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When the USSR discovered anti-gravity, and other architectural fantasies

2/12/2017 7:37pm

Every time you walk through a city, your experiences are shaped by the minds of hundreds of architects, urban planners, and landscape designers. But sometimes architects yearn to make built environments that are even more creative and so bizarre that no engineer could ever bring them to fruition. That's where the annual Fairy Tales Competition comes in.

For the fourth year in a row, sponsors of the competition have invited architects to submit drawings and short stories about architecture from other worlds, parallel dimensions, and pure fantasy. This year's theme was "environmental fables." If you're a fan of science fiction and infrastructure, the results are extremely delightful. The 2017 winners were just announced in Washington, DC, at the National Building Museum. You can look at all the winners' stories and art on the Blank Space site, but we've got glimpses of a few standouts.

Mykhailo Ponomarenko

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SpaceX completes static fire test, historic launch could come Saturday

2/12/2017 6:58pm

(credit: Elon Musk/Instagram)

On Sunday afternoon, SpaceX completed a static fire test of its Falcon 9 rocket in advance of a planned cargo launch to the International Space Station. During the short test, all nine of its Merlin-1D engines fired while the rocket was clamped down. The upcoming launch is notable because it will be the company's first from the historic Launch Complex-39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX acquired rights to use the site in 2014 from NASA, signing a 20-year lease with the space agency. The launch pad has a storied history, with all of the crewed Apollo missions except for Apollo 10 lifting off from the pad, as well as the first 24 space shuttle missions.

The company had intended to use Launch Complex-39A primarily for launches of its new Falcon Heavy rocket and commercial crew missions. However a September 1, 2016, a static fire test accident at its other Florida launch pad, Launch Complex-40, caused severe damage to facilities there. This pushed SpaceX to expedite its refurbishment of Launch Complex-39A and to expand its use for all launches from the East Coast. In addition to the new Florida pad, SpaceX also has a facility at Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Los Angeles, from where it launched last month.

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Insert coin, drive home car

2/12/2017 1:00pm

Video produced by Nathan Mattise. (video link)

AUSTIN, Texas—"Vending machines" don't usually conjure up excitement. At most, we've all fist-pumped when a second Hershey's bar falls down or perhaps snickered when a dive bar still sells cigarettes next to the Twix. But a new, modernistic addition to I-35 South's Motor Mile looks nothing like the neighboring car-stocked dealerships or various chain restaurants. Apparently, it's a "vending machine"—it just contains cars, not candy.

Used-car startup Carvana invited Ars out to its Austin facility this week to check out the company's recently opened "car vending machine." We profiled Carvana last year when looking at startups hoping to find alternative solutions to car buying. In short, the company sells used cars by purchasing its stock outright and selling directly to customers online. Vehicles go through a thorough 100-point inspection and get photographed before being listed. Customers in 20-plus markets can purchase cars for delivery.

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American Spies: how we got to mass surveillance without even trying

2/12/2017 12:00pm

(credit: Jennifer Granick)

While American Spies was written prior to Donald Trump winning the 2016 presidential election, it has become vital and relevant under the new Republican administration.

Jennifer Stisa Granick is one of the premiere legal minds currently trying to grok the intersection between surveillance, privacy, and public policy. She serves as the Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. Before that, she worked at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In her book, Granick presents an expansive overview of the national-security legal landscape. However, despite being geared largely toward attorneys and academics, American Spies can be easily understood by anyone with even a passing familiarity with touchstone concepts that have graced the pages of Ars Technica in recent years, including Edward Snowden, Section 702, and Executive Order 12333.

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Man jailed 16 months, and counting, for refusing to decrypt hard drives

2/12/2017 11:00am

Enlarge (credit: Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images)

Francis Rawls, a former Philadelphia police sergeant, has been in the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center for more than 16 months. His crime: the fired police officer has been found in contempt of court for refusing a judge's order to unlock two hard drives the authorities believe contain child pornography. Theoretically, Rawls can remain jailed indefinitely until he complies.

Francis Rawls

The federal court system appears to be in no hurry to resolve an unresolved legal issue: does the Fifth Amendment protect the public from being forced to decrypt their digital belongings? Until this is answered, Rawls is likely to continue to languish behind bars. A federal appeals court heard oral arguments about Rawls' plight last September. So far, there's been no response from the US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia.

