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The Art of Technology
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Op-Ed: Microsoft layoff e-mail typifies inhuman corporate insensitivity

7/17/2014 4:01pm
Satya Nadella and former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop in a photo-op.

As a veteran of the aerospace industry, I’m very familiar with layoff notices. During the almost-decade I spent working for Boeing, I survived probably a dozen major reductions in force, and they all had two things in common: a plainly stated promise of an open and transparent process and a hilariously terrible lack of actual transparency.

Well, congratulations to Satya Nadella and the Microsoft HR and communications teams, because you’re stealing from the best—or maybe you all took the same course in corporate doubletalk and truthiness as part of your MBA programs. Microsoft this morning announced far and away the largest round of layoffs in its history, and Nadella’s e-mail drips with that familiar mixture of faux sympathy and non-information that is so typical of carefully managed corporate communication.

There’s a name for this kind of uninformative spin-talk: it’s known as "ducking and fucking."

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US agency that regulates Internet service too poor to build a good website

7/17/2014 3:25pm
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler speaking to the cable industry in April 2014. NCTA

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says budget constraints have forced his agency "to operate with an IT infrastructure that would be unacceptable to any well-managed business." This is why the FCC website has crashed multiple times when inundated by people trying to submit comments on the commission's network neutrality plan, Wheeler says.

The comments website relies on a backend system created in 1996. To handle the influx of comments, the FCC extended the deadline and set up an e-mail address that could accept comments into the official record.

And it could get worse, as Congress is fighting over whether to cut the FCC's budget or approve a requested funding increase.

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Detailed imaging of Mount Rainier shows subduction zone in glorious detail

7/17/2014 3:15pm
A cross section of Washington's Cascade Range from west to east (left to right) passing near Mt. Rainier, indicated by a red triangle. The colors represent electrical resistivity, with red being low. Contour lines show temperature in degrees Celsius. Small red circles show the centers of earthquakes. McGary et al/Nature

Most people know that the Pacific Ring of Fire is related to boundaries between tectonic plates, but there’s a common misconception about where the magma comes from to fuel those volcanoes. At those boundaries, called subduction zones, a plate made of denser oceanic crust dives beneath a continent (or another oceanic plate). It’s not that the diving plate heats up and melts as it sinks downward, though.

Actually, the minerals in the diving plate contain lots of water, and that water migrates upward as the plate slowly warms up. The addition of water to hot mantle rocks lowers the melting point of the rock, and this effect is enough to convert some mantle rock into magma. Since magma is less dense than solid rock, it works its way upward toward the surface, resulting in the arcs of volcanoes we see along subduction zones.

Within this simplified picture, however, there are complexities and open questions. Does the water simply rise directly into the mantle rocks above, or does it take a more tortuous path? Is that water the cause of all the magma production in an area, or does some magma form because the flow of mantle rock brings some up to lower pressures where it can melt?

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New York state proposes sweeping Bitcoin regulations—and they’re strict

7/17/2014 2:50pm

The New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) has issued proposed regulations for Bitcoin and other related cryptocurrency businesses that operate in the Empire State. The most significant change is that anyone doing business with a firm operating under these rules won’t be pseudonymous, much less anonymous—in direct contradiction to one of the defining characteristics of Bitcoin.

The new so-called BitLicense framework was published (PDF) for the first time on Thursday, and it includes numerous provisions for consumer protection, anti-money laundering, and other new rules to prevent fraud, abuse, and loss. The rules require that company founders and employees submit to fingerprint and background checks and that the companies retain 10 years of transaction records.

“We have sought to strike an appropriate balance that helps protect consumers and root out illegal activity—without stifling beneficial innovation,” Benjamin M. Lawsky, superintendent of financial services, said in a statement.

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First on Microsoft’s chopping block: Original shows for Xbox

7/17/2014 1:45pm
Once all shows in production are released, we won't see much more of this logo.

Microsoft is closing Xbox Entertainment Studios, the arm producing the company's original video programming, according to a report from Re/code Thursday. The closing is part of the reported restructuring at Microsoft that will eliminate 18,000 jobs in the next 12 months.

Microsoft's big push into original content was meant to kick into high gear at the beginning of the summer. Ars was briefed back in April on some of the upcoming shows, including the sci-fi thriller Humans, the reality show Fearless, and the comedy variety show JASH in the Box. The slate of content was part of the culmination of the Xbox One's relentless focus on "TV" to draw in casual consumers. But between Xbox One's reveal and launch, the company did a 360 and walked away from the entertainment angle, as it was alienating the enthusiasts and early adopters that the company relies on in a console's early days.

It's only been a few weeks since keystone World-Cup-focused series Every Street United debuted, so Xbox Entertainment Studios' chance at entertainment victory has been cut short. Re/code cites a "disorganized studio" and lack of a "fully fleshed out business model" as reasons behind the closure.

