ARS TECHNICA

28 Jan. 2023
The weekend’s best deals: Apple computers, Kindles, 4K TVs, charging cables, and more.

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Another weekend, another Dealmaster. In this week's roundup of the best tech deals on the web, we have deals on a range of Apple computers―desktops and laptops alike. Co-headlining the Apple computer sale are the just-released 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros and the 2021 iMac.

We recently reviewed the new MacBooks and dubbed them "the best laptop[s] you can buy today by almost any measure." Aimed at power users who demand muscular performance and easy, varied, built-in port selection, the 2023 MacBook Pros only improved on an already impressive pair of laptops in the previous generation. If you already have one of those, there's no pressing need to upgrade. However, if you were on the fence or waiting for the next generation, you can snag the new laptops for $50 off full retail price and gain even more improved M2-Pro-powered chips.

Also on sale is the 2021 iMac. Perhaps most easily thought of as a MacBook Air in all-in-one desktop form, it provides plenty power for most users. It's not the Mac you want if you're going to be gaming, editing video, or creating much beyond documents. Still, it's a good-looking, nostalgic, simple, albeit brightly-colored desktop computer that will absolutely crush Zoom calls with great audio and video capture, and look good doing it. With a $150 discount, the iMac is a bit more attractive at $1,099 than its typical $1,250 price.

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28 Jan. 2023
A bunch of blocks

Enlarge (credit: Eugene Mymrin/Getty Images)

For years, the cryptocurrency economy has been rife with black market sales, theft, ransomware, and money laundering—despite the strange fact that in that economy, practically every transaction is written into a blockchain’s permanent, unchangeable ledger. But new evidence suggests that years of advancements in blockchain tracing and crackdowns on that illicit underworld may be having an effect—if not reducing the overall volume of crime, then at least cutting down on the number of laundering outlets, leaving the crypto black market with fewer options to cash out its proceeds than it’s had in a decade.

In a portion of its annual crime report focused on money laundering that was published today, cryptocurrency-tracing firm Chainalysis points to a new consolidation in crypto criminal cash-out services over the past year. It counted just 915 of those services used in 2022, the fewest it’s seen since 2012 and the latest sign of a steady drop-off in the number of those services since 2018. Chainalysis says an even smaller number of exchanges now enable the money-laundering trade of cryptocurrency for actual dollars, euros, and yen: It found that just five cryptocurrency exchanges now handle nearly 68 percent of all black market cash-outs.

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27 Jan. 2023
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research within the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill in March 2021, in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research within the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill in March 2021, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Pool)

The US Food and Drug Administration's committee of independent vaccine experts gathered Thursday to discuss the future of COVID-19 shots. The meeting seemed primed for explosive debate. Earlier in the week, the FDA released documents that made clear the agency is holding steadfast to its idea that COVID vaccines will fit the mold of annual flu shots—with reformulations decided in the first half of each year, followed by fall rollouts in anticipation of winter waves.

But outside experts, including some on the FDA's advisory committee, have questioned almost every aspect of that plan—from the uncertain seasonality of COVID-19 so far, to the futility of chasing fast-moving variants (or subvariants, as the case may be). Some have even questioned whether there's a need to boost the young and healthy so frequently when current vaccines offer protection against severe disease, but only short-lived protection against infection.

One particularly outspoken member of FDA's committee, Paul Offit, a pediatrician and infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has publicly assailed the bivalent booster, writing a commentary piece in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this month titled: Bivalent Covid-19 Vaccines — A Cautionary Tale. (The FDA's advisory committee voted 19-2 in support of the bivalent boosters last year, with Offit being one of the two votes against.)

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27 Jan. 2023
Artist's conception of <em>D&D</em> fans holding back WotC's attempts to change the game's license.

Enlarge / Artist's conception of D&D fans holding back WotC's attempts to change the game's license. (credit: WotC)

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) owner Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has halted its attempts to update the longstanding Open Gaming License (OGL) that has dictated the legal use of the game's rules for decades. The move comes after weeks of controversy and belated attempts to partially scale back leaked plans for an OGL update.

