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Earth

Alien Life Could Thrive In the Clouds of Failed Stars (sciencemag.org) 19

sciencehabit writes: There's an abundant new swath of cosmic real estate that life could call home -- and the views would be spectacular. Floating out by themselves in the Milky Way galaxy are perhaps a billion cold brown dwarfs, objects many times as massive as Jupiter but not big enough to ignite as a star. According to a new study, layers of their upper atmospheres sit at temperatures and pressures resembling those on Earth, and could host microbes that surf on thermal updrafts. The idea expands the concept of a habitable zone to include a vast population of worlds that had previously gone unconsidered. "You don't necessarily need to have a terrestrial planet with a surface," says Jack Yates, a planetary scientist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, who led the study. Atmospheric life isn't just for the birds. For decades, biologists have known about microbes that drift in the winds high above Earth's surface. And in 1976, Carl Sagan envisioned the kind of ecosystem that could evolve in the upper layers of Jupiter, fueled by sunlight. You could have sky plankton: small organisms he called "sinkers." Other organisms could be balloonlike "floaters," which would rise and fall in the atmosphere by manipulating their body pressure. In the years since, astronomers have also considered the prospects of microbes in the carbon dioxide atmosphere above Venus's inhospitable surface. Yates and his colleagues set out to update Sagan's calculations and to identify the sizes, densities, and life strategies of microbes that could manage to stay aloft in the habitable region of an enormous atmosphere of predominantly hydrogen gas. On such a world, small sinkers like the microbes in Earth's atmosphere or even smaller would have a better chance than Sagan's floaters, the researchers will report in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. But a lot depends on the weather: If upwelling winds are powerful on free-floating brown dwarfs, as seems to be true in the bands of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, heavier creatures can carve out a niche. In the absence of sunlight, they could feed on chemical nutrients. Observations of cold brown dwarf atmospheres reveal most of the ingredients Earth life depends on: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, though perhaps not phosphorous.
Government

Paris, Madrid, Athens, Mexico City Will Ban Diesel Vehicles By 2025 (bbc.com) 78

The mayors of four major global cities -- Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens -- announced plans to stop the use of all diesel-powered cars and trucks by 2025. The leaders made their commitments in Mexico at a biennial meeting of city leaders. BBC reports: At the C40 meeting of urban leaders in Mexico, the four mayors declared that they would ban all diesel vehicles by 2025 and "commit to doing everything in their power to incentivize the use of electric, hydrogen and hybrid vehicles." "It is no secret that in Mexico City, we grapple with the twin problems of air pollution and traffic," said the city's mayor, Miguel Angel Mancera. "By expanding alternative transportation options like our Bus Rapid Transport and subway systems, while also investing in cycling infrastructure, we are working to ease congestion in our roadways and our lungs." Paris has already taken a series of steps to cut the impact of diesel cars and trucks. Vehicles registered before 1997 have already been banned from entering the city, with restrictions increasing each year until 2020. The use of diesel in transport has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, as concerns about its impact on air quality have grown. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that around three million deaths every year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution. Diesel engines contribute to the problem in two key ways -- through the production of particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Very fine soot PM can penetrate the lungs and can contribute to cardiovascular illness and death. Nitrogen oxides can help form ground level ozone and this can exacerbate breathing difficulties, even for people without a history of respiratory problems. The diesel ban is hugely significant. Carmakers will look at this decision and know it's just a matter of time before other city mayors follow suit.
Power

Nikola Motor Company Reveals Hydrogen Fuel Cell Truck With Range of 1,200 Miles (valuewalk.com) 53

An anonymous reader quotes a report from ValueWalk: Nikola Motor Company just unveiled a huge class 8 truck which will run on hydrogen fuel cells. Nikola claimed that the truck's operational range will be as much as 1,200 miles (1,900 km), and it will be released in 2020. Nikola designed the Nikola One for long-haul transport across a large landmass. The truck will deliver over 1,000 horsepower and 2,000 foot-pounds of torque. Provided these claims are true, the vehicle will provide nearly double the power of the current-gen diesel-powered semis/articulated lorries, notes Ars Technica. The leasing cost of the trucks will include the fuel price, servicing costs and warranty, but exactly how the lease will work is not known now, notes Ars Technica. The company says it has already accepted nearly $3 billion in future orders. A fully-electric drivetrain which gets power from high-density lithium batteries runs the vehicle, and a hydrogen fuel cell charges the batteries on the go. Its reach is presently limited, as hydrogen fueling stations currently exist in only small numbers. This made Nikola decide to construct a network of 364 hydrogen fueling stations across the U.S. and Canada, just like Tesla with its network of Superchargers. Milton claims it will come with a smart dashboard which has the capability of picking the most cost-efficient route for drivers. Also one or two full-size beds will be included inside the vehicle's enormous cab. It will have other luxuries and necessities as well, such as Wi-Fi, a refrigerator, 4G LTE connectivity, freezer, a 40-inch curved 4K TV with Apple TV and a microwave.
Security

