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The Art of Technology
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Acer’s new Chromebox stands on its side, is otherwise just a Chromebox

8/21/2014 11:22am
Chromebox is Chromebox. Acer

In the last year or two, we've seen the diversity of the Chromebook ecosystem expand as more PC companies have gotten on board. There are Intel Chromebooks, ARM Chromebooks, convertible Chromebooks, small Chromebooks, and big Chromebooks. These devices are all appreciably different from one another.

It's more difficult to do that with a Chromebox, as Acer's newly announced Chromebox CXI shows. Acer will sell you a system with a Haswell-based 1.4GHz Intel Celeron 2957U, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, and a decent port selection for $179.99, or $219.99 for a 4GB version. This is, incidentally, the same list of features you can already get from Asus' Chromebox, which also costs $179.99.

Both boxes are VESA-mountable and can support two displays via their HDMI and DisplayPort connectors—the only real difference is that Acer's box is designed to sit on its side, while Asus' is intended for horizontal use. The box measures 6.51 by 5.12 by 1.3 inches, slimmer than Asus' entry but taller and deeper. It's up to you to decide which one best suits your needs.

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The other strange tale of Facebook’s disputed origins

8/21/2014 9:00am
Mark Zuckerberg in front of his original "The Facebook" profile. Niall Kennedy

Prosecutors say it took decades for Bernard Madoff to pull off one of the largest financial scams in US history to the tune of $65 billion, an elaborate Ponzi scheme perpetrated against the upper crust of society.

But perhaps there's an even bigger scam afoot, and it involves the ownership of Facebook. The social networking site is valued at $190 billion and used by billions of people daily across the globe.

Unlike Madoff's intricate accounting scheme that netted him a life sentence in 2009, the criminal proceedings surrounding the ownership of Facebook, at its core, rely on a two-page document—a contract that is either forged or worth billions of dollars. Either Facebook Chief Mark Zuckerberg, as an 18-year-old Harvard University student, promised half of his company to a rural New York man named Paul Ceglia, or he didn't.

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Seals carried tuberculosis across the Atlantic, gave it to humans

8/21/2014 8:00am

Tuberculosis, an often fatal bacterial infection of the lungs, was a scourge in the days before antibiotics. It's caused by a species of Mycobacteria, most of which live harmlessly in watery environments. Understanding how some of these have managed to make the leap to human lungs has turned out to be rather complicated. Further evidence of this comes from a study published Wednesday that suggests that infectious strains of the bacteria managed to cross the Atlantic before the first European strains did—carried in the lungs of seals.

Getting things wrong about the history of tuberculosis seems to be a regular pastime of the people who study infectious diseases. Originally, due to some genetic similarities, people had proposed that we had picked it up from farm animals. But a careful study of evolutionary trees recently showed that it's likely that cows actually picked up tuberculosis from us, rather than the other way around.

Similarly, the study of the strains found in the Americas had suggested that all of the bacteria present here had been derived from the European version. Which suggested that, along with other lovely gifts like smallpox, the disease was brought to the New World by the first European settlers.

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UPS says 51 stores infected with credit card stealing malware

8/20/2014 7:35pm
Patrick Talbert

Dozens of UPS stores across 24 states, including California, Georgia, New York, and Nebraska, have been hit by malware designed to suck up credit card details. The UPS Store, Inc., is a subsidiary of UPS, but each store is independently owned and operated as a licensed franchisee.

In an announcement posted Wednesday to its website, UPS said that 51 locations, or around one percent of its 4,470 franchised stores across the country, were found to have been penetrated by a “broad-based malware intrusion.” The company recorded approximately 105,000 transactions at those locations, but does not know the precise number of cardholders affected.

UPS did not say precisely how such data was taken, but given the recent breaches at hundreds of supermarkets nationwide, point-of-sale hacks at Target, and other major retailers, such systems would be a likely attack vector. Earlier this month, a Wisconsin-based security firm also reported that 1.2 billion usernames and passwords had been captured by a Russian criminal group.

