The Internet

Lawsuit Filed By 22 State Attorneys General Seeks To Block Net Neutrality Repeal (techcrunch.com) 355

An anonymous reader quotes a report from TechCrunch: A lawsuit filed today by the attorneys general of 22 states seeks to block the Federal Communications Commission's recent controversial vote to repeal Obama era Net Neutrality regulations. The filing is led by New York State Attorney General Schneiderman, who called rollback a potential "disaster for New York consumers and businesses, and for everyone who cares about a free and open internet." The letter, which was filed in the United States District Court of Appeals in Washington, is cosigned by AGs from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Washington DC.

"An open internet -- and the free exchange of ideas it allows -- is critical to our democratic process," Schneiderman added in an accompanying statement. "The repeal of net neutrality would turn internet service providers into gatekeepers -- allowing them to put profits over consumers while controlling what we see, what we do, and what we say online."

Medicine

New Study Claims That the 'Black Death' Was Spread By Humans, Not Rats (bbc.com) 97

dryriver shares a report from BBC: Rats were not to blame for the spread of plague during the Black Death, according to a study. The rodents and their fleas were thought to have spread a series of outbreaks in 14th-19th Century Europe. But a team from the universities of Oslo and Ferrara now says the first, the Black Death, can be "largely ascribed to human fleas and body lice." The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, uses records of its pattern and scale. The Black Death claimed an estimated 25 million lives, more than a third of Europe's population, between 1347 and 1351. "We have good mortality data from outbreaks in nine cities in Europe," Prof Nils Stenseth, from the University of Oslo, told BBC News. "So we could construct models of the disease dynamics [there]." He and his colleagues then simulated disease outbreaks in each of these cities, creating three models where the disease was spread by: rats, airborne transmission, and fleas and lice that live on humans and their clothes. In seven out of the nine cities studied, the "human parasite model" was a much better match for the pattern of the outbreak. It mirrored how quickly it spread and how many people it affected. "The conclusion was very clear," said Prof Stenseth. "The lice model fits best. It would be unlikely to spread as fast as it did if it was transmitted by rats. It would have to go through this extra loop of the rats, rather than being spread from person to person." Plague is still endemic in some countries of Asia, Africa and the Americas, where it persists in "reservoirs" of infected rodents. According to the World Health Organization, from 2010 to 2015 there were 3,248 cases reported worldwide, including 584 deaths. And, in 2001, a study that decoded the plague genome used a bacterium that had come from a vet in the U.S. who had died in 1992 after a plague-infested cat sneezed on him as he had been trying to rescue it from underneath a house.
Security

Many Enterprise Mobile Devices Will Never Be Patched Against Meltdown, Spectre (betanews.com) 104

Mark Wilson shares a report from BetaNews: The Meltdown and Spectre bugs have been in the headlines for a couple of weeks now, but it seems the patches are not being installed on handsets. Analysis of more than 100,000 enterprise mobile devices shows that just a tiny percentage of them have been protected against the vulnerabilities -- and some simply may never be protected. Security firm Bridgeway found that just 4 percent of corporate phones and tablets in the UK have been patched against Spectre and Meltdown. Perhaps more worryingly, however, its research also found that nearly a quarter of enterprise mobile devices will never receive a patch because of their age. Organizations are advised to check for the availability of patches for their devices, and to install them as soon as possible. Older devices that will never be patched -- older than Marshmallow, for example -- should be replaced to ensure security, says Bridgeway.
Wireless Networking

Google Home and Chromecast Could Be Overloading Your Home Wi-Fi (theverge.com) 129

Google Cast products could be to blame for your wonky internet connection. According to TP-Link, "The Cast feature normally sends packets of information at regular intervals to keep a live connection with products like Google Home," reports The Verge. "However, if the device is awakened from a 'sleep' mode, it will sometimes send a burst of information at once, which can overwhelm a router. The longer a Cast device has been in 'sleep' mode, the more information it might send at once." The engineer says that could exceed over 100,000 packets, an amount that "may eventually cause some of [the] router's primary features to shut down -- including wireless connectivity."

