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The Art of Technology
Updated: 3 hours 28 min ago

Roku becomes the brains for a new kind of smart TV

8/19/2014 12:00am

The Roku TVs announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January will finally make their way into stores in the next few weeks, according to releases from TCL and Hisense Monday. The TVs range in size from 32 to 55 inches and are close in price to their dumb-TV counterparts with an operating system that's meant to be an antidote to the average TV interface.

The Roku setup of content "channels" like Netflix, YouTube, and Rdio, as well as the customizable home screen, remain largely unchanged in the new sets. Since the TVs have to handle other inputs, the interface also treats other connected devices (a cable set-top box or a console, for instance) as selectable "channels" on the home screen. If the connected devices are powered on, the TV can show a live preview of what is currently playing within the selected channel box.

The Roku TVs will be packaged with a Roku-style remote, which eliminates most of the interface-tweaking buttons found on a standard TV remote. Instead, there are directional buttons that handle menus, which are curated so that the most commonly tweaked settings get the best placement, according to Roku's research. If users dig deeper, they can find the more granular display settings and other features that TV remotes usually let viewers access with a button press.

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TV broadcasters sue the FCC over upcoming spectrum auction

8/18/2014 10:10pm
Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters and a former US senator from Oregon. Center for the Study of Ethics

On Monday the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) filed a petition asking a federal court to object to the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) rules for an upcoming auction of TV airwaves to cellular providers. Although lawsuits challenging FCC actions are relatively common, if the court sides with the NAB, the 2015 spectrum auction could be delayed, and promises of improvements to cellular networks could prove illusory.

The auction, which was mandated by Congress two years ago, is the first of its kind, and it has TV broadcasters bristling. The FCC has been asking TV stations to give up their airwaves in exchange for a cut of the auction proceeds, at which point participating stations can either go out of business or “channel share,” an arrangement where two stations occupy the same airwaves. Still, vigorous lobbying on behalf of the broadcast industry ensured that all participation in the auction would be voluntary.

In the NAB's lawsuit today, the industry group said that it was unhappy with the protections the FCC had put in place for those TV stations that chose not to participate in the auction. In 2012, Congress ordered that after participating TV stations had relinquished their rights to their airwaves, the commission would reorder the spectrum, being careful to preserve the remaining broadcasters' coverage areas as much as possible. At the time of the congressional order, the FCC had relied on a specific methodology to determine a broadcaster's coverage area, but in June of this year, the FCC switched to another methodology, which the NAB says is unacceptable.

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Adam Carolla settles with podcasting patent troll, agrees to ‘quiet period’

8/18/2014 8:25pm
Carolla doing his podcast, earlier this month. Adam Carolla

After more than a year of litigation, podcaster and comedian Adam Carolla has reached a cease-fire with the well-known "patent troll" claiming to hold a patent that covers podcasting.

Carolla was sued for patent infringement in January 2013. He responded by fighting back, raising almost $500,000 in a crowd-funded campaign. The parties had a trial set for next month in East Texas.

Personal Audio LLC, the patent company, also sued TV networks CBS, NBC, and Fox over some of their Internet video-on-demand offerings, since it believes its patent covers some types of Internet "episodic content." The TV companies are continuing to litigate.

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Sprint says its network is behind, offers “double the data” of rivals

8/18/2014 8:15pm

Sprint announced new family plans today that provide 20GB of shared data for $100, calling it "double the high-speed data at a lower price than AT&T and Verizon Wireless."

New pricing options have been expected since last week when newly appointed Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure told employees that "When you have a great network, you don’t have to compete on price," according to Light Reading. But, "when your network is behind, unfortunately you have to compete on value and price."

AT&T and Verizon have the fastest and most reliable cellular networks in the US, according to a nationwide test conducted in late 2013. Sprint's network was the slowest among the four major carriers, but it ranked third in reliability, ahead of T-Mobile.

