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From sprinklers to battlestations: Ars staffers’ crazy home lab experiments

11/24/2016 7:30am

Enlarge / Ron is good at computer. (credit: Ron Amadeo)

Perhaps you know someone, dear reader, who is what they call a "car person." This "car person" perhaps has many cars in various states of repair, or perhaps there is one "special" car the "car person" lovingly works on without ever actually driving it—changing out the "engine" or the "pistons," endlessly replacing the "tie rods," constantly benchmarking new "oil sumps," or...OK, I'm not actually a "car person" myself and so what that species does with cars is a mystery, but you get the idea: perhaps you know someone who tinkers on automobiles.

Well, many of us Ars Technica staffers are like that—except, perhaps unsurprisingly, instead of cars we tinker on computers. And usually not just with any one computer—the lure of getting your hands dirty and building something functional and performant and cool transcends any one personality or interest type, be it cars or computers. Much like the car person with the Datsun Fairlady Z-car small block V8 conversion perpetually under work in the garage, we geeks tend to have our own perpetually in-work projects—improving our workstations, building tools, or even crafting our own mad science laboratories in our homes. That those labs are most often used for things like "deploying a hundred virtual machines and then simulating multiple states of degraded network performance between each of them" and not "creating an undead monster" doesn't lessen the craziness of what we're doing—after all, much like Doctor Frankenstein, our motivations for tinkering at home are rarely monetary and often instead based on curiosity and a drive to create.

Not everyone on staff has a needlessly complex IT setup, of course—Andrew Cunningham responded to our request for input on this staffsource with an eye-roll so loud that I could actually hear it through email, and I'm pretty sure Jon Brodkin actually thinks "cat 5" refers to the fifth such animal in a group of felines. But the true nutters on staff stood tall and provided us some quality descriptions of their creations.

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Google warns journalists and professors: Your account is under attack

11/23/2016 8:15pm

Google is warning prominent journalists and professors that nation-sponsored hackers have recently targeted their accounts, according to reports delivered in the past 24 hours over social media.

The people reportedly receiving the warnings include Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Stanford University professor and former US diplomat Michael McFaul, GQ correspondent Keith Olbermann, and according to this tweet, Politico, Highline, and Foreign Policy contributor/columnist Julia Ioffe; New York Magazine reporter Jonathan Chait; and Atlantic magazine writer Jon Lovett. Reports of others receiving the warnings are here and here. Many of the reports included banners that Google displayed when account holders logged in. Ars spoke to someone who works for a well-known security company who also produced an image of a warning he received. The person said he was aware of a fellow security-industry professional receiving the same warning.

One of the red banners included large white text that stated: "Warning: Google may have detected government-backed attackers trying to steal your password." It included a link that led to advice for securing accounts. Some of the people who received the warning reported their accounts were protected by two-factor authentication, which requires a piece of cryptographic hardware or a one-time password that's sent through a mobile device. Google has been sending warnings of nation-sponsored hacking attempts since 2012.

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In Fiji, ants have learned to grow plants to house their massive colonies

11/23/2016 6:55pm

A tree full of Squamellaria plants in Fiji. Each one has been carefully grown by ants, who live inside the plants' fleshy interior. It's like James and the Giant Peach, except not giant.

High in the trees on the Fiji islands, ants in the species Philidris nagasau are doing something extraordinary. They've brought in seeds from several species of a large, lumpy fruit from a plant known as Squamellaria and carefully planted them in the nooks and crannies of the tree bark. Once the plant takes root in the tree and begins to grow, the ants climb inside its young stalks and fertilize it. But then the real action starts. As the fruit swells, the ants move inside, carving tunnels and rooms into the fleshy interior. When the colony expands, it may include dozens of these fruits, which look like strange tumors sprouting from tree branches.

Though researchers have known for a while that ant colonies can live inside fruits, a new study in Nature Plants reveals that this housing arrangement is far more complex and ancient than we knew. University of Munich biologists Guillaume Chomicki and Susanne S. Renner went to Fiji to observe the ants and found that they inhabited six different species of Squamellaria. Each of these species evolved to grow in tree bark using a specialized root system called a foot. When the plants are still young, the ants enter a small cavity in the stalk called a domatium to fertilize it. Though the researchers never directly observed how the ants did the fertilizing, they speculate that basically the ants are pooping in there.

