Wednesday, 30 November 2016

New Details Suggest Rogue Government Agent Deleted Evidence in Silk Road Case

Image: Getty

The saga of the Silk Road online black market taken down by US law enforcement in 2013 continues to get nuttier: a still-unidentified rogue government agent may have sold information about the Silk Road investigation to the website’s operator and may have later deleted evidence of the arrangement.

On Tuesday, the legal team for Ross Ulbricht, the man convicted of running the marketplace under the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts,” filed a letter with the US attorney’s office in Maryland saying it had found evidence of exactly this bizarre arrangement. Ulbricht’s attorneys say the government official, known by the aliases “notwonderful” and “albertpacino” on Silk Road and the Silk Road forums, then deleted evidence of the exchange after the government seized the servers.

This official isn’t either former DEA agent Carl Mark Force or former Secret Service agent Shaun Bridges, who were both convicted of a slew of corruption-related charges late last year and are both serving federal prison sentences. That there could be more crooked cops involved with the case has been raised several times—both by prosecutors in the Force and Bridges cases and by Variety Jones, an advisor and “mentor” to Silk Road’s founder, Dread Pirate Roberts.

Ulbricht’s attorney, Joshua Dratel, says forensics experts working for the legal team have discovered a slew of communications between Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR) and a Silk Road forum user called “notwonderful,” who claimed they were a government employee willing to sell information about the federal investigation into Silk Road back to DPR. Those communications were deleted from several of the pieces of evidence the government submitted as evidence in the Ulbricht case, and appear to have been deleted only after the government seized them.

“Someone who the government believed was in the law enforcement investigation was selling information to DPR,” Ulbricht’s attorney Joshua Dratel told reporters at a press conference in his Wall Street offices in Manhattan. “That person made a concerted effort to wipe that evidence from four pieces of [evidence], however there was a fifth piece he wasn’t aware of.”

Dratel says the discovery “totally undermines the integrity of any of the digital evidence in the case.” Ulbricht’s legal team has made a discovery demand in Maryland, where a case against Ulbricht is still pending and says it will file a motion if discovery isn’t initiated by prosecutors there.

The Communications
We learned during the various protracted legal sagas (Ulbricht’s, Force’s, and Bridges’s) that several undercover agents from several different branches of the Department of Justice went undercover on both Silk Road and the Silk Road forums. “Deathfromabove,” for instance, was one of Force’s aliases. During the original Silk Road trial, Dratel repeatedly brought up an undercover DEA or Homeland Security Investigations agent known as “mr. wonderful.” We never learned who mr. wonderful is, but the government acknowledged in testimony that they were indeed part of the investigation.

Dratel said the messages were deleted “surgically"

Mr. wonderful doesn’t play into this latest thread, but it’s important to establish this person as separate from “notwonderful,” the forum user who approached DPR in a private message on July 26, 2013. Dratel did not release exact messages exchanged between DPR and notwonderful but paraphrased them for reporters at the press conference. He says notwonderful offered DPR information about the investigation that was later corroborated in Ulbricht’s trial in testimony by undercover HSI agent Jared Der-Yeghiayan.

“In the first message he says, ‘I’m notwonderful,’” Dratel told reporters. “He says, ‘I’m not a field agent, but I’m an analyst in an office with 9-to-5 responsibilities but with access to internal communications.’ He offers DPR real-time information on the investigation, and he does provide some of that. Some of it is analytical, some of it matches the status of what we know about the investigation.” For example, notwonderful told DPR that there was Tor exit node tracking—something that was corroborated by Der-Yeghiayan at trial.

According to the messages, DPR and notwonderful exchanged roughly 30 pages worth of messages between July 22 and August 15, 2013. DPR agreed to pay notwonderful between $5,000 and $8,000 up front and then a salary of $500 per week for updates into the ongoing case. The payments were to go to a second account, called “albertpacino,” that was set up on the Silk Road market.

If you’ve been following this case closely, “albertpacino” should sound familiar—government prosecutors discovered that DPR was paying albertpacino for information during the Force investigation, but the government could not prove that Force and albertpacino were the same person.

This letter from November 2014 is the last time alpacino was associated with Carl Force.

Dratel says this is because all evidence suggests that albertpacino (and notwonderful) was neither Force nor Bridges. Documents that were unsealed after the Force trial noted that in November of 2014, “Force [was] also being investigated for leaking investigative information to Ulbricht through a different Silk Road username—‘alpacino.’” The government never again mentioned alpacino (or albertpacino) in connection with Force again after that.

In Shaun Bridges’s sentencing hearings, Assistant US Attorney Kathryn Haun in the Northern District of California claimed that bitcoins in the case were still unaccounted for, and seemed to imply that Bridges had not admitted to the full extent of his activities. But Dratel claims that the evidence points towards neither Force nor Bridges being alpacino or notwonderful.

“If the government believed it had evidence that Force or Bridges was alpacino, we would have seen it in the hundreds of pages of filings in the [Bridges] and [Force] cases,” Dratel said. “Notwonderful did not have the same methodology [as Force or Bridges], which was a combination of extortion and threat … this is from someone else. The personality of this person is so dramatically different from Force, Bridges [or their aliases]. It’s a completely different level of avarice and communications altogether.”

Any evidence about notwonderful was omitted from Ulbricht’s 2015 trial in the Southern District of New York. Dratel says this is because government officials did their best to cover it up.

The Servers
More bizarrely, it looks like key evidence was tampered with prior to Ulbricht’s arrest and the seizure of the Silk Road website. Ulbricht’s legal team analyzed four images made of the Silk Road servers (both a backup based in Pennsylvania, and the Icelandic server the site ran from) and found inconsistencies across the images. Portions were wiped or deleted, and those deletions coincided with notwonderful’s communications with DPR.

A Pennsylvania server used to store backups to the Silk Road forum database was imaged by its hosting company on September 9, 2013, pursuant to a government warrant. This image was identified as “Item No. 2” in discovery. The same server was imaged on the same day for a second time by the government (“Item No. 3”), and then again on October 2, 2013, the day that Ross Ulbricht was arrested and the site was seized (“Item No. 5”).

According to Dratel, each of those three images has had the entire Silk Road forum database wiped from July 22 onward. July 22 is the day that notwonderful contacted DPR for the first time.

The fourth image (“Item No. 16”) examined by Ulbricht’s legal team was made from an Icelandic server that was hosting the live site, and was imaged on November 22, 2013. This image included all Silk Road forum data from its inception June 18, 2011 through November 22, 2013. On this image, all of the data is available except for communications between notwonderful and DPR.

Dratel said the messages were deleted “surgically,” and that “someone, maybe notwonderful, did not want that to be found.”

"This amplifies completely our defense that the investigation lacks integrity because of data manipulation"

So how did Dratel find the conversations between notwonderful and the Dread Pirate Roberts, if they were deleted? He says that his forensics team discovered a separate, “administrator copy” of the database in a folder called “Directory S” on the Icelandic server. Directory S was backed up on August 15, 2013 by a Silk Road administrator (the defense team thinks ‘S’ stands for smedley—one of the forgotten architects of Silk Road). “If you were going and looking to delete something specifically, to cover your tracks, you would not know that this [Directory S] was created by an administrator,” Dratel said. The Directory S copy of the database contains the messages between notwonderful and DPR. Dratel says his legal team made the discovery over the summer and has spent the last few months analyzing the data.

“We got six terabytes of information, and they were was no real way we could review all of that data in the time period allowed before trial,” he said.