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Facebook’s route to becoming a reassurance machine

8/18/2014 7:35pm
Ewan McIntosh

As the protests in Ferguson, Missouri over police fatally shooting 19-year-old Mike Brown have raged through the past several nights, more than a few people have noticed how relatively quiet Facebook news feeds have been on the matter. While #Ferguson is a trending hashtag, Zeynep Tufekci pointed out at Medium that news about the violence was, as best, slow to percolate through her own feed, despite people posting liberally about it.

While I've been seeing the same political trending tags, my feed is mundane as usual: a couple is expecting a baby. A recreational softball team won a league championship. A few broader feel-good posts about actor Chris Pratt’s ice-bucket challenge to raise awareness and money for ALS, another friend’s ice-bucket challenge, another friend’s ice-bucket challenge… in fact, way more about ice bucket challenges than Ferguson or any other news-making event. In my news feed organized by top stories over the last day, I get one post about Ferguson. If I set it to organize by "most recent," there are five posts in the last five hours.

Zach Seward of Quartz noted, also anecdotally, that Facebook seems more likely to show videos of of people dumping cold water on their heads in high summer than police officers shooting tear gas at protesters and members of the media. And rightfully so in Facebook’s warped version of reality: people on Facebook may not be so interested in seeing the latter. At least, not if Facebook can’t show them the right angle. But Facebook’s algorithmic approach and the involvement of content sources is starting to come together such that it may soon be able to do exactly that.

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Which came last—The supernova or the red giant?

8/18/2014 5:40pm
A red giant star really is quite gigantic compared to our Sun. NASA

Radioactive decay is a powerful tool. The predictable decay of radioactive isotopes can be used for far more than just dating old rocks. Scientists have used radioactive isotopes to determine the age of the Earth and the age of the Solar System itself. Now, a team of scientists has used radioactive dating to study the pre-history of the Solar System more accurately than before, in the process reconciling data that had seemed to be contradictory.

The contradiction came in the form of data from two different isotopes. The radioactive elements iodine-129 and hafnium-182 are found throughout meteoroids in the Solar System. The abundance of those elements, in relation to the abundance of their non-radioactive counterparts, should give estimates of the time when those elements were produced. The problem is that the date calculated from the iodine (~72 million years prior to the Sun’s formation) does not match the date from the hafnium (~15 million years). Since the two elements should have been produced in the same event (typically a supernova), this was quite a problem.

Both these isotopes are produced via a neutron-capture process. Under certain conditions, an atomic nucleus can pick up a loose neutron. While it remains the same element, it ends up being a different isotope with a different atomic weight. There are two known types of neutron-capture processes: the s-process and the r-process.

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New website aims to publicly shame apps with lax security (UPDATED)

8/18/2014 5:15pm
HTTP Shaming's ethos is even on a fridge. Tony Webster, HTTP Shaming

The amount of personal data traveling to and from the Internet has exploded, yet many applications and services continue to put user information at risk by not encrypting data sent over wireless networks. Software engineer Tony Webster has a classic solution—shame. 

Webster decided to see if a little public humiliation could convince companies to better secure their customers' information. On Saturday, the consultant created a website, HTTP Shaming, and began posting cases of insecure communications, calling out businesses that send their customers' personal information to the Internet without encrypting it first.

One high-profile example includes well-liked travel-information firm TripIt. TripIt allows users to bring together information on their tickets, flight times, and itinerary and then sync it with other devices and share the information with friends and co-workers. Information shared with calendar applications, however, is not encrypted, Webster says, leaving it open to eavesdropping on public networks. Among the details that could be plucked from the air by anyone on the same wireless network: a user's full name, phone number, e-mail address, the last four digits of a credit card number, and emergency contact information. An attacker could even change or cancel the victim's flight, he says.