Rawls was thrown in the slammer on September 30, 2015 "until such time that he fully complies" (PDF) with a court order to unlock his hard drives. A child-porn investigation focused on Rawls when prosecutors were monitoring the online network, Freenet. They executed a search warrant in 2015 at Rawls' home. The authorities say it's a "foregone conclusion" that illicit porn is on those drives. But they cannot know for sure unless Rawls hands them the alleged evidence that is encrypted with Apple's standard FileVault software.

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Have you looked at your windshield wipers lately?

2/12/2017 10:45am

Enlarge / I was the only person in the car. Try not to consider the circumstances for how I got this shot. (credit: Basheer Tome)

The next time you're in a parking lot, or when you're walking on the sidewalk along a street with lots of parked cars, take a look at the windshield wipers. On some cars, the wiper arms are mounted fairly close to each other and are designed to move in unison. On others, the arms are mounted at opposite sides of the car and face each other in the center of the windshield. Some wiper arms are short and some are long. Some are straight, and some, especially on newer cars, are curved or bent.

Like so many things we take for granted, wiper design turns out to be a surprisingly nuanced rabbit hole once you take a moment to notice it, with no two cars seeming to have the same configuration. It's fun to imagine an army of industrious wiper elves coming up with just the right design to provide the proper visual accent for each vehicle.

But the reality is that wiper design is driven primarily by practicalities, not aesthetics. "The wiper system is usually designed pretty late in the process," said Doug Patton, executive vice president of engineering for Denso International America, which makes wiper systems and other automotive components for many car brands. "That's why you see these variations from car to car. The wiper system is usually designed to work within the rest of the vehicle design."

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Testing out snapshots in Apple’s next-generation APFS file system

2/12/2017 8:00am

Enlarge / We’re not saying that APFS snapshots will be used in a future revision of Time Machine, but if you’re a betting person, now might be a good time to place your bets. (credit: Aurich / Thinkstock)

Back in June, Apple announced its new upcoming file system: APFS, or Apple File System. There was no mention of it in the WWDC keynote, but devotees needed no encouragement. They picked over every scintilla of data from the documentation on Apple’s developer site, extrapolating, interpolating, eager for whatever was about to come. In the WWDC session hall, the crowd buzzed with a nervous energy, eager for the grand unveiling of APFS. I myself badge-swapped my way into the conference just to get that first glimpse of Apple’s first original filesystem in the 30+ years since HFS.

Apple’s presentation didn’t disappoint the hungry crowd. We hoped for a modern filesystem, optimized for next generation hardware, rich with features that have become the norm for data centers and professionals. With APFS, Apple showed a path to meeting those expectations. Dominic Giampaolo and Eric Tamura, leaders of the APFS team, shared performance optimizations, data integrity design, volume management, efficient storage of copied data, and snapshots—arguably the feature of APFS most directly in the user’s control.

Far from vaporware, Apple made APFS available to registered developers that day. The company included it in macOS Sierra as a technology preview. You can play with APFS today and a lot of the features are there. You can use space sharing to carve up a single disk into multiple volumes. You can see the speed of its directory size calculation—nearly instantaneous—compared with the slow process on HFS+. You can use clones to make constant-time copies of files or directories. At WWDC, Apple demonstrated the feature folks were the most eager to play with: snapshots. Tamura used snapshotUtil to create, list, and mount snapshots. But early adopters quickly discovered that snapshotUtil wasn’t part of the APFS technology preview.

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Rube Goldberg museum exhibit reminds us why his name is in the dictionary

2/12/2017 7:00am

SEATTLE—When most Americans think of the dawn of the engineering era, they probably think less of specific devices or factories and more of one pop-culture icon who was obsessed with them: Rube Goldberg.

While his name is synonymous with elaborate contraptions used to enable simple tasks, the early 20th-century cartoonist never actually built any of his world-famous "Rube Goldberg machines." This irony is thoroughly explored in a new museum exhibit called The Art of Rube Goldberg. Seattle's Museum of Pop Culture (formerly the EMP) has first dibs on the collection's world premiere. The exhibits tells a story that fans of OK Go music videos and Pee-Wee Herman film sequences might not know: the work of a sports-obsessed cartoonist who struck pop-culture gold with a different kind of sketch.

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Oracle refuses to accept pro-Google “fair use” verdict in API battle

2/11/2017 1:24pm

(credit: Uncalno Tekno)

Google successfully made its case to a jury last year that its use of Java APIs in Android was "fair use." A San Francisco federal jury rejected Oracle's claim that the mobile system infringed Oracle's copyrights.