The original OGL 1.0a, first released in the early '00s, will now "remain untouched" WotC announced in a tweet Friday. What's more, the entire D&D Systems Reference Document (SRD)—which also includes creative content like classes, spells, and monsters trademarked and copyrighted by WotC—is now available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, meaning it's free to use as long as proper credit is given.

WotC's full retreat in this licensing battle comes as WotC says survey feedback on the latest draft update to the license was "in such high volume and its direction is so plain," that the company felt it had to act immediately, as Executive Producer Kyle Brink wrote on the D&D Beyond blog.

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27 Jan. 2023
Screenshots you can hear.

Enlarge / Screenshots you can hear.

Update (5:35 pm ET): As user Cuesport77 points out on Reddit, Nintendo offers a system-level button remapping function that can get around most of the issues highlighted in this piece. Going into the Switch's system settings and swapping the left and right analog stick inputs (as well as the inputs for any other buttons you want) can help provide more standardized "dual stick" controls for the game.

This isn't the most convenient option, as players will have to undo the customizations when switching from GoldenEye to any other Switch game (and then back when going back to GoldenEye). These customizations also don't seem to be available on any controller connected to the system when in portable mode.

Nonetheless, Ars regrets not recognizing this option existed before publishing the below story, which is included in its original form (with a few noted updates) below.

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27 Jan. 2023
Image of a colorful bird in a field.

Enlarge (credit: Robert Trevis-Smith)

It's pretty easy to link humans' intelligence to our success as a species. Things like agriculture, building cities, and surviving in harsh environments require a large collection of mental skills, from good memory to the ability to communicate and work together. But it's often less clear what role intelligence plays in species with less obvious mental capabilities. In many cases, it's hard to even measure mental capacities; in other cases, it's hard to guess which capacities might improve survival.

A new study looks at a bird species that doesn't have much of a reputation for braininess: the pheasant. But the researchers behind the study find that pheasants have substantial differences in spatial thinking, and some aspects of that spatial capacity make a difference when the birds are released into the wild. Those birds that do well with navigating a complex maze adopted a larger home territory and did better at avoiding being eaten. And, almost as an accident, the study finds that the birds tend to get eaten more often when they wander out of familiar territory.

Can’t outfox the foxes

Parrots and corvids have reputations as the brainiacs of the bird world. Pheasants, not so much. But they do have advantages for the study of mental abilities. They're easy to raise in captivity, where they can be given various tests, and will adjust easily if released into the wild. They're also big enough that it's easy to attach tracking devices to see what they're doing after they've been released.

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27 Jan. 2023
An iteration of what happens when your site gets shut down by a DDoS attack.

Enlarge / An iteration of what happens when your site gets shut down by a DDoS attack.

Threat actors loyal to the Kremlin have stepped up attacks in support of its invasion of Ukraine, with denial-of-service attacks hitting German banks and other organizations and the unleashing of a new destructive data wiper on Ukraine.

Germany's BSI agency, which monitors cybersecurity in that country, said the attacks caused small outages but ultimately did little damage.

“Currently, some websites are not accessible,” the BSI said in a statement to news agencies. “There are currently no indications of direct effects on the respective service and, according to the BSI's assessment, these are not to be expected if the usual protective measures are taken.”

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27 Jan. 2023
A person's hand inserting a key into the lock on a jail-cell door.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Charles O'Rear)

Paul Hansmeier, who is serving a 14-year prison sentence for filing sham copyright infringement lawsuits and extorting money from victims, has lost an attempt to enforce copyrights from prison. In a ruling Monday, a federal judge rejected Hansmeier's request to prevent the government from enforcing mail-wire fraud and money laundering laws against him. Hansmeier wanted an injunction so that he could file copyright lawsuits without facing new charges.

Hansmeier, who is also appealing his conviction despite having pleaded guilty, will be familiar to Ars readers as one of the principals behind the notorious "copyright troll" firm Prenda Law. He was sentenced in June 2019 "for an elaborate fraud scheme that involved uploading pornographic videos to file-sharing networks and then threatening to sue people who downloaded them," as our reporting at the time said. Prenda Law's strategy involved seeking settlements of a few thousand dollars from each victim.