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The crumbling cement around you is soaking up carbon dioxide

11/23/2016 3:32pm

Enlarge (credit: sswj)

Over the truly long term, Earth’s climate has a geological thermostat built in that helps moderate change. If things get warmer, chemical weathering of exposed rock speeds up—a reaction that gradually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But on a timescale much more relevant to our lives, there is actually something sort of similar going on. Humanity’s aging concrete infrastructure is taking up CO2, too. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s not nothing.

The manufacturing of cement produces CO2 emissions. The raw material that goes into cement is principally limestone—calcium carbonate. At high temperature, molecules of CO2 escape, leaving just calcium oxide behind, which is what we call “lime.” So in addition to the burning of fossil fuels to heat the material, you’re converting some bedrock (the calcium carbonate) into atmospheric CO2.

But this process gets reversed as cement sits around and slowly deteriorates—the lime reacts with water and atmospheric CO2 to make calcium carbonate again. While researchers doing the accounting for global greenhouse gas emissions have worked carefully to track the CO2 produced by cement manufacturing (it kicks in about five percent of total fossil fuel and industry emissions) the reverse process has never really been tallied at a global scale.

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New federal guidelines seek to lock out apps on drivers’ phones

11/23/2016 3:16pm

Enlarge / A driver uses a phone while behind the wheel of a car in New York City. (credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

If you're traveling on Thanksgiving weekend, you likely already have one of the most dangerous road hazards on your mind—fellow drivers who are paying more attention to their smartphones than to what's on the road.

"Distracted driving" has been getting more attention because the government calculates that it is prevalent and is causing more car crashes. Today, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration published guidelines calling on smartphone makers to create a "Driving Mode" that shuts down app-use while a car is in motion.

The 96-page voluntary guidelines (PDF), intended to reduce "driver distraction," also call for cars to be more easily "paired" with mobile devices so that drivers can access them through an in-vehicle interface.

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Beyond business: Disgraced Theranos bloodied family, friends, neighbors

11/23/2016 2:58pm

Enlarge / Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos. (credit: Getty | Michael Kovac )

If you think your Thanksgiving dinner conversation will be awkward and stressful this year, just be glad you and your family weren’t involved with Theranos.

As the once highly regarded blood-testing company crumbles under technological scandals and regulatory sanctions, the death toll of relationships among neighbors, friends, families, and long-standing partners is mounting. With lawsuits, investigative reports, and new accounts from a whistleblower, the company’s culture and inner-workings—which Theranos worked hard to obfuscate—are finally becoming clear. And what’s emerged are patterns of dishonesty, callousness, and litigiousness—if not outright belligerence.

Test of blood

Perhaps most startling of the recent revelations is the identity and family drama of one Theranos whistleblower: Tyler Shultz, grandson of George Shultz, the former secretary of state, who also happens to be a Theranos advisor. An exposé by The Wall Street Journal lays out how in the course of eight months, Tyler Shultz went from a bright-eyed Theranos employee to disgruntled whistleblower, personally disparaged by Theranos’ then-president and desperately trying to convince his grandfather to wash his hands of the doomed company.

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Outraged by the election? It could be because you moralize rationality

11/23/2016 2:33pm

People tend to get highly emotional about issues they regard as matters of morality, and they generally attempt to avoid or even punish individuals they regard as immoral. The heated response to moral issues is the exact opposite of what many people consider rational behavior.

Or so many of us would like to think. As it turns out, a new study indicates that people regard rationality itself as a matter of moral behavior. While the study identifies a group of people who tend to take a strong and persistent moral stand about rationality, it also shows that the even the control populations tend to do this. The results could go a long way toward explaining why people have self-segregated over ideological issues and respond so heatedly to policy issues.