But Oracle isn't backing down. Late Friday, the company appealed the high-profile verdict to a federal appeals court.

This is the latest stage of a seemingly never-ending legal battle over intellectual property that began in 2010. The conflict has meandered through two federal trials, in addition to multiple trips to the appellate courts and to the Supreme Court.

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A House of Many Doors is a house with many problems

2/11/2017 1:00pm

Enlarge / Don't try to fight that big, green ball.

A House of Many Doors opens like a power-drill to the skull. That’s not an analogy picked at random—the game starts just after "memory thieves" have augured into your cranium. Of course, you're not going to let them get away with it. Your first priority in this "exploration RPG" is to hop astride your steampunk centipede tank and repossess your recollections.

Things only get weirder from there, as the House's explicit inspirations from Sunless Sea and China Miéville come to the fore (the game was funded by a combination of Sunless Sea developer Failbetter Games and Kickstarter). A House of Many Doors is set in a "parasite dimension" known only as the House. Its features are described in an abundance of text about shark-men, reality-shaping dream gas, clock-faced gods, and doctors who steal hearts for profit while leaving their patients, ostensibly, alive. Impressionistic portraits and landscapes lit with St. Elmo's Fire hint at further stories that even the 10 metric tons of Dickensian scrawling can't fully put into words.

The fiction in A House of Many Doors is so full of verve and diversity that it's hard to hold more than a scattershot image of it in my head at one time. And much like a shotgun blast, the game has plenty of empty spaces in between those thinly spread impressions.

A House of Many Squares

To understand A House of Many Doors, you have to understand the House itself. It’s kind of like your house, if your house is chopped grid-like into seemingly endless "rooms" for you to navigate in search of one speck of civilization or another. Chief among these civilizations is the City of Keys, where you can trade goods, information, and even experiences to customize your character or earn a few coins.

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How being replaced by a machine turned this graphic artist into an activist

2/11/2017 12:00pm

Enlarge / Robots are coming for your job. (credit: Rog01 - Flickr)

The Twitter feed @HumanVSMachine is a haunting collection of images and videos showing the automation of work around the world. The videos place footage of people doing a job side-by-side with footage of robots doing the same thing. The overall impression is of human obsolescence—at least in certain professions.

Forklift operator. #Automation #BasicIncome

— HumanVSMachine (@HumanVsMachine) January 18, 2017

Philippe Chabot, a French Canadian from Montreal, is the force behind @HumanVSMachine, and he knows something about being replaced. He used to be a graphic artist, first in the video industry and then as a freelancer. At one point, he had plenty of contracts and plenty of work. But increasing competition for fewer assignments made this an unstable profession. Eventually, Chabot was bidding against people who would churn out a logo for $5, and he found that game studios were increasingly outsourcing their artwork. Software and chatbots were created that could automatically design avatars and websites. So Chabot left the field and now works in a kitchen.

He’s not the only one of his friends and family whose work has been outsourced, whether to people in other countries or to non-humans.

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Assault of the Giants: A great D&D game with 5” mega-miniatures

2/11/2017 11:00am

Enlarge / The game's mega-miniatures.

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at—and let us know what you think.

The area control genre—troops, creatures, or cubes seeking majorities on a map—is a cramped and crowded one. Though well-regarded titles like Cry Havoc, Inis, and Star Wars: Rebellion all arrived in 2016, the calendar keeps turning and the plastic miniatures keep coming. This time, though, they’re positively enormous.

In Assault of the Giants, a horde of titans descend upon Faerûn, the prominent continent featured in the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms setting. This Andrew Parks design takes a conflict-oriented thematic chassis and bolts a smooth Euro-style engine to its frame. The game is a hybrid of schools, delivering carnage and tremendous 5” plastic miniatures to satisfy your eyes as well as your brain. The fact that it plays in a cool 25 minutes per player is just wax on the hood.

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If you’re a revenge porn victim, consider this free, helpful legal guide

2/11/2017 10:00am

Enlarge (credit: Nan Palmero)

Without My Consent, a San Francisco-based advocacy organization that aims to help victims of revenge porn, has released a slew of new resources this week in an attempt to make seeking justice easier for victims.