What this means
We’ve included much of the minutia in this case because a trial and investigation as convoluted and twisting as this one requires it. There is still much we don’t know, namely: Who is notwonderful?

Dratel says that if he can prove the government deleted evidence it will further undermine a case that has already been rife with corruption and government malfeasance. Indeed, Ross Ulbricht’s pending appeal before the Second Circuit relies heavily on the argument that Ulbricht failed to get a fair trial because of the withholding of key evidence (namely, evidence regarding corrupt law enforcement agents). But questions of fairness aside, there is not an obvious connection between this new evidence and Ross Ulbricht’s actual innocence or guilt.

“This amplifies completely our defense that the investigation lacks integrity because of data manipulation,” he said. “There was a significant amount of data deleted. Maybe there was other data erased—we don’t know.”

from New Details Suggest Rogue Government Agent Deleted Evidence in Silk Road Case

Two Hackers Appear To Have Created a New Massive Internet of Things Botnet

The massive cyberattacks that in the last few weeks have crippled several popular services like Twitter and Spotify, the website of a noted security journalist, and many more, may be about to get worse.

Two hackers appear to have created a new powerful zombie army of hacked Internet of Things devices with a modified version of the infamous malware Mirai. The cybercriminals are offering the powerful botnet to anyone who’s willing to pay to launch crippling distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyberattacks.

Last month, unknown attackers intermittently knocked offline several popular websites like Twitter, Spotify and many others using Mirai, a now-widespread type of malware created to automatically scan the internet for easy-to-hack devices and turn them into bots that can launch DDoS attacks. Now, two cybercriminals claim to have improved Mirai to infect new devices—mostly routers. This new variant gives them the ability to potentially harvest hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of new bots, according to security researchers.

Read more: The Looming Disaster of the Internet of (Hackable) Things

One of the two hackers behind this new Mirai variant said they have control over one million hacked devices.

“The original Mirai was easy to take, like candy from this kids,” the hacker, who calls himself BestBuy, told Motherboard in an online chat, referring to other competing hackers, who’ve been fighting in an online turf war to control vulnerable devices in the last few weeks.

The security firm Flashpoint, who’s been tracking Mirai since last summer, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday that “the new Mirai variant is likely an attempt by one of the existing Mirai botmasters to expand the number of infected devices in their botnet.”

“The original Mirai was easy to take, like candy from this kids.”

An independent security researcher known as MalwareTech, who’s also been monitoring Mirai attacks for weeks, said that the two hackers are now in control of 75 percent (roughly 400,000) of all Mirai devices on the internet. Dale Drew, the chief security officer at Level 3 Communications, a large internet infrastructure provider, said in an email that the Mirai bot count (the number of infected devices that can be used to launch attacks) is as high as 500,000 as of this week, and added that “it’s possible” that someone could rent the “full power of the bot.”

BestBuy also claimed responsibility for an outage that affected almost one million customers of the German internet service provider Deutsche Telekom over the weekend. The telecommunications company blamed the outage on a failed attempt to hijack routers and enlist them in the Mirai botnet.

“I would like to say sorry to [Deutsche Telekom] customers - it was not our intention,” BestBuy said.

BestBuy and their partner, who goes by the name Popopret, started advertising access to their new Mirai botnet last week, sending spam messages via the online chat protocol XMPP/Jabber, as first reported by the security blog BleepingComputer. In the ad, the hackers offered to rent the “biggest Mirai botnet,” made

A screenshot of the hackers’ advertisement (Image:

BestBuy said that they are offering customers different prices depending on their needs. For as little as $2,000, the hacker said, a customer can rent 20,000 to 25,000 nodes to launch intermittent one-hour long attacks over the span of two weeks, with 15 minutes of “cooldown” time between attacks. For $15,000 or $20,000, customers can get 600,000 bots to launch 2-hour-long attacks with 30 or 15 minutes of “cooldown” time. This costlier package gives customers 700 gbps of traffic or more, according to the hacker.

Read More: How Vigilante Hackers Could Stop the Internet of Things Botnet

It’s unclear how many nodes BestBuy and Popopret really control, as of now, we have no way of knowing exactly how many devices these hackers have commanded, let alone how many are the ones that were originally infected by Mirai. And it’s obviously in their best interest to inflate those numbers. The hackers also declined to provide specifics about how they’re infecting new targets, only saying that they’re using their own “bigger” botnet they to get to vulnerable devices before other competing hackers.

“Having bigger [botnet] means when device is restarted - we will get it first and lock it,” BestBuy said. “Why not make Mirai hunt Mirai?” [...] “Make it kill the original.”

“Business is business but there is limit to everything. Some things in the internet you should not hit.”

It’s possible that the two have found a way to reach an almost-monopoly over other Mirai botnets by scanning for new targets using a recently disclosed flaw, and by being faster at infecting and re-infecting targets, according to security researchers. (Usually devices infected by Mirai can remove the malware simply by rebooting, but they can then be reinfected by Mirai or other malware again).

“Basically that would mean they have more resources than the smaller players, more scan servers, better [command and control] setup,” Darren Martyn, a security researcher who’s also analyzed Mirai told Motherboard. “The simplest way is just being faster than everyone else [...] when a device becomes uninfected, it’s a ‘race.’”

The two hackers for now seems to be winning this race, which might be bad news for the internet. BestBuy, however, claim the two have ethical limits, blacklisting certain IPs to prevent their customers from hitting “critical infrastructure of specific companies.”

“Business is business but there is limit to everything,” BestBuy said. “Some things in the internet you should not hit.”

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from Two Hackers Appear To Have Created a New Massive Internet of Things Botnet

Meet the Cyborg Beetles, Real Insects That Are Controlled Like Robots

The future is crawling towards us on six legs. Motherboard traveled to Singapore to meet with Dr. Hirotaka Sato, an aerospace engineer at Nanyang Technological University. Sato and his team are turning live beetles into cyborgs by electrically controlling their motor functions.

Having studied the beetles' muscle configuration, neural networks, and leg control, the researchers wired the insects so that they could be controlled by a switchboard. In doing so, the researchers could manipulate the different walking gaits, speeds, flying direction, and other forms of motion.

Essentially, the beetles became like robots with no control over their own motor functioning. Interestingly, though the researchers control the beetles through wiring, their energy still comes naturally from the food they eat. Hence, the muscles are driven by the insects themselves, but they have no willpower over how their muscles move.

Moreover, turning beetles into cyborgs seems to not be that harmful to them. Their natural lifespan is three to six months, and even with the researchers' interference, they can survive for several months. According to the researchers, a beetle has never died right after stimulation.

And while this technology may seem crazy, the implications are very practical. Sensors that detect heat, and hence people, can be placed on the beetles, so that they can be manipulated to move toward a person. This can be helpful when searching for someone, such as in a criminal investigation or finding a terrorist.

The researchers are very serious about ensuring that whatever the applications are for this technology, that they go toward peaceful purposes. And who knows how far it could go? With this much progress manipulating the motor functions of creatures as small as beetles, perhaps it can be used for even bigger animal targets.

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from Meet the Cyborg Beetles, Real Insects That Are Controlled Like Robots

A New Theory on the Mysterious Condition Causing Astronauts to Lose Their Vision

For years now, NASA has been puzzled by a mysterious effect of extended space flight: vision damage. Many, though not all, astronauts who have been in space for months at a time experienced their vision slowly degrading, and post-flight inspection revealed that the back of their eyeballs had been squished down and flattened over the course of their trip.

