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The chemistry of why baking degraded reel-to-reel tapes can reverse damage

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Enlarge / Audio buffs are rediscovering the sound quality of reel-to-reel tapes. Chemists at the Library of Congress are studying why the tapes tend to degrade over time and why baking them can often reverse the damage.

Reel-to-reel tapes are experiencing a resurgence of interest among audio buffs, but they are prone to degradation, which has been a topic of active research for many years. It’s well known that applying heat can often reverse the damage sufficiently to enable playback, usually by baking the tapes in an oven. Now scientists at the US Library of Congress have determined precisely why this method seems to work, presenting their findings earlier this month on the American Chemical Society’s SciMeetings online platform.

Project leader Andrew Davis is a polymer chemist who works in the LOC’s preservation research and testing division. The LOC’s mission is to ensure its collections continue to be accessible to the public, either in their original or reformatted mediums. The R&D division is responsible for providing the scientific groundwork for that mission, similar to how the Smithsonian Institute employs research scientists to maintain its collections.

“We span everything from simple analytical tests, like determining the kind of ink used on paper, to testing all building and construction materials, and ensuring the stickers on the barcodes don’t damage books,” Davis told Ars.

Davis emphasizes that the audiotape collection is well-maintained and tapes are not literally decaying on the shelves as I type; he works to ensure that they remain in good condition. While the LOC continues to digitize its vast collection, there is still a large number of tapes in the archives that are still in their original format. They are simply obscure enough that they might only be digitized if the LOC receives a request to listen to them.

Even for those with a digital copy, preserving the originals as long as possible is still important. “It’s not impossible that the digitized version might disappear, might get corrupted, or might become inaccessible 10 to 20 years from now,” Davis said. “If you have that physical object, that’s always something you can come back and re-listen to, or reprocess, if the need arises.”

Baking

Davis was visiting one of the LOC’s offsite facilities, the Audio Preservation Consideration Center in Culpeper, Virginia, when the issue of degraded reel-to-reel tapes came up in the discussion. The primary culprit for the degradation is known as “sticky shed syndrome,” in which the binders used in a magnetic tape to hold the iron oxide casing to the plastic carrier deteriorate. They form a sticky residue that can damage both the tape and playback equipment.

He found that the LOC’s audio curators had various methods on the best ways to bake a degraded reel-to-reel tape, and he also learned that heat-treated tapes will quickly revert back to their degraded condition if they aren’t immediately processed.

“It became very clear that no one really understood the underlying mechanisms of how that thermal treatment worked,” said Davis. Fortunately, his division has a collection of tapes set aside specifically for scientific research, making it possible to conduct even destructive scientific tests. He used small samples from those tapes for this particular project.

The first stage naturally involved baking the tape samples. While there is an obscure account from a 1990s audio magazine of a DIY hack using a hairdryer attached to a cardboard box to bake degraded reel-to-reel tapes, and Davis has been asked if a toaster over would suffice, he is skeptical that these were ever common methods. “I think most people use well-controlled laboratory-grade circulating convection ovens when they do this,” he said.

Davis also subjected the samples to other, more cutting-edge analysis techniques, such as scanning calorimetry to measure changes in temperature. (It’s a sophisticated version of the old chemistry-class trick of putting ice in a styrofoam cup and poking a thermometer through the top to make a calorimeter.) Samples were subjected to heat stage microscopy, which involves placing a hot plate under a microscope sample to monitor small microscopic changes in the material as it heats up over time. “We can’t do that in an oven because it’s dark and we can’t see anything,” he said.

He also artificially aged some of the samples in a special environmentally controlled chamber, ramping up the heat and humidity to accelerate the natural aging process. “A lot of degradation processes occur over decades or centuries, and we don’t always have that long to wait [to decide on a particular course of action],” said Davis. “This way we can mimic and predict what would happen over much longer time scales.”

Sweet spot

His experiments showed that, when a degraded reel-to-reel tape is heated, the sticky residues melt back onto the bulk polymer layer, rendering the tape playable once again.  That’s why 130°F is the sweet spot for baking degraded tapes; it’s the melting point for the residues. “If you go any lower than that, nothing is going to happen,” Davis said. However, he also found that there is no single component that accounts for tape degradation, and the sticky residues don’t just form on the binder layer.

“This research also confirmed what we heard from audio technicians, that thermally treated tapes that were wound on reels reverted to a visibly deteriorated condition within a few weeks,” said Davis. “Surprisingly, we found that when our small unwound test samples of tape were thermally treated, they appeared to be optically fine even after weeks. Clearly being wound has some effect on the tapes.”