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Snowden: NSA employees routinely pass around intercepted nude photos

7/17/2014 12:39pm
The Guardian

Edward Snowden has revealed that he witnessed “numerous instances” of National Security Agency (NSA) employees passing around nude photos that were intercepted “in the course of their daily work.”

In a 17-minute interview with The Guardian filmed at a Moscow hotel and published on Thursday, the NSA whistleblower addressed numerous points, noting that he could “live with” being sent to the US prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He also again dismissed any notion that he was a Russian spy or agent—calling those allegations “bullshit.”

If Snowden’s allegations of sexual photo distribution are true, they would be consistent with what the NSA has already reported. In September 2013, in a letter from the NSA’s Inspector General Dr. George Ellard to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the agency outlined a handful of instances during which NSA agents admitted that they had spied on their former love interests. This even spawned a nickname within the agency, LOVEINT—a riff on HUMINT (human intelligence) or SIGINT (signals intelligence).

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How elite hackers (almost) stole the NASDAQ

7/17/2014 12:33pm
Bloomberg Businessweek

In 2010, elite hackers, most likely from Russia, used at least two zero-day vulnerabilities to penetrate the computer network operated by Nasdaq Stock Market, a hack that allowed them to roam unmolested for months and plant destructive malware designed to cause disruptions, according to a media report published Thursday.

The intrusion initially caught the attention of officials inside the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and departments of Defense, Treasury, and Homeland Security for two reasons, Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Michael Riley reported in an article headlined How Russian Hackers Stole the Nasdaq. One, it appeared to be the work of hackers sponsored by Russia or another powerful nation-state. Two, far from the typical espionage campaigns that merely siphon out secret data, the malware involved in the attack contained what early on appeared to be a digital bomb that could cause serious damage.

Riley's 3,100-word cover article traces the resulting federal investigation, which also involved the FBI, Secret Service, the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, and on at least three occasions, briefings provided to President Barack Obama. Ultimately, analysis of the malware showed its capabilities were less destructive than earlier believed, but there was still cause for concern. As Ars reported last year, it came around the same time that five eastern European men allegedly breached networks belonging to Nasdaq and at least seven other financial institutions. According to federal prosecutors, one of the suspects, upon gaining persistent control over the world's second biggest stock exchange, proclaimed "NASDAQ is owned."

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1 Million comments on net neutrality, most since “wardrobe malfunction”

7/17/2014 12:20pm

The FCC's network neutrality proceeding passed the 1 million comment mark today, further cementing its place as one of the most popular topics the commission has ever tackled.

The latest count provided by an FCC spokesperson was 1,030,000 comments, including those filed on the commission website and those sent to an FCC e-mail address ( that accepts comments into the official record. This is the most for a single docket item.

"The next highest count for a single docket was the Universal Service docket 96-45," which had 237,280 comments in 1996, FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield told Ars.

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Aereo: So, we’re a cable company, right? US Copyright Office: Um, no

7/17/2014 11:27am

TV-over-the-Internet startup Aereo has one last legal argument it's going to use to try to keep itself alive, but it failed to gain any traction at the US Copyright Office.

The Supreme Court ruled against Aereo last month, saying the company can't keep using arrays of tiny antennas to justify its streaming of TV broadcasts over the Internet. In a 6-3 opinion, the high court found that Aereo looks too much like a cable company to re-broadcast for free.

In a last-ditch effort, Aereo has tried to embrace the ruling, offering to pay the state-set retransmission fees that cable companies must pay to copyright holders. The retransmission fees are low, around one percent of revenue for a cable company.

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Microsoft: Xbox One sales double in US following Kinect unbundling

7/17/2014 10:59am
Kyle Orland

Back in March, Microsoft Xbox Group Program Manager David Dennis told Ars that Kinect was the kind of thing that "once you take out, lots of people will go, 'Gosh, I really liked that, I got used to it, and I'm going to miss it." Dennis appears to be mistaken, as Microsoft has announced that Xbox One sales in the US more than doubled in June compared to May, following the availability of a $400 Kinect-free version of the system.

Microsoft didn't go into specific sales numbers in its announcement, and the company failed to publicly reveal US sales for May, so that doubling could mean that Xbox One sales have gone from "very low" to "larger but still low." Microsoft had sold 5 million Xbox One units to consumers worldwide as of early April, a number that far outpaced the Xbox 360 at this point in its lifecycle, though it still trails the 7 million sales of the PS4 at about the same time.

Microsoft also didn't break down what proportion of the increased sales came from the lower-priced Kinect-free bundles, meaning it's technically possible that many more people suddenly decided to buy $500 Kinect bundles last month for some reason (maybe they're just really excited for the upcoming Dance Central game?) Microsoft still hasn't announced the availability of a standalone version of Kinect 2.0 for Xbox One, either, so those going the $400 route would have to buy the peripheral secondhand if they decide they really want to play Kinect Sports Rivals right now.