But new research presented this week provides a partial answer to what’s causing this condition: pressurized spinal fluid. Noam Alperin, a researcher at the University of Miami’s Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute, presented findings from research he and his peers conducted on 16 astronauts, measuring the volume of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in their heads before and after spaceflight. CSF floats around the brain and spine, cushioning it and protecting your brain as you move, such as when you stand up after lying down.

Alperin and his team found that astronauts who had been in space for extended trips (about six months) had much higher build up of CSF in the socket around the eye than astronauts who had only gone on short stints (about two weeks). They also designed a new imaging technique to measure exactly how “flat” the astronauts eyeballs had become after extended periods in space.

The idea is that, without the assistance of gravity, the fluid isn’t pulled down and evenly distributed, allowing it to pool in the eye cavity and build up pressure, which slowly starts to warp the eye and cause the vision damage, called visual impairment intracranial pressure syndrome (VIIP). It’s likely some people are more predisposed to this than others, perhaps due to the shape of their skulls, which would explain why some astronauts have not experienced VIIP. But Alperin said his findings suggest anybody could get VIIP if they’re in space for a long enough period of time.

“We saw structural changes in the eye globe only in the long-duration group,” Alperin told me over the phone. “And these changes were associated with increased volumes of the CSF. Our conclusion was that the CSF was playing a major role in the formation of the problem.”

The results have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but Alperin told me the manuscript was recently accepted and will be published shortly. And these reported findings align with what scientists already suspected about the condition, according to Scott M. Smith, the manager of NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, who’s been studying the vision loss issue for the last six years.

“I think this fits very well within what others seem to be thinking at the moment,” Smith told me.

Many astronauts—though, importantly, not all—have experienced this unexplained reduction in eyesight after spending months on the International Space Station, some dropping from perfect 20/20 vision to 20/100 in just six months. Researchers have been gravely concerned about this effect. With plans to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, a mission that would require nine months of space flight one way, we don’t really want to risk all of our astronauts going blind in the process.

“NASA ranks human health risks and the two top risks are radiation and vision issues,” Smith said. “Is it number one or two? Some people would say it’s number one, because we don’t really know what the long-term implications are.”

But the better we understand how VIIP occurs, the more likely we are to be able to create a solution. Smith’s team is currently conducting a clinical trial to investigate whether polycystic ovarian syndrome—which, despite its name, may indeed occur in men—could have similar effects on vision. This research could help explain who is more likely to experience VIIP, as research like Alperin’s explores the physical functions of the condition.

What a solution to the condition will look like depends what else we learn: it could be a medication, or a mechanical device to help redistribute fluid, or something else entirely. But each piece to the puzzle helps us get one step closer to sending humans to Mars, and not blinding them in the process.

from A New Theory on the Mysterious Condition Causing Astronauts to Lose Their Vision

First Nation Ready For Legal ‘Battle’ If Northern Gateway Pipeline Is Approved

Update, Tuesday November 29, 5:10 pm ET: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today that the Northern Gateway project would not proceed, but that the Enbridge Line 3 and Kinder Morgan pipelines would. Trudeau said in part that the government had concluded Northern Gateway was “not in the best interests of the local affected communities, including indigenous peoples."

The federal government is expected to announce its decision on whether two high-profile oil pipelines in Canada will go ahead on Tuesday, which experts have described as a test of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s commitment to balancing economic interests with environmental concerns and the desires of Canada’s First Nations peoples.

Trudeau is expected to hand down a decision at 4:30 PM EST on Tuesday on the project to replace a section of Line 3, which stretches across Canada and into the US, and the Northern Gateway project in British Columbia. Both projects are backed by Canadian energy company Enbridge. Northern Gateway is the more controversial of the two pipelines and has experienced legal setbacks after successful challenges by a BC First Nations community.

“The major concern that we have is that a spill in the ocean—the tankers will be going right by our village—would destroy everything that we stand for,” said Art Sterritt, a spokesperson for the Gitga’at First Nation, in an interview.

The Gitga’at First Nation live on the coast, near the the proposed route that oil tankers would traverse to collect diluted bitumen carried from Alberta’s oilsands for eventual export. They worry that a spill would spell disaster for their community, much like the diesel spill near Bella Bella BC did earlier this year for the Heiltsuk First Nation there.

Read More: The Tribe Protesting the Dakota Pipeline Is Ready to Defend Its Wireless Network

Thanks to a court ruling in June that overturned the federal government’s approval of the project, the provincial and federal governments must consult with the local Gitga’at First Nation if the Northern Gateway project is to continue.

According to Sterritt, the government hasn’t consulted with the community.

If Trudeau were to give the pipeline his blessing before that happens, the Gitga’at would be “shocked” and “disappointed,” Sterritt said. Indeed, the move would likely be seen as a major betrayal of Trudeau’s promises to repair the deeply broken relationship between Canada’s First Nations and the federal government.

“[An approval] would really set the stage for quite a battle,” Sterritt said. “For starters, there would definitely be legal action because the court told British Columbia and Canada that they both need to consult with the Gitga’at before trying to move ahead with Northern Gateway.”

The office of Minister of Natural Resources James Carr has not responded to Motherboard’s request for comment.

Meanwhile, Canadian indigenous groups are considering protesting in solidarity with indigenous pipeline activists at Standing Rock in the US.

Grand Chief Terrance Nelson of the Southern Chiefs Organization stated at a gathering in Manitoba over the weekend that Canadian First Nations would consider protests in response to police clearing out the protesters at Standing Rock, although he did not specifically mention Line 3 or Northern Gateway, according to media reports.

There is the option for Trudeau to announce that the government plans to consult with the Gitga’at First Nation before approving Northern Gateway, Sterritt said.

And, of course, Trudeau could surprise everybody and sideline the $7.9 billion Northern Gateway project permanently.

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from First Nation Ready For Legal ‘Battle’ If Northern Gateway Pipeline Is Approved

Watch This Drone Gun Take Down Drones In Flight

This drone gun won't destroy your drone, but it will take it down from over a mile away. By disabling signals keeping the drone afloat, such as GPS, the "DroneGun" can knock a drone off its course, keeping it from arriving at its destination.

DroneShield, the company that released the DroneGun on Monday, has clients in 35 different countries, each of which has its own rules for drone manipulation, according to Joshua Desmond, vice president of business development at the company. Within the United States, the company can sell DroneGun only to the military, federal prisons, the government, some police officers, and other VIPs, Desmond told Motherboard.

The DroneGun is a portable, three-pronged rifle-style device that requires no special training or set-up. "[It] can be operated by one person against a wide range of drone models," he said. Using frequencies such as GPS, GLONASS (Russian GPS), 2.4Ghz and 5.8Ghz Industrial, Scientific, and Medical (ISM) radio bands, the DroneGun either has the drone return to its point of origin or safely land on the spot. If the drone returns to where it was launched, its pilot could be located, as well.

Currently, the DroneGun is not FCC authorized, so at this stage the overall American legislation is that only the federal government can use DroneGun. Eventually, though, Desmond hopes it will be useful for protection, especially in scenarios where people don't want to get too close to a drone. It can target illegal drone surveillance, drones dropping weapons, drugs, cellphones, and escape kits into prisons, and drone terrorism.

DroneGun is hardly failsafe given law enforcement's spotty track record, and the government's lack of transparency. But since drones continue to take various forms and carry out different tasks across the world, this might be one way to fight back when things go awry.

DroneShield isn't the only company to make drone block devices. Batelle, for instance, makes the DroneDefender, which operates through remote control disruption or GPS disruption. DroneShield, meanwhile, also offers drone detection. The combination of detecting a drone early enough, with the DroneGun itself, can help people know when to even use the gun, Desmond said.