That is the next stage of research, and Davis actually set up a range of samples with different treatments that he was monitoring right up until shelter-at-home policies went into effect in the Washington, DC, area. He hasn’t been able to return to his lab to check on them but is hopeful that, once the lockdowns lift, there will some intriguing experimental results on that score. Beyond that, Davis hopes to extend his experiments to enclosed magnetic media, such as cassette and VHS tapes.

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Patent detects in-game “collusion” by tracking “external connections”

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Enlarge / Call it a hunch, but something tells me these two players are working together…

Do you ever feel like your opponents in a free-for-all online game are trying to get you, specifically? It might not just be paranoia; it might be collusion among your opponents. And in a newly published patent, Electronic Arts details some potential tools and data points—both inside and outside the game—that it could use to detect and root out this unfair practice.

EA’s simply titled “Detecting Collusion in Online Games” patent, published earlier this month, defines collusion as when two or more players/groups that are “intended to be opponents” instead “contribute to a common cause” to “gain an unfair advantage” over others. In battle royale shooter, for instance, a small group of players communicating outside the game could stay together and gain a decided firepower advantage against their single opponents.

Many of the patent’s potential methods for discovering this kind of collusion use simple and obvious in-game data. If two or more ostensibly opposed players or teams show abnormal amounts of “time spent in proximity… without engagement,” for instance, there’s a good chance they’re working together. Even if those players show some cursory opposition at points, metrics like damage per second can be compared with the average to see if this is just opposition “for appearance sake.”

Dropping items that another team or player consistently picks up is another potential sign of collusion, as is the same player or players showing up on opposing teams consistently in match after match. Colluding players may also tend to finish in similar ranked positions during their matches, especially “once the unfair advantage provided by colluding is nullified” as some of the colluding players are eliminated.

Big Brother is watching (for collusion)

Beyond easy-to-detect in-game data, though, EA’s patent details other signs of collusion that can be gleaned from things like “social relationships and communications” and “third-party system connections and interactions” outside the game. That kind of data ranges from simple relationships like a “friends list” provided by the gaming platform to completely external relationships like “social media connection data.”

The patent mentions “a cross team shared community metric” that counts “the number of group or community memberships… where players from both teams are members.” Things like “the number of posts by a player in a particular community” shared with another player could also signify potential collusion.

Just some of the internal and external factors that EAs patented method could use to detect collusion among players.
Enlarge / Just some of the internal and external factors that EAs patented method could use to detect collusion among players.

Even “the content of extra-game communication” could be fed into the algorithm, according to the patent, such as “messages to a forum which players from both teams are participating.” A “machine learning algorithm” could be used to glean any collusion-related context from this kind of out-of-game communication, or a simple keyword search could be used, according to the patent.

To be clear, the patent is upfront in saying that any player data used in any of these detection algorithms “would be in compliance with privacy policies that respect players’ privacy, and in accordance with player privacy settings or preferences.” That said, there’s something a little Big Brother-y about the prospect of a publisher like EA scanning your Twitter posts and Reddit community memberships to see if you’re trying to coordinate cheating in their online game.

Then again, in a world where players will go to extreme lengths to hide their cheating using external devices, maybe this kind of external social graph analysis is needed to root out some of the worst colluders (or at least some of the least-careful ones).
In any case, having a patented design doesn’t mean EA is (or ever will) use this kind of system in the wild. For now, it’s just an interesting look at how one company is thinking about potential ways to detect the human side of online cheating as well as the technical side.

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Report: FTC “likely” to file suit to block Microsoft/Activision merger

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Enlarge / Just a few of the Activision franchises that will become Microsoft properties if and when the acquisition is finalized.

Microsoft / Activision

The Federal Trade Commission will “likely” move to file an antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft and Activision Blizzard to block the companies’ planned $69 billion merger deal. That’s according to a new Politico report citing “three [unnamed] people with knowledge of the matter.”

While Politico writes that a lawsuit is still “not guaranteed,” it adds that FTC staffers “are skeptical of the companies’ arguments” that the deal will not be anticompetitive. The sources also confirmed that “much of the heavy lifting is complete” in the commission’s investigation, and that a suit could be filed as early as next month.

Sony, the main opponent of Microsoft’s proposed purchase, has argued publicly that an existing contractual three-year guarantee to keep Activision’s best-selling Call of Duty franchise on PlayStation is “inadequate on many levels.” In response, Microsoft Head of Xbox Phil Spencer has publicly promised to continue shipping Call of Duty games on PlayStation “as long as there’s a PlayStation out there to ship to.” It’s not clear if the companies have memorialized that offer as a legal agreement, though; The New York Times reported this week that Microsoft had offered a “10-year deal to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation.”

Numerous statements from Microsoft executives, including Spencer, have suggested the company is less interested in bolstering its position in the “console wars” and more interested in boosting its mobile, cloud gaming, and Game Pass subscription offerings. Beyond Call of Duty, Politico reports that the FTC is concerned over how Microsoft “could leverage future, unannounced titles to boost its gaming business.”