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With many-worlds, all quantum mechanics is local

7/17/2014 10:51am
In the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, Schrödinger's cat is both alive and dead—in different universes. University of Houston/Andrew Boyd

Quantum nonlocality, perhaps one of the most mysterious features of quantum mechanics, may not be a real phenomenon. Or at least that’s what a new paper in the journal PNAS asserts. Its author claims that nonlocality is nothing more than an artifact of the Copenhagen interpretation, the most widely accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Nonlocality is a feature of quantum mechanics where particles are able to influence each other instantaneously regardless of the distance between them, an impossibility in classical physics. Counterintuitive as it may be, nonlocality is currently an accepted feature of the quantum world, apparently verified by many experiments. It’s achieved such wide acceptance that even if our understandings of quantum physics turn out to be completely wrong, physicists think some form of nonlocality would be a feature of whatever replaced it.

The term “nonlocality” comes from the fact that this “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein famously called it, seems to put an end to our intuitive ideas about location. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, so if two quantum particles can influence each other faster than light could travel between the two, then on some level, they act as a single system—there must be no real distance between them.

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DARPA funds development of space plane for cheaper, faster satellite launches

7/17/2014 10:27am
An artist's conceptual rendering of the XS-1 launching a satellite payload into orbit. DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking for a way to reduce the cost and scheduling constraints that affect satellite launches by borrowing a page from Richard Branson’s space playbook. This week, DARPA announced the kickoff of the Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program, an unmanned reusable hypersonic vehicle that would carry a disposable second stage into suborbital space, launch it, and glide back to Earth—and be ready to be relaunched the next day.

The goal of the program is to dramatically shrink the cost of putting 3,000- to 5,000-pound satellites into orbit, down to under $5 million per launch. That’s pocket change compared to current space launches, which can cost from 10 to nearly 100 times that amount.

A DARPA conceptual video of the XS-1.

DARPA has picked three two-company teams to build demonstration vehicles for the project:

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French blogger fined €1,500 for writing negative restaurant review

7/17/2014 10:14am

A French blogger has been fined €1,500 ($2,434) after being sued for writing a negative blog post about a restaurant.

Caroline Doudet was sued by the restaurant's owner because her blog post featured highly on Google searches for the restaurant, Il Giardino in Cap-Ferret, southwest France.

"I was really stunned and disgusted, and of course I will worry now [whenever I] write a negative review," Doudet said of the effect of the case in an e-mail to "I regret the article, because it's so much noise for nothing."

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Microsoft job cuts far worse than rumored, could reach 18,000

7/17/2014 10:04am
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella addressing employees. Microsoft

Earlier this week, we reported on rumors that Microsoft would be undergoing the largest round of layoffs in the company’s history. Sources were initially saying that 5,800 or more employees would be let go during the company’s FY2015 (which started on July 1), but the full scope of the cuts was announced in an e-mail from CEO Satya Nadella this morning, and reality significantly eclipses rumor.

"We will begin to reduce the size of our overall workforce by up to 18,000 jobs in the next year," reads Nadella’s e-mail. Microsoft’s total employee base right now is just over 127,000, so a loss of 18,000 jobs would be approximately 14 percent of all Microsoft employees worldwide.

Of course, the cuts won’t be spread equally across divisions. As expected, the majority of the cuts will affect legacy Nokia employees—about 12,500—which according to Nadella will be include "both professional and factory workers." According to Re/code’s analysis, this is about half of the Nokia Devices and Services unit.

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Biggest “patent troll” slapped down hard by appeals court

7/17/2014 9:49am
Johan Blomström

The most litigious "patent troll" in the US has lost a major case after the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found its patent was too abstract.

The ruling from last week is one of the first to apply new Supreme Court guidance about when ideas are too "abstract" to be patented. In the recent Alice v. CLS Bank case, the high court made clear that adding what amounts to fancy computer language to patents on basic ideas shouldn't hold up in court.

The patents in this case describe a type of "device profile" that allows digital images to be accurately displayed on different devices. US Patent No. 6,128,415 was originally filed by Polaroid in 1996. After a series of transfers, in 2012 the patent was sold to Digitech Image Technologies, a branch of Acacia Research Corporation, the largest publicly traded patent assertion company. A study on "patent trolls" by RPX found that Acacia Research Corporation was the most litigious troll of 2013, having filed 239 patent lawsuits last year.

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AT&T shows off “holiday” lineup, including the new HTC Desire 610

7/17/2014 9:23am"xrailTop", {sz:"300x250", kws:["top"], collapse: true});NEW YORK CITY—It may only be July, but don't tell that to AT&T, which just hosted its "AT&T Holiday Showcase" in New York City. Judging by this event, the Wireless provider's holiday lineup consists of the Amazon Fire Phone, the new HTC Desire 610, HTC One M8, Samsung Tab 8, the Asus PadFone X, and, apparently, a Buick.