"Drones are fairly quiet," Desmond said, pointing to one incident at Oklahoma State Penitentiary where the prison guards didn't know a drone was being utilized to drop off contraband until it crashed in the prison yard.

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from Watch This Drone Gun Take Down Drones In Flight

The ExoMars Lander May Have Crashed, but the Mission’s Orbiter Is Nailing It

Hebes Chasma region of Mars, as imaged by TGO. GIF: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniB/YouTube

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) sent back its first images and data from Mars, captured during the orbiter’s close pass with the planet on November 22. The European Space Agency (ESA) released a video highlight reel of the new visual data on Tuesday, which includes timelapses taken at a distant 5,300 kilometers (3,293 miles) and sharp close-ups snapped at altitudes of 235 kilometers (146 miles) with high resolutions of 2.8 meters per pixel.

Video: ESA/Roscosmos/ExoMars/CaSSIS/UniB/YouTube

These initial images were taken primarily to test out and calibrate the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) onboard the orbiter. The camera not only performed properly, it also produced stunning surface observations, according to CaSSIS mission lead Nicolas Thomas, who is based at the University of Bern.

“The first images we received are absolutely spectacular—and it was only meant to be a test,” Thomas told Universe Today. “We saw Hebes Chasma at 2.8 metres per pixel. That’s a bit like flying over Bern at 15,000 kilometers per hour and simultaneously getting sharp pictures of cars in Zurich.”

The TGO’s successful insertion into Mars orbit on October 19 was overshadowed somewhat by the crash-landing of its partner spacecraft, the Schiaparelli lander, which was destroyed on impact due to a software glitch.

But as emphasized by mission leads, the orbiter is the real MVP of the ExoMars project, both in terms of cost and scientific potential. Schiaparelli was primarily a test platform, designed to operate on the Martian surface for a brief week-long lifespan. In contrast, the TGO is expected to study Mars from orbit until 2022, with a special focus on detecting gases that make up less than one percent of its atmospheric volume, such as methane, water vapour, nitrogen dioxide, and acetylene. These trace gases have the potential to reveal biosignatures, or signs of life, on the planet.

READ MORE: The First Time Humans Crashed a Probe on Mars

The orbiter’s freshly released images confirm that its camera is functioning properly, which is some much-needed good news for ESA and Roscosmos, its Russian partner on ExoMars.

"We are extremely happy and proud to see that all the instruments are working so well in the Mars environment, and this first impression gives a fantastic preview of what's to come when we start collecting data for real at the end of next year," said Håkan Svedhem, ESA's TGO Project Scientist, in a statement.

"We have identified areas that can be fine-tuned well in advance of the main science mission, and we look forward to seeing what this amazing science orbiter will do in the future."

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from The ExoMars Lander May Have Crashed, but the Mission’s Orbiter Is Nailing It

Watch Chernobyl Get Locked Inside a New Giant Steel Dome

More than thirty years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, a crumbling concrete and lead shelter called the “sarcophagus” that spared Europeans from fatal radioactive fallout has been replaced—by an even larger, more immense steel structure known as the New Safe Confinement.

Effectively a giant steel arch that’s 275 meters wide, the shield fits over the original protective structure at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s fourth reactor. The original construction was hurriedly built by the Soviets in the wake of the 1986 catastrophe, but not before a toxic radioactive cloud swept across Europe with the fallout eventually killing more than 4,000 people due to radiation exposure, according to the World Health Organisation.

The New Safe Confinement, christened this week by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, cost more than $1.5 billion dollars and should be effective at keeping a lid on the radiation for more than 100 years—well past the 2065 target date for a full clean-up of the site.

While we could pummel you with all sorts of gargantuan facts about the shield, such as its weight of 36,000 tons and its Statue of Liberty-dwarfing height of 108 meters (about 354 feet), it’s probably just best to let you watch this drone-shot video of the structure shot before it was slid into place.

The structure had to be inched into place over a period of weeks, and its sponsor, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), says the facility won’t be up and running until the end of next year when the final radiation control equipment is installed and it is made airtight.

From there, two remotely operated cranes will dissemble the original shelter. Suma Chakrabarti, EBRD president, said in a statement, “The old shelter has now disappeared from our sight, but we’re never going to forget the human toll of the 1986 accident and we owe our thoughts today to the victims of that accident.”

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When No One Has a ‘Job,’ Who Will Pay Workers a Minimum Wage?

Image: Fight for 15

In 24 cities around the country, Uber drivers are protesting along with fast food workers, janitors, airport workers, and many other low-wage professions as part of the “Fight for $15” general labor strikes. They’re demanding widespread minimum wage increases to $15 an hour, raising the very important question: Is driving an Uber a "job"?

The idea that Uber and Lyft drivers are independent contractors and not “employees” of those companies is core to their business models, which protects them from having to pay a minimum wage or offer benefits to their drivers. It’s also a contentious issue that’s come up again and again in lawsuits in California and Washington, among other places. It’s a question that America must grapple with as the sharing and “gig” economies begin to change the way we work.

Uber would not comment specifically about the drivers strike, but in an informational call on Monday, the company suggested that few of its drivers actually use Uber as their primary means of making a living. A paper released this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research (which was written by an Uber employee and a former Uber consultant) noted that only 10 percent of Uber drivers were unemployed before they started working for Uber. According to its own data, just one-fifth of Uber drivers rely on Uber as their only means of income, and two-thirds of Uber drivers have another full-time or part-time job. The paper found that, generally, Uber drivers are happy with the arrangement.

These earnings numbers—released by Uber—do not include gas money, car depreciation, or insurance. A Buzzfeed report using leaked internal documents from Uber found that the average driver in Houston, Detroit, and Denver all earn less than $13.50 per hour once expenses are taken into account. Image: National Bureau of Economic Research.

“Most driver-partners do not appear to turn to Uber out of desperation or because they face an absence of other opportunities in the job market,” the paper concluded. “But rather because the nature of the work, the flexibility, and the compensation appeals to them compared with other available options.”

That may be the case, but save for a few exceptions, employers must pay even their part-time workers a minimum wage. And according to Uber’s own numbers and numbers compiled by Buzzfeed based on leaked internal Uber documents, many Uber drivers are making well below the $15 per hour that Fight for 15 is pushing for.

"I lean to the suspicion that there will be replacement of payroll jobs with the growth of gig jobs"

“There’s this idea in the gig economy that you can hire employees and, as an employer, you’re so far removed that you’re not responsible for low wages or sexual harassment or benefits. That you have no responsibility at all when you pay people poverty wages,” Kendall Fells, an organizer for Fight for 15, told me. “Look, this is where our economy is headed in the next 20 or so years—we have to make sure Uber and Lyft are good jobs.”

“Whether it’s your first, second, or third job, you should make a living wage,” Fells said. “There’s no city in America where you can survive on anything less than $15 an hour.”

Image: Fight for 15

After years of prognostication from academic types, there’s now finally hard evidence that suggest on-demand services like Uber and Lyft are fundamentally changing the nature of work. Earlier this fall, researchers at Brookings found what they call an “obscure Census Bureau dataset” about “non employer firms.” These firms are businesses that earn at least $1,000 annually but employ no workers.

Economists Mark Muro and Ian Hathaway correlated the increase in non employer firms in the “rides” and “rooms” sectors with the entry of Uber and Airbnb in 50 cities around the United States. Cities that don’t yet have Uber or have only recently gotten it have not seen a similar increase in non employer firms. While the data is not a direct measurement of Uber’s effect on the jobs market, Muro told me the research suggests that Uber has indeed displaced traditional taxi driving jobs in many markets. The data also suggests that the cities where Uber first entered are still seeing the fastest growth in number of drivers.