The 'USB Killer' Has Been Mass Produced -- Available Online For About $50 (arstechnica.com) 114

New submitter npslider writes: The "USB Killer," a USB stick that fries almost everything that it is plugged into, has been mass produced -- available online for about $50. Ars Technica first wrote about this diabolical device that looks like a fairly humdrum memory stick a year ago. From the report: "The USB Killer is shockingly simple in its operation. As soon as you plug it in, a DC-to-DC converter starts drawing power from the host system and storing electricity in its bank of capacitors (the square-shaped components). When the capacitors reach a potential of -220V, the device dumps all of that electricity into the USB data lines, most likely frying whatever is on the other end. If the host doesn't just roll over and die, the USB stick does the charge-discharge process again and again until it sizzles. Since the USB Killer has gone on sale, it has been used to fry laptops (including an old ThinkPad and a brand new MacBook Pro), an Xbox One, the new Google Pixel phone, and some cars (infotainment units, rather than whole cars... for now). Notably, some devices fare better than others, and there's a range of possible outcomes -- the USB Killer doesn't just nuke everything completely." You can watch a video of EverythingApplePro using the USB Killer to fry a variety of electronic devices. It looks like the only real defense from the USB Killer is physically capping your ports.
Security

Hackers Steal $31 Million at Russia's Central Bank (cnn.com) 48

The Bank of Russia has confirmed Friday that hackers have stolen 2 billion rubles ($31 million) from correspondent accounts at the Russian central bank. Central bank security executive Artiom Sychev said it could've been much worse as hackers tried to steal 5 billion rubles, but the central banking authority managed to stop them. CNNMoney reports: Hackers also targeted the private banks and stole cash from their clients, the central bank reported. The central bank did not say when the heist occurred or how hackers moved the funds. But so far, the attack bears some similarity to a recent string of heists that has targeted the worldwide financial system. Researchers at the cybersecurity firm Symantec have concluded that the global banking system has been under sustained attack from a sophisticated group -- dubbed "Lazarus" -- that has been linked to North Korea. But it's unclear who has attacked Russian banks this time around. Earlier Friday, the Russian government claimed it had foiled an attempt to erode public confidence in its financial system. Russian's top law enforcement agency, the FSB, said hackers were planning to use a collection of computer servers in the Netherlands to attack Russian banks. Typically, hackers use this kind of infrastructure to launch a "denial of service" attack, which disrupts websites and business operations by flooding a target with data. The FSB said hackers also planned to spread fake news about Russian banks, sending mass text messages and publishing stories on social media questioning their financial stability and licenses to operate.
Transportation

Mercedes Unveils Digital Headlights That Project Street Signs, Markings Onto the Road Ahead (newatlas.com) 48

An anonymous reader quotes a report from New Atlas: Mercedes has just announced a conceptual new set of lamps that can not only adapt their light distribution to cater to the environment, but can project high-res visual aids onto the road ahead, such as makeshift zebra crossings for nearby pedestrians. The new system is dubbed Digital Light and features two million pixels that, with the help of algorithms and sensors that analyze the vehicle's surroundings, can each adjust their individual brightness depending on the scenario. An example of this might be a partial dimming to avoid blinding a cyclist. We have seen this kind of adaptive lighting technology before in systems developed by Fraunhofer and indeed Mercedes itself, although tuning it to control millions of pixels individually does appear to be new territory. But where the Digital Light system gets quite interesting is with the ability to project different objects onto the road. Imagine you are rolling up to an intersection in a foreign city with unfamiliar streets signs and the car, having collected the necessary information, projects a stop sign onto the road out ahead. Perhaps just as practical is the ability to shoot out strips of light that represent the precise width of the car, which could be pretty hand just as you try to squeeze through that extremely narrow gap. For what it's worth, Mercedes says it has already fitted it to a number of demo vehicles and reckons it will be on the road "in the near future."
Twitter

Reuters Built An Algorithm That Can Identify Real News On Twitter (popsci.com) 79

