Compute Stick is a big improvement over the old one, but in real-world use, its biggest drawbacks are its 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. Versions of the stick with 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and faster Core M processors are on the way, but they'll also cost quite a bit more than the low-end version.

A company called InFocus now has a product that can fill the gap: the Kangaroo Plus mini PC, available for $169.99 with no operating system installed, uses a similar Atom x5-z8500 CPU but pairs it with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. You still might not want to use one as your primary PC, but no matter what you're using it for, the RAM should make it more responsive, and the extra storage will make it easier to install apps and updates.

The Kangaroo Plus (also available in a cheaper version with Windows 10 but 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage) is physically larger than the Compute Stick, and while it offers similar connectivity, you do need to connect a separate (but usually included) dock to get it all. The PC itself just has a micro-USB port for power and a microSD slot, but the dock adds an HDMI port, a USB 3.0 port, a USB 2.0 port, and a plug for a non-USB power adapter. 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 should help it avoid the connectivity problems of the original Compute Stick.

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North Korea plans to try again to orbit satellite (and test ICBM tech)

2/3/2016 10:27am

The Unha-3 rocket, the platform for North Korea's (sort of) successful satellite launch in 2012. Another launch has been announced for February.

Watch the skies. In an alert filed with the United Nations' International Maritime Organization, the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea) announced plans to launch a satellite sometime in February. The nation also provided warnings for the areas where its boost stages might plummet back to the surface. Japan's Ministry of Defense has since announced that Japan will shoot down the rocket if it flies toward Japan.

The launch, from North Korea's western coast near its border with China, will likely be the latest version of North Korea's Kwangmyŏngsŏng ("Bright Star") satellite series, aboard the latest version of the Unha ("Galaxy") rocket. The splash locations given by North Korea for the launch—the first stage landing in the Yellow Sea between South Korea and China and the second in the Philippine Sea east of the Philippines—are nearly identical to those of North Korea's last orbital effort.

The launch announcement comes just a month after a surprise nuclear weapons test in which the regime of Kim Jong-un claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb. North Korea also claims to have developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be placed atop a ballistic missile, though US intelligence officials have downplayed those reports.

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