TP-Link has reportedly fixed the issue in its C1200 router, but a broader fix from Google's end has not been found.
Transportation

Lyft Says Nearly 250K of Its Passengers Ditched a Personal Car In 2017 (techcrunch.com) 109

An anonymous reader quotes a report from TechCrunch: Lyft has a new report out detailing its "economic impact" for 2017, and the document includes a lot of stats on its performance throughout the year. The ride-hailing provider claims 375.5 million rides for the year, which is 130 percent growth measured year-over-year. It served 23 million different passengers, itself a 92 percent YoY increase, and had 1.4 million drivers on the platform -- 100 percent growth vs. its total for 2016. Lyft is making some especially strong claims regarding its impact on car ownership trends: In 2017 alone, it said that almost a quarter of a million passengers on its platform dropped owning a personal vehicle, due to the availability of ridesharing specifically. Fifty percent of its users also report driving their own car less because of Lyft's service, and a quarter of those on the platform say they don't feel personal vehicle ownership is that important anymore. The ride-hailing company also found attitudes generally favorable towards self-driving vehicles and their use: 83 percent of Lyft passengers surveyed by the company said they'd be open to hailing and riding in a self-driving vehicle once they're available.
China

China Builds 'World's Biggest Air Purifier' That Actually Works (scmp.com) 138

The South China Morning Post shares an update on the status of an experimental tower in northern China, dubbed the world's biggest air purifier by its operators. According to the scientist leading the project, the tower -- which stands over 328 feet (100 meters) tall -- has brought a noticeable improvement in air quality. From the report: The head of the research, Cao Junji, said improvements in air quality had been observed over an area of 10 square kilometers (3.86 square miles) in the city over the past few months and the tower has managed to produce more than 10 million cubic meters (353 million cubic feet) of clean air a day since its launch. Cao added that on severely polluted days the tower was able to reduce smog close to moderate levels. The system works through greenhouses covering about half the size of a soccer field around the base of the tower. Polluted air is sucked into the glasshouses and heated up by solar energy. The hot air then rises through the tower and passes through multiple layers of cleaning filters. The average reduction in PM2.5 -- the fine particles in smog deemed most harmful to health -- fell 15 per cent during heavy pollution. Cao said the results were preliminary because the experiment is still ongoing. The team plans to release more detailed data in March with a full scientific assessment of the facility's overall performance.
The Almighty Buck

Bitcoin Plunges Below $12,000 To Six-Week Low Over Crackdown Fears (cnbc.com) 174

Bitcoin plunged to a six-week low Tuesday after comments from South Korea's finance minister renewed worries about a crackdown in one of the largest markets for digital currency trading. In a radio program interview, South Korean Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon said that "the shutdown of virtual currency exchanges is still one of the options" the government has. CNBC reports: Bitcoin dropped more than 17 percent to a low of $11,182.71 on Tuesday, falling below $12,000 for the first time since December 5, according to CoinDesk. CoinDesk's bitcoin price index tracks prices from cryptocurrency exchanges Bitstamp, Coinbase, itBit and Bitfinex. As of 12:13 p.m. ET, bitcoin was trading more than 13 percent lower at $11,759.73 a coin, according to CoinDesk. Trading in South Korean won accounted for about 4 percent of bitcoin trading volume, according to CryptoCompare. U.S. dollar-bitcoin trading had the largest share at 40 percent, the website showed. Other major digital currencies including ethereum and ripple also fell significantly. According to CoinMarketCap data, ethereum was trading at $1,051.83, down more than 20 percent in the last 24 hours, before lifting slightly to $1,117.72. Ripple fell almost 27 percent to $1.33 a token before recovering slightly to $1.36.
Security

Researchers Uncover Android Malware With Never-Before-Seen Spying Capabilities (arstechnica.com) 102