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FCC Republican wants to let states block municipal broadband

8/20/2014 6:00pm

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is going to have a fight on his hands if he tries to preempt state laws that limit the growth of municipal broadband networks.

Matthew Berry, chief of staff to Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai, argued today that the FCC has no authority to invalidate state laws governing local broadband networks. In a speech in front of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Berry endorsed states' rights when it comes to either banning municipal broadband networks or preventing their growth. He also argued that the current commission, with its Democratic majority, should not do something that future Republican-led commissions might disagree with.

"If the history of American politics teaches us anything, it is that one political party will not remain in power for perpetuity. At some point, to quote Sam Cooke, 'a change is gonna come,'" Berry said. "And that change could come a little more than two years from now. So those who are potential supporters of the current FCC interpreting Section 706 [of the Telecommunications Act] to give the Commission the authority to preempt state laws about municipal broadband should think long and hard about what a future FCC might do with that power."

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reddit nixes new subreddit advertising high-end counterfeit US dollars

8/20/2014 5:40pm
401(k) 2012

On Wednesday, reddit banned a recently created subreddit posted by a brazen new US dollar counterfeiting operation touting high-quality “supernotes." Such advertisements moved within the past few weeks from sketchy online forums to reddit, according to well-known security journalist Brian Krebs.

Krebs wrote Wednesday that such sites “sell everything from stolen credit cards and identities to hot merchandise, but until very recently one illicit good I had never seen for sale on the forums was counterfeit US currency.” Similar links and ads have turned up in posts on various other websites in recent months.

When contacted by Ars, Erik Martin, reddit's general manager, said that this was the first he’d heard about this subreddit, but he seemed unconcerned. “We’re not a marketplace. It’s not like we’re handling the transactions for whatever this is,” Martin said. “If we get a request to remove it, we will remove it. It’s a subreddit no one goes to.”

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Latest Gameover botnet lays low, looking to resist takedown

8/20/2014 5:20pm

In early July, a group of cyber criminals released a modified version of the Gameover ZeuS banking trojan, using a technique known as a domain generation algorithm (DGA) to make disrupting the botnet more difficult.

But the same technique has made it easier for researchers to track the botnet's activity, and they watched as it quickly grew from infecting hundreds of initial systems to 10,000 systems in two weeks. Then a funny thing happened: Gameover ZeuS stopped growing. Now, almost six weeks after researchers first detected signs of the program, the group behind the botnet keeps the infections between 3,000 and 5,000 systems, according to security services firm Seculert.

The group undoubtedly wants to grow the botnet again because cyber crime is typically a game of large numbers. When a coalition of law enforcement officials and industry players took down the botnet in late May, it comprised some 500,000 to 1 million machines. Now they're laying low, Seculert CTO Aviv Raff told Ars.

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How Twitter’s new "BotMaker" filter flushes spam out of timelines

8/20/2014 3:50pm
Spam be gone!

To work at Ars is to interact constantly with Twitter, both as a source for developing news and also as a way to goof off with coworkers and other tech journalists (folks who follow the Ars staff on Twitter should be more than familiar with our long-winded late night multi-Tweet antics). But as with any electronic medium, spam on Twitter is a nagging problem—Twitter’s real-time messaging means crafty spammers can blast their messages out to large numbers of people before getting hammered by spam reports.

However, several months back, Twitter went on the offensive against spammers, rolling out a set of anti-spam features collectively referred to as "BotMaker." In a blog post today, Twitter explained that the various components of BotMaker have been operational for about six months, and in that time Twitter has recorded a significant drop in tweetspam—up to 40 percent by its internal metrics.

Twitter’s real-time nature poses trouble for a traditional monolithic spam-checking system that might add many seconds onto the delivery of a tweet to followers. Rather than maintaining such a monolithic system (something akin to SpamAssassin, a widely deployed e-mail anti-spam application), Twitter’s BotMaker lets Twitter engineers quickly establish simple sets of conditional rule-based actions (which they call "bots"—hence "BotMaker") and apply them to tweets both during and after the posting process.