The study

The study comes courtesy of a team of three researchers (Tomas Ståhl, Maarten Zaal, and Linda J. Skitka), who were motivated in part by people like the New Atheists and organized groups of skeptics. These individuals, in the researchers' view, have engaged in something akin to a crusade, trying to get everyone to abandon faith and adopt a science-focused world view. The researchers "suggest that advocates of science are frequently anything but value-neutral or amoral in their convictions about the superiority of beliefs based on rationality and scientific evidence," and they then set out to gather some evidence.

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Steam autumn sale kicks off, joined by first annual Steam Awards

11/23/2016 2:08pm

Enlarge / I'm going to assume these will be nicknamed "the Steamies." (credit: Valve Software)

It has become a PC gaming tradition for fans to put off some of their game purchases until a major sale, and Steam has led that discount charge with promotions timed for major holidays like Thanksgiving. It should come as no surprise, then, that Steam's autumn sale has arrived with major discounts for PC gamers. But this year, the promotion is joined by a first for the games shop: the Steam Awards.

Seeing as how this is Steam, the awards on offer are not exactly traditional, nor is the process for awarding them.

For starters, every game sold via Steam is eligible for an award. "Unfinished" early access titles and years-old classics have equal footing in the nomination process. The only eligibility requirement is that the game has a live Steam Store page. Should you wish to nominate a game, visit its store page and then click the giant purple nomination button, at which point nine radio checkmarks appear.

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Trump says he’s going to get Apple to “build a big plant” in US

11/23/2016 1:59pm

Enlarge / President-elect Donald Trump walks through the lobby of the New York Times Building following a meeting with editors of the paper on November 22, 2016. (credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images News)

President-elect Donald Trump told The New York Times in a Tuesday interview that he would incentivize Apple to “build a big plant” in the United States.

During that interview, Trump touched on numerous subjects, changing his tune on several campaign positions. He backed off threats he made during his campaign to prosecute his political rival, Hillary Clinton, over her use of a personal e-mail server while she was Secretary of State.

However, Trump indicated to columnist Thomas Friedman that he is going to double-down on bringing factory jobs back to America, especially in the Rust Belt from Michigan to Pennsylvania.

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Google flip flops on Google Cast/Chromecast branding again

11/23/2016 1:14pm

Enlarge / The Chromecast running Google Cast/Chromecast technology from Google/Alphabet.

The Chromecast is Google's most popular hardware product, but the company has never really been sure what to call it. After launching a scheme to rename much of the Chromecast ecosystem to "Google Cast" earlier this year, Google seems to be flip-flopping on the branding and going back to "Chromecast" again.

"Google Cast" has long been the name of the Chromecast APIs for developers. Google brought the "Google Cast" name to consumer devices this March as a branding for OEMs that integrate Google Cast technology into their products. In a blog post, Google said the new branding would "better reflect that Google Cast technology is now supported across a wide range of devices such as Chromecast, TVs, displays, and speakers."

Eight months later, Google has changed its mind, and the new name for third parties is "Chromecast built-in."

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Samsung Group offices raided by Korean prosecutors

11/23/2016 1:04pm

Samsung HQ in Gangnam, Seoul. (credit: amftkrm / flickr)

South Korean prosecutors raided the headquarters of Samsung Group today, as well as the nation's largest pension fund. The moves are seen as part of a broadening investigation into influence-peddling that involves South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

The Wall Street Journal described the raid as a "daylong sweep" of Samsung's headquarters in the Gangnam area of Seoul. They also raided South Korea's National Pension Service. With $460 billion in assets, NPS is the world's third-largest pension fund and is a major shareholder in many South Korean companies.

NPS cast a vote in favor of a merger of two Samsung affiliates, Samsung C&T Corp and Cheil Industries, last year. WSJ says it wasn't clear if today's raids were connected to that vote; Reuters, citing the Yonhap news agency, says there was a connection.

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One warrant used to target thousands of child porn suspects in 120 countries

11/23/2016 12:54pm

Enlarge (credit: North Charleston)

A newly released federal court hearing transcript reveals that one warrant issued as part of a massive child porn investigation in the US was also used to authorize government malware that targeted more than 8,000 users across 120 countries, including a “satellite provider.”

