The 20 most popular sci-tech stories of 2019

Which stories caught everyone’s attention this year?

2019—we’re glad to put the year in our rear-view mirror, but there were still plenty of tech stories to remember. What stood out this time around was the sheer diversity of our most popular stories. Sure, readers always love listening to what Ron Amadeo has to say about Google’s strategic direction or following Eric Berger’s scoops about what’s going on inside NASA, but the return of the Razr? A man with an “eye of Sauron” around his iris? The “church of bleach?” Some things you just can’t predict.

So without further ado, here were the 20 most popular stories of 2019 at Ars Technica.

20. Android’s new “Ambient Mode”

Last month, Google quietly released “Google Assistant Ambient Mode,” which takes over the lock screen any time you charge your Android phone. As Ron Amadeo described it:

“The new ambient mode shows a quick greeting message at the top, followed by your calendar, weather, upcoming flights, and notifications. Below that is a quick settings section that shows things like a do-not-disturb toggle and smart home controls for lights and thermostats. There’s also a photo frame mode. It looks like a handy screen that could pop up when you’re just charging your phone before bed.”

19. The return of the Motorola Razr

Remember back in 2004 when the OG Motorola Razr V3 was the new phone hotness? It arrived a little less than two years before the first iPhone exploded onto the scene, and it was the phone of choice for those who wanted something a little nicer looking than a Nokia candy bar.

In January 2019, we learned that Lenovo—the current owner of Motorola Mobility—would resurrect the Razr for a new age. Motorola made things official in November when it revealed a $1,500 foldable smartphone. Preorders were supposed to begin the day after Christmas in advance of a January 9, 2020 launch, but Motorola then decided to delay availability to “better meet consumer demand.”

You can bet Ron will get his hands on a Razr and tell you all about its bezels as soon as he can.

18. An end to copyright extensions

Copyright—the gift that keeps on giving, at least for copyright holders. It seems like Congress is intent on making it a never-ending gift, too—at least until this year. As 2019 dawned, a number of copyrighted works passed into the public domain as the extra 20 years added by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1999 finally expired.

“George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue will fall into the public domain. It will be followed by The Great Gatsby in January 2021 and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in January 2022,” wrote Tim Lee. And in 2024, “we’ll see the expiration of the copyright for Steamboat Willie—and with it Disney’s claim to the film’s star, Mickey Mouse. The copyrights to Superman, Batman, Disney’s Snow White, and early Looney Tunes characters will all fall into the public domain between 2031 and 2035.”

This is unprecedented stuff, and Tim breaks down all of the factors that made it happen.

17. 22,000 years of magnetic weirdness

When last spotted, the magnetic North Pole was on its way to Siberia, which may be because the Earth’s magnetic field reverses itself every so often. The last pole reversal came about 770,000 years ago, but the actual switcheroo can happen in as little as 22,000 years.

Ars resident geologist Scott Johnson dug into a study over the summer that pieced together a timeline for the previous reversal.

“The researchers interpret this additional data as showing a major weakening of the magnetic field starting 795,000 years ago, before the pole flipped and strengthened slightly,” he wrote. “But around 784,000 years ago, it became unstable again—a weak field with a variable pole favoring the southern end of the planet. That phase lasted until about 773,000 years ago, when it regained strength fairly quickly and moved to the northern geographic pole for good.”

16. Comcast’s law-breaking bill inflation

Raise your hand if you’re a Comcast subscriber.

Looks out, sees about 40 percent of the US audience with their hands up.

Now keep your hand up if you’re happy with the service.

Sees most arms drop.

Part of the reason people hate Comcast so much is that the company has a history of doing things to piss off its customers. Some of these things are even illegal. In this case, Comcast was found to have broken Washington state law 445,000 times and was directed to refund its customers and to pay a $9 million fine.

Surely it will never do anything like this again.

15. The Google Pixel 4 disappoints

For several years, if you wanted the best Android experience, you bought a Pixel. Indeed, it’s the phone I’ve personally recommended to Android-leaning friends due in no small part to the ready availability of Android updates.

