Review: The Stand starts out strong and then whiffs the landing

ArsTechnica - Sat, 2021/02/13 - 18:15

Enlarge / James Marsden, Alexander Skarsgård, Whoopi Goldberg, and Amber Heard are among the ensemble cast of a new miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's sprawling 1978 novel, The Stand. (credit: CBS All Access)

A deadly virus wipes out most of the human population, and the survivors find themselves caught in an apocalyptic battle between good and evil in The Stand, the latest miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's sprawling 1978 novel. But despite a strong start, terrific performances from the all-star ensemble cast, and impressive production values, as a story, The Stand starts unraveling midway through, culminating in a meandering, seemingly pointless finale.

(Spoilers for the book below; a few major spoilers for the new miniseries below the gallery. We'll give you a heads-up when we get there.)

As we reported previouslyThe Stand is widely considered to be among King's best work, with a sprawling cast of characters and multiple storylines. It's also his longest, with the 1990 Complete and Uncut Edition surpassing even It in page count. King has said he wanted to write an epic dark fantasy akin to The Lord of the Rings, only with a contemporary American setting. "Instead of a hobbit, my hero was a Texan named Stu Redman, and instead of a Dark Lord, my villain was a ruthless drifter and supernatural madman named Randall Flagg," King wrote in his 1981 nonfiction book, Danse Macabre. "The land of Mordor ('where the shadows lie,' according to Tolkien) was played by Las Vegas."

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China refused to hand over key data to WHO team probing pandemic’s origin

ArsTechnica - Sat, 2021/02/13 - 17:41

Enlarge / Liang Wannian (2nd L) and Peter Ben Embarek (3rd R) both members of the WHO-China joint study team, shake hands after the WHO-China joint study press conference in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, Feb. 9, 2021. (credit: Getty | Xinhua News Agency )

The Chinese government failed to share key data on early COVID-19 cases with a team of international scientists investigating how the pandemic began.

The researchers had requested raw data on 174 of the very first COVID-19 cases identified in Wuhan, China during December 2019, as well as other cases. But the team—assembled by the World Health Organization—was only given a summary of those early cases, according to multiple media reports.

Having such detailed patient data from the start of an outbreak is “standard practice for an outbreak investigation,” Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious diseases expert and WHO team member, told Reuters in an interview Saturday. Dwyer emphasized that data on those 174 cases is particularly key because only half of them were connected to the Huanan seafood market, which was initially thought to be the source of the outbreak.

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The best Presidents’ Day tech deals we can find this weekend

ArsTechnica - Sat, 2021/02/13 - 13:55

Enlarge (credit: Ars Technica)

While Presidents' Day sales aren't exactly known as a bastion of tech deals, today's Dealmaster has found a few good discounts for those looking for new gadgets, games, and electronics gear.

Highlights from our roundup below include several deals on recommended Apple products, with the AirPods Pro marked down to $180—which is $60 off Apple's MSRP and tied for the second-lowest price we've tracked—the 64GB iPad Air down to a new low of $540, and the MagSafe Charger for iPhone 12 down to a new low of $34.

Elsewhere, we have a handful of deals on noteworthy laptops, including the 256GB version of Microsoft's Surface Laptop Go available for a new low of $700 and a few good value configurations of HP and Lenovo notebooks. We also have a truckload of discounts on video games for both consoles and PC, a near-low on LG's well-regarded CX OLED TV, and several discounts on wireless headphones and budget-friendly Amazon Fire HD tablets, among other offers. You can check out our full slate of curated discounts below.

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New details emerge about Google’s payments to link to French news sites

ArsTechnica - Sat, 2021/02/13 - 11:40

Enlarge / Google's main headquarters. (credit: Cyrus Farivar)

Google will pay $76 million over three years to 121 French news organizations to comply with a new French law requiring Google to pay when it uses "snippets" from news articles, Reuters reports. The payments range from $1.3 million paid to Le Monde to $13,741 for a local weekly newspaper called La Voix de la Haute Marne.

Reuters notes that "leading national dailies Le Monde, Le Figaro and Liberation and their respective groups negotiated about €3 million ($3.6 million) each per year on top of this, notably by agreeing in November to sell subscriptions through Google."

