Show of 09-30-2017

Tech Talk

September 30, 2017

Email and Forum Questions

  • Email from Lois in Kansas: Dear Tech Talk. My kids are away at college and use Amazon for most of their supplies. Is there an easy way to send them money without giving them access to my account password? Enjoy the podcast. Lois in Kansas
  • Tech Talk Responds: The Amazon Allowance feature charges your credit card every month and then sends the amount you choose to someone else’s Amazon account. This is perfect for giving your kids money while they’re away at school.
  • To set up an allowance, go to Amazon’s website and click Accounts & Lists. Under “More ways to pay,” click Allowances. On the next page, give your allowance a name, the email address of the Amazon account you want to send it to, your name, how much you want to send them, how often you want to send them money, and when to start the allowance. You can choose to send money every day, week, month, every two weeks, or just one time. Once you are done, click “Sign In to Continue” and enter your Amazon account credentials. Next, choose which payment method you want to use to fund your allowance. Finally, scroll to the bottom and click Create Allowance.
  • Dennis in Florida: Dear Tech Talk. I have heard that my Uber app is always tracking me, even when I am not riding Uber. Is there a way to stop this or to check whether they are tracking me? I have installed Uber on my iPhone. Dennis in Florida
  • Tech Talk Responds: Most iOS apps that require your location give you a choice: you can “Always” grant it access, or only grant it access “While Using the App”. Uber, however, only gave you an “Always” or “Never” choice, which means it could track you after your ride ends and you stop using the app.
  • To revoke Uber’s ability to always track your location, go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services on your iPhone. Scroll down and tap the “Uber” app in the list. Tap “While Using” and Uber will only have access to your location while you are actually using the app. While you’re here, you should probably scroll through the list and see which other apps “Always” have access to your location. If you don’t trust an app with access to your location, you can tap it and select “While Using” instead.
  • Email from Lilly in Fairfax: Dear Doc and Jim. I just got a new laptop and now I need some applications. Microsoft Office is expensive are there any cheaper alternatives? Lilly in Fairfax
  • Tech Talk Responds: There are many, several free alternatives.
  • Libre Office — Libre Office has been around for many years. Libre Office is a “suite” of programs — a word processor, spreadsheet, database, presentation tool, and more. It’s completely free, and works on Windows, MacOS, and Linux platforms. The biggest issue with Libre Office is that it is not identical to Microsoft Office. It can read and write Microsoft Office file formats, but the results will appear slightly different. For the average consumer, Libre Office will work just fine.
  • Microsoft Office Online — Microsoft Office Online, as its name implies, is a collection of online versions of Microsoft Office applications. Specifically, free, online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote are all available. These are very similar alternatives, but they are certainly not as full-featured as their desktop counterparts. They can only be used online, while connected to the internet. You will need a Microsoft account to use them.
  • Google Docs — Many consider the Microsoft online offering to be a direct response to the appearance of Google Docs. Google Docs, also free, includes an online word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software. These programs include many of the same features as Microsoft Office, but not all. They can only be used online, while connected to the internet. You will need a Google account to use them.
  • WordPad — WordPad is certainly not a replacement for all of Office, and it doesn’t meet your request for an Excel alternative, but it has turned into quite the little word processing program. If your needs are fairly basic, it might just do the trick.
  • Wendy in Fairfax: Dear Doc and Jim. I do quite a bit of biking and hiking. Is there an easy way to measure the distance of a route? I listen to the show every Saturday morning at nine. Wendy in Fairfax
  • Tech Talk Responds: Google Maps has this feature, but you have to look for it. It is easiest to do with your laptop. Open your browser and go to maps.google.com. Zoom in on the desired location. Right-clicking the starting point of the distance you want to measure, and then click the “Measure Distance” option. Now, follow the trail and click it wherever it curves to place measuring markers that follow the trail’s path exactly. Throughout the marking process, the total distance so far is shown at the bottom of the “Measure Distance” popup. It also shows the total square footage of the area, which can be useful if you’re making a complete circuit or just want to measure how large a particular area is. If you add a point in error, just click the point again to remove it. You can also add points anywhere along the line and drag them around to change the path.
  • You can also do this on an iPhone or Android. However, you will mark the path with dropped pins. The computer interface is much better.

