posted 9 days ago on ars technica
Enlarge / Human Spermatozoa, Scanning Electron Micrograph. (credit: Enver Kerem Dirican ) For the final stretch of their fertilization journey, sperm rev up their whip-like tails to ludicrous egg-boring speed. But amid chemicals from old herbal remedies, sperm may be left feebly treading water a few strokes from the finish line. Two steroid-like chemicals from plants used in traditional medicines can power-down sperms’ tail engines to prevent the propelling power needed to penetrate their target, Berkeley researchers report in PNAS. The chemicals work by blocking the activation of a calcium ion channel in the sperm, which charge up their tails for final turbo thrusts. Normally, progesterone, a hormone involved in pregnancy that is secreted by cells surrounding eggs, activates this ion channel during sperms’ final approach, the researchers report. Because the herbal chemicals—called pristimerin and lupeol—are already used in traditional remedies (though not necessarily for anti-fertility purposes), the researchers are hopeful that they’ll easily pass safety tests and offer an effective alternative form of contraception. And, because the chemicals aren’t hormones, unlike other forms of birth control, they may dodge the unpleasant side-effects that arise from messing with complicated and delicate hormone balances in the body, such as changes in mood, weight, and libido. For now, though, the chemicals are just in early lab testing—years away from marketable products even if tests in primates and clinical trials go well. Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Was this headset use proprietary secrets stolen from ZeniMax? After winning a $500 million judgement against Oculus over the development of the company's virtual reality technology, id Software parent Zenimax Media is now going after Oculus partner Samsung. In a federal lawsuit filed late last week in the Northern District of Texas, the company says that Samsung's Gear VR headset, widely advertised as "powered by Oculus," benefited from technology that was "misappropriated by Oculus" from ZeniMax under a non-disclosure agreement. Much of the complaint reiterates arguments Zenimax made in its initial lawsuit against Oculus: that Oculus found Palmer Luckey would not have been able to develop its VR technology without proprietary information and help that id's John Carmack gave "in violation of his employment agreement" and an NDA, that Carmack intentionally destroyed evidence to "cover his tracks,"; and that code that ended up in the Oculus software was originally developed at ZeniMax. But the new lawsuit extends the allegations to say that Carmack's proprietary information was also key to letting Oculus "secretly develop a mobile software development kit ("Mobile SDK") and related software for the Samsung Gear VR." According to ZeniMax, this Mobile SDK uses Zenimax's trade secrets and copyrighted code, and it was continually developed despite a "cease-and-desist" letter sent during the original Oculus trial. Read 3 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge / WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster preparing to make a statement to reporters on May 15 regarding President Trump's sharing of intelligence with Russian officials. (credit: Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images) In an Oval Office meeting the day after firing FBI Director James Comey, President Donald Trump shared intelligence provided by an allied nation's sources on an Islamic State plot to bring down passenger airplanes with laptop computers turned into bombs. The intelligence, which was apparently the cause for the US extending a ban on laptops to include flights from Europe earlier this month, had been highly classified because of the sensitivity of its source. Statements from President Trump on Twitter and from White House National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster essentially confirmed these details initially reported by the Washington Post late on Monday. McMaster said that no sources or methods were exposed in the conversation. However, the unnamed officials cited in the Post report were concerned that Trump's citing of the exact location "in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat" could expose the source. And the sharing of the classified information with Russia's foreign minister and ambassador to the United States was within Trump's purview, as the president holds the ultimate authority over classification of sensitive data and can de-classify information at will. Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted: As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining.... — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017 ...to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism. — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2017 Trump also lashed out at the intelligence community for leaking about his actions: Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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HPE In the iconic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronaut Dave Bowman must deal with HAL 9000, a sentient artificial intelligence computer that operates his spaceship. The computer is all-knowing and all-controlling, saying at one point, “Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.” It portends a dark future for automated AI and space travel. No one wants that outcome for real-world spacecraft and computers, but Hewlett-Packard Enterprise is starting to think about how to automate many spacecraft systems and outsource critical decisions to an on-board computer. Presently, with the International Space Station, flight controllers on Earth monitor the spacecraft’s overall health continually, and flight directors relay information to astronauts on board when problems occur. Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge / Will Mason is UploadVR's co-founder and president, and is one of the parties named in the lawsuit. (credit: eVRydayVR) A San Francisco-based news startup, UploadVR, has been sued by a former employee, who alleged a long list of inappropriate behavior at the workplace, including gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The case comes at a time when a number of high profile examples of gender discrimination and inappropriate behavior among Silicon Valley tech firms have been in the news. Notably, earlier this year, an ex-Uber engineer sued her former employer over allegations of sexual harassment. The UploadVR lawsuit, which was first reported Monday by TechCrunch, was filed by Elizabeth Scott, the company’s ex-head of social media. According to LinkedIn, Scott worked at the company from April 2016 until March 2017. Scott claims that numerous male employees, including Will Mason, the company’s president, and Taylor Freeman, the company’s CEO, openly and regularly discussed their own state of sexual arousal due to the presence of their female colleagues, "and how it was hard to concentrate and be productive when all they could think about was having sex with them." Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge (credit: NextEV) The folks at NextEV have done it again. Not content with settling for the fastest ever electric vehicle lap of the legendary 12.9-mile (20.8km) Nürburgring, it has gone one better and set a new production car record. Racing driver Peter Dumbreck lapped the Nordschleife in just 6:45.9 seconds: It's important to note that Nio EP9 isn't going to be built in volume. Just six of the 1,341hp/1MW electric supercars will be built, so you'll almost certainly never see it on the road—or even at your local track day. And along with some of the other EV hypercars announced in recent times, some have accused the car of being nothing more than a publicity stunt. That may indeed be true, but the fact remains that the car got around the Green Hell in under seven minutes. For context, the outright lap record still belongs to Stefan Bellof, who lapped the track in 6:11.13 back in 1983 behind the wheel of a Porsche 956 race car. But Dumbreck's lap is faster than many other Group C cars were able to get around the track, back in the days before it was considered too dangerous for those fearsome race cars. Read 1 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge It's difficult to celebrate games from the past in the same way as, say, an old book or a classic movie. As technology moves on, so too does the way in which we interact with games. A role-playing-game from the era of the Nintendo Entertainment System might share some similarities with the likes of Final Fantasy XV or The Witcher 3, but going back to play those games now after years of roaming around vast 3D worlds isn't easy. Heck, even playing an RPG from the PlayStation 2 era demands a certain amount of learning, or relearning, of how to navigate a menu. Why bother when there are plenty of modern games, some of which have redefined whole genres, to learn instead? This is the problem faced by games such as Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, a remaster of the 2006 PS2 RPG by Square Enix, which is due out on July 11 this year. Read 24 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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(credit: comedy_nose) Google's DeepMind AI wing was given access to the personal medical records of 1.6 million NHS patients on an "inappropriate legal basis," the UK's top data protection adviser to the health service has said. In a letter sent to the Royal Free Hospital's medical director professor Stephen Powis, and seen by Sky News, the National Data Guardian Dame Fiona Caldicott—whose job it is to scrutinise the government when it hands over NHS patient records to private companies—concluded that the decision to share the data under implied consent was wrong. The London-based Royal Free Hospital (RFH) inked a controversial deal with Google last year, allowing its Streams AI app to be tested on the medical records of sufferers of acute kidney damage. It apparently helps clinicians to quickly administer potentially life-saving treatment. Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge / AMS aboard the International Space Station. (credit: NASA) What happens when two dark matter particles collide? We don’t know the answer to that question because we don’t know what dark matter is. A whole host of possible particles could constitute dark matter, and some of them allow dark matter to “self-interact.” Here, when two dark matter particles collide, they would decay into other particles that we could potentially observe. This should happen often in regions of the Universe densely populated with dark matter, and it’s possible that some of the resulting particles are bombarding us all the time—we just don’t know their origin. Our atmosphere is constantly bombarded by particles from space of varying kinds, collectively known as cosmic rays. Cosmic rays come from sources such as supernovae and active galactic nuclei (exceptionally bright cores of galaxies). Could some of them also come from collisions of dark matter particles? Sorting that one out has been challenging. