Saturday, May 20, 2017

What's up with those bogus Facebook friend requests?

Every month or two, I get a request to become Facebook friends with John, a retired banker who I’ve known for more than 20 years. John and I have been Facebook friends for about three years, so why is he sending me new requests?

The answer is he’s not.  The requests are coming from someone who has taken over John’s account. Access to a real Facebook account can be a valuable tool for a hacker trying to create a false identity in the online world.

Over the past few years, Facebook has taken several steps to make its user accounts more secure and easier to customize. But it’s up to individual users to fine-tune their own privacy and security settings. These tips will help make your Facebook experience safer and more secure.

Change your password. That’s a good practice for all your online accounts, especially if you use the same password with multiple services. To update yours, click on the triangle in the upper right corner of your Facebook page and select Settings from the drop-down menu.

On the General Account Settings page that appears, you can enter and confirm a new password. Make it something that’s easy to remember but not easy for others to guess. You can share your password with a close friend or relative so they can get into your account in an emergency.

Get login notifications. Most people use Facebook only from their computer, tablet or mobile phone and Facebook can tell you if someone logs in using a different device.

From the Settings page, click the Security icon in the left column, then click Edit for Login Alerts. You can choose to be alerted through Facebook or by email or both.

For an additional layer of security, select and edit Login Approvals. There you can tell Facebook to send a code to your mobile phone when someone logs in from an unknown browser. If that’s you logging in from a public computer or at a friend’s house, entering the code will prove it.

Limit friend requests. While a Facebook page run by a business or organization may welcome any and all friends, many individuals prefer to get requests only from people they know.

To restrict who can contact you through Facebook, click Privacy Settings and edit who can contact you. Clicking Friends of Friends will limit requests to only people who are already linked to your current circle of friends.

Control your public profile. People looking for you can find your Facebook page using your email address, your phone number or by entering your name in a search engine. This can be helpful if you don’t mind hearing from a distant cousin who is researching your family history.

But if you would prefer a lower profile in the digital world, you can restrict who can look you up to just Facebook friends or friends of friends. The Privacy Settings also let you decide who can see what you post on your page.

Facebook makes it easy to adjust many of these settings with its Privacy Checkup and shortcuts. To get to them, click the padlock icon in the upper right corner of any Facebook page.
If you suspect that your account or a friend’s account has been hacked, the Facebook Help Center on the web has information on how to report that and other issues.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Magnetic blocks build little engineers

Gizmo Review

It seems as though most new toys are primarily passive entertainment devices. My grandchildren’s rooms are filled with toys that sing, dance or scoot across the floor and they came that way right out of the box. All the kids or their parents had to do was insert batteries and flip a switch.

That may be fine for the little tykes, but I would like to see the older kids have a toy that would let them create something straight from their imagination.

That’s why I bought a set of IMDEN Magnetic Building Blocks for 7-year-old Luke. They have more tech appeal than the snap-together blocks he played with as a toddler with