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: According to a report published Tuesday by antivirus provider Kaspersky Lab, "Skygofree" is most likely an offensive security product sold by an Italy-based IT company that markets various surveillance wares. With 48 different commands in its latest version, the malware has undergone continuous development since its creation in late 2014. It relies on five separate exploits to gain privileged root access that allows it to bypass key Android security measures. Skygofree is capable of taking pictures, capturing video, and seizing call records, text messages, gelocation data, calendar events, and business-related information stored in device memory. Skygofree also includes the ability to automatically record conversations and noise when an infected device enters a location specified by the person operating the malware. Another never-before-seen feature is the ability to steal WhatsApp messages by abusing the Android Accessibility Service that's designed to help users who have disabilities or who may temporarily be unable to fully interact with a device. A third new feature: the ability to connect infected devices to Wi-Fi networks controlled by attackers. Skygofree also includes other advanced features, including a reverse shell that gives malware operators better remote control of infected devices. The malware also comes with a variety of Windows components that provide among other things a reverse shell, a keylogger, and a mechanism for recording Skype conversations.
Government

France Says 'Au Revoir' to the Word 'Smartphone' (smithsonianmag.com) 344

Hoping to prevent English tech vocabulary from entering the French language, officials have suggested 'mobile multifunction' as an alternative. An anonymous reader shares a report: The official journal of the French Republic, the Journal officiel, has suggested "internet clandestin" instead of dark net. It's dubbed a casual gamer "joueur occasionnel" for messieurs and "joueuse occasionnelle" for mesdames. To replace hashtag, it's selected "mot-diese." Now, as the Local reports, the latest word to get the official boot in France is smartphone. It's time to say bonjour to the "le mobile multifonction." The recommendation was put forth by the Commission d'enrichissement de la langue francaise, which works in conjunction with the Academie Francaise to preserve the French language. This isn't the first time that the commission has tried to encourage French citizens to switch over to a Franco-friendly word for "smartphone." Previous suggestions included "ordiphone" (from "ordinateur," the French word for computer) and "terminal de poche" (or pocket terminal). These, it seems, did not quite stick.
Technology

The Astronomer Who Is Building the Largest Map of Space by Volume (vice.com) 26

An anonymous reader shares a Motherboard report: Astronomer Mark Halpern doesn't come into work every day thinking about the fact that he is leading a team that is creating the biggest map of the universe by volume ever made. But that ambition drives his research. An professor at the University of British Columbia, Halpern is also the principal investigator of the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME for short, based at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton, BC. The experiment is a collaboration between UBC, the University of Toronto, McGill, and the National Research Council of Canada. Its centerpiece is a massive halfpipe-shaped telescope that collects radio signals to detect hydrogen intensity, which is a measure of how much hydrogen is clustered in the universe, and if it has moved or spread out. The researchers can then analyse the spread of hydrogen in the universe to determine how much -- and how quickly -- the universe is expanding. "If I make a sound somewhere, it travels away from that sound in a spherical shell," Halpern said. "So we're going to map these big spherical shells as a function of distance from us, and by comparing their present speed to how big they look, that comparison tells us the expansion history of the universe."


Businesses

The Human Cost of the Apple Supply Chain Machine (bloomberg.com) 175

Apple is still struggling to improve working conditions at its supply chain factories. China Labor Watch and Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that Catcher, a key supplier for iPhone and MacBook casings, makes workers endure harsh safety conditions and unfair work terms in a factory in Suqian. According to observers and discussions with workers, the machines are not only loud, but spray fluid and metallic particles that frequently hit workers' faces only some of which have access to safety goggles and gloves. From the report: Hundreds throng a workshop where the main door only opens about 12 inches. Off duty, they return to debris-strewn dorms bereft of showers or hot water. Many go without washing for days at a time, workers told Bloomberg. "My hands turned bloodless white after a day of work," said one of the workers, who makes a little over 4,000 yuan a month (just over $2 an hour) in her first job outside her home province of Henan. She turned to Catcher because her husband's home-decorating business was struggling. "I only tell good things to my family and keep the sufferings like this for myself." "I asked for the earplugs many times but they didn't have any. The loud noise of 'zah-zah' made my head ache and dizzy," one of those employees told Bloomberg.
Patents