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) aboard the International Space Station has recently provided new data on the flux of antiprotons reaching the Earth’s atmosphere. (antiprotons are the antiparticles of protons). Because of the unprecedented precision of that data, two new teams have separately published papers, without knowledge of each other, using the new data to make an argument that some of the antiprotons are being produced in dark matter particle collisions. Read 13 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Jonathan Gitlin NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Our automotive coverage at Ars Technica is—as one might expect—focused heavily on new technologies like autonomous cars and alternative powertrains. These fields of research and development have the potential to save lives (by reducing accidents) and the planet (through decreased carbon emissions). But a recent visit to the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville involved a trip outside this comfort zone, back in time to the era of the microcar. These little vehicles were a product of their environments; postwar Europe and Japan, where raw materials like steel, rubber, and fuel were in short supply, and when drivers had much less disposable income to spend. The vehicles that emerged over the subsequent decades were certainly a step up from motorized scooters, although, in some cases, not by a very large margin. But a day spent hopping in and out of different makes and models—driving them on the museum grounds, on the public road, and at Fairgrounds Nashville Speedway—was both informative and wonderfully refreshing compared to our normal diet of driving brand new cars. Read 13 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Today, HTC is taking the wraps off its newest flagship smartphone, the HTC U11. This is a proper Snapdragon 835 flagship—Qualcomm's latest chip—and it comes with two notable features: a fancy "squeeze" function that launches a configurable action and dual hotword support for both the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. I was a big fan of HTC's 2016 flagship, the HTC 10, thanks mostly to its rock-solid metal body, along with the light Android skin. Starting with the earlier HTC U Ultra, HTC moved away from its best-in-class metal phones and started making glass-backed devices. Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge / A cryptocurrency mining farm. (credit: Marco Krohn) On Friday, Ransomware called WannaCry used leaked hacking tools stolen from the National Security Agency to attack an estimated 200,000 computers in 150 countries. On Monday, researchers said the same weapons-grade attack kit was used in a much earlier and possibly larger-scale hack that made infected computers part of a botnet that mined cryptocurrency. Like WannaCry, this earlier, previously unknown attack used an exploit codenamed EternalBlue and a backdoor called DoublePulsar, both of which were NSA-developed hacking tools leaked in mid April by a group calling itself Shadow Brokers. But instead of installing ransomware, the campaign pushed cryptocurrency mining software known as Adylkuzz. WannaCry, which gets its name from a password hard-coded into the exploit, is also known as WCry. Kafeine, a well-known researcher at security firm Proofpoint, said the attack started no later than May 2 and may have begun as early as April 24. He said the campaign was surprisingly effective at compromising Internet-connected computers that have yet to install updates Microsoft released in early March to patch the critical vulnerabilities in the Windows implementation of the Server Message Block protocol. In a blog post published Monday afternoon Kafeine wrote: Read 3 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Could we ever get a bonafide Call of Duty, Battlefield, or Halo game in virtual reality? Sony's latest PlayStation VR game Farpoint is at its most compelling when it teases us with a resounding "yes" to that question. I mean, by golly, we have it now: a VR gun game where you use a joystick to run, aim a gun with your hands, blast bad guys, and feel like a not-sick-at-all badass. Nausea, comfort, and immersion all work in Farpoint's favor when the game fires on all cylinders. PlayStation VR owners may feel moved to buy it just to see this long-awaited promise come to fruition. (Farpoint can be purchased with a brand-new PlayStation VR Aim Controller; we'll also explore just how unnecessary the controller turns out to be—and how good that is for the future of PSVR games.) But that purchase won't be met with a full game that merits "legendary" or even "damned good" status. The design team at Impulse Gear Studios clearly devoted a lot of resources to nailing the feel of sit-down VR combat, and that focus has apparently left some basic gameplay and plot issues unresolved. Read 33 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Formerly known as Project Neon, the Microsoft Fluent Design System is the latest iteration in the development of Microsoft's look-and-feel for Windows. Fluent builds on the Metro design language introduced with Windows Phone. Metro was designed for touch devices in particular; with Fluent, Microsoft is aiming at devices ranging from those without any display at all, through phones, tablets, traditional PCs, to virtual and augmented reality systems. Fluent also marks a shift from a design primarily focused on consumption, to one