Prenda Law founder John Steele pleaded guilty in 2017 to charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering and cooperated in the investigation into Hansmeier. Hansmeier ultimately pleaded guilty to the same charges in August 2018. Steele was sentenced to five years in prison in July 2019.

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27 Jan. 2023
Comparing stimulation of a Venus flytrap and the mutant DYSC. Credit: Ines Kreuzer, Rainer Hedrich, Soenke Scherzer

In 2011, a horticulturist named Mathias Maier stumbled across an unusual mutant of a Venus flytrap, a carnivorous plant that traps and feeds on insects. Scientists recently discovered that the typical Venus flytrap can actually "count" to five, sparking further research on how the plant manages this remarkable feat. The mutant flytrap might hold the key. According to a new paper published in the journal Current Biology, this mutant flytrap doesn't snap closed in response to stimulation like typical Venus flytraps.

"This mutant has obviously forgotten how to count, which is why I named it Dyscalculia (DYSC)," said co-author Rainer Hedrich, a biophysicist at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany. (It had previously been called "ERROR.")

As we've reported previously, the Venus flytrap attracts its prey with a pleasing fruity scent. When an insect lands on a leaf, it stimulates the highly sensitive trigger hairs that line the leaf. When the pressure becomes strong enough to bend those hairs, the plant will snap its leaves shut and trap the insect inside. Long cilia grab and hold the insect in place, much like fingers, as the plant begins to secrete digestive juices. The insect is digested slowly over five to 12 days, after which the trap reopens, releasing the dried-out husk of the insect into the wind.

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27 Jan. 2023
Nintendo's promotional key art for the launch of <em>GoldenEye 007</em> on Switch.

Enlarge / Nintendo's promotional key art for the launch of GoldenEye 007 on Switch. (credit: Nintendo)

Today marks the long-awaited rerelease of the Nintendo 64 classic GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo Switch. As was announced before the launch, the game supports widescreen. When I learned that, my first thought wasn't "Oh, nice!" Rather, it was "OK, but what about the rest of the library?"

To be clear, there's no easy way to make old 4:3 games fill up a modern 16:9 aspect ratio, and that's not something I would recommend in this case. But the solution used by the rest of the library of old games running within the Nintendo Switch Online service—enclosing every game in horribly distracting and potentially destructive gray borders—is, well, awful.

So as Nintendo finally adds one of the most beloved Nintendo 64 games to Switch Online, allow me a moment to vent some frustration on behalf of many players.

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27 Jan. 2023
A large OLED screen on a desk in a dark room

Enlarge / Apple will pay you less for this iPhone 13 Pro Max than it used to. (credit: Samuel Axon)

As spotted by MacRumors on Wednesday, Apple has cut the trade-in values of iPhones by up to $80, with the biggest cuts coming to the iPhone 13 Pro Max ($570 trade-in value versus $650 before) and the iPhone 13 Pro ($470 versus $550).

And while trade-in values for many base models (iPhone 7, 8, X, and 11) and some of their sibling releases (iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone XR, XS, and XS Max) remain unchanged, nine out of the 20 iPhones listed now have a reduced trade-in value. According to MacRumors, most Android smartphones also saw a reduction in trade-in value.

Apple has cut trade-in values as recently as November and has done so over the years without explaining why. The devices losing value could be one factor, and the most recent change to Apple's trade-in values follows an abysmal year for smartphone sales. According to market intelligence firm IDC, sales dropped 11.3 percent from 2021 to 2022. The year saw the lowest number of phones shipped (1.21 billion) since 2013. Apple saw a 4 percent drop (226.4 million versus 235.8 million).

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27 Jan. 2023
An AI-generated image of a robot typewriter-journalist hard at work.

Enlarge / An AI-generated image of a robot typewriter-journalist hard at work. (credit: Ars Technica)

On Thursday, an internal memo obtained by The Wall Street Journal revealed that BuzzFeed is planning to use ChatGPT-style text synthesis technology from OpenAI to create individualized quizzes and potentially other content in the future. After the news hit, BuzzFeed's stock rose 200 percent. On Friday, BuzzFeed formally announced the move in a post on its site.

"In 2023, you'll see AI inspired content move from an R&D stage to part of our core business, enhancing the quiz experience, informing our brainstorming, and personalizing our content for our audience," BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti wrote in a memo to employees, according to Reuters. A similar statement appeared on the BuzzFeed site.