Yes, GM was in attendance with a 2015 Buick Regal GS, which featured an integrated 4G hotspot. GM is rolling out 4G to a large portion of its product line, basically creating the "fastest" (in terms of MPH), most expensive hotspot ever. The Regal is basically a giant cell phone, but sadly, the GM rep couldn't tell us where the SIM card goes.

While it will increase your cell phone bill, a car can be equipped with a much larger antenna than your smartphone, resulting in better reception and faster downloads. The "shark fin" antenna also benefits reception by being on the roof of the vehicle—saving the signal from having to penetrate a metal box should greatly increase reception.

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How Comcast became a powerful—and controversial—part of the Internet backbone

7/17/2014 9:00am
Aurich Lawson

There’s no bigger Internet service provider in the United States than Comcast, and perhaps none is more controversial.

Comcast has struggled to win the hearts of its TV and Internet subscribers for years, regularly faring poorly in customer satisfaction surveys. Yet, somehow it has managed to become an even bigger lightning rod over the first half of this year.

The latest controversies involve a crucial part of the Internet that many Americans are likely unfamiliar with: the interconnections between last-mile Internet service providers like Comcast and the companies that distribute traffic from content providers such as Netflix.

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Air Force research: How to use social media to control people like drones

7/17/2014 7:45am
The same math that researchers use to control swarms of drones can be used, in theory, to control you on social media. Doodybutch

Facebook isn’t the only organization conducting research into how attitudes are affected by social media. The Department of Defense has invested millions of dollars over the past few years investigating social media, social networks, and how information spreads across them. While Facebook and Cornell University researchers manipulated what individuals saw in their social media streams, military-funded research—including projects funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Social Media in Strategic Communications (SMISC) program—has looked primarily into how messages from influential members of social networks propagate.

One study, funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), has gone a step further. “A less investigated problem is once you’ve identified the network, how do you manipulate it toward an end,” said Warren Dixon, a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering and director of the University of Florida’s Nonlinear Controls and Robotics research group. Dixon was the principal investigator on an Air Force Research Laboratory-funded project, which published its findings in February in a paper entitled “Containment Control for a Social Network with State-Dependent Connectivity.”

The research demonstrates that the mathematical principles used to control groups of autonomous robots can be applied to social networks in order to control human behavior. If properly calibrated, the mathematical models developed by Dixon and his fellow researchers could be used to sway the opinion of social networks toward a desired set of behaviors—perhaps in concert with some of the social media “effects” cyber-weaponry developed by the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ.

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Darwin’s complete Galapagos library posted online

7/16/2014 4:40pm
Charles Darwin's massive ship library, including astounding drawings of species from far-off lands, meant he rarely had to come above-board while sailing on the Beagle in the 1830s. Darwin Online

Charles Darwin's five-year journey to and from the Galapagos Islands ended in 1836. While that was over two decades before the publication of On the Origin of Species, he credited his time on board the Beagle as a formative experience for his theory of evolution. That extended trip wasn't only spent studying local wildlife, especially during lengthy voyages at sea to and from home—Darwin also devoured a library of more than 400 volumes of text.

While many of those books were referenced in his later research, they were not preserved as a collection once the Beagle returned to England, leaving a gap in our understanding about the books and studies that kept Darwin's mind occupied during such an historic era. Now, thanks to the painstaking efforts of a two-year Beagle project funded by the government of Singapore, that complete on-ship library has been transcribed and posted at Darwin Online, the world's largest repository of Darwin-related texts and writings.

The library, which was stored in the same cabin as Darwin's bed and desk during his journey, totaled out at 195,000 pages by the time researchers at the National University of Singapore assembled the full collection (and these weren't exactly picture books, with only 5,000 corresponding illustrations). The complete list is quite astounding, made up of atlases, history books, geology studies, and even a giant supply of literature. Darwin also enjoyed a few books in French, Spanish, and German, along with a book in Latin about species and a Greek edition of the New Testament.

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Bitcoin pool commits to 40% hashrate limit after its 51% breach

7/16/2014 4:33pm

Bitcoin pool announced on Wednesday that “it is not aiming to overcome 39.99 [percent] of the overall Bitcoin hashrate."

This marks a clear departure from the large pool’s recent flirtations with 51 percent. If that threshold is crossed for sustained periods of time, it concentrates power in ways that Bitcoin’s decentralized design normally does not allow.

“If approaches the respective border, it will be actively asking miners to take their hardware away from and mine on other pools,” the statement continues. “ will encourage other mining pools to write similar voluntary statements from their sides.”

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