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Enlarge / During the Ordovician, life was literally great. Multicellular plants and animals diversified and moved into ecological niches throughout the globe. This is probably what it was like on a typical Ordovician day, hanging out with cephalopods, crinoids, and coral at the edge of a supercontinent that covered the South Pole. I think a colony of graptolites is floating in the distance. (credit: Fritz Geller-Grimm)

Over half a billion years ago, during the Cambrian geological period, life on Earth started to get a lot more interesting. Thanks to the rise in free oxygen generated mostly by photosynthesizing algae, lifeforms could draw much more energy out of the environment. That meant the rise of multicellularity and the beginnings of a world full of the macro-sized plants and animals we know and love. That moment, full of weird-ass animals like Anomalocaris, is called the Cambrian Explosion.

The Cambrian Explosion gets a lot of play because it was the first time multicellular creatures ruled the planet. What few people (other than geologists and paleontologists) realize is that there was an even crazier time for early life. It came during the Ordovician period, right after the Cambrian came to a close 485 million years ago. The Ordovician Radiation, also called the Great Ordovician Diversification Event (GOBE), saw a quadrupling of diversity at the genus level (that’s the category one step above species). Life also started occupying new ecological niches, clinging to plants floating in the ocean’s water column and burrowing deep into the seabed.

Like the Cambrian, the Ordovician was a period when all of life still existed underwater. Most of the continents had formed a supercontinent called Gondwana over the south pole, creating the largest tropical coastline in our planet’s history. (There were no polar ice caps during this period.) The warm coastal waters surrounding Gondwana were perfect for new kinds of animals, like brachiopods, crinoids, ostracodes, cephalopods, corals, and bryozoans. Plus, everybody’s favorite Cambrian animal, the trilobite, diversified like crazy and moved into many new habitats during this time.

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Enlarge / AT&T will own a bunch of new media properties if it is allowed to buy Time Warner. (credit: Aurich Lawson)

The Trump administration’s Department of Justice (DOJ) today filed a lawsuit to block AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Inc.

AT&T has been the nation’s largest pay-TV company since it acquired DirecTV in 2015. Acquiring Time Warner and its stable of popular TV programming would give the company too much control over programming and distribution, the DOJ said.

Together, AT&T and Time Warner would attempt to impede competition from online video distributors and raise prices on rivals that want access to Time Warner programming, the DOJ alleged.

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Enlarge (credit: Steven Englehardt)

If you have the uncomfortable sense someone is looking over your shoulder as you surf the Web, you’re not being paranoid. A new study finds hundreds of sites—including microsoft.com, adobe.com, and godaddy.com—employ scripts that record visitors’ keystrokes, mouse movements, and scrolling behavior in real time, even before the input is submitted or is later deleted.

Session replay scripts are provided by third-party analytics services that are designed to help site operators better understand how visitors interact with their Web properties and identify specific pages that are confusing or broken. As their name implies, the scripts allow the operators to re-enact individual browsing sessions. Each click, input, and scroll can be recorded and later played back.

A study published last week reported that 482 of the 50,000 most trafficked websites employ such scripts, usually with no clear disclosure. It’s not always easy to detect sites that employ such scripts. The actual number is almost certainly much higher, particularly among sites outside the top 50,000 that were studied.

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Video shot and edited by Justin Wolfson. Click here for transcript. (video link)

These days, your typical science-fiction or fantasy movie is performed by casts of human actors—and even bigger casts of programmers. VFX (visual effects) are so crucial that there’s now an entire genre of acting devoted to dealing with creatures and environments the actors never see. In some cases, the actors’ entire bodies are transformed by digital effects. Others have intense, emotional scenes with tennis balls and traffic cones that are the placeholders for what will eventually become monsters or dramatic vistas.

We wanted to know how actors have adapted to a world where CGI reigns supreme. So last summer at San Diego Comic-con, we asked actors (and one director) to tell how they integrated VFX into their everyday experiences on set. You can see their responses in the video above.

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Enlarge / An artist’s impression of the oddly shaped interstellar asteroid `Oumuamua. (credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Since mid-October, the astronomy community has been buzzing about what might be our Solar System’s first confirmed interstellar visitor. An automated telescope spotted an object that appeared as if it had been dropped on the Solar System from above, an angle that suggests it arrived from elsewhere. Now, a team of astronomers has rushed out a paper that describes the object’s odd properties and gives it the name “1I/2017 U1 ‘Oumuamua.” In Hawaiian, ‘Oumuamua roughly means “first messenger,” and the 1I indicates that it’s the first interstellar object.