“There’s some evidence here in certain cities that it’s not just filling unmet demand—clearly it may have an effect on payroll employment in the industry,” Muro told me. “It feels like we’re in the shallow end of the pool so far—some of the fastest growth is in some of the cities that already have the most Uber and Lyft drivers.”

“I lean to the suspicion that there will be replacement of payroll jobs with the growth of gig jobs,” he added. “It appears that the gig economy is a modest-sized activity that has an awful lot of momentum and looks poised to grow, especially in ground transportation.”

As a society we must decide if these people are worth protecting with the same types of benefits that a traditional “job” confers. Should they be paid a minimum wage?

I’ve spoken with countless Uber drivers in New York City—many of them want to be paid for the time they spend driving without a passenger en route to pick up someone else. This seems like a fair request, but should they also be paid for the time they have their app on and are waiting for a ping? How would that even work? Many gig economy workers drive for Uber, Lyft, and Juno, and some of them also deliver food for Seamless and do jobs for TaskRabbit. If they’re using all of these apps at once, waiting for a ping from any of them, who should be responsible for paying them for the time they’re no the “clock?” Do they have a job, or don’t they?

from When No One Has a ‘Job,’ Who Will Pay Workers a Minimum Wage?

A Surgeon and a CEO Land the Top Health Jobs in Trump’s Administration

President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to repeal Obamacare became ever more possible Tuesday as he announced his picks for the top healthcare jobs in his cabinet.

Congressman Tom Price (R-Ga.), an orthopedic surgeon, has been selected to be secretary of Health and Human Services, and Seema Verma, the CEO of a health policy consulting firm, was tapped to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Both picks have conservative records that include efforts to restructure or dismantle Obamacare at some level.

“Together, Chairman Price and Seema Verma are the dream team that will transform our healthcare system for the benefit of all Americans,” Trump said in a statement.

In his time as a House Representative for Georgia, Price has been a vocal critic of Obamacare, and proposed multiple bills to dismantle the Act, including the Empowering Patients First Act, a piece of legislation that would have repealed and replaced Obamacare.

Price originally called the ACA a “hyperpartisan piece of legislation that will have a disastrous effect on our nation’s health care system,” and stated that Obamacare has caused premiums to rise and removed choices for many Americans. He’s also staunchly pro-life and has received a 0 out of 100 rating from Planned Parenthood for his positions on abortion and reproductive health policy.

Verma, who is less well-known outside of healthcare policy circles, runs a consulting firm called SVC Inc. through which she notably helped Vice President-elect Mike Pence craft state-level alterations to the Affordable Care Act in Indiana. She has also worked with other governors to put conservative stipulations on Medicaid, like a work requirement currently pending in Kentucky, which would strip some Medicaid beneficiaries of their benefits unless they worked or volunteered at least 20 hours a week. Her business also adds her to the list of Trump cabinet members with potential conflicts of interest, in part because she has previously consulted with a branch of Hewlett-Packard that is a Medicaid vendor.

Throughout his campaign and since his election win, Trump has emphasized his commitment to repeal the Affordable Care Act; it’s listed as a top priority on his transition team website. But earlier this month, Trump hinted that he might not scrap Obamacare after all, telling the Wall Street Journal that he thought two provisions in the ACA—prohibiting insurers from denying coverage due to preexisting conditions and allowing parents to extend coverage of their children for a few extra years—actually weren’t so bad.

“I like those very much,” he told the Journal.

But with the appointments of Price and Verma, at least a partial restructuring of Obamacare seems all but inevitable.

These two jobs hold a lot of power, covering everything from the Centers for Disease Control to the Food and Drug Administration, which mean Price and Verma have the ability to make a lot of changes—and possibly do a lot of damage—to an endless list of healthcare institutions. Given their track records, it’s not hard to guess where their first target will likely land.

from A Surgeon and a CEO Land the Top Health Jobs in Trump’s Administration

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Google Earth Timelapse update shows Earth from 1984-2016

A Google Earth Timelapse of a community in Canada.

A Google Earth Timelapse of a community in Canada.

Google Earth Timelapse is a really awesome project that lets you turn back the clock on Planet Earth. In 2013, Google worked with the US Geological Survey (USGS), NASA, and TIME to compile a history of satellite imagery from 1984 to 2012. Today, Google updated the project with "four additional years of imagery, petabytes of new data, and a sharper view of the Earth from 1984 to 2016."

The new data isn't just "new" data—Google also managed to compile better older images of Earth thanks to the Landsat Global Archive Consolidation Program. Google says it sifted through 5 million satellite images from five different satellites, taking the best of the "three quadrillion pixels" to create 33 images of Earth (one for each year). Thanks to the plethora of data and Google's cloud-computing algorithms, you get all of this without any clouds blocking the view.

The images are up on Google Earth Engine, where the interactive "Timelapse" page basically looks like Google Earth, but with a draggable timeline and a "play" button. Google has even highlighted a few spots where viewers can watch a glacier melt away into nothingness or check out pretty much anywhere in China, which looks like a game of SimCity.

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from Google Earth Timelapse update shows Earth from 1984-2016

BMW, VW, Ford, Daimler team up for electric vehicle charging network in Europe

Several automakers have agreed to form a joint venture in Europe to build roughly 400 “ultra-fast” charging sites along highways on the continent to make long distance travel in electric cars more feasible. BMW, Volkswagen Group, Ford, and Daimler are heading up the venture, along with Audi and Porsche—both divisions of VW Group.

In a press release today, the automakers said the charging stations would deliver 350 kW over a DC charging network, which is set to “significantly reduce charging time compared to available systems.” For comparison, Tesla’s supercharging stations deliver 120 kW and can fill a Tesla up to 170 miles of range in 30 minutes.

The European network will use the Combined Charging System (CCS) standard that is compatible with current and future electric vehicles from all the joint venture companies as well as Fiat-Chrysler and Hyundai.

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The limits of AT&T’s DirecTV Now: No DVR and limited ability to pause live TV

Worried about US surveillance, Internet Archive announces mirror in Canada

Adblock Plus wins its 6th court case, brought by Der Spiegel

Surface Studio torn down: Surprisingly upgradable storage

Android’s improved SD card support leads to new “app performance” ratings

CNN buys YouTuber Casey Neistat’s company Beme to start extension brand

Muni system hacker hit others by scanning for year-old Java vulnerability

It will soon be illegal to punish customers who criticize businesses online

Nintendo attractions are coming to all Universal theme parks

Universal Parks & Resorts and Nintendo announced today that they will be bringing a Nintendo-themed area—filled with themed attractions, shops, and restaurants—to Universal theme parks in Orlando, Hollywood, and Osaka "over the next several years."

The announcement is light on details about things like types of rides or included game franchises but full of buzzwords like "innovative," "immersive and interactive," "expansive," and "breathtakingly authentic." Still, the announcement represents the first concrete new information on the Nintendo/Universal partnership since it was first announced last year. Early reports of the "Mario area" in Universal's Osaka park began to leak out via the Japanese press in March, but this is the first sign that Nintendo attractions will be coming to the United States parks as well.

"We are working very hard to create attractions that can be equally enjoyable to anybody, regardless of age," Nintendo Creative Fellow Shigeru Miyamoto said in a video accompanying the announcement. "We are constantly amazed how the park developers are bringing the essence of our games to life in the real world. Together we are building it with an eye for what guests will actually experience."