Microsoft “is prepared to address the concerns of regulators, including the FTC, and Sony to ensure the deal closes with confidence,” spokesperson David Cuddy told Politico. “We’ll still trail Sony and Tencent in the market after the deal closes, and together Activision and Xbox will benefit gamers and developers and make the industry more competitive.”

Plenty of speed bumps remain

The reports of a potential FTC lawsuit add to a growing list of troubling signals about the proposed purchase from various international governments. Earlier this month, the European Commission said it was moving on to an “in-depth investigation” of the deal. In the UK, a similar “Phase 2” investigation by the country’s Competition and Markets Authority has scheduled hearing for next month.

Those international investigations are expected to wrap up in March, ensuring the proposed deal won’t close before then and giving the FTC some time before it would have to file suit. Any such lawsuit would need to be approved by a majority of the four current FTC commissioners and would likely start in the FTC’s administrative court. And whatever the outcome, legal maneuvering in the case could easily delay the planned merger past a July 2023 contractual deadline, at which point both companies would have to renegotiate or abandon the deal.

An FTC lawsuit in this matter would also be a the strongest sign yet of a robust antitrust enforcement regime under FTC chair Lina Kahn, a big tech skeptic who was named to the post in June. Back in July, Kahn announced an antitrust lawsuit against Meta (formerly Facebook) and its proposed $400 million purchase of Within, makers of VR fitness app Supernatural.

Three months after Microsoft’s proposed purchase was announced in January, a group of four US Senators wrote an open letter strongly urging the FTC to take a close look at the deal. Last month, merger news site Dealreporter said FTC staff had expressed “significant concerns” about the deal. And this week, the New York Times cited “two people” in reporting that the FTC had reached out to other companies for sworn statements laying out their concerns about the deal, a possible sign of lawsuit preparations.

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Crypto and NFTs aren’t welcome in Grand Theft Auto Online

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Enlarge / Cold hard (virtual) cash only in GTA Online, please.

Cryptocurrencies and NFTs have been formally disallowed from Grand Theft Auto Online‘s popular role-playing (RP) servers. That’s according to a new set of guidelines posted on Rockstar’s support site last Friday.

In the note, the game’s publisher says its new RP server rules are aligned with Rockstar’s existing rules for single-player mods. Both sets of rules prohibit content that uses third-party intellectual property, interferes with official multiplayer services, or makes new “games, stories, missions or maps” for the game. This means RP servers based on re-creating Super Mario Kart in the Grand Theft Auto world, for instance, could face “priority in enforcement actions” from Rockstar.

But the new RP guidelines surpass the existing single-player mod guidelines in barring “commercial exploitation.” That’s a wide-ranging term that Rockstar says specifically includes selling loot boxes, virtual currencies, corporate sponsorships, or any integrations of cryptocurrencies of “crypto assets (e.g. ‘NFTs’).”

It’s all been done before

The new guidelines seem to directly respond to “The Trenches,” a role-playing community launched in September by OTF Gaming and rapper Lil Durk. That server advertised integration with both “endemic and non-endemics brands in the gaming space” and a “Trenches Pass” NFT drop to access specific on-server content.

“We’ve been asked to cease all operations of Trenches,” OTF Gaming said in a statement on social media. “We have no choice but to comply with their demands, as we intend to do right by Take-Two and Rockstar. We will be working with them to find an amicable solution to this matter.”

If this situation sounds familiar, it might be because developer Mojang similarly barred NFT integration from its online servers in July. At the time, Minecraft-based crypto project NFT Worlds said it was hoping to work with Mojang to “find an alternative outcome that’s beneficial to the Minecraft player base.”

Days later, though, NFT Worlds said it gave up on that and began work on a new game that will be “based on many of the core mechanics of Minecraft” but which will be “completely untethered from the policy enforcement Microsoft and Mojang have over Minecraft.”

In Minecraft‘s case, Mojang said that the “scarcity and exclusion” inherent to NFTs “does not align with Minecraft values of creative inclusion and playing together.” That reasoning applies less to GTA Online, though, a game that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars annually by selling in-game currency and exclusive items for use by players.

If anything, things like NFTs and loot boxes could be seen as competition for GTA Online‘s official monetization efforts. With that competition cut off, though, Rockstar sounds eager to allow RP servers to continue to operate within reason.

“Rockstar Games has always believed in reasonable fan creativity and wants creators to showcase their passion for our games,” the company writes. “Third-party ‘Roleplay’ servers are an extension of the rich array of community-created experiences within Grand Theft Auto that we hope will continue to thrive in a safe and friendly way for many years to come.”

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