French law gave Google few options

These payments are the result of a shotgun marriage brokered by the French government. Until recently, Google insisted that it wouldn't pay a penny to link to news articles in France or elsewhere. When Spain passed legislation to force Google to pay to link to Spanish News organizations in 2014, Google responded by shutting down Google News in Spain.

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Bad Girls: Grindhouse chills, thrills, and kills shot on a $16K budget

ArsTechnica - Sat, 2021/02/13 - 11:00

You've probably never heard of the underground film industry in Columbia, South Carolina—which is understandable, since it has only produced three films in the last 10 years or so. Two of those films are by producer/director/person-with-a-dream Christopher Bickel, who finished his sophomore full-length movie effort Bad Girls just this month.

Bad Girls is an over-the-top grindhouse jam, packed full of sex, drugs, loud music, and ultraviolent action. The movie was shot on a budget of $16,000—approximately one-tenth the amount that Troma (probably the best-known ridiculously low-budget production company) spent making its first film in 1979.

The microscopic budget makes it almost impossible for Bad Girls to avoid the Dancing Bear trope—but despite the movie's lack of funds and semi-amateur cast and crew, Bad Girls delivers a thoroughly watchable experience to its target audience.

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Prosecutor charges former phone company employee in SIM-swap scheme

ArsTechnica - Sat, 2021/02/13 - 10:00

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

A former phone company worker has been charged with conspiracy to commit fraud for allegedly using his access to customer account data to take over the phone numbers of 19 customers, including at least one cryptocurrency holder.

Stephen Daniel DeFiore of Brandon, Florida, received about $2,325 between October 20, 2018, and November 9, 2018 in exchange for swapping the targeted customers’ SIM cards with ones belonging to a co-conspirator, prosecutors in New Orleans said earlier this week. For each SIM swap, the co-conspirator sent DeFiore the customer’s phone number, a four-digit PIN, and a SIM card number to which that phone number was to be swapped, prosecutors said.

The charges come eight months after federal prosecutors charged Richard Yuan Li of Hercules, California, with conspiracy to commit fraud for his alleged role in a SIM swap scam that targeted at least twenty people. Li was in possession of an iPhone 8 which the number of at least one of DeFiore's victims was routed to, prosecutors said.

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Carjackings are up—and gig workers are getting victimized

ArsTechnica - Sat, 2021/02/13 - 09:00

Enlarge / A DoorDash Inc. delivery person arranges an order in the back of a vehicle outside of a DoorDash Kitchens location in Redwood City, California. (credit: Bloomberg | Getty Images)

A DoorDash driver named Jeffrey Fang was returning to his minivan in San Francisco after completing a delivery last week when he noticed a stranger in his car. After a struggle, he told a local news outlet, another person, an accomplice, got behind the wheel and drove away. Fang’s children, 4 and 1, were still buckled inside.

Four hours later, after a frantic search by neighbors and law enforcement, the minivan was found in another San Francisco neighborhood, with the children safe and unhurt inside.

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A Windows Defender vulnerability lurked undetected for 12 years

ArsTechnica - Sat, 2021/02/13 - 08:10

Enlarge (credit: Drew Angerer | Getty Images)

Just because a vulnerability is old doesn't mean it's not useful. Whether it's Adobe Flash hacking or the EternalBlue exploit for Windows, some methods are just too good for attackers to abandon, even if they're years past their prime. But a critical 12-year-old bug in Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows Defender antivirus was seemingly overlooked by attackers and defenders alike until recently. Now that Microsoft has finally patched it, the key is to make sure hackers don't try to make up for lost time.

The flaw, discovered by researchers at the security firm SentinelOne, showed up in a driver that Windows Defender—renamed Microsoft Defender last year—uses to delete the invasive files and infrastructure that malware can create. When the driver removes a malicious file, it replaces it with a new, benign one as a sort of placeholder during remediation. But the researchers discovered that the system doesn't specifically verify that new file. As a result, an attacker could insert strategic system links that direct the driver to overwrite the wrong file or even run malicious code.