Bank of America Tops IBM, Payments Firms With Most Blockchain Patents (bloomberg.com) 45

Bank of America may not be willing to help customers invest in Bitcoin, but that doesn't mean it isn't plowing into the technology underlying the cryptocurrency. From a report: The Charlotte, North Carolina-based lender has applied for or received at least 43 patents for blockchain, the ledger technology used for verifying and recording transactions that's at the heart of virtual currencies. It is the largest number among major banks and technology companies, according to a study by EnvisionIP, a New York-based law firm that specializes in analyses of intellectual property. "Based on what's publicly out there, the technology sector hasn't embraced blockchain as much as the financial-services industry," Maulin Shah, managing attorney for EnvisionIP, said in an interview. International Business Machines Corp., which has targeted blockchain and artificial intelligence for future growth, tied with Mastercard Inc. for second on the list, with 27 each.
Transportation

Uber Says UK Drivers Will Take Mandatory Breaks (cnet.com) 37

Uber is introducing a new policy on drivers' hours across the UK next week, which it says will help to increase safety for drivers and passengers. From a report: Drivers for the ride-hailing service will have to take a continuous six-hour break after the time spent on trips with passengers and on their way to pickups reaches 10 hours. The company announced the decision Tuesday, saying it believes this move is an industry first in the UK. The company has been criticized in the past over its handling of workers' rights and has faced resistance in the UK. Uber lost its license to operate in London in September. In October, a London court ruled that its drivers should be classified as employees instead of as contractors
Bug

Now Meltdown Patches Are Making Industrial Control Systems Lurch (theregister.co.uk) 98

Patches for the Meltdown vulnerability are causing stability issues in industrial control systems. From a report: SCADA vendor Wonderware admitted that Redmond's Meltdown patch made its Historian product wobble. "Microsoft update KB4056896 (or parallel patches for other Operating System) causes instability for Wonderware Historian and the inability to access DA/OI Servers through the SMC," an advisory on Wonderware's support site explains. Rockwell Automation revealed that the same patch had caused issues with Studio 5000, FactoryTalk View SE, and RSLinx Classic (a widely used product in the manufacturing sector). "In fairness [this] may be RPC [Remote Procedure Call] change related," said cybersecurity vulnerability manager Kevin Beaumont.
AT&T

US Lawmakers Urge AT&T To Cut Commercial Ties With Huawei and Oppose China Mobile Citing National Security Concerns (reuters.com) 60

U.S. lawmakers are urging AT&T, the No. 2 wireless carrier, to cut commercial ties to Chinese phone maker Huawei Technologies and oppose plans by telecom operator China Mobile to enter the U.S. market because of national security concerns, two congressional aides told Reuters. From the report: The warning comes after the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump took a harder line on policies initiated by his predecessor Barack Obama on issues ranging from Beijing's role in restraining North Korea to Chinese efforts to acquire U.S. strategic industries. Earlier this month, AT&T was forced to scrap a plan to offer its customers Huawei handsets after some members of Congress lobbied against the idea with federal regulators, sources told Reuters. The U.S. government has also blocked a string of Chinese acquisitions over national security concerns, including Ant Financial's proposed purchase of U.S. money transfer company MoneyGram International.
Businesses

Contraceptive App Natural Cycles Blamed For String of Unwanted Pregnancies (standard.co.uk) 423