Profiles in IT: Philip Rosedale

  • Philip Rosedale is an American entrepreneur, best known as the founder of the virtual world Second Life.
  • Philip Rosedale was born September 29, 1968 in San Diego, CA
  • Aged 16, sitting with a friend at his aunt’s Windows computer, he pulled up an image of a Mandelbrot set, a never-ending intricate pattern.
  • He began to zoom in, until he ran out of resolution. He calculated that the screen he started from was now the size of the surface of Earth.
  • A realized that if a computer could contain a world, it could also make a world.
  • As a teenager, he built custom networks and databases for car dealerships. He used the proceeds to finance his education at UC, San Diego, getting a BS Physics.
  • In 1994, he moved to San Francisco and discovered the Internet. He instantly saw its potential for VR. But he needed 3D, which computers couldn’t do yet.
  • In 1995, he created an Internet video conferencing product, FreeVue, which was acquired by RealNetworks. He was hired as VP and CTO and was millionaire at 28.
  • In 1999, Rosedale went with a group of friends to see The Matrix. Afterwards, he was slumped in a corner, depressed. That was what he wanted to build. It was his dream.
  • A few months later, he took $1 million of his own money and started Second Life, named after a street in Hayes Valley (a neighborhood in San Francisco).
  • Second Life was a complete virtual world. You could build houses, businesses, and interact with others. It had a virtual currency. However, it was complicated to learn.
  • Second Life active users stalled at 1 million because of its complexity.
  • In 2006, Linden Lab received WIRED’s Rave Award for Innovation in Business.
  • On March 14, 2008, Rosedale announced he would be stepping down as the CEO of Linden Lab and assuming the role of Chairman of the Board of Directors
  • In October 2009, Rosedale announced that he’d be less involved in the development of Second Life, because he was focusing on a new project.
  • He briefly returned in 2010, but stayed only a few months to start another venture.
  • In November, 2011, Rosedale released a new project named Coffee and Power a site that enables people to connect for small jobs and services.
  • On April 16, 2013, the company pivoted to begin work on High Fidelity, a virtual world framework. He believes that VR headsets will take the complexity away.
  • Whereas Second Life ran on servers owned and run by Linden Lab, High Fidelity is peer-to-peer. By downloading its Sandbox software, anyone with a computer can host their own VR domain. The company will charge a fee for domain registration.
  • High Fidelity’s structure solves two of Second Life’s most persistent problems: scale and latency. He has received $11M in Series B Round of venture backing.
  • He is off to the virtual races again with a new model for virtual worlds.

Bill Gates: Sorry about Control-Alt-Delete 

  • The billionaire Microsoft co-founder admitted Wednesday that the Control-Alt-Delete function originally used to get into Windows computers is an awkward maneuver.
  • “If I could make one small edit, I’d make that a single key,” Gates said Wednesday on a panel at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York City.
  • It’s a confession Gates has made before. In 2013, he blamed IBM for the issue.
  • “We could have had a single button. But the guy who did the IBM keyboard design didn’t want to give us our single button,” Gates said at a Harvard University event at the time.
  • Users can press a single key to log in — not three — on Apple’s Mac computers.
  • Control-Alt-Delete is also the combination of keys used to force the computer to quit when it freezes.

App of the Week: Skimmer Scanner

  • In less than 30 seconds, a hacker can install a $10 piece of pre-built hardware – easily purchased online – into a gas pump. This device is called a skimmer and it’s designed to get your credit card number when you use it at the pump.
  • The CEO and Founder of SparkFun, Nate Seidle, along with programmer Nick Poole, built a free, open-source Android app to detect popular skimmers.
  • The app detects a specific Bluetooth signal and, if found, it tries to establish a connection and send a command that will verify the existence of a skimmer in your general area. The app is looking for Bluetooth networks with an ID of HC-05, which turned out to be the default on devices Seidle tested; if it finds one you’ll be alerted.
  • SparkFun’s Bluetooth device-detecting app is called Skimmer Scanner and it’s a bare-bones tool that appears to work as intended. It’s free and open-source and the developer says it doesn’t keep or record any information.
  • The only tool necessary is a key to unlock the pump. The locks are basic and there are no more than a few different key designs for all gas pumps – master keys for the model.

Facebook and Microsoft’s Finish Undersea Fiber Optic Cable

  • The new fiber optic cable will provide up to 160 terabits (Tbps) of data per second.
  • Facebook, Microsoft, and the Spanish telecom company Telxius financed the cable.
  • The cable spans 4,000 miles from Virginia Beach, Virginia to Bilbao, Spain.
  • Construction began August 2016. Microsoft announced its completion September 2017, but it won’t be operational until early 2018.
  • Facebook, Microsoft, and Telxius will jointly own the cable, which weighs almost 10.25 million pounds.
  • Telxius will serve as the cable’s operator and will sell and lease its capacity to outside service providers.
  • Microsoft and Facebook will use the cable to serve their own capacity needs.
  • Most transatlantic communication cables connect to the U.S. in either New York and New Jersey, but having the Marea as its called (meaning “tide” in Spanish) connect in Virginia diversifies connectivity between the U.S. and Europe.
  • Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York and New Jersey in 2012, disconnected North America from Europe for several days.
  • As part of its ongoing efforts to drive innovation and expand capacity of its global network, Microsoft sought options for making transatlantic connections more resilient.”