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from Nintendo attractions are coming to all Universal theme parks

Decades after Chernobyl disaster, engineers slide high-tech shelter over reactor

European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

On Tuesday, officials from all over the world gathered about a football field away from the Chernobyl disaster site in Ukraine. They were there to celebrate the final placement of a massive, high-tech shelter over reactor 4, which exploded in April 1986.

The shelter, called the New Safe Confinement (NSC), is a feat of engineering. Because it was too dangerous to assemble the NSC over the original shelter that was built in the weeks after the explosion, the NSC was instead built at a distance and moved—slowly, over days—on a pair of tracks parallel to the original shelter. But even that was no simple task. The NSC is 354ft (108m) tall and 843ft (257m) wide, making it the largest mobile metal structure in the world.

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from Decades after Chernobyl disaster, engineers slide high-tech shelter over reactor

Amazon could debut an Alexa-based speaker with a touchscreen next year

NextEV’s Nio EP9 electric supercar sets a new Nürburgring record

The United States should surpass Russia in rocket launches for the first time

Get ready for 24-30% reduction in cost of wind power by 2030

Forgotten audio formats: Wire recording

Final Fantasy 15’s first 10 hours: A car ride that asks, “Are we there yet?”

Ars Technica's full Final Fantasy XV review is coming, but because the game is so large—and only showed up at our doorsteps on Sunday—we've splintered into two factions. Everyone in the first faction wants to take their time sitting with the Japanese series' large, open-world return. They want to sink in however many hours it takes to beat the primary campaign mode and linger in places like side quests and fishing holes.

The second faction (meaning yours truly) was told to bang out about 10 hours of play, with a mix of campaign and side content, and write up impressions before the game hits stores on Tuesday. I jumped on the opportunity because I thought 10 hours would be more than enough to answer a question I've had since my first press-only demo of the game in May: did Square-Enix finally make a Final Fantasy game that I, a lapsed fan of the series, would want to complete?

At this point, I kind of regret taking on the task.

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from Final Fantasy 15’s first 10 hours: A car ride that asks, “Are we there yet?”

Texas Zika case may be the state’s first, unsurprising local transmission

Mystery of bleary-eyed astronauts may be cleared up with spinal fluid study

Monday, 28 November 2016

San Francisco Subway Hackers Now Threaten to Publicly Dump Data

Image: Lowe Lugano / ShutterStock

Over the weekend, riders of San Francisco's municipal transit system (Muni) were allowed to travel for free because hackers had infected subway computers with ransomware. According to CSO Online, the attackers have demanded some $73,000 worth of bitcoin.

Now, the hackers have made a new threat: the release of 30GB of databases and documents belonging to the San Francisco Muni, including contracts and customer and employee data, if they don't receive payment.

“To Have More Impact to Company To Force Them to do Right Job!” the hackers, which used the moniker “andy saolis,” told Motherboard in an email exchange on Monday.

“Anyone See Something like that in Hollywood Movies But it’s Completely Possible in Real World!,” they added, presumably referring to the rather bizarre site of a public transport system becoming infected with ransomware.

“It’s Show to You and Proof of Concept, Company don’t pay Attention to Your Safety!” they continued. The hackers claimed to have infected over 2,000 of Muni’s systems, including payment kiosks and email servers.

According to CBS San Francisco, which first covered the hack on Saturday, the message “You Hacked” has been sprawled across Muni station monitors.

A commentator on Bleeping Computer indicated that the same hackers may have hit another target in September, and CSO Online reported that the ransomware behind the attack is a variant of HDDCryptor. According to a Trend Micro report from September, this particular strain of ransomware is pretty aggressive, targeting drives, folders, printers, and serial ports.

The hackers' latest threat appears to be on top of their use of ransomware. Often, hackers will deploy one tactic or the other: either, they will threaten a company with the release of internal data, or they will keep the victim's files locked down with malware. But seeing both in one go is fairly unusual.

However, it's not clear how many internal documents the hackers have actually stolen, if any. When asked several times to provide proof to back up their claims, the hackers told Motherboard they were still waiting for the company to contact them, and declined to send any sample files.

“we proof our capability before ! we don't want leak really but if they don't pay attention , it's will be our plan, [sic]” they wrote.

Update: This piece has been updated to clarify that the hackers are also threatening to release data about Muni customers.

from San Francisco Subway Hackers Now Threaten to Publicly Dump Data

Thanksgiving in Flint: Turkey, Stuffing and Hundreds of Water Bottles

As Lulu Brezzell prepared a big Thanksgiving meal for her family, she thawed the turkey, chopped the potatoes and bought 144 bottles of water for the evening.

Brezzell, a resident of Flint, Michigan, and her family have been living without safe tap water since 2014, when a change in the city’s water supply caused major lead contamination. The city switched to using Flint River water, but it didn’t treat the water to make sure it didn’t corrode the system’s lead pipes, leaving thousands of residents exposed to the toxic metal.

Brezzell and her three children haven’t been able to use their tap water for cooking or drinking since, and Thanksgiving was no exception. She had 10 relatives over for a traditional holiday dinner, so she used five cases of bottled water (144 bottles total) to thaw a 27-pound turkey, cook mashed potatoes, wash fruits and vegetables, make Kool-Aid and tea, and to wash dishes.

“This is life,” she said, “and it’s not getting better.”

Brezzell family. Image: Courtesy of Lulu Brezzell

Brezzell said she heard from about 50 of her neighbors and friends around town, and most families used at least 100 bottles of water to safely cook on Thanksgiving. On a regular day, Brezzell and her children use bottled water for cooking, brushing their teeth and drinking.

The city’s mayor declared a state of emergency in Flint last year after children’s blood tested positive for high levels of lead, which can cause developmental issues. Flint residents have reportedly been hit with gastrointestinal illnesses shigellosis, a bacterial illness that spreads when people don’t wash their hands, this year as more residents avoid using tap water, the New York Times reported.

Brezzell said she had a strong filter for their shower, but the filter was used up after four months.

So now they have to bathe with tap water, but they do so quickly or their skin starts burning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention couldn’t determine what was causing the rashes among Flint residents in a 2016 study, but it’s a common problem.

“Whenever tap water touches my skin, it causes me to have rashes,” Brezzell said. “It’s frustrating, but at the same time, we have our health. It was still a good day.”

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from Thanksgiving in Flint: Turkey, Stuffing and Hundreds of Water Bottles

An 11-Year-Old Led Police on a Highway Chase Thanks to ‘Grand Theft Auto’

So, kids are pretty twisted. Most of us have, by our twenties, blessedly forgotten the messed-up stuff that we did in our formative years, but rest assured, we have all done something unbelievably stupid and weird that seemed like a really good idea at the time, and often it was based on something we saw in a movie or video game.

This isn’t a wholesale indictment of violent or extreme media, it’s just a fact that kids can be real dumbasses.

Which leads me to today’s news out of Canada: on Saturday night in Vaughan, Ontario, an 11-year-old boy took a car and led police on a high-speed chase on a major highway, at times going faster than 120 kilometres per hour. According to police, the boy was playing Grand Theft Auto and wanted to see what it would be like to drive a car. He was returned to his parents safely, according to a Canadian Press report.

Got it? OK. But, incredibly, even that summary doesn’t wholly reflect the insanity of what went down. According to Ontario Provincial Police spokesperson Kerry Schmidt, who recapped the incident on Sunday on Periscope, police stopped the car twice.