The move comes as the buzz around OpenAI's ChatGPT language model reaches a fever pitch in the tech sector, inspiring more investment from Microsoft and reactive moves from Google. ChatGPT's underlying model, GPT-3, uses its statistical "knowledge" of millions of books and articles to generate coherent text in numerous styles, with results that read very close to human writing, depending on the topic. GPT-3 works by attempting to predict the most likely next words in a sequence (called a "prompt") provided by the user.

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27 Jan. 2023
Report: Truth Social ads dominated by fake merchandise, misleading users

Enlarge (credit: Sean Rayford / Stringer | Getty Images North America)

Like any social media platform, Truth Social relies on advertising to drive revenue, but as Twitter’s highly publicized struggle to retain advertisers has shown, it’s hard to attract major brands when a company’s content moderation capabilities appear undependable. That’s likely why Truth Social—which prides itself on sparking an “open, free, and honest global conversation” by largely avoiding content moderation altogether—has seemingly attracted no major advertisers.

A New York Times analysis of hundreds of Truth Social ads showed that the social media platform’s strategy for scraping by is taking ads from just about anyone. Currently, the platform, which was founded by former president Donald Trump, is attracting ad dollars from “hucksters and fringe marketers” who are peddling products like Trump tchotchkes, gun accessories, and diet pills, the Times reported.

In addition to Truth Social’s apparently struggling ad business, SFGate reported in November that Truth Social’s user base also seems to be dwindling. According to The Righting, a group monitoring conservative media, Truth Social traffic peaked last August at 4 million unique visitors but dropped to 2.8 million by October.

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27 Jan. 2023
Don't bring a knife to a historical Japanese gunfight.

Enlarge / Don't bring a knife to a historical Japanese gunfight.

Sega’s cult-favorite Yakuza series is in a league of its own in its ability to blend brutal, stylish combat with a heartfelt and endearingly melodramatic storyline. Following the success of 2020’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon and the spinoff Judgement series, the over-the-top and unapologetically earnest action series has made great strides in reaching a larger audience worldwide.

With the franchise’s 20th anniversary approaching, Sega is making a larger push for the series, now known simply as Like a Dragon, in the West. Like a Dragon: Ishin! is an upgraded visit to one of the franchise’s most elusive games and the first chance for Western audiences to circle back to the sprawling story’s 19th-century origins.

After some time with the game’s early chapters, it’s clear this remake reaffirms the series’ signature approach to marrying absurd yet poignant storylines with action encounters that come right out of a comic book.

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27 Jan. 2023
Requiem for a string: Charting the rise and fall of a theory of everything

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson | Getty Images)

String theory began over 50 years ago as a way to understand the strong nuclear force. Since then, it’s grown to become a theory of everything, capable of explaining the nature of every particle, every force, every fundamental constant, and the existence of the Universe itself. But despite decades of work, it has failed to deliver on its promise.

What went wrong, and where do we go from here?

Beginning threads

Like most revolutions, string theory had humble origins. It started in the 1960s as an attempt to understand the workings of the strong nuclear force, which had only recently been discovered. Quantum field theory, which had been used successfully to explain electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force, wasn’t cutting it, so physicists were eager for something new.

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27 Jan. 2023
United Launch Alliance hoists its Vulcan Cert-1 booster into the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral.

Enlarge / United Launch Alliance hoists its Vulcan Cert-1 booster into the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral. (credit: United Launch Alliance)

Welcome to Edition 5.23 of the Rocket Report! This has been a really fun week for US rockets: Electron made a smashing debut in a launch from Virginia, Vulcan went vertical in Florida, and Starship passed a key test en route to its first orbital launch. I'm looking forward to more great leaps in launch later this year.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Rocket Lab makes successful US debut. For years, the Electron rocket and the company behind it had been stuck in limbo at the Virginia launch site, waiting on various approvals—for regulatory agencies to share enough paperwork with each other to convince everyone that the launch was safe. Then weather and the end-of-year holidays kept pushing the launch back. But on Tuesday, everything went as smoothly as it is possible to imagine, and the Electron shot to orbit almost as soon as the launch window opened, Ars reports.