Reuters has built an algorithm called News Tracer that flags and verifies breaking news on Twitter. The algorithm weeds through all 500 million tweets that are posted on a daily basis to "sort real news from spam, nonsense, ads, and noise," writes Corinne Iozzio via Popular Science: In development since 2014, reports the Columbia Journalism Review, News Tracer's work starts by identifying clusters of tweets that are topically similar. Politics goes with politics; sports with sports; and so on. The system then uses language-processing to produce a coherent summary of each cluster. What differentiates News Tracer from other popular monitoring tools, is that it was built to think like a reporter. That virtual mindset takes 40 factors into account, according to Harvard's NiemanLab. It uses information like the location and status of the original poster (e.g. is she verified?) and how the news is spreading to establish a "credibility" rating for the news item in question. The system also does a kind of cross-check against sources that reporters have identified as reliable, and uses that initial network to identify other potentially reliable sources. News Tracer can also tell the difference between a trending hashtag and real news. The mix of data points News Tracer takes into account means it works best with actual, physical events -- crashes, protests, bombings -- as opposed to the he-said-she-said that can dominate news cycles.
Crime

Foxconn Employee Faces 10-Year Prison Sentence For Stealing 5,700 iPhones Worth $1.5 Million (thenextweb.com) 30

A Taiwanese Foxconn manager faces a stiff prison sentence after he stole 5,700 iPhones from his employer, and went to sell them for $1.56 million. The Next Web reports: Foxconn is a tech manufacturing giant. It makes a lot of things, including laptops for HP, phones for Apple, games consoles for Sony, and its workers so depressed it has to install suicide nets. The Taiwanese manager at the center of this crime -- known only by his family name, Tsai -- worked in the testing department at Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen, mainland China. According to Taiwanese prosecutors, Tsai ordered eight of his subordinates to smuggle out thousands of iPhones which were used by the company for testing and quality assurance purposes. These were destined to be scrapped after use. The stolen iPhones (mostly iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s models) made their way to stores in Shenzhen, and went on to make Tsai and his accomplices nearly $1.56 million USD (Tw$50 million). Tsai has since been charged with breach of trust and, if found guilty, he faces a maximum 10-year jail term.
AI

Stephen Hawking: Automation and AI Is Going To Decimate Middle Class Jobs (businessinsider.com) 325

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Business Insider: In a column in The Guardian, the world-famous physicist wrote that "the automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining." He adds his voice to a growing chorus of experts concerned about the effects that technology will have on workforce in the coming years and decades. The fear is that while artificial intelligence will bring radical increases in efficiency in industry, for ordinary people this will translate into unemployment and uncertainty, as their human jobs are replaced by machines. Automation will, "in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world," Hawking wrote. "The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive." He frames this economic anxiety as a reason for the rise in right-wing, populist politics in the West: "We are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent." Combined with other issues -- overpopulation, climate change, disease -- we are, Hawking warns ominously, at "the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity." Humanity must come together if we are to overcome these challenges, he says.
Crime

Lawyer Sues 20-Year-Old Student Who Gave a Bad Yelp Review, Loses Badly (arstechnica.com) 63

20-year-old Lan Cai was in a car crash this summer, after she was plowed into by a drunk driver and broke two bones in her lower back. She didn't know how to navigate her car insurance and prove damages, so she reached out for legal help. Things didn't go as one would have liked, initially, as ArsTechnica documents:The help she got, Cai said, was less than satisfactory. Lawyers from the Tuan A. Khuu law firm ignored her contacts, and at one point they came into her bedroom while Cai was sleeping in her underwear. "Seriously, it's super unprofessional!" she wrote on Facebook. (The firm maintains it was invited in by Cai's mother.) She also took to Yelp to warn others about her bad experience. The posts led to a threatening e-mail from Tuan Khuu attorney Keith Nguyen. Nguyen and his associates went ahead and filed that lawsuit, demanding the young woman pay up between $100,000 and $200,000 -- more than 100 times what she had in her bank account. Nguyen said he didn't feel bad at all about suing Cai. Cai didn't remove her review, though. Instead she fought back against the Khuu firm, all thanks to attorney Michael Fleming, who took her case pro bono. Fleming filed a motion arguing that, first and foremost, Cai's social media complaints were true. Second, she couldn't do much to damage the reputation of a firm that already had multiple poor reviews. He argued the lawsuit was a clear SLAPP (strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). Ultimately, the judge agreed with Fleming, ordering the Khuu firm to pay $26,831.55 in attorneys' fees.
AT&T

FCC Calls Out AT&T, Verizon For 'Zero Rating' Their Own Video Apps (zdnet.com) 50