But this year is a different story. While the Pixel 4 is a fine phone on its own, the competition is getting better—both in terms of Android updates and with phone features. As Ron put it, “Google’s Pixel line is starting on its fourth year now, and I think it’s time we stop treating the smartphone line as a work-in-progress and start asking ‘What, exactly, is the point of all this?'”

“Google’s hardware division just seems to lack ambition. There’s no ambition to disrupt the competition and produce something truly unique or different. There’s no ambition to compete on price or win any sizable amount of market share. Google Hardware’s only ambition seems to be ‘don’t rock the boat.'”

14. Elder Scrolls adventure draws too much from D&D

When Bethesda released a tabletop RPG adventure in May, the Internet quickly noticed some jarring similarities to a D&D adventure published in 2016. As Kyle Orland reported, “The adventures are largely identical throughout their texts, aside from sometimes sloppy replacements of certain words and phrases with synonyms and the changing of certain items and locations to fit in the Elder Scrolls setting.”

Enlarge / In a series of comparative text samples published on Facebook, co-author Paige Leitman shows significant similarities throughout her "The Black Road" adventure and the Elsweyr adventure published by Bethesda.
Enlarge / In a series of comparative text samples published on Facebook, co-author Paige Leitman shows significant similarities throughout her “The Black Road” adventure and the Elsweyr adventure published by Bethesda.

A Bethesda spokesperson told Ars that the company was “digging deeper” to figure out what happened. The digging apparently unearthed an answer quickly, as the files were removed not long after publication.

13. “Eye of Sauron” in a Texas man

Ars Health Reporter Beth Mole is best known for her incredible punning ability. As an editor, there’s nothing like getting a post from Beth related to the health or science of bodily functions and seeing all of the puns she packs into the story. Several groans later, the story is ready for publishing.

This story, however, didn’t need any clever wordplay to be fascinating. Doctors came across a 44-year-old Texas man who has a “fiery ring” around his irises. Called pigment dispersion syndrome, the situation happens when pigment granules flake off of the iris and into the watery fluid that bathes the front of the eye. Doctors used a laser to ease the pressure and drainage on the man’s eyes, while denizens of Middle Earth breathed a massive sigh of relief.

12. Russia’s jealousy of SpaceX

Since the Space Shuttle fleet was retired, the US has been reliant on Russia to get humans to and from the International Space Station. In recent years, however, private spaceflight companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin have made great strides in uncrewed spaceflight, with crewed missions on the horizon.

With the successful launch and docking of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, the Russians are aware that one of the moneymakers for its own space program is in jeopardy. The response of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, has been a bit passive-aggressive. What’s going on? Eric Berger knows:

“Until now, Russia has largely either blamed others for its problems in space or overlooked them. Is Russia going to face up to its issues or continue to bluster and entirely squander its remarkable, six-decade legacy of pioneering spaceflight?”

Early returns don’t look too promising.

11. Six-year-old suffers from excruciating tetanus infection due to anti-vax parents

If there’s one story I never want to see again, it’s this one.

“The young son of anti-vaccine parents endured excruciating pain and spent 47 days in pediatric intensive care after contracting tetanus, a devastating bacterial infection easily prevented by vaccines.”

There’s not a lot to add, other than to point out that immunization rates are trending in the wrong direction due to a steady diet of misinformation and pseudoscience coming from anti-vax activists. Hopefully governments in 2020 will continue to close immunization loopholes so that children don’t unnecessarily suffer and die from easily prevented diseases.

10. Founder fails to write down password, dies

Here’s a reminder to make sure that somebody, somewhere has secure access to really important passwords in case something unexpected happens to you. That was the takeaway from a story about a Canadian cryptocurrency exchange that lost control of $137 million worth of customer assets after its founder died unexpectedly early this year.

Gerry Cotten, the man behind QuadrigaCX, died last December of Crohn’s disease while in India. Cotten had followed best practices for securing his customers’ assets when it came to security, storing most of them in a cold wallet, meaning the digital wallet was kept on a device not connected to the Internet. The cold wallet was stored on a laptop—and the laptop in question was encrypted with a passphrase only Cotten knew.