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26 Jan. 2023
An example of computer-synthesized handwriting generated by Calligrapher.ai.

Enlarge / An example of computer-synthesized handwriting generated by Calligrapher.ai. (credit: Ars Technica)

Thanks to a free web app called calligrapher.ai, anyone can simulate handwriting with a neural network that runs in a browser via JavaScript. After typing a sentence, the site renders it as handwriting in nine different styles, each of which is adjustable with properties such as speed, legibility, and stroke width. It also allows downloading the resulting faux handwriting sample in an SVG vector file.

The demo is particularly interesting because it doesn't use a font. Typefaces that look like handwriting have been around for over 80 years, but each letter comes out as a duplicate no matter how many times you use it.

During the past decade, computer scientists have relaxed those restrictions by discovering new ways to simulate the dynamic variety of human handwriting using neural networks.

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26 Jan. 2023
An empty Samsung Store.

Enlarge / An empty Samsung Store. (credit: Samsung)

With a million layoffs and rising inflation, it turns out consumers also aren't interested in spending a ton on a new smartphone. The International Data Corporation has the latest numbers for worldwide smartphone sales in Q4 2022, and it's a disaster. Shipments declined 18.3 percent year-over-year, making for the largest-ever decline in a single quarter and dragging the year down to an 11.3 percent decline. With overall shipments of 1.21 billion phones for the year, the IDC says this is the lowest annual shipment total since 2013.

In the top five for Q4 2022—in order, they were Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo—Apple was, of course, the least affected, but not by much. Apple saw a year-over-year drop of 14.9 percent for Q4 2022, Samsung was down 15.6 percent, and the big loser, Xiaomi, dropped 26.5 percent. For the year, Samsung still took the No. 1 spot with 21.6 percent market share, Apple was No. 2 with 18.8 percent, and Xiaomi took third place at 12.7 percent.

The IDC also notes consumers are keeping smartphones longer than ever now, with "refresh rates" or the time that passes before people buy a new phone 'climb[ing] past 40 months in most major markets.' The report closes saying: "2023 is set up to be a year of caution as vendors will rethink their portfolio of devices while channels will think twice before taking on excess inventory. However, on a positive note, consumers may find even more generous trade-in offers and promotions continuing well into 2023 as the market will think of new methods to drive upgrades and sell more devices, specifically high-end models."

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26 Jan. 2023
Image of a smiley face with a frown, with the lines drawn using pills.

Enlarge (credit: Larry Washburn)

Jianhua Guo is a professor at the Australian Centre for Water and Environmental Biotechnology. His research focuses on removing contaminants from wastewater and the environmental dimensions of antimicrobial resistance. One of those dimensions is the overuse of antibiotics, which promotes resistance to these drugs.

Guo wondered if the same might hold true for other types of pharmaceuticals as well. His lab found that they definitely do. Specific antidepressants—SSRIs and SNRIs—promote resistance to different classes of antibiotics. This resistance is heritable over 33 bacterial generations, even once the antidepressant is removed.

So much work

Antidepressants are among the most prescribed and ingested drugs there are. They account for roughly 5 percent of the pharmaceutical market share—about the same as antibiotics—and four of the top 10 most prescribed psychiatric meds in the US.

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26 Jan. 2023
A recent keyboard announcement explores a space-saving alternative to dedicated arrow buttons.

Enlarge / A recent keyboard announcement explores a space-saving alternative to dedicated arrow buttons. (credit: Scharon Harding)

Which keys are absolutely essential to a keyboard? Many will tell you the entire numpad is, while others demand macro keys. I personally insist on a volume knob for my home office setup. And as someone who has tested 60 percent keyboards, which have no numpad or arrow keys, I'd add that for productivity and my sanity, arrow keys are also mandatory.

Arrow-less keyboards have their market, but for the vast majority, no arrows on a keyboard is a deal-breaker. A mechanical keyboard Angry Miao announced today asks us to consider an alternative, though. Instead of arrow keys or relying on a key combo for arrow input (like most 60 percent keyboard users do), it has a capacitive touch panel on the front edge for inputting arrow and other functions with your thumbs.

Is Angry Miao on to something here?

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