‘Oumuamua was first spotted on October 19 by the Pan-STARRS1 automated telescope system. Pan-STARRS1 turned out to have captured images of the object the day previously, but the automated analysis software hadn’t identified it. Further images over the next few days allowed researchers to refine its travel through our Solar System, confirming that ‘Oumuamua was making the most extreme approach toward the inner Solar System of any object we’ve ever seen. In essence, it appeared to have been dropped onto the Solar System from above, plunging between the Sun and the orbit of Mercury. It was also moving extremely quickly.

The Solar System was formed from a flattened disk of material, and all of the planets orbit roughly in the plane of that disk. Smaller objects, like dwarf planets and comets, may take somewhat more erratic approaches with orbits tilted out of that plane, but they still roughly aligned with it. We had literally never seen anything like ‘Oumuamua.

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Twenty-two years ago, Microsoft Windows took a big leap forward with Windows 95. Most would say that Windows 95 was significant for its addition of the Start button, or the merging of MS-DOS and Windows, or plug and play. Maybe they were wrong; maybe it was the screensavers that mattered the most. That’s what Screensaver Subterfuge, an indie game made by Cahoots Malone, posits.

The game is freely available on itch.io for Windows, macOS, and Linux, and it was previously reported on by Motherboard. It takes the assets (they were extracted directly from ssmaze.scr) from Windows 95’s iconic 3D Maze screensaver—the one that endlessly wanders a maze of brick walls in first-person perspective—and turns it into a very goofy cyberpunk hacking game.

The conceit is that the mazes are actually the tunnels through which truly valuable corporate data travels. You’re a young hacker on a mission to stop your dystopian world from turning into a slightly different kind of dystopian world—this is according to the game’s hilariously bad narration that includes ’90s hype lines such as, “Cyberspace has never looked so three dimensional! The geniuses at Microsoft have done it again!”

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U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Arthurgwain L. Marquez

US Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol planes have joined an international search for the Argentine Armada submarine San Juan, and the Navy has prepared submarine rescue vehicles and four uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs) to assist in the search as well. The Argentine sub has been missing in the Argentine Sea, and the subsequent search is entering its fifth day.

One Naval P-8 arrived in Argentina over the weekend, and another is arriving today. Additional rescue systems are now on their way, including a NATO submarine rescue system. Thus far, rough weather and high seas have been hindering the search, and hopes for the missing crew are fading.

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Enlarge / This is the pipeline pumping station for the Keystone operations in Steele City, Nebraska. Steele City is a strategic location for the Keystone Pipeline projects. (credit: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Image)

On Monday, the Nebraska Public Service Commission issued its final order (PDF) on the fate of energy company TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The commission conditionally approved the pipeline, but it ordered the pipeline to be moved east of Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sandhills region.

The condition sets up a hurdle for TransCanada—now the company needs to seek the approval of different local landowners, according to The Washington Post. Still, the approval likely means Keystone XL will be able to deliver tar sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas in the near future. Reuters called the Nebraska approval “the last big regulatory obstacle” to the completion of the pipeline.

The pipeline, which was proposed in 2008, has become a political football in a partisan world. In 2015, the Obama administration’s State Department denied approval for a large section of the pipeline, saying that it wouldn’t meaningfully contribute to the US economy, and already-low US gas prices wouldn’t be affected by the influx of Canadian oil. After the Trump administration took over, the new president signed an executive order reversing the Obama administration’s 2015 decision and its 2016 decision to rescind approval for the also-controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

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In the immediate wake of last week’s surprise announcement that EA and developer DICE were temporarily removing microtransactions from Star Wars: Battlefront II, VentureBeat reported that no less than Disney CEO Bob Iger called EA CEO Andrew Wilson to discuss the roiling controversy over the in-game purchases. Subsequent reporting from The Wall Street Journal now suggests Disney did put pressure on the game publisher to fix things, though not necessarily at the CEO level.

According to an unnamed “person familiar with the matter” who spoke to the Journal, Disney executives were “upset at how online outrage over the costs of gaining access to popular characters such as Luke Skywalker reflected on their marquee property.” While Iger was concerned about this perception, it was Disney Head of Consumer Products and Interactive Media Jimmy Pitaro who sent EA a message expressing those concerns, according to the report.

EA acquired the lucrative exclusive rights to publish Star Wars-based games in 2013, a year after Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion.

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