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Linux-on-the-desktop pioneer Munich now considering a switch back to Windows

8/18/2014 4:51pm

The world is still waiting for the year of Linux on the desktop, but in 2003 it looked as if that goal was within reach. Back then, the city of Munich announced plans to switch from Microsoft technology to Linux on 14,000 PCs belonging to the city's municipal government. While the scheme suffered delays, it was completed in December 2013. There's only been one small problem: users aren't happy with the software, and the government isn't happy with the price.

The switch was motivated by a desire to reduce licensing costs and end the city's dependence on a single company. City of Munich PCs were running Windows NT 4, and the end of support for that operating system meant that it was going to incur significant licensing costs to upgrade. In response, the plan was to migrate to OpenOffice and Debian Linux. Later, the plan was updated to use LibreOffice and Ubuntu.

German media is reporting that the city is now considering a switch back to Microsoft in response to these complaints. The city is putting together an independent expert group to look at the problem, and if that group recommends using Microsoft software, Deputy Mayor Josef Schmid of the CSU party says that a switch back isn't impossible.

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Analyst: Downloadable titles make up 92% of PC games market

8/18/2014 4:25pm

Anyone paying vague attention to the PC games market has long known that it's a space dominated by downloadable titles. Still, it's a bit astounding to hear a report estimating that a full 92 percent of PC game sales in 2013 came from digital downloads, as DFC Intelligence recently told British tech site PCR.

That may sound high, even to people who haven't bought a PC game on a disc for years, but it lines up with other numbers reported throughout the industry. Last year, Payday 2 publisher Starbreeze announced that 80 percent of its 1.58 million first-month sales came from downloads, for instance. And let's not forget the scores of PC games that are totally ignoring retail sales for 100 percent downloadable releases these days, from Dota 2 to Day Z.

Download-dominated PC gaming is a newer phenomenon than some gamers might realize. As recently as 2010, analyst firm NPD was estimating that downloads made up only 48 percent of all PC game sales.

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Delaware becomes first state to give executors broad digital assets access

8/18/2014 4:15pm
Tim Redpath

Delaware has become the first state in the US to enact a law that ensures families’ rights to access the digital assets of loved ones during incapacitation or after death.

Last week, Gov. Jack Markell signed House Bill (HB) 345, “Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets and Digital Accounts Act,” which gives heirs and executors the same authority to take legal control of a digital account or device, just as they would take control of a physical asset or document.

Earlier this year, the Uniform Law Commission, a non-profit group that lobbies to enact model legislations across all jurisdictions in the United States, adopted its Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA). Delaware is the first state to take the UFADAA and turn it into a bona fide law.

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Rightscorp’s new plan: Pay our copyright fees, or we take your browser

8/18/2014 2:15pm

Internet copyright enforcer Rightscorp has told investors some revelatory details about its strategy in its second-quarter earnings call, as reported by TorrentFreak.

Rightscorp was founded to be a kind of RIAA-lite, getting online pirates to pay record companies and other rights-holders without the need to resort to high-stakes litigation. Instead, it creates e-mail notices demanding $20 per song from users it deems "repeat infringers" and insists that ISPs forward those notices.

The company is growing fast, but is still way, way in the red. Last year it earned $324,000 in revenue, while spending more than $2.1 million to run its operations. This year it's earning more revenue: $440,414 in the first six months of the year. However, operating costs during the same period have already hit $1.8 million.

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“Biochip” loaded with DNA lets researchers study gene activity

8/18/2014 2:05pm

Mayo Clinic Gene Expression Core Gene expression is the process by which the DNA of genes is used to produce proteins that perform essential roles as enzymes, hormones, antibodies, and more. However, this complex process is not fully understood because it varies dramatically due to environmental factors, developmental stages, and diseases. We’d like a better understanding of gene expression, but finding a system that allows it to be studied free of extraneous influences has been difficult.

Researchers may have overcome this obstacle with the development of a biochip that contains an array of artificial “cells” that enable the precise study of how gene expression changes with time. This system could be used to investigate how different cells change their activity as development proceeds or in response to environmental changes.