How Playboy helped create the JPEG

  • A photo from an issue of a 1972 Playboy magazine that was used as a test image during the creation of widely used image processing standards like JPEG and MPEG.
  • Hefner’s magazine published an alluring photo that turned into an invaluable resource for generations of computer scientists. The subtle shot eventually became one of the most widely used test images for image processing algorithms. The model, Lena Soderberg, whose photo was used for the centerfold of Playboy’s November 1972 issue, is now widely known as the “First Lady of the Internet.”
  • This strange footnote in computer science history started back in 1973. USC Signal and Image Processing Institute (SIPI) assistant professor of electrical engineering Alexander Sawchuk was part of a group looking for a new image, preferably a human face, to scan for a colleague’s conference paper when someone came into the lab with the November 1972 Playboy.
  • The team settled on the centerfold, tearing out its top third so the paper would fit on the drum of their scanner. They were aiming to produce a 512×512 image using the scanner, which had a resolution of 100 lines per inch, so they only scanned 5.12 inches of the pic, cropping out the more risqué aspects of the nude photo at the shoulders.
  • The three sets of 512 colored lines that composed the image became the standard format for digital image processing and compression. Other researchers eventually tested their own algorithms against SIPI’s using the photo of Lena. That led to mass distribution of the image by SIPI to other groups over the years.

iPhone 8 Plus Reportedly Splits Open while Charging

  • A Taiwanese iPhone 8 Plus owner has claimed that her device split open while being charged with the supplied cable and plug adapter. Apple is examining the device.
  • A Japanese owner has posted similar photos of his device.
  • The issue emerged five days after purchasing the phone. The customer placed her phone on charge, using the supplied cable and adaptor. After three minutes, she reported seeing the front panel bulge, and eventually lift completely from the device.
  • Any device with a swollen battery should be immediately removed to a safe place, as it can indicate a lithium battery at risk of bursting into flames.
  • This should be another warning to only use approved charging devices.

Robotic Farm Completes 1st Fully Autonomous Harvest

  • At Hands Free Hectare, an experimental farm run by researchers from Harper Adams University, in the village of Edgmond in the U.K., about 5 tons of spring barley have been harvested from the world’s first robotically tended farm.
  • Everything from start to finish, including sowing, fertilizing, collecting samples and harvesting, has been done by autonomous vehicles on the farm.
  • The team behind the project thinks that robotic technology could improve yields in agriculture, which is necessary if the world’s growing population is to be fed in coming years.
  • The researchers tackled this problem by using commercially available agriculture machines and open-source software that is used to guide hobbyists’ drones.
  • The researchers purchased several small-size agricultural machines, including a tractor and a combine, a machine for harvesting grain crops. They then fitted the machines with actuators, electronics and robotic technology that would allow them to control the machines without the presence of a human operator.
  • The vehicles navigate entirely based on the GPS, and they are just essentially driving towards targets that were predetermined. At different GPS targets, there are different actions designed to be carried out.
  • To monitor the field and take samples of the plants, the researchers developed special grippers attached to drones. As the drone flies above the field, the grippers can cut off some samples and deliver them to the researchers.
  • The scientists said that the robotic technology could enable future farmers to more precisely distribute fertilizers and herbicides, but could also lead to improvements in soil quality.
  • The farmer would, for example, be able to apply fertilizer only to the plants that are doing poorly and would not waste it on those that don’t need it.
  • In the coming years, they want to focus on improving the precision of the procedures and quantify the effects of the robotic technology on the yields.

A New Law makes it Illegal to Fly Drones over Landmarks

  • The FAA announced that it has restricted drone use over several national US landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore.
  • The FAA says the new restrictions are in place at the request of US security and law enforcement agencies.
  • Under the new restriction, drones will no longer be able to fly within 400 feet of the following sites:
    • Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York, NY
    • Boston National Historical Park (U.S.S. Constitution), Boston, MA
    • Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, PA
    • Folsom Dam; Folsom, CA
    • Glen Canyon Dam; Lake Powell, AZ
    • Grand Coulee Dam; Grand Coulee, WA
    • Hoover Dam; Boulder City, NV
    • Jefferson National Expansion Memorial; St. Louis, MO
    • Mount Rushmore National Memorial; Keystone, SD
    • Shasta Dam; Shasta Lake, CA
  • This expands the FAA’s current list of no-fly zones, which includes some army bases, major sports stadiums, national parks, and major airports. Last month, the Pentagon approved a measure that would let the US military shoot down drones in no-fly areas it considered a threat.
  • Exceptions to the new restriction can be made, but must be coordinated in conjunction with the FAA and the particular site in question.
  • Those who are in violation will be subject to penalties that can include fines or criminal charges, though enforcement has historically been inconsistent and disorganized.
  • The new restrictions will be effective on October 5 2016, and the FAA says it is also considering additional requests from federal agencies for future drone restrictions.