“The laptop computer from which Gerry carried out the Companies’ business is encrypted, and I do not know the password or recovery key,” Cotten’s widow, Jennifer Robertson, wrote after his death. “Despite repeated and diligent searches, I have not been able to find them written down anywhere.”

QuadrigaCX filed for bankruptcy in February. In a strange and macabre turn of events, investors now want to exhume Cotten’s body to verify his passing.

9. It’s all wing, and it’s cheaper to fly

In June, Dutch university TU Delft unveiled a plane design that could carry just as many passengers as an Airbus A350 (around 314) while using 20 percent less fuel. The “flying V” looks unlike anything in the sky today, as it lacks a normal fuselage. Passengers, fuel, and cargo are all stored in the wings.

But there’s a catch: it’s going to offer a much more… active ride for the passengers, because airplanes bank as they turn. As Jonathan Gitlin wrote, “That’s not much of a problem in a conventional airliner design, where passengers are never that far from the plane’s central axis. But as you move farther out from that central axis, the effect becomes a lot more pronounced.”

8. Sex, crimes, and fights: Siri is listening

For better or for worse, voice-activated digital assistants have become an integral part of life for many of us. But there’s a downside to devices that play songs, read the news, and remind you of upcoming appointments: people are sometimes listening. And they sometimes hear things they shouldn’t.

Apple, Amazon, and Google all make use of contractors who analyze recordings in order to make their services work better. Some of those recordings, according to a report over the summer, feature “private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters,” and more. And the recordings are sometimes paired with data about the user, including contact details and location.

Apple takes steps to protect its users from being connected to the recordings that are analyzed, but 2019 gave us several sobering reminders that the convenience of voice-activated assistants comes with a cost.

7. RIP Opportunity

After being engulfed in a Mars-wide dust storm in June 2018, Mars rover Opportunity became unresponsive. In February of this year, NASA officially declared Opportunity dead—5,352 days after it landed on the planet.

Originally designed to last for 90 days, Opportunity and its sibling, Spirit, cruised slowly around the Martian landscape for much longer than anyone expected. Spirit froze—literally—in 2010, but Opportunity persisted for eight more years. As Eric Berger described it:

“Opportunity kept on keeping on amidst the harsh terrain. It roved a staggering 45.16 kilometers across the Red Planet, a distance unmatched by any rover on the Moon or Mars. In 2016, as it climbed a hill, Opportunity’s tilt reached 32 degrees, the steepest ever for any rover on Mars.”

NASA’s final communication to Opportunity came in the form of Billie Holliday’s “I’ll be seeing you.” The last lines transmitted:

I’ll find you in the morning sun
And when the night is new
I’ll be looking at the moon
But I’ll be seeing you

6. Over 76 billion opioid pills sold in six years

One of the biggest health crises facing the US today is opioid addiction. How bad is it? The US Drug Enforcement Administration tracked every pill sold legally between 2006 and 2012, and during the seven years in question, shipments jumped from 8.4 billion to 12.6 billion—a nearly 50 percent increase.

“Just three companies made 88% of the opioid pills: SpecGx, Actavis Pharma, and Par Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of Endo Pharmaceuticals. Purdue Pharma ranked fourth, making 3% of the pills. Just six companies distributed 75% of the pills: McKesson Corp., Walgreens, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, CVS, and Walmart.”

This stuff is so potent that a 10-day supply can get one in five people addicted, according to researchers.

Local governments that are suing the pill-pushing companies have had access to the DEA’s data, but it wasn’t made public until a handful of media organizations sued and beat down the efforts of the companies to keep the data private.

5. The “Church of Bleach” is a false prophet

“Punk Rock Girl” was the only hit off of the Dead Milkmen’s 1988 album Beelzebubba. But one of my favorite tracks on the album, “Bleach Boys,” unfortunately presaged a stupid and bad trend of 2019: drinking bleach.

Don’t you want to hang out with the bleach boys, baby?