The biochip was constructed by assembling bundles of DNA on the surface of circular silicon compartments (50 μm radius and 1-3 μm height). Thin capillaries were used to connect DNA compartments to a channel that provided nutrients and energy. Researchers were able to observe stable gene expression and expression patterns that changed over time by tracking the presence of green fluorescent protein (GFP) expressed from the DNA.

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Arrest over Twitter parody of mayor wasn’t “unreasonable,” Peoria says

8/18/2014 1:30pm
The @peoriamayor Twitter account.

The Illinois city that arrested a local man for parodying its mayor on Twitter said Monday that the prankster's detainment wasn't "unreasonable."

The arrest of Jonathan Daniel by Peoria authorities in April made national headlines, and the 29-year-old cook sued in federal court, claiming civil rights violations.

In its first response to the lawsuit, the city of Peoria's and Mayor Jim Ardis' attorney told Ars that the mayor and city officials believed Daniel was breaching an Illinois law making it illegal to impersonate a public official. The mayor's attorney said city officials got a judge to issue warrants from Twitter and Comcast to track down Daniel. In short, they were just following the law.

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49ers’ ubiquitous stadium Wi-Fi network delivers to full house in NFL debut

8/18/2014 12:41pm
Levi's Stadium crowd on August 17, 2014. Jim Bahn

The San Francisco 49ers' massive Wi-Fi network delivered to its first NFL crowd yesterday when the home team took on the Denver Broncos in a preseason game at the just-opened Levi's Stadium.

Mobile Sports Report Editor Paul Kapustka tested the network in person during the game and detailed his findings extensively.

"In its first 'real' test with an almost-full house on Sunday the Levi’s Wi-Fi and cellular networks seemed to work well throughout the game, delivering solid speed test results from almost every part of the new 68,500-seat facility," Kapustka wrote. In an outside concourse, Kapustka got speeds of 57.92Mbps down and 41Mbps up. He still got more than 20Mbps in both directions inside near the concession stands, while Mbps dropped to the teens in the seats, still plenty fast enough to qualify as broadband.

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Best Buy listing pegs the Moto 360 at $249, reveals spec sheet

8/18/2014 12:00pm
Droid Life

Over the weekend, Best Buy posted the product page for the Moto 360 a bit early, revealing specs and pricing for Motorola's long-awaited smartwatch. The most noteworthy part of the listing is the price, a surprisingly low $249. That's only slightly more than the less-fashionable square watches from Samsung ($199) and LG ($229).

Best Buy showed specs that claim the device is equipped with 802.11N Wi-Fi hardware, which a tiny watch battery surely can't handle. Because smartwatches use smartphone SoCs, most have a Wi-Fi hardware that's kept switched off, so unless Motorola has worked some serious battery magic, we doubt the 360's will be active.

The other surprise is the mention of a Texas Instruments SoC. The company had worked with Motorola before on devices like the Droid, but it decided to quit making smartphone chips after the high-end smartphone market was dominated by Qualcomm. If the Best Buy listing is right, that decision apparently left the door open for low-powered devices like smartwatches.

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Magnitude 8.2 earthquake off Chile increased risk nearby

8/18/2014 11:30am
Damage following the tsunami from the April 2014 earthquake. Juan González-Carrasco (Universidad Catolica del Norte, Chile)

Sometimes it seems like the Internet holds as many ridiculous claims about predicting earthquakes as it does cat memes. While it’s very clear that neither seismologists nor anyone else can fully predict earthquakes, that doesn’t mean the scientists know nothing.

The basic process behind an earthquake is pretty simple. Friction between two blocks of rock trying to slide past each other along a fault holds them in place until the sliding force is too great, and then BOOM!—an earthquake. We can measure that sliding very precisely, so as the strain on the fault mounts, we know an earthquake will happen; it’s just a question of when. And the greater the strain that has accumulated since the last earthquake, the larger the potential magnitude of the next one.