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Vancouver man creeped out by drone buzzing near his 36th-story condo

8/20/2014 3:27pm
Don McCullough

This week, a Vancouver man called the police about a drone flying near his 36th-story window, marking the latest incident in a string of such reports in recent months, police say.

On Sunday evening, Conner Galway tweeted:

There was just a neon drone, only a couple of feet away from my patio, camera pointed right at me. The future is creepy.

—Conner Galway (@Conner_G) August 18, 2014

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In wake of Ferguson shooting, calls escalate for cops to wear body cams

8/20/2014 3:11pm
Police clash with protesters in Ferguson.

The City of Ferguson, Missouri, in turmoil following last week's shooting death of an unarmed African-American teen by a white police officer, is "exploring" whether to outfit its police force with pager-sized surveillance cams in patrol cars and on officers' vests that record everything the officer is seeing.

The city announced the idea Tuesday, days after rioting, looting, and mass protests commenced following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was killed on August 9. There are various accounts of what led to the teen's death. Surveillance cameras could have helped the authorities figure out what prompted a police officer to fire on Brown as many as six times.

"We are exploring a range of actions that are intended for the community to feel more connected to and demonstrate the transparency of our city departments," the city said the day before Attorney General Eric Holder arrived Wednesday to flesh out the situation for himself.

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Trouble in troll-ville: Intellectual Ventures lays off 140 workers

8/20/2014 2:44pm
Intellectual Ventures founder Nathan Myhrvold was formerly CTO at Microsoft. Intellectual Ventures

Most "patent trolls" are small operations with just a few real employees. Intellectual Ventures (IV) isn't like that; it has 700 employees and tens of thousands of patents. For years, IV just amassed patents and issued threats, but in 2010 it started filing infringement lawsuits. Since then, it has filed 52 patent lawsuits, according to Reuters.

Apparently it isn't that easy to keep hundreds of employees on the payroll with large-scale litigation. Reuters and various other news outlets have reported that the king of all patent-holders is letting go of almost 20 percent of its employees, or about 140 workers. It's the second round of layoffs at IV this year, following a five percent cutback in February.

Critics who complain about patent trolls have pointed to IV as being the most alarming threat of all. For its part, IV says it's creating a "market for invention," allowing inventors to reap cash from their ideas.

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Researchers find it’s terrifyingly easy to hack traffic lights

8/20/2014 2:39pm
A typical intersection configuration. Halderman et al., University of Michigan

Taking over a city’s intersections and making all the lights green to cause chaos is a pretty bog-standard Evil Techno Bad Guy tactic on TV and in movies, but according to a research team at the University of Michigan, doing it in real life is within the realm of anyone with a laptop and the right kind of radio. In a paper published this month, the researchers describe how they very simply and very quickly seized control of an entire system of almost 100 intersections in an unnamed Michigan city from a single ingress point.

Nodes in the traffic light network are connected in a tree-topology IP network, all on the same subnet. Halderman et al., University of Michigan

The exercise was conducted on actual stoplights deployed at live intersections, "with cooperation from a road agency located in Michigan." As is typical in large urban areas, the traffic lights in the subject city are networked in a tree-type topology, allowing them to pass information to and receive instruction from a central management point. The network is IP-based, with all the nodes (intersections and management computers) on a single subnet. In order to save on installation costs and increase flexibility, the traffic light system uses wireless radios rather than dedicated physical networking links for its communication infrastructure—and that’s the hole the research team exploited.

Wireless security? What's that?

The systems in question use a combination of 5.8GHz and 900MHz radios, depending on the conditions at each intersection (two intersections with a good line-of-sight to each other use 5.8GHz because of the higher data rate, for example, while two intersections separated by obstructions would use 900MHz). The 900MHz links use "a proprietary protocol with frequency hopping spread-spectrum (FHSS)," but the 5.8GHz version of the proprietary protocol isn’t terribly different from 802.11n.

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More evidence that microbes inhabit lakes deep under Antarctic ice

8/20/2014 2:21pm
Sterile drilling equipment at the Whillans site. Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling

Life is hardier than was thought only a few decades ago. With the help of new exploration technologies and new methods for finding and identifying organisms, our perceptions of what constitute the environmental limits for life on Earth have changed.