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Nvidia wants to buy CPU designer Arm—Qualcomm is not happy about it

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 18:26

Enlarge / Some current Arm licensees view the proposed acquisition as highly toxic. (credit: Aurich Lawson / Nvidia)

In September 2020, Nvidia announced its intention to buy Arm, the license holder for the CPU technology that powers the vast majority of mobile and high-powered embedded systems around the world.

Nvidia's proposed deal would acquire Arm from Japanese conglomerate SoftBank for $40 billion—a number which is difficult to put into perspective. Forty billion dollars would represent one of the largest tech acquisitions of all time, but 40 Instagrams or so doesn't seem like that much to pay for control of the architecture supporting every well-known smartphone in the world, plus a staggering array of embedded controllers, network routers, automobiles, and other devices.

Today’s Arm doesn’t sell hardware

Arm's business model is fairly unusual in the hardware space, particularly from a consumer or small business perspective. Arm's customers—including hardware giants such as Apple, Qualcomm, and Samsung—aren't buying CPUs the way you'd buy an Intel Xeon or AMD Ryzen. Instead, they're purchasing the license to design and/or manufacture CPUs based on Arm's intellectual property. This typically means selecting one or more reference core designs, putting several of them in one system on chip (SoC), and tying them all together with the necessary cache and other peripherals.

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State lawmakers override veto, become first in nation to tax online ads

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 17:58

Enlarge / None of these companies are keen to hand over a slice of their revenue to Maryland. (credit: Malik Evren | Getty Images)

Maryland today became the first state in the nation to impose a tax on digital advertising revenue, overriding an earlier veto from the governor and incurring the wrath of piles of Big Tech businesses that are all but guaranteed to sue.

The bill (PDF) levies a state tax of up to 10 percent on the annual gross revenues of all digital advertising aimed at users inside Maryland state. Proceeds from the new tax are explicitly earmarked to go into an education fund dedicated to improving Maryland public schools.

"Right now, they don’t contribute," the bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Bill Ferguson (D) said of the bill. "These platforms that have grown fast, and so enormously, should also have to contribute to the civic infrastructure that helped them become so successful."

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Report: NASA’s only realistic path for humans on Mars is nuclear propulsion

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 16:56

Enlarge / NASA originally studied nuclear thermal propulsion in the 1960s. Here is concept art for the Nuclear Energy for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) program. (credit: NASA)

Getting humans to Mars and back is rather hard. Insanely difficult, in fact. Many challenges confront NASA and other would-be Mars pioneers when planning missions to the red planet, but chief among them is the amount of propellant needed.

During the Apollo program 50 years ago, humans went to the Moon using chemical propulsion, which is to say rocket engines that burned liquid oxygen and hydrogen in a combustion chamber. This has its advantages, such as giving NASA the ability to start and stop an engine quickly, and the technology was then the most mature one for space travel. Since then, a few new in-space propulsion techniques have been devised. But none are better or faster for humans than chemical propulsion.

That's a problem. NASA has a couple of baseline missions for sending four or more astronauts to Mars, but relying on chemical propulsion to venture beyond the Moon probably won't cut it. The main reason is that it takes a whole lot of rocket fuel to send supplies and astronauts to Mars. Even in favorable scenarios where Earth and Mars line up every 26 months, a humans-to-Mars mission still requires 1,000 to 4,000 metric tons of propellant.

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Frontier raises sneaky “Internet Infrastructure Surcharge” from $4 to $7

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 16:38

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Peter Dazeley)

Frontier Communications is raising its sneaky "Internet Infrastructure Surcharge" from $4 to $7 later this month, widening the gap between its advertised broadband prices and the actual prices customers pay.

Telecom providers love to advertise low rates and then sock customers with bigger bills by charging separate fees for things that are part of the core service. In cable TV, that means customers see one advertised rate for a bundle of channels and then pay way more after the addition of "Broadcast TV" and "Regional Sports Network" fees that supposedly cover the costs of certain channels that are part of the bundle. With Frontier Internet service, customers pay the advertised rate for Internet service and then get hit with fees including the Internet Infrastructure Surcharge.