The new materials, dubbed "Something Can Be Done! Guide," provides a step-by-step guide for victims. It provides concrete measures that they can take, including evidence preservation, copyright registration, restraining orders, and takedown requests to Internet companies—many of which don’t require the often-costly services of a lawyer. (Without My Consent's efforts are reminiscent of Nolo, a decades-old do-it-yourself legal publisher.)

Erica Johnstone, one of the lead attorneys for the group, told Ars that the idea is to democratize the fight against the scourge of revenge porn. After all, she said, she only takes one out of 30 potential clients per month who come to her.

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Ars poll: Have you considered buying an electric vehicle?

2/11/2017 9:00am


Earlier this week, Ars published a story about a consulting firm's report on how to get more customers to buy electric vehicles (EVs). The survey asked several thousand people in the US, Germany, Norway, and China if they'd considered buying an electric vehicle. From the results, the firm estimated that approximately 30 percent of potential car buyers in the US had considered purchasing an electric vehicle, but only three percent had actually made the plunge.

So this weekend we put it to you, Ars readers. Have you considered an electric vehicle? If you have and decided not to buy one, what made you stick with a gas-burning choice? As always, if your reason is not represented in the poll, feel free to let us know in the comments.

Have you ever considered buying an electric vehicle?

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Elite: Dangerous pen-and-paper RPG stymied by intellectual property dispute

2/11/2017 7:47am

Enlarge / Time for a saving throw. (credit: Spidermind Games)

Late Friday evenings, backers of the Elite: Dangerous tabletop role playing game received a cryptic e-mail from Kickstarter explaining that the almost-complete crowdfunding campaign had been suspended, pending the resolution of an intellectual property dispute. The message read:

This is a message from Kickstarter’s Integrity team. We're writing to inform you that a project you backed, Elite: Dangerous Role Playing Game (ED RPG), is the subject of an intellectual property dispute.

The project has been removed from public view until the dispute is resolved, which can take up to 30 days. The project’s funding and the countdown to its deadline have been stopped. If the project becomes available again, the countdown will continue and the new deadline will extend past the original deadline for as much time as the project was unavailable. You can find out more by reading our Copyright Policy and our Trademark Policy.

Original deadline
Wed, Feb 15 2017 6:46 am EST

Time remaining if project becomes available
4 days

Your pledge is currently still active. If you’d like to manage your pledge or reach out to the creator directly, you can still do so through the project page.

We reached out to designer Spidermind Games for comment. Spidermind informed Ars that the complaint was lodged by Chris Jordan, apparently acting for Ian Bell, or at least on behalf of a LLP bearing Bell's name. Bell is the co-creator of the original 1984 Elite.

Ars obtained a copy of a statement issued by Jordan to Spidermind Games, which reads as follows:

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Specs for first Intel 3D XPoint SSD: so-so transfer speed, awesome random I/O

2/10/2017 7:00pm

A 3D XPoint wafer. (credit: Intel)

In 2015, Intel and Micron announced 3D XPoint (pronounced "three dee cross point"), a new form of high-speed, non-volatile, solid-state storage. But we're still waiting for products that actually use the technology. The first 3D XPoint storage should hit the market this year. Branded "Optane," Intel briefly documented (on a PDF that has since been pulled from its website) the first specs of the first of these products: the Intel SSD DC P4800X is a 375GB half-height, half-length PCIe NVMe card aimed at enterprise markets. Optane should also eventually come in 750GB and 1.5TB versions. Taiwanese site PCADV spotted the specs while they were up.

When Intel announced 3D XPoint, the company said that it would be 1,000 times faster than NAND flash, 10 times denser than (volatile) DRAM, and with 1,000 times the endurance of NAND, too, which would greatly reduce the susceptibility of 3D XPoint drives to write-induced failures. The specs of this first SSD reflect these ambitions, but perhaps not in quite the way people would have expected.

P4800X spec sheet. (credit: PCADV)

The 2,400MB/s read speed is high, but it's not king of the hill. Introduced in 2014, Intel's SSD DC P3700, the company's nearest equivalent product using NAND flash technology, boasts up to 2,800MB/s reads. Samsung's consumer-oriented 960 EVO manages 3,200MB/s read performance.

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Virally growing attacks on unpatched WordPress sites affect ~2m pages

2/10/2017 5:28pm

Enlarge (credit: Wordfence)

Attacks on websites running an outdated version of WordPress are increasing at a viral rate. Almost 2 million pages have been defaced since a serious vulnerability in the content management system came to light nine days ago. The figure represents a 26 percent spike in the past 24 hours.