that also incorporates content creation. This generally means that Fluent will have to scale to denser, more feature-rich interfaces than Metro ever did. As well as broadening the scope of the new design approach, Microsoft is also trying to do a better job of getting designers and developers to understand it. The documentation for Fluent is already arguably more comprehensive than it ever was for Metro. It combines both design guidelines and developer references to show not just what to do but also how to do it. Read 20 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge (credit: Rishabh Mishra) When Volkswagen’s diesel scandal broke in 2015, much was made of how the cars spewed the pollutant nitrogen oxide (NOx) in dramatic excess of regulators’ standards during real-world driving. But that wasn’t what ultimately got VW Group in trouble with officials from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and European Union regulators. The key problem was that diesel VWs, Audis, and even Porsches included undisclosed “defeat devices,” or lines of code in the car’s software, that regulators didn’t know about. This code permitted the diesel cars to run cleaner in a lab than on the road. In most cases, regulators know that vehicles will run dirtier during some real-world driving conditions than they do during the lab tests. They also know that lab tests are designed narrowly enough that automakers can exploit them. US regulators don't uniformly test emissions under real-world conditions (although the EPA conducted a review of diesel vehicles after the VW Group scandal). A new study published in Nature has now calculated the effect of lax practices in regulation and come up with a body count—38,000 people around the world prematurely died in 2015 as a result of excess particulate matter (including NOx) and ozone emissions from diesel vehicles. Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge / The Falcon 9 rocket is ready to go for Monday night's launch. (credit: SpaceX) Tonight, SpaceX will attempt to launch its sixth Falcon 9 rocket of 2017. If successful, this take-off would put SpaceX on course to launch more than a dozen missions this year and, possibly, as many as eighteen. The 49-minute launch window opens at 7:21pm ET Monday (0:21am UK Tuesday), and the rocket will deliver an Inmarsat-5 F4 communications satellite to a geostationary transfer orbit. Weather is near ideal for a launch from Kennedy Space Center this evening, with a 90-percent chance of favorable conditions. Because the satellite is so heavy—more than six metric tons—and going to a higher orbit, the Falcon 9 rocket won't have enough fuel to make a return attempt, even at sea. The company has not disclosed whether it will make another experimental attempt to recover the rocket's payload fairing. A successful mission tonight by SpaceX would allow the company to demonstrate that it is making good progress toward its long-promised goal of flying the Falcon 9 frequently and working through a backlog of about 70 missions. Since SpaceX returned to flight on January 17 of this year, five Falcon 9 rockets have launched. After tonight, a seventh launch could come just two weeks later at the beginning of June, a cargo supply mission to the International Space Station. Read 2 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge / Identical code found in WCry and 2015 malicious backdoor could be a smoking gun that provides crucial clues about the origin of Friday's ransomware worm. (credit: Jo Christian Oterhals) A researcher has found digital fingerprints that tie the WCry ransomware worm that menaced the world on Friday to a prolific hacking operation that previously generated headlines by attacking Sony Pictures, the Bangladesh Central Bank, and South Korean banks. The link came in a cryptic Twitter message from Neel Mehta, a security researcher at Google. The tweet referenced identical code found in a WCry sample from February and an early 2015 version of Cantopee, a malicious backdoor used by Lazarus Group, a hacking team that has been operating since at least 2011. Previously discovered code fingerprints already tied Lazarus Group to the highly destructive hack that caused hard drives in South Korea to self-destruct in 2013, wiped almost a terabyte's worth of data from Sony Pictures in 2014, and siphoned almost $1 billion from the Bangladesh Central Bank last year by compromising the SWIFT network used to transfer funds. Red highlights show identical code shared between a February version of WCry and a 2015 backdoor used by Lazarus Group. Over a matter of hours on Friday, Wcry used leaked National Security Agency-developed code to attack an estimated 200,000 computers in 150 countries. Also known as WannaCry, the self-replicating malware encrypted hard drives until victims paid ransoms ranging from $300 to $600. Infected hospitals soon responded by turning away patients and rerouting ambulances. Businesses and government agencies all over the world quickly disconnected computers from the Internet, either because they were no longer working or to prevent them from being hit. The outbreak was largely contained because the attackers failed to secure a domain name hard-coded into their exploit. Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge / Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai listens during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. (credit: Getty Images | Bloomberg) Widespread support for strong net neutrality rules continues, both from individuals who use the Internet and companies that offer websites and applications over the Internet. But Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has made a point of trumpeting anti-net neutrality sentiment as the FCC begins the process of reclassifying Internet service providers and eliminating net neutrality rules. Net neutrality supporters have flooded the FCC with comments opposing Pai's plan to overturn the current net neutrality rules, particularly since comedian John Oliver tackled the topic on HBO a week ago. But for Pai, only one comment was important enough to warrant special mention. On Friday, Pai issued a statement hailing the "exceptionally important contribution to the debate" made by a group of 19 nonprofit municipal-broadband providers. They wrote a letter saying that the net neutrality rules have forced them to "often delay or hold off from rolling out a new feature or service because we cannot afford to deal with a potential complaint and enforcement action." Read 29 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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An atomic clock based on a fountain of atoms. (credit: National Science Foundation) Countless experiments around the world are hoping to reap scientific glory for the first detection of dark matter particles. Usually, they do this by watching for dark matter to bump into normal matter or by slamming particles into other particles and hoping for some dark stuff to pop out. But what if the dark matter behaves more like a wave? That’s the intriguing possibility championed by Asimina Arvanitaki, a theoretical physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, where she holds the Aristarchus Chair in Theoretical Physics—the first woman to hold a research chair at the institute. Detecting these hypothetical dark matter waves requires a bit of experimental ingenuity. So she and her collaborators are adapting a broad range of radically different techniques to the search: atomic clocks and resonating bars originally designed to hunt for gravitational waves—and even lasers shined at walls in hopes that a bit of dark matter might seep through to the other side. “Progress in particle physics for the last 50 years has been focused on colliders, and rightfully so, because whenever we went to a new energy scale, we found something new,” says Arvanitaki. That focus is beginning to shift. To reach higher and higher energies, physicists must build ever-larger colliders—an expensive proposition when funding for science is in decline. There is now more interest in smaller, cheaper options. “These are things that usually fit in the lab, and the turnaround time for results is much shorter than that of the collider,” says Arvanitaki, admitting, “I’ve done this for a long time, and it hasn’t always been popular.” Read 19 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge (credit: Getty | Roberto Machado Noa) An international group of doctors and researchers is raising the alarm this week over the growing scarcity of old, essential antibiotics—a shortage spurred largely by money. These drugs are often the best option for treating patients by offering the safest, most targeted bacteria-busting capabilities while also helping to prevent germs from developing resistance to antibiotics. The old drugs are also often helpful for thwarting infections that are already resistant to some antibiotics. But because they are off-patent, they don’t turn a big profit. And as such, drug companies have been limiting production and distribution, which harms patients worldwide, the experts point out in an editorial published Sunday in the journal of Clinical Microbiology and Infection. In 2011, for instance, a review by the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases found that 22 of 33 aging antibiotics had limited availability. Those 22 were marketed in fewer than 20 of a group of 38 countries examined, which included the US, Australia, and European countries. “Economic motives were the major reason for not marketing these antibiotics,” the authors noted. And the distribution stats only got worse when researchers refreshed their review using data from 2015. Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge (credit: Woodys Aeroimages) United Airlines might have another public relations nightmare on its hands. First came the viral video of a passenger being forcefully removed from a United flight in April. Then came the out-of-court settlement with that passenger, David Dao. If a 69-year-old United passenger being manhandled wasn't bad enough for United, there's word that the carrier's security codes enabling access to the cockpit spilled online over the weekend. It wasn't some nefarious hackers that disclosed the codes. Instead, an airline attendant inadvertently exposed the access codes to the cockpits that were secured in the wake of 9/11. Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge Apple has just release the macOS 10.12.5 update for Sierra, the fifth major update since the operating system was released in September of 2016. The update is available for all Macs that support Sierra, and should also be included in all new downloads of the Sierra installer from the Mac App Store. Unlike macOS 10.12.4, which added a notable new feature in Night Shift, version 10.12.5 focuses on fixing bugs, improving support for new software, and addressing a long list of security vulnerabilities that overlaps quite a bit with those addresses by the iOS 10.3.2 update. Here's the full list of fixes listed in the release notes: Fixes an issue where audio may stutter when played through USB headphones Enhances compatibility of the Mac App Store with future software updates Adds support for media-free installation of Windows 10 Creators Update using Boot Camp The update can be downloaded through the Mac App Store, and should also be made available on the macOS downloads page sometime soon. The security-related fixes have also been released in update 2017-002 for both Yosemite and El Capitan, for those of you who are still using older versions of macOS. Read on Ars Technica | Comments