You can find life in extreme environments, whether acid or alkaline, hot or cold. Life can be found under high pressure, without free water (in hot and cold deserts), in extremely salty environments (like the Dead Sea), and in areas that lack oxygen or experience high radiation levels.

We now recognize that microbial life can exist in most extreme environments on Earth. So it should not be a surprise that in a study just published in Nature, researchers report the first direct evidence of life in a lake located almost a kilometer below an ice sheet in Antarctica.

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NFL astroturfing convinces 10,000 fans to support TV blackouts

8/20/2014 1:58pm

The National Football League’s campaign to preserve Federal Communications Commission rules that allow local TV blackouts when games aren’t sold out has descended into astroturfing, with thousands of form letters signed by “football fans” arguing on behalf of keeping rules that can prevent fans from watching home games on TV.

Former NFL player Lynn Swann last week submitted 3,300 letters to the FCC urging the commission to maintain its sports blackout rule. In all, “more than 10,500 fans” have petitioned the commission to keep the rule, he wrote.

Currently, NFL teams prevent games from being shown on local television when tickets aren’t sold out or if ticket sales don’t meet a threshold set by each team. The FCC has tentatively proposed to eliminate 40-year-old rules that enable the blackouts by preventing cable and satellite companies from importing game broadcasts from distant stations to show in local areas. The NFL argues that the rules benefit fans because they limit teams’ incentives to raise ticket prices by increasing in-person attendance and prevent games from being restricted to pricey cable packages. In practice, the FCC's blackout rules primarily affect the NFL.

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Brazil court to Apple, Google: Wipe anonymous sharing app off users’ phones

8/20/2014 1:29pm
Secret: The Anonymous App. Esteban Contreras

On Monday, a Brazilian civil court in Vitória granted a preliminary injunction to a public prosecutor, prohibiting Apple and Google from distributing the anonymous sharing app Secret and Microsoft from distributing Secret's Windows Phone client, Cryptic. The injunction also said that the three app store proprietors had to remotely delete the app off Brazilian users' devices.

Secret is an app that lets users share anonymous messages with friends, friends of friends, or publicly. The anonymous nature of the app has led to some complaints of bullying, to which the app responded by adding a "no-bullying" filter.

The preliminary injunction is an interim decision ahead of a final ruling, and Apple, Google, and Microsoft will have a chance to appeal. As GigaOm writes, public prosecutor Marcelo Zenkner “said he had been contacted by people complaining about anonymous bullying. Because any removal request must be sent in English to an American judge via the Brazilian foreign ministry, he said, there was no way for victims to effectively defend themselves.” Secret has been available in Brazil since May.

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Study: Amazon Fire Phone launch slow, hampered by AT&T deal

8/20/2014 12:49pm

Based on Amazon's selective PR history, the company isn't likely to reveal exact sales for its recent Fire Phone any time soon—unless the company's first-ever smartphone goes gangbusters. A recent study appears to put any hopes for a record-smashing debut in serious doubt. Rather than wait for the official word, online advertising company Chitika Insights pored over its data to figure out just how well the Fire Phone has performed out of the gate—and how AT&T exclusivity may have factored in to its initial performance.

On Tuesday, the advertising agency published a study that compared recent new phones' mobile browser advertising impressions, comparing them across their first 20 days. In its comparison of the Amazon Fire Phone, the LG G3, and the Motorola Droid Ultra, Chitika measured overall web usage, as opposed to unique users, and it published percentage estimates of total North American web traffic as opposed to hard numbers for each device, but the results were still plenty revealing.

Usage of the G3 over the 20-day span more than tripled that of the Fire Phone, and Chitika pointed out that LG enjoyed a hefty bump on the days that Verizon and Sprint began selling their versions of that phone. Meanwhile, the stats for the Droid Ultra, which launched as a Verizon exclusive in North America, more closely mirrored those of the Fire Phone, with slow-but-steady growth toward the 0.02 percent mark. (Motorola still outpaced Amazon by the end of its 20-day period.)