As Vice Motherboard first reported, the remarks came from the November 1 hearing in the case of United States v. Tippens and two other related cases, which are ongoing in Tacoma, Washington. These cases, and more than 100 others like them, are part of a global effort to target people suspected of accessing the now-defunct Tor-hidden child porn site known as “Playpen.”

As Colin Fieman, a federal public defender who represents David Tippens and other Playpen defendants in that area, said during the November 1 hearing in Tacoma:

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How one F1 team uses cybersecurity to keep the crown jewels under lock and key

11/23/2016 12:42pm

Enlarge (credit: Glenn Dunbar/Williams)

As is the case for so many industries in recent years, Formula 1 has been transformed by data. Each team designs and tests its cars in silico, with vast server farms competing with onsite wind tunnels to see which can use more electricity. Up to 300 sensors per car constantly measure every parameter, beaming that info back to the garage—and in turn to home base—each lap. It's a far cry from the garagiste days of drawing boards and pens or even the active suspension era and its rugged 286 laptops. It's a highly competitive sport, for the financial rewards for success are many, and so that data represents a gold mine for each team.

Under CIO Greame Hackland, Williams Martini Racing provides an illuminating example of how an F1 team can use that data and the steps it has to take to protect it. And while some of the challenges are unique to Formula 1, many of them might be familiar to anyone working in a large IP-heavy organization.

"When I joined Williams in 2014, 70 percent of our race strategists' time was spent getting data and putting it into spreadsheets, whether that was at the track or back at the factory," Hackland told Ars. To help find a way around this, the team started working with Avanade (a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture), which brought fresh viewpoints to bear on old problems. "The last year and half has been a huge transformation. We can't allow an engineer who's been in F1 for 25 years to dictate how the tools we use look," Hackland told us.

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Drop a grand on diamonds, get a free Xbox One S?

11/23/2016 11:44am

Mine your own diamonds, I guess.

I was watching Dota 2 videos on YouTube last night when I was shown perhaps one of the most peculiar promotions I've ever seen. Jeweler Helzberg Diamonds, which specializes in selling overpriced lumps of carbon, has an extraordinary offer: spend $999 or more on jewelry and, for a limited time only, you'll get a free Xbox One S.

Any inferences about what this implies about the margins on diamond jewelry are left to the reader.

I suppose it makes a little sense; diamonds are mined, one of the $299 Xbox One S bundles includes Minecraft, and one of the things you can mine in Minecraft are diamonds... but still, games consoles and diamond rings aren't the most obvious of companions.

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After Scott Kelly’s flight, NASA plans five more one-year missions

11/23/2016 11:29am

Enlarge / Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko climbs the stairs to enter the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft during the final check of the spacecraft, with NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly. (credit: NASA)

Eight months have passed since NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko returned to Earth from a nearly year-long mission aboard the International Space Station. During that time, the long-duration fliers completed a battery of follow-up tests, and US and Russian scientists have busily crunched away at data collected before, during, and after the extended space mission. Researchers plan to present preliminary results at a scientific meeting in January.

The one-year mission was just the beginning, however. NASA’s Human Research Program, which supports safe and productive space travel, has begun devising follow-up missions to ensure it knows enough about prolonged stays in microgravity before astronauts venture into deep space for extended periods of time. And as important as Kelly's and Kornienko’s data is, a study with just two participants doesn’t allow scientists to draw meaningful conclusions.

“It’s just not enough,” said William Paloski, the director of the Human Research Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “To extrapolate we need to have more time in space, and more observations. We started working on additional missions two years ago.” The question is how best to collect that additional data.

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Intractable conflicts produce an empathy gap in teens

11/23/2016 11:17am

Enlarge (credit: Steve Evans)

Intergroup conflict, also called civil conflict, is one of the world’s most serious problems, as warfare has shifted from the battlefield toward something enmeshed within civilian life. The constant exposure to high-stress conflict situations affects everyone, but it may have an outsized influence on developing adolescent brains. A recent study published in PNAS found that adolescents who grow up in protracted civil conflicts end up more empathetic and cognitively attuned to the people within their own group and less sensitive to pain felt by others.