That could be a line lifted straight from the hymnal of the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, aka “The Church of Bleach,” one of the groups promoting bleach ingestion. You’d think that people would know better than to chug Clorox, no matter how diluted, but to no one’s surprise (given all of the crazy stuff that went down this year), they don’t. As Beth Mole put it:

“Unscrupulous sellers have sold ‘miracle’ bleach elixirs for decades, claiming that they can cure everything from cancer to HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, flu, hair loss, and more. Some have promoted it to parents as a way to cure autism in children—prompting many allegations of child abuse.”

Save the bleach for your clothes, m’kay?

4. World’s largest plane takes to the sky

When Paul Allen, one of the cofounders of Microsoft, died in October 2018, he left behind the Seattle Seahawks, the Portland Trail Blazers, and Stratolaunch. The latter is responsible for the first flight of the world’s largest airplane, with a 384-foot wingspan.

The titanic aircraft took flight for the first time in April of this year, traveling to heights of 5.18km (17,000 feet) and reaching speeds of 304km/h (189mph). Its ultimate purpose was to launch spacecraft into orbit. With Allen’s passing, however, there were questions as to whether Stratolaunch would continue operations. Those questions intensified after the company dropped efforts to build rockets that would be launched from the massive airplane.

Despite Allen’s passing, the company has continued operations, hiring additional workers in October.

3. Kids on YouTube get suicide tips along with cartoons

It’s a sick world we live in, part 3,297,118. Parenting blog was the first to report on a disturbing new phenomenon involving YouTube. A mother was watching cartoons with her son on YouTube Kids. About five minutes into the video, a man appeared and offered instructions on how to properly slit one’s wrists. “Remember, kids: Sideways for attention, longways for results.”

The video was taken down from YouTube Kids after it was reported, but as is the case with this sort of thing, it was far from the only video with this alarming content:

“For years, the video-sharing company has struggled with a whack-a-mole-style effort to keep a variety of disturbing and potentially scarring content out of videos targeting children. Videos have been found with adult content ranging from foul language to depictions of mass shootings, alcohol use, fetishes, human trafficking stories, and sexual situations. Many contain—and attract clicks with—popular cartoon characters, such as Elsa from the 2013 animated Disney film Frozen. This chilling phenomenon has been referred to as Elsagate.”

Kids can’t unsee this stuff, some of which can have lasting, deleterious effects on children.

2. Replacement wedding tackle works about as well as the original

A disabled veteran who had his genitals blown off from an IED can now achieve “near normal” erections and can orgasm, the result of a 14-hour operation that transplanted a penis, scrotum, and lower abdominal wall. This was just the third successful penis transplant and the first to involve the entire genitals.

“Since the transplant, the man has reported improvement on self-reported pleasure scores, as well as reporting an improved self-image and ‘feeling whole’ again. The man has returned to school, is living independently with leg prostheses, and is ‘very satisfied’ with his transplant and his outlook for the future.”

The success of the operation offers hope for the nearly 1,400 men who suffered twig-and-berry-related injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2013.

1. RIP, Nest

This isn’t an obituary in the same vein as that of Opportunity, above. Instead, it’s a funeral dirge for the former standalone company Nest, which was rebranded as “Google Nest” at Google I/O 2019. Ron Amadeo called it “a brutal outcome for users, who are looking at a dead-end ecosystem, potentially broken smart homes, and the shattering of the Google/Nest privacy firewall.”

In integrating Nest into its suite of products, Google killed off many things that made the product compelling in the first place. “Works with Nest,” a program that facilitated communication between Nest thermostats and other services, is getting deep-sixed, which means that most third-party integrations will stop working.

Beyond breaking functionality, Google also required Nest users to create Google accounts. That means turning all of your Nest data over to Google, which the company uses in accordance with its own privacy policy.

I’ll let Ron sum up the situation:

“I’ve gone to Nest product launches several times, and every time, the company would talk about how Nest was the most recognized brand in smart homes. Clearly Google still values the Nest mark and wants to keep the brand around inside Google, but first it has to go through a clumsy and awkward shutdown process, which will almost certainly be damaging to the brand’s reputation with existing users (and anyone else paying attention).”

All Rights Reserved for Eric Bangeman

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