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Blizzard no longer expects World of Warcraft subscriber growth

8/20/2014 12:23pm
The World of Warcraft isn't usually this empty, but it's getting there...

For about six years after its early 2005 launch, it looked like there was nothing that could stop the runaway success of Blizzard's World of Warcraft, which grew to a peak of 12 million paid subscribers by the end of 2010. Since then, though, the game has seen a long, mostly uninterrupted slide in its player numbers, with only 6.8 million subscribers as of July.

Blizzard obviously isn't happy about this trend for one of its biggest products but seems to have accepted that things aren't going to change any time soon. "We really don’t know if [World of Warcraft] will grow again,” lead game designer Tom Chilton told MCV in a recent interview. "It is possible, but I wouldn't say it's something that we expect. Our goal is to make the most compelling content we can."

A new expansion pack like the upcoming Warlords of Draenor could juice those subscriber numbers, as previous expansion packs have seemed to do. Chilton seems to see a bit of diminishing returns in this strategy, however. "By building expansions, you are effectively building up barriers to people coming back. But by including the level 90 character with this expansion, it gives people the opportunity to jump right into the new content."

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To solve Android’s update woes, Google should look to the PC

8/20/2014 11:25am
You know, there was some other huge platform that handled the update problem much more gracefully than Android. What was it called, again? Andrew Cunningham

Android updates have gotten a little faster over the last two years, at least if you invest in a flagship smartphone from a major company. We have reams of data that say so, and we can even tell you which carriers and companies you should stick to if getting updates factors heavily into your buying decisions.

But wouldn't it be great if you never had to think about this stuff at all? If you never had to read another multi-thousand word story about Android update speed, because it wasn't a problem anymore? We spend so much time discussing the state of Android’s fractured landscape and watching it improve baby step by baby step, but there has to be another way forward.

In fact, there's already a shining example that Google could decide to imitate. These devices come from many different manufacturers and use all kinds of different CPUs, GPUs, screens, and other components. There are hundreds of millions of them sold every year, and their operating system can be customized with additional apps and services to help differentiate them from one another. And yet, despite this fractured landscape, the operating system that runs on these devices gets security and feature updates on the day that they're released. Read any article about Android's update problems, and this sounds like a fairy tale you'd be insane to hope for.

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Models challenge temperature reconstruction of last 12,000 years

8/20/2014 11:00am
Ilulissat, Greenland, in the summer. Guido Appenzeller

Climate records, like tree rings or ice cores, are invaluable archives of past climate, but they each reflect their local conditions. If you really want a global average for some time period, you’re going to have to combine many reliable records from around the world and do your math very carefully.

That’s what a group of researchers aimed to do when (as Ars covered) they used 73 records to calculate a global overview of the last 11,000 years—the warm period after the last ice age that's called the Holocene. The Holocene temperature reconstruction showed a peak about 7,000 years ago, after which the planet slowly cooled off by a little over 0.5 degrees Celsius until that trend abruptly reversed over the last 150 years. That behavior mirrored the change in Northern Hemisphere summer sunlight driven by cycles in Earth’s orbit.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and led by the University of Wisconsin’s Zhengyu Liu delves into a problem with that pattern—and it’s not what climate models say should have happened.

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Pyramid and human “beehives” designed for Mars dwellers

8/20/2014 9:39am
A rendering of the Martian Pyramid entry. Thingiverse

A Martian pyramid, a modular beehive, and a three-tiered Acropolis have made the final cut in the MakerBot Mars Base Challenge.

Run by Thingiverse and launched in conjunction with the 3D printer maker and Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the challenge has been open since May 30 and clocked up 227 applications. The three winning entries will each be awarded a MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer in order to help them fully explore their designs for Martian abodes.

The challenge brief asked entrants to take into account the extreme weather, radiation levels, lack of oxygen, and dust storms when designing their Martian shelters. And although the applicants did not always nail the science, their designs have a novelty we've not seen since Nasa's 1970s space station and scooter designs.

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