U.S. regulators are calling out AT&T and Verizon for exempting their own video apps from data caps on customers' smartphones. The FCC has sent letters to the country's biggest wireless carriers saying the way they handle the practice, known as "zero rating," can hurt competition and consumers. From a report on ZDNet: AT&T launched DirecTV Now earlier this week. AT&T Mobility customers can stream video data over LTE without impacting their data allowance. Verizon offers something similar with its go90 service. AT&T and Verizon don't see any wrongdoing. In a statement Friday, AT&T said exempting services like DirecTV Now from data caps saves customers money. Verizon said its practices are good for consumers and comply with regulations. "We will provide the FCC with additional information on why the government should not take away a service that saves consumers money," AT&T wrote in a statement Friday. The FCC hasn't released any official ruling on "zero rating," just guidance. It said on Thursday a similar letter was sent to AT&T in November, but the FCC didn't like AT&T's original response.
Earth

Climate Change Will Stir 'Unimaginable' Refugee Crisis, Says Military (theguardian.com) 250

Citing military experts, The Guardian is reporting that if the rise in global warming is held under 2 degrees Celsius, there still could be a major humanitarian crisis to sort out. From the report: Climate change is set to cause a refugee crisis of "unimaginable scale," according to senior military figures, who warn that global warming is the greatest security threat of the 21st century and that mass migration will become the "new normal." The generals said the impacts of climate change were already factors in the conflicts driving a current crisis of migration into Europe, having been linked to the Arab Spring, the war in Syria and the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency. Military leaders have long warned that global warming could multiply and accelerate security threats around the world by provoking conflicts and migration. They are now warning that immediate action is required. "Climate change is the greatest security threat of the 21st century," said Maj Gen Munir Muniruzzaman, chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on climate change and a former military adviser to the president of Bangladesh. He said one metre of sea level rise will flood 20% of his nation. "Weâ(TM)re going to see refugee problems on an unimaginable scale, potentially above 30 million people."
Facebook

Facebook Commits Millions to Help Silicon Valley's Have-Nots (fortune.com) 56

Facebook wants to be a better corporate citizen, which is perhaps why on Friday it announced a partnership with local community organizations near its headquarters in which it will initially commit $20 million towards making affordable housing, job training, and legal services available to more people in the area. From a report on Fortune: A few groups have signed up to participate, including Youth United for Community Action, Faith in Action Bay Area, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, Comite de Vecinos del Lado Oeste -- East Palo Alto, along with the local governments of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Here's how that first round of funding will be spread out: This new coalition will allocate $18.5 million into a fund called the Catalyst Housing Fund. The goal is to find ways to accelerate and grow the production of affordable housing in the community. Additionally, $250,000 will be given to Rebuilding Together Peninsula which seeks to assist low-income residents with the upkeep of their homes. $625,000 has been assigned to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in schools, something Silicon Valley has been actively encouraging for years.
Movies

Free TV-Show Streaming Hurts Online Sales, Research Finds (torrentfreak.com) 63

New research from Carnegie Mellon University shows that online piracy is not the only worry for TV distributors. Based on Downton Abbey streaming and sales data provided by PBS, as reported by TorrentFreak, the researchers find that free legal streams can significantly reduce download sales. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that free streaming options should be banned. From the report: The researchers were able to estimate the impact in a natural experiment, since PBS was required to pull the free streams for all episodes at the same time. This means that some were streamable for more than a month, while others only for a week, or two. In addition, they had sales data for several seasons, allowing them to make an alternative comparison between years, where the streaming windows varied. In both cases, they show that free streaming cannibalizes download sales. "Our analysis in our primary specification indicates that availability in the free streaming window reduces EST sales by 8.4%. Using an alternative specification we find that free availability reduces EST sales by 9.9%," they write. The negative effect is not unexpected. However, it doesn't mean that it is wrong to offer free streaming in the long run, as there are several positive side-effects. That's where the puzzle starts to get complicated.
Technology

Fake Apple Chargers Fail Safety Tests (bbc.com) 108

Investigators have warned consumers they face potentially fatal risks after 99% of fake Apple chargers failed a basic safety test. From a report on BBC: Trading Standards, which commissioned the checks, said counterfeit electrical goods bought online were an "unknown entity." Of 400 counterfeit chargers, only three were found to have enough insulation to protect against electric shocks. It comes as Apple has complained of a "flood" of fakes being sold on Amazon. Apple revealed in October that it was suing a third-party vendor, which it said was putting customers "at risk" by selling power adapters masquerading as those sold by the Californian tech firm.

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