An anonymous reader shares a report: A contraceptive mobile phone app used by tens of thousands of British women has come under fire after reportedly sparking a string of unwanted pregnancies. Swedish birth control app Natural Cycles, which costs $55, tracks body temperature to accurately predict when in the month a woman is more likely to fall pregnant. The period monitor was hailed as a non-mood altering alternative to the pill and, if used perfectly, was found to be 99 per cent effective by researchers. But the app has come under fire after the Sodersjukhuset hospital in Stockholm lodged a complaint with the Swedish Medical Products Agency, the country's government body responsible for regulation of medical devices. It claimed staff at the hospital had recorded 37 women who had fallen pregnant in the last quarter of 2017 after using the app. One midwife said the hospital had a duty to report all side effects.
Google

Google Starts Certificate Program To Fill Empty IT Jobs (axios.com) 222

An anonymous reader shares a report: There are 150,000 open IT jobs in the U.S., and Google wants to make it easier to fill them. Today the company is announcing a certificate program on the Coursera platform to help give people with no prior IT experience the basic skills they need to get an entry-level IT support job in 8 to 12 months. Why it matters: Entry-level IT jobs are are typically higher-paying than similar roles in other fields. But they're harder to fill because, while IT support roles don't require a college degree, they do require prior experience. The median annual wage for a computer network support specialist was $62,670 in May 2016 The median annual wage for a computer user support specialist was $52,160 in May 2016. The impetus: Natalie Van Kleef Conley, head recruiter of Google's tech support program, was having trouble finding IT support specialists so she helped spearhead the certificate program. It's also part of Google's initiative to help Americans get skills needed to get a new job in a changing economy, the company told us.
Businesses

Now Hiring For a Fascinating New Kind of Job That Only a Human Can Do: Babysit a Robot (wired.com) 84

From a report: Book a night at LAX's Residence Inn and you may be fortunate enough to meet an employee named Wally. His gig is relatively pedestrian -- bring you room service, navigate around the hotel's clientele in the lobby and halls -- but Wally's life is far more difficult than it seems. If you put a tray out in front of your door, for instance, he can't get to you. If a cart is blocking the hall, he can't push it out of the way. But fortunately for Wally, whenever he gets into a spot of trouble, he can call out for help. See, Wally is a robot -- specifically, a Relay robot from a company called Savioke. And when the machine finds itself in a particularly tricky situation, it relies on human agents in a call center way across the country in Pennsylvania to bail it out. [...]

The first companies to unleash robots into service sectors have been quietly opening call centers stocked with humans who monitor the machines and help them get out of jams. "It's something that's just starting to emerge, and it's not just robots," says David Poole, CEO and co-founder of Symphony Ventures, which consults companies on automation. "I think there is going to be a huge industry, probably mostly offshore, in the monitoring of devices in general, whether they're health devices that individuals wear or monitoring pacemakers or whatever it might be."

Social Networks

Twitter Hits Back Again at Claims That Its Employees Monitor Direct Messages (techcrunch.com) 162

From a report on TechCrunch: Twitter is pushing back against claims made by conservative activist group Project Veritas that its employees monitor private user data, including direct messages. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a Twitter representative said "we do not proactively review DMs. Period. A limited number of employees have access to such information, for legitimate work purposes, and we enforce strict access protocols for those employees." Last week, Project Veritas, which produces undercover sting operations that purportedly expose liberal biases at media companies and other organizations, posted footage that appeared to show Twitter engineers claiming that teams of employees look at users' private data. One engineer seemed to say that Twitter can hand over President Donald Trump's data, including deleted tweets and direct messages, to the Department of Justice.
Democrats