Read More: Why Video Games Can't Teach You Empathy

The first time, the car stopped on its own and police approached it. Now, if I was an 11-year-old-kid, gripping the wheel in white-knuckle terror, and the police stopped me on the road, I would take it as a sign from above and cut my joyride short. But not this kid. Instead, he took off a second time and tried to outrun the police again before being caught.

“We got more officers involved and were able to get that vehicle safely stopped without causing a crash,” Schmidt said. “We got the driver out of the vehicle and shockingly, [it was] an 11-year-old kid who had just finished playing Grand Theft Auto at home and wanted to find out what it was like driving a car.”

“Here we have an example of a video game making kids try things without their parents’ knowledge or consent, just an absolute tragedy waiting to happen,” he continued.

It’s intuitively obvious and backed up by research that media such as movies and, yes, video games can influence children. But there’s a lot of factors that could influence a kid to steal a car beyond just playing a game, too. It’s important to note that video games don’t “make” anybody do anything in real life, except for Pokemon GO.

And with this kid’s apparent skills, maybe we should just be glad that he wasn’t inspired to catch pokemon while driving.

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from An 11-Year-Old Led Police on a Highway Chase Thanks to ‘Grand Theft Auto’

How Pro Wrestling Fans Watched Foreign Matches Before the Internet

Before the WWE Network, it took a lot more effort to get your wrestling fill, particularly of foreign promotions. Image: Simon Q / Flickr

Nowadays it’s pretty easy to watch pro wrestling from all over the world. With just a credit card and a reliable internet connection, you can watch anything from WWE’s WrestleMania to New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual Tokyo Dome event. But before broadband became commonplace, many hardcore pro wrestling fans relied on the ancient art of tape trading to get their wrestling fix, whether it be on a regional level in the US, such as Smoky Mountain Wrestling (which only operated in the Tennessee area during the early to mid 90s) or internationally, such as Japan's Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling or Mexico's Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, which recently celebrated its 83rd anniversary and is the oldest wrestling promotion in the world.

With the popularity of the VHS tape format booming in the early to mid 1980s, many wrestling fans would trade tapes via wrestling newsletters that were mailed all over the world, with the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and Pro Wrestling Torch being the more prominent newsletters. It wasn’t just international tapes people were looking for since the wrestling business back then was still mostly regional; people could get tapes from many local promotions from all over the US that were on television. But as the internet came along, things became a lot easier.

“Message boards, chatrooms, email lists, newsletter connections, websites with ‘want lists’, there were dozens of different places to find people to trade with,” Wrestling Observer message board user japjesus told me. “It was pretty seamless, although if you didn't do your research you could easily get ripped off.”

The tape trading process was pretty simple. People would send a letter to someone who had tapes available for trade, which were often advertised in newsletters like the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and in the many printed magazines of the era. The trader would then send back a full list of what they had. In return, people would either trade for these tapes with tapes they had in their own collection or would pay money outright to obtain them.

“The biggest [pain in the ass] was that a lot of the traders were super snobs about it and were only interested in trading,” another Wrestling Observer message board member, spman, told me. “No interest in just flat out selling tapes for cash, which didn't do a whole lot of good for anyone just starting out.”

It was a risk versus reward scenario for fans who delved into this secretive underbelly. On one hand, they could get footage that they’d only ever read about in newsletters or magazines. But they could also be ripped off just as easily, with swindlers popping up in every corner looking for tapes or even money without reimbursement.

“It was weird but you knew that if you didn't, you weren't getting tapes, so you had to take the leap,” CaramelLuchador, another member of the message board, told me. “And if you found a good trader, it didn't feel weird for long because you knew they could be trusted to come through.”

While the rise of broadband internet, YouTube, and other streaming services rendered a lot of tape trading obsolete, the practice still exist. Sites like IVPVideos still sells most footage not owned by WWE on Blu-ray and DVDs. And if you attend your local independent wrestling promotion, you’re bound to run across tables selling compilation DVDs of famous wrestlers, Japanese and Mexican footage that’s still hard to obtain, and more. While everything today, both old and new, can be easily obtained online, tape trading aficionados like powerfulmgp will always look back and reminisce about the good ol' days.

“I really loved trading," he told me. "Everything is instantly available nowadays, but there are times where I still wish it was like the old days where I'd race to the mailbox after school hoping for a new pack or tapes or newsletter. It was a simpler world.”

from How Pro Wrestling Fans Watched Foreign Matches Before the Internet

Trump Could Pump Tens of Billions Into the Army, Only to Make It Worse

President-elect Donald Trump wants a much bigger and more powerful US military. More Navy ships. More Air Force fighter planes. And a much bigger Army with tens of thousands of additional soldiers.

But Trump and his administration should be careful. Lavishing the Army with money might result in a bigger Army, but it won't necessarily result in a better Army. America's ground-combat branch has a reputation for dramatically squandering huge cash windfalls.

Trump hasn't detailed exactly how he'll grow the military—or how much it might cost. But outside experts estimate Trump's Pentagon could cost US taxpayers an additional $900 billion over 10 years compared to President Barack Obama's current spending plan.

The president-elect's goal, according to conservative think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, should be to get the Pentagon back to a level of funding the Pentagon enjoyed in 2010, a time when the United States still had large occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is to say, no less than $700 billion a year.

Read more: Why Trump’s Plan for a 350-Ship Navy Doesn’t Hold Water

Traditionally, the Army gets around a quarter share of US defense spending. If Trump follows through with his plans and convinces Congress to pay for them, the Army could find itself with $175 billion to spend annually. That's $50 billion more than it's gotten in recent years.

There's risk in a sudden cash infusion. The last time the Army got a ton of money, it blew much of it on poorly-planned, sloppily-executed technology programs that ended up producing very little actual weaponry.

"All of the [military] services would very much like to see their budgets increased," Dan Grazier, a former Marine officer who is now an analyst at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, DC, told Motherboard. "But unless there is a strong leader at the top instilling discipline, they will continue to do what they have been doing—which is throw good money after bad or wasteful programs of dubious utility in real combat."

The most obvious example is also the most embarrassing for the Army. In the early 2000s, the Army conceived a nearly $200 billion plan to totally re-equip its brigades with hybrid-electric armored vehicles that communicated by way of a sophisticated wireless network and controlled swarms of tiny, lethal robots.

The Army's huge post-9/11 budget increases—which essentially doubled the branch's funding in just a few years—kept the lights on in the FCS office despite repeated delays in the program.

Future Combat Systems, as the scheme was known, might have seemed at place on the high-tech battlefield of some Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. But it was worse than useless in the gritty, grinding counterinsurgency campaigns that the Army found itself fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

XM1203 Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon (NLOS-C) prototype in 2009. Photo: US Army

The vehicles were too flimsy to survive the massive roadside bombs favored by insurgents. The communications network did little to help infantrymen hunt down fleet-footed terrorists in dense, unfamiliar cities. The robots were expensive luxuries when what the troops really needed was better rifles, more-comfortable body armor, and better-protected vehicles that could protect them from ambushes and bombs.

Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled Future Combat Systems in 2009. "FCS vehicles—where lower weight, higher fuel efficiency and greater informational awareness are expected to compensate for less armor—do not adequately reflect the lessons of counterinsurgency and close-quarters combat in Iraq and Afghanistan," Gates explained.

FCS is hardly the only example of exorbitant waste on the Army's part. In 2002, the Pentagon canceled the Army's Crusader howitzer—a huge, 40-ton tracked cannon—after spending years and several billion dollars developing it. Military officials decided the gun was simply too big and heavy to deploy to remote, rugged war zones.