While some fees cover costs that providers must pay to the government, the Internet Infrastructure Surcharge is decidedly not one of them. In its list of fees, Frontier describes the surcharge as follows:

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Kombucha tea is trendy, but it has also inspired new “living materials”

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 15:33

Enlarge / Brewing kombucha tea. Note the trademark gel-like layer of SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). (credit: Olga Pankova/Getty Images)

Kombucha tea is all the rage these days as a handy substitute for alcoholic beverages and for its supposed health benefits. The chemistry behind this popular fermented beverage is also inspiring scientists at MIT and Imperial College London to create new kinds of tough "living materials" that could one day be used as biosensors, helping purify water or detect damage to "smart" packing materials, according to a recent paper published in Nature Materials.

You only need three basic ingredients to make kombucha. Just combine tea and sugar with a kombucha culture known as a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), aka the "mother," also known as a tea mushroom, tea fungus, or a Manchurian mushroom. (It's believed that kombucha tea originated in Manchuria, China, or possibly Russia.) It's basically akin to a sourdough starter. A SCOBY is a firm, gel-like collection of cellulose fiber (biofilm), courtesy of the active bacteria in the culture creating the perfect breeding ground for the yeast and bacteria to flourish. Dissolve the sugar in non-chlorinated boiling water, then steep some tea leaves of your choice in the hot sugar water before discarding them.

Once the tea cools, add the SCOBY and pour the whole thing into a sterilized beaker or jar. Then cover the beaker or jar with a paper towel or cheesecloth to keep out insects, let it sit for two to three weeks, and voila! You've got your own home-brewed kombucha. A new "daughter" SCOBY will be floating right at the top of the liquid (technically known in this form as a pellicle). But be forewarned: it's important to avoid contamination during preparation because drinking tainted kombucha can have serious, even fatal, adverse effects. And despite claims that drinking kombucha tea can treat aging, arthritis, cancer, constipation, diabetes, or even AIDS, to date there is no solid scientific evidence to back those claims.

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Open source video player VLC will get a new UI this year with 4.0 launch

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 14:44

Enlarge / An orange traffic cone has long been the logo and symbol for VLC media player.

News website Protocol ran an extensive piece on the history and status of the popular open source video player VLC, and the story includes new details about the next major version of the software. Among other things, VLC 4.0 will bring a complete user interface overhaul.

"We modified the interface to be a bit more modern," VideoLAN foundation President Jean-Baptiste Kempf told the publication. Kempf had previously shown some version of a new interface about two years ago, but it's unclear at this point how much that one resembles the one the team plans to introduce with VLC 4.0.

While the article doesn't list every change coming, it does outline a couple other possible directions and priorities for VLC.

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Facebook has been helping law enforcement identify Capitol rioters

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 14:00

Enlarge / Supporters of former President Donald Trump, including Jake Angeli, a QAnon supporter known for his painted face and horned hat, enter the US Capitol on January 6. (credit: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Facebook has gone out of its way to help law enforcement officials identify those who participated in the January 6 riot at the US Capitol, the company said in a Thursday conference call with reporters.

"We were appalled by the violence," said Monika Bickert, Facebook's vice president of content policy. "We were monitoring the assault in real time and made appropriate referrals to law enforcement to assist their efforts to bring those responsible to account."

She added that this "includes helping them identify people who posted photos of themselves from the scene, even after the attack was over" and that Facebook is "continuing to share more information with law enforcement in response to valid legal requests."

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Adding arthritis drug to current COVID treatment cuts deaths even more

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 13:37

Enlarge / A medical staff member adjusts a ventilator on a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) at the United Memorial Medical Center on December 2, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (credit: Getty | Go Nakamura)

An anti-inflammatory arthritis drug called tocilizumab modestly reduces deaths and hospital stays in patients with severe COVID-19, according to preliminary data from a randomized trial of over 4,000 patients.

Among hospitalized patients requiring oxygen in the trial, there were 596 deaths in the group of 2,022 patients randomly assigned to take tocilizumab—29 percent died—and 694 deaths in the group of 2,094 patients randomly assigned to standard care—33 percent died. That’s an absolute difference of 4 percent in deaths and a 14 percent drop in the relative rate of death.

Tocilizumab also appeared to shorten hospital stays, boosting the chances that surviving patients could leave the hospital within 28 days after randomization from 47 percent to 54 percent.