A rogues' gallery of sites have been hit by the defacements. They include conservative commentator Glenn Beck's, Linux distributor Suse's, the US Department of Energy-supported, the Utah Office of Tourism's, and many more. At least 19 separate campaigns are participating and, in many cases, competing against each other in the defacements. Virtually all of the vandalism is being carried out by exploiting a severe vulnerability WordPress fixed in WordPress version 4.7.2, which was released on January 26. In an attempt to curb attacks before automatic updates installed the patch, the severity of the bug—which resides in a programming interface known as REST—wasn't disclosed until February 1.

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Gut juice could power the next generation of health gadgets

2/10/2017 5:10pm

Enlarge / A small, ingestible voltaic cell powered by the acidic fluids in the stomach. (credit: MIT | Diemut Strebe)

Move over, wearables. Soon, ingestibles that run on the power of a grumbling gut may be the go-to health-tracking devices.

New wireless gadgets could deliver drugs and continuously measure temperature, all while harvesting energy from churning, acidic gut fluids, researchers report this week in Nature Biomedical Engineering. Prototypes have successfully made their way through the bowels of pigs, and the design will need tweaking for human use. But the findings suggest that next-generation ingestible devices will be able to safely harvest energy for a slew of health tracking and monitoring purposes—potentially even for extended periods of time.

Consumable contraptions have already proved useful for video capture and health monitoring. They measure things like breathing, temperature, pH, drug delivery, heart rate, and pressure. But most gulp-able gadgets still require an old-fashioned battery, which can cause life-threatening burns and injuries in living tissue.

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Ford’s billion-dollar self-driving car AI deal

2/10/2017 4:55pm

Enlarge / L-R: Peter Rander, Argo AI COO; Ken Washington, Ford vice president of research and advanced engineering; Mark Fields, Ford president and CEO; Bryan Salesky, Argo AI CEO; Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president, product development, and chief technical officer; and Laura Merling, Ford Smart Mobility LLC vice president of autonomous vehicle solutions. Salesky and Rander are alumni of Carnegie Mellon National Robotics Engineering Center and former leaders on the self-driving car teams of Google and Uber, respectively. (credit: Ford)

If you had to pick a single buzzword to define the auto industry of late, it would have to be "mobility." Car companies are coming to grips with demographic and socioeconomic changes and the rise of the sharing economy and are moving beyond the old way of doing business, i.e., just building cars and selling them to customers. Ford has been on the leading edge of this trend, announcing in August last year that it plans to put an SAE level 4 autonomous vehicle into mass production as a ride-sharing service in 2021. Today, it announced that, as part of that plan, it is investing $1 billion over five years in a company called Argo AI, a startup led by the former leads of Google and Uber's self-driving programs.

"The next decade will be defined by the automation of the automobile, and autonomous vehicles will have as significant an impact on society as Ford's moving assembly line did 100 years ago," said Ford president and CEO Mark Fields. "As Ford expands to be an auto and a mobility company, we believe that investing in Argo AI will create significant value for our shareholders by strengthening Ford's leadership in bringing self-driving vehicles to market in the near term and by creating technology that could be licensed to others in the future."

This isn't the first strategic investment in self-driving technology from the Blue Oval. As part of last August's reveal, the company announced it was investing in lidar sensor-maker Velodyne and 3D-mapping company Civil Maps. Ford also purchased a machine-vision company called SAIPS and entered into a licensing agreement with another, Nirenberg Neuroscience.

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Old, generic drug for rare disease gets new price tag: $89,000 per year

2/10/2017 4:27pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Boston Globe )

Remember when that pharmaceutical trade group launched a flashy ad campaign to convince consumers that it was different from the price-gouging Shkrelis of the industry? Well, one of its members just took an old, cheap drug and priced a year’s worth of it at $89,000.

The steroid drug, deflazacort, which treats Duchenne muscular dystrophy, has been approved overseas for years and is sold as a generic. Families here have been importing a year’s worth for around $1,200.

But Marathon Pharmaceuticals (a member of the PhRMA trade group) finally got it FDA-approved Thursday under an “orphan drug” status, which covers drugs that treat rare diseases. (Duchenne affects about 15,000 people in the US.) Under that status, Marathon has exclusive rights to sell deflazacort in the US for seven years.

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