Democrats Are Just One Vote Shy of Restoring Net Neutrality (engadget.com) 331

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Engadget: Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer now says Democrats in the Senate are a single vote away from restoring net neutrality. According to the senator from New York, they now have a total of 50 votes for a Senate resolution of disapproval that would restore the Open Internet Order of 2015 and deliver a stiff rebuke to Ajit Pai and other Republican members of the FCC. It would also prevent the agency from passing a similar measure in the future, all but guaranteeing Net Neutrality is permanently preserved. Right now the resolution has the support of all 49 Democrats in the Senate and one Republican, Susan Collins of Maine. But Schumer and the rest of the caucus will have to win over one more Republican vote to prevent Vice President Mike Pence from breaking tie and allowing the repeal to stand. Under the Congressional Review Act, the Senate has 60 days to challenge a decision by an independent agency like the FCC. Democrats have less than 30 days to convince a "moderate" like John McCain or Lindsey Graham to buck their party. Further reading: The Washington Post (paywalled)
Music

Is Pop Music Becoming Louder, Simpler and More Repetitive? (bbc.co.uk) 477

dryriver writes: The BBC has posted a very interesting article that investigates whether people claiming all over the internet that "pop music just isn't what it used to be" are simply growing old, or if there actually is objective science capable of backing up this claim of a "steady decline in music quality." The findings from five different studies are quoted; the findings from the fourth study is especially striking:


1. Pop music has become slower -- in tempo -- in recent years and also "sadder" and less "fun" to listen to.
2. Pop music has become melodically less complex, using fewer chord changes, and pop recordings are mastered to sound consistently louder (and therefore less dynamic) at a rate of around one decibel every eight years.
3. There has been a significant increase in the use of the first-person word "I" in pop song lyrics, and a decline in words that emphasize society or community. Lyrics also contain more words that can be associated with anger or anti-social sentiments.
4. 42% of people polled on which decade has produced the worst pop music since the 1970s voted for the 2010s. These people were not from a particular aging demographic at all -- all age groups polled, including 18-29 year olds, appear to feel unanimously that the 2010s are when pop music became worst. This may explain a rising trend of young millennials, for example, digging around for now 15-30 year-old music on YouTube frequently. It's not just the older people who listen to the 1980s and 1990s on YouTube and other streaming services it seems -- much younger people do it too.
5. A researcher put 15,000 Billboard Hot 100 song lyrics through the well-known Lev-Zimpel-Vogt (LZV1) data compression algorithm, which is good at finding repetitions in data. He found that songs have steadily become more repetitive over the years, and that song lyrics from today compress 22% better on average than less repetitive song lyrics from the 1960s. The most repetitive year in song lyrics was 2014 in this study.

Conclusion: There is some scientific evidence backing the widely voiced complaint -- on the internet in particular -- that pop music is getting worse and worse in the 2000s and the 2010s. The music is slower, melodically simpler, louder, more repetitive, more "I" (first-person) focused, and more angry with anti-social sentiments. The 2010s got by far the most music quality down votes with 42% from people polled on which decade has produced the worst music since the 1970s.

NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope Has Emerged From the Freezer (arstechnica.com) 72

The James Webb Space Telescope has emerged from a large vacuum chamber that was home to temperatures of just 20 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. Scientists have reviewed the data and given the instrument a clean bill of health. "We now have verified that NASA and its partners have an outstanding telescope and set of science instruments," said Bill Ochs, the Webb telescope project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "We are marching toward launch." Ars Technica reports: The $10 billion telescope underwent tests inside Chamber A at Johnson Space Center, which was built in 1965 to conduct thermal-vacuum testing on the Apollo command and service modules. Beginning in mid-July, after the telescope was cooled down to a temperature range of 20 to 40 Kelvin, engineers tested the alignment of Webb's 18 primary mirror segments to ensure they would act as a single, 6.5-meter telescope. (They did). Later, they assessed the fine guidance system of the telescope by simulating the light of a distant star. The Webb telescope was able to detect the light, and all of the optical systems were able to process it. Then, the telescope was able to track the "star" and its movement, giving scientists confidence that the Webb instrument will work once in space. Webb still has a ways to go before it launches. Now that project scientists know that the optic portion of the instrument can withstand the vacuum of space, and the low temperatures at the Earth-Sun L2 point it will orbit in deep space, they must perform additional testing before a probable launch next year.

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