Along a long subduction zone, where an oceanic plate slides beneath a continental plate, faults slip one section at a time. Sections that haven’t slipped in a while but sit between sites of recent major earthquakes are known as “seismic gaps.” Those sections are likely to host the next major earthquake in the region.

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KDE Plasma 5—For those Linux users undecided on the kernel’s future

8/17/2014 9:00pm

Finally, the KDE project has released KDE Plasma 5, a major new version of the venerable K Desktop Environment.

Plasma 5 arrives in the middle of an ongoing debate about the future of the Linux desktop. On one hand there are the brand new desktop paradigms represented by GNOME and Unity. Both break from the traditional desktop model in significant ways, and both attempt to create interfaces that will work on the desktop and the much-anticipated, tablet-based future (which may or may not ever arrive).

Linux desktops like KDE, XFCE, LXDE, Mate, and even Cinnamon are the other side of the fence. None has re-invented itself too much. They continue to offer users a traditional desktop experience, which is not to say these projects aren't growing and refining. All of them continue to turn out incremental releases that fine tune what is a well-proven desktop model.

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A brief history of USB, what it replaced, and what has failed to replace it

8/17/2014 7:10pm
We've all had this first-world problem, but USB is still leagues better than what came before. Sheepfilms

Like all technology, USB has evolved over time. Despite being a “Universal” Serial Bus, in its 18-or-so years on the market it has spawned multiple versions with different connection speeds and many, many types of cables.

The USB Implementers Forum, the group of companies that oversees the standard, is fully cognizant of this problem, which it wants to solve with a new type of cable dubbed Type-C. This plug is designed to replace USB Type-A and Type-B ports of all sizes on phones, tablets, computers, and other peripherals. Type-C will support the new, faster USB 3.1 spec with room to grow beyond that as bandwidth increases.

It's possible that in a few years, USB Type-C will have become the norm, totally replacing the tangled nest of different cables that we all have balled up in our desk drawers. For now, it’s just another excuse to pass around that dog-eared XKCD comic about the proliferation of standards. While we wait to see whether Type-C will save us from cable hell or just contribute to it, let’s take a quick look at where USB has been over the years, what competing standards it has fought against, and what technologies it will continue to grapple with in the future.

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After Blue Screen of Death reports, Microsoft says to uninstall recent patch

8/17/2014 6:15pm

On Friday, Microsoft recommended uninstalling a recent security update following reports that it caused Blue Screens of Death.

ComputerWorld reports that the patch—MS 14-045—was first announced on August 12 before it received further attention on Friday. The patch intended to fix three issues including one in the Windows kernel. But soon after it was initially released, a Microsoft support forum thread sprung up with tales of "Stop 0x50 errors," aka blue screens. (ComputerWorld notes the thread has surpassed 50,000 views within the week.)

Microsoft's updated information page for the patch includes an official, relatively detail-free explanation:

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Feds: Red light camera firm paid for Chicago official’s car, condo

8/17/2014 5:30pm
Yousuf Fahimuddin

The former chief executive officer of Redflex, a major red light camera (RLC) vendor, has been indicted on federal corruption charges stemming from a contract with the City of Chicago.

On Wednesday, in addition to former CEO Karen Finley, government prosecutors also indicted John Bills, former managing deputy commissioner at the Department of Transportation, and Bills’ friend Martin O’Malley, who was hired as a contractor by Redflex.

According to the indictment, O’Malley himself was paid $2 million for his services as a contractor, effectively making him one of the company’s highest paid workers. Much of that money was then funneled to Bills, who used it for personal gain. Via Redflex employees, Bills also acquired a Mercedes and a condominium in Arizona. In December 2013, Ars reported on red light cameras nationwide, and in particular, Redflex's four cameras in the central California town of Modesto.

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