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New Xiaomi smartphone has an extra screen in… uh, the camera bump?

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 13:28

Xiaomi is gearing up to launch the Mi 11 Ultra as its next flagship smartphone, and one of the more interesting design touches is a tiny, postage-stamp-sized display in... uh, the camera bump? Filipino YouTuber Tech Buff brings us an exclusive leak of the device, which has some pixels where there are not normally pixels. If you're sitting there asking "why?" the answer is "attention." The answer is always "attention." We're writing about it right now, so it's totally working!

Tech Buff ended up taking the video down, but XDA Developers has a mirror of the video up on YouTube.

We don't have official specs, a launch date, or marketing info yet, but the phone seems to be a pretty standard 2021 flagship with a Snapdragon 888 SoC. The back features what has to be the world's biggest camera bump, with two big lenses, a "120x" periscope camera (that's not the actual optical zoom rating), and an LED flash. Next to all that normal camera stuff is a tiny little display, which seems to be the same aspect ratio as the front display and appears to simply mirror the front display at all times. The video shows the back screen keeping up with the front screen as the user navigates around in a few apps. Hopefully, you can turn it off, too, for privacy's sake.

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CD Projekt Red source code reportedly sells for millions in dark Web auction [Updated]

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 13:04

Enlarge / This bird has been hacked!

Earlier this week, CD Projekt Red announced that it had been hit with a ransomware attack that allegedly exposed the source code for games including Cyberpunk 2077, Gwent, and The Witcher 3. Now, security experts are reporting that the source code has been auctioned off on a dark Web forum, seemingly for millions of dollars.

VX Underground, which tracks ransomware and other malware attacks, noted on Wednesday that the ransomed source code had been posted on a dark Web forum known as EXPLOIT. The starting bid was reportedly $1 million, with a $500,000 bidding increment and $7 million "buy it now" price.

Cyber intelligence firm KELA confirmed the authenticity of that auction, telling The Verge that forum users needed to put up 0.1 BTC (roughly $4,700 as of this writing) to participate in the bidding as a sign that offers were legitimate. The sellers also reportedly provided file listings for Gwent and the Red Engine that underlies CDPR's games as proof that the data was authentic.

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Listen to haunting notes from an 18,000-year-old conch shell trumpet

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 11:57

Enlarge / Archaeologists in 1931 found the conch shell near the entrance of Marsoulas Cave. This is a reconstruction of where and how the shell might have been played. (credit: G. Tosello)

After 18,000 years of silence, an ancient musical instrument played its first notes. The last time anyone heard a sound from the conch shell trumpet, thick sheets of ice still covered most of Europe.

University of Toulouse archaeologist Carole Fritz and her colleagues recently recognized the shell as a musical instrument. To understand more about how ancient people crafted a trumpet from a 31cm (1 foot) long conch shell, the archaeologists used high-resolution CT scans to examine the shell’s inner structure: delicate-looking whorls of shell and open chambers, coiled around a central axis, or columella. A series of overlapping photographs and careful measurements became a full-color, 3D digital model of the shell, and image enhancement software helped reveal how Magdalenian people had decorated the instrument with red ocher dots.

And in a lab at the University of Toulouse, a horn player and musicology researcher became the first person in 18,000 years to play the conch shell. The musician blew into the broken tip, or apex, of the shell and vibrated his lips as if he were playing a trumpet or trombone. Very carefully, he coaxed three loud, clear, resonant notes from the ancient instrument:

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White House hastens to address global chip shortage

ArsTechnica - Fri, 2021/02/12 - 11:12

Enlarge / Ford has cut production at its Chicago facility from three shifts to one as a global chip shortage takes a toll on the car industry. (credit: Scott Olson | Getty Images)

The Biden administration has pledged to take immediate action to address a global shortage of semiconductors that has forced the closure of several US car plants.

Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said the administration was "identifying potential chokepoints in the supply chain" after coming under pressure from lawmakers, semiconductor companies, and car manufacturers over the shortages.

A surge in demand for consumer electronics during the pandemic has led to the shortage of chips, which has been exacerbated in the US by sanctions on SMIC, the Chinese chipmaker.

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