The researchers who conducted this study recruited 85 adolescents from a conflict-ridden region in Israel. They categorized the participants as identifying either as Arab-Palestinian or Jewish-Israeli. The participants were shown a set of well-validated photographs of other people who clearly belonged to one of these groups, either in painful or non-painful conditions. During this task, each participant's brain activity was measured using MEG (magnetoencephalography), a functional neuroimaging technique that tracks the magnetic effects of currents moving through neurons to visualize brain activity.

The authors found that adolescents from both groups (Arab and Jewish) responded differently to ingroup and outgroup images. All the subjects showed significant brain activation in pain-empathy regions when the pain images contained in-group characters. But when an outgroup figure was shown, there was no difference in the response, regardless of whether that figure was experiencing pain. So all participants could have an empathetic response, but only to members of their own group

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Trump’s FCC advisor wants to eliminate most of the FCC

11/23/2016 10:44am

Enlarge (credit: Stephen D. Melkisethian)

A Donald Trump advisor who will help set a new direction for the Federal Communications Commission recently argued that most of the FCC should be eliminated.

The commission's role as an independent agency remains important in one area: licensing radio spectrum, Trump advisor Mark Jamison argued in a blog post last month titled, "Do we need the FCC?" That's because political interference in spectrum licenses would dampen investment "and could lead to rampant corruption in the form of valuable spectrum space being effectively handed out to political cronies," he wrote.

But the other functions of the FCC could be eliminated entirely or handed off to other agencies, Jamison wrote:

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Mouse lifespan, heart health extended by common chemical

11/23/2016 10:32am

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Portland Press Herald )

Spermidine is a chemical that's normally found in living tissues, where it influences a variety of biological processes. While it was recognized as important for these processes, it wasn’t necessarily considered especially interesting, since it was primarily known as a precursor to other chemicals. A recent study published in Nature Medicine, however, reveals that giving spermidine to mice significantly increases their lifespan while having a cardioprotective effect.

Spermidine is a long, straight carbon chain that incorporates three nitrogens (it belongs to a class of chemicals called polyamines). Previous work has shown that spermidine treatments could extend the lives of flies; it was hypothesized that this may be through increased recycling of cell material and regeneration of aging cells or perhaps by altering the energy metabolism of cells.

Similar studies hadn't been done in mammals, so the researchers began their study by giving young mice oral supplements of spermidine. The mice that received the oral supplementation lived significantly longer than control mice. And the mice didn’t have to start when young. Administering the same oral supplements to older mice produced a significant 10 percent increase in lifespan.

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Snowden can be asked to testify in person in German NSA probe

11/23/2016 9:41am

Enlarge (credit: Gage Skidmore)

Whistleblower Edward Snowden can be asked to give evidence in person by a German committee probing the NSA's spying activities, the country's Federal Court of Justice has ruled.

Germany's government has been told that it should make suitable arrangements for that to happen. It has been refusing to invite Snowden to give evidence personally since it would need to guarantee that he would not be handed over to the US—a promise the German authorities say would risk damaging the political relations between the two countries.

Instead, it has called for him to give evidence via a video link, or for German officials to interview him in Moscow, both of which Snowden turned down.

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Xbox One streaming comes to Oculus Rift on December 12

11/23/2016 8:50am


Nearly 18 months after it was first announced as a feature, Oculus Rift owners will soon be able to stream Xbox One games directly to their virtual reality headsets. The feature arrives as a free update to the Oculus Rift PC app on December 12.

The feature won't turn Xbox One games into VR experiences, but instead lets you play them in front of a huge virtual display inside the headset, similar to how Netflix currently works. Naturally, you need an Xbox One and a stack of games to get started, as well as an Oculus Rift headset connected to a Windows 10 PC.

Minimum network requirements aren't stated, but it's fair to say that the best experience will likely be over Ethernet rather than Wi-Fi. Users will also have the choice of viewing their virtual screen in one of three different environments:"Citadel," "Retreat," and "Dome."

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