Likewise, in 2004 the military shit-canned the Comanche stealth scout helicopter after finally admitting that there was no point in trying to pile radar-evading technologies onto an aircraft that was meant to fly noisily and in plain sight directly overhead of friendly troops. The cancellation squandered nearly $10 billion worth of work.

In 2005, the Army began work on a new and much simpler scout chopper—the Arapaho—to replace the Comanche, and quickly. But the prototype was a sloppy rush-job. It suffered an engine failure during testing in 2007. The Army killed off the program a year later, flushing no less than $500 million down the drain.

RAH-66 Comanche with AH-64 Apache. Photo: US Army

To be fair, each failed program suffered its own unique problems. Some took so long to get off the ground that the world—and the Army's needs—changed around them. Some were under so much pressure to progress quickly that overworked planners and engineers got sloppy. Others were just bad ideas that evaporated once in contact with reality.

Ultimately, more money can't save bad ideas. In fact, more money sometimes encourages bad ideas.

"A sudden influx of resources reduces the pressure to prioritize and dilutes our attention," Dan Ward, a former Air Force technology-developer and author of The Simplicity Cycle, told Motherboard. "A sudden influx of money makes us sloppy and gets in the way of sound decision-making. Rather than focus on delivering capabilities that matter, as we do during lean budget years, we end up chasing shiny gadgets and adding extra features and functions to our system."

"The problem is that adding unnecessary complexity to our systems, even if we can afford the additions, does not make them better," Ward added. "It actually makes them more likely to underperform. Excessive complexity makes weapon systems more fragile, heavier, harder to maintain and debug, harder to learn and less likely to contribute meaningfully in real-world operations."

Amid the wreckage of canceled programs worth hundreds of billions of dollars, in early 2015 then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh finally admitted the obvious. "I’m very mindful of the spotty history of the United States Army on acquisition programs," McHugh told reporters. "But I do think, in fairness, we’ve got to say much of it is just that—history.”

McHugh insisted that the Army, by 2015, was doing better at managing its money and developing new gear. That assertion could undergo a stress test if and when the Trump administration opens the funding spigot. Considering the Army's terrible track record, there's reason to be skeptical that more money will mean more and better weaponry.

It just might mean the opposite. Trump could pump more cash into the Army, only to make the Army worse.

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from Trump Could Pump Tens of Billions Into the Army, Only to Make It Worse

How Trump Can Dismantle 10 Years of Fossil Fuel Regulations in 100 Days

Last Monday, President-Elect Donald Trump announced in his first video address that he will begin to cut energy regulations that block job growth, including rules regarding the production of shale and coal.

The initiative was listed among his “first 100 days” goals, and falls in line with his campaign promises to increase coal-related jobs and to cut US environmental regulations.

“I will cancel job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy, including shale energy and clean coal, creating many millions of high paying jobs,” Trump said in his address Monday.

Trump didn’t elaborate on what those “job-killing restrictions” are, but there are a few regulations the Obama Administration put into place—and a few the president nixed—that Trump might be eager to tackle. There are also regulations that were put in place prior to the Obama Administration that oil and gas groups have been vocal about for the past few years. Here are a few of them:

The Keystone XL Pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline

These two major pipeline projects have been largely put on hold. President Barack Obama vetoed the Keystone XL Pipeline bill in 2015, citing safety and environmental concerns, but Trump has stated in his speeches that one of his goals would be to that project moving.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is the newest incarnation of a plan to create a multi-state oil pipeline. The US Army Corps of Engineers announced earlier this month that they were putting the project on hold while they spoke with members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe over their environmental concerns about oil spills and construction. In the meantime, protests continue at the North Dakota site, as thousands of activists and tribal members have gathered to protect the tribe’s local water supply.

The delay will likely put the decision in Trump’s hands.

Clean Energy Act

The EPA added six greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, to its list of hazardous pollutants in 2009, allowing the agency to regulate carbon emissions under Clean Energy Act.

The argument was that greenhouse gases contribute to climate change by causing the atmosphere to store more heat, thus leading to stronger storms, drought and sea level rise that can threaten Americans. The decision was made following a Supreme Court ruling that stated the EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, so reversing the decision could require another Supreme Court ruling—or could be as simple as gutting the EPA to the point where it can’t follow up with on-the-books regulations.

Trump has stated he plans to eliminate the EPA and is eyeing climate skeptic Myron Ebell as a choice for EPA director.

Energy Independence and Security Act

The 2007 energy bill, signed by President George W. Bush, was passed to move the US toward greater energy independence and increase the transition to “clean renewable fuels” at a time when the US . was in the middle of the Iraq War.

The bill requires the US to increase its volume of renewable fuel from 4 billion gallons in 2006 to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Ethanol was among the available options, and gas companies began supplementing their gasoline with the corn-based fuel.

If Trump is looking to increase demand for fossil fuel, reducing requirements to increase dependence on biofuels such as ethanol could be one path.

Clean Power Plan/Cap and Trade

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan established a federal cap and trade program in 2015.

The “cap” sets a maximum limit on the amount of emissions each state can produce, and that limit is lowered over time to push states to opt for cleaner solutions. The trade portion comes in when states have surplus clean energy from solar panels, wind turbines and other methods. They can then sell excess clean energy to other states, negating that state’s need to produce more clean energy on its own. .

The Clean Power Plan is expected to affect some regions more than others. States with more emissions will get higher penalties, and Texas and Ohio are among the largest polluters in the country.

With a few exceptions, all states are expected to reduce their emissions per hour of energy produced by 2030, according to Climate Central.

However, the Supreme Court delayed implementation of the plan in February, pending judicial review, so since Trump will likely be choosing at least one Supreme Court justice, his presidency could have an impact on whether this plan goes forward. It’s also conceivable that his instructions to the EPA could affect the enforcement (or lack thereof) of this plan.

Offshore Drilling

The Obama Administration has blocked attempts to reopen offshore drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf in the Atlantic Ocean for years, citing environmental and human health concerns from drilling and oil spills. Even after Obama considered opening the Atlantic to offshore drilling, that idea was nixed last year under pressure from East Coast residents.

This week, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released the list of sites where new offshore oil drilling operations are allowed to open for the next five years. Among the lease sale agreement are 10 sites in the Gulf of Mexico and one near Alaska—effectively banning offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific until after 2022.

But even though it seems like that’s a done deal, the president does have certain powers, and there may be a way for Trump to get around the ban and to order that department to review its findings and issue more leases. But it’s too soon to tell.


Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, is the golden egg of the oil and gas production business right now. The process of breaking up shale and extracting oil and gas from large wells in Oklahoma, Kansas and other Midwest states—as well as a few other locations, such as California—has helped fuel the fossil fuel industry for the past few years.

Fracking site owners are required to follow regulations regarding where they place their wastewater disposal wells (to protect local drinking water), the permits fracking sites require if they use diesel fuel, water quality standards that the wastewater must meet before it can be discharged, and air quality regulations from the natural gas that is released during pumping—among many other rules.

At the same time, fracking is thought to be linked to major earthquakes striking Oklahoma regularly, but not necessarily through the extraction process itself. The secondary process of disposing the fracking wastewater by drilling into rocks and injecting the water there was said to be the cause of at least one massive earthquake in the Midwest earlier this year, according to the US Geological Survey.

Since many of these regulations are enforced by the EPA, it’s unknown what dismantling the department could do to these protections.

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from How Trump Can Dismantle 10 Years of Fossil Fuel Regulations in 100 Days