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Enlarge Apple has just released iOS 10.3.2 to the public, following around a month and a half of beta testing that began shortly after iOS 10.3 came out. It's available as an over-the-air update or through iTunes for any devices that run iOS 10: the iPhone 5 and newer, the fourth-generation iPad and newer, the iPad Mini 2 and newer, both iPad Pros, and the sixth-generation iPod Touch. Like the intervening iOS 10.3.1 update, the release notes for 10.3.2 only say that it "includes bug fixes and improves the security of your iPhone or iPad," which suggests that the release is primarily focused on security updates. According to Apple's security update page, it fixes quite a wide range of bugs that affect everything from the iPhone 5 on up: one in the AVEVideoEncoder, one in CoreAudio, two in iBooks, one in IOSurface, two in the kernel, one Notifications bug, one in Safari, four SQLite bugs, one TextInput problem, a whopping eight WebKit-related fixes that address an even larger number of vulnerabilities, and an update to the certificate trust policy. As with any update that fixes a large number of bugs, you should patch as soon as you can to prevent exploits of the now-public vulnerabilities. Read on Ars Technica | Comments

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Enlarge Specs at a glance: Xiaomi Air 12 Screen 12.5-inch 1080p IPS OS Windows 10 Home (Chinese Edition) CPU Intel Core m3-6Y30 dual-core @ 900MHz (2.2GHz Turbo) RAM 4GB LPDDR3 (non-upgradeable) GPU Intel HD Graphics 515 HDD 128GB SATA SSD (M.2 slot available) Networking Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1 Ports 1x USB 3.0 Type-C, USB 3.0 Type-A, HDMI, headphone jack Size 11.5" x 7.95" x 0.51" (292mm x 202mm x 12.9mm) Weight 2.36 lbs (1.07kg) Battery 5000mAh Price £400/$490 (price varies) Other perks 720p webcam, backlit keyboard Notes You cannot directly buy the Xiaomi Air 12 in the UK, US, or indeed many markets outside China. Instead, you will most likely have to import it. As such, you will likely receive less customer support if things go wrong. If you're in the market for a compact laptop and have an eye on style there's one obvious choice: the Apple MacBook. Unfortunately, while the MacBook is a desirable piece of kit, its starting price of £1,250 for a mere Core m3 processor and 8GB of memory is hardly what you'd call good value. While there are Windows alternatives to the MacBook—Microsoft's Surface and Dell's XPS 12 spring to mind—few are based on the same compact 12-inch laptop form factor, or cost substantially less money. Chinese gadget maker Xiaomi wants to change all that with the Xiaomi Air 12, a MacBook-style laptop that retails for a third of the price. Not only does the Air 12 feature a remarkably similar industrial design to Cupertino's offering, it boasts similar specs too. It's almost too good to be true. Buying an Air 12 is not a wholly risk-free undertaking. Xiaomi hasn't officially released the Air 12 (or its 13-inch big brother the Air 13) in the UK, US, or other western markets. Buying one means dealing with grey importers and sucking up the associated ramifications regarding import duties and after-sales support, or lack thereof. My review sample came from Chinese reseller GearBest, which, at the time of writing, wants just under £400 ($490 in the US) for an Air 12. Unfortunately, DHL charged another £19 of import duty before delivery, bringing the total cost to just shy of £420. Read 22 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Enlarge / A BE-4 rocket engine powerpack on the test stand in West Texas. Ever since the first successful suborbital flight of its New Shepard spacecraft and rocket, Blue Origin has been leading a charmed life. The company, founded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, has launched and safely landed its reusable vehicle five times. It has splashily announced a forthcoming orbital rocket, New Glenn. And Bezos himself has racked up a number of aerospace awards for his accomplishments. But on Sunday Blue Origin announced a setback. "We lost a set of powerpack test hardware on one of our BE-4 test stands yesterday," the company tweeted. "Not unusual during development." The company declined to provide more information about the accident to Ars, but most likely the powerpack—that is, the turbines and pumps that provide the fuel-oxidizer mix into the combustion chamber of the rocket engine—exploded. It is not clear whether the test stand itself sustained serious damage (the company has at least two stands at its rocket engine testing facilities near Van Horn, Texas), nor whether the engine hardware was being pushed to some kind of limit, or whether this was part of routine testing as Blue Origin moves toward a full-scale engine test. Also, while no details were released, Blue Origin added that it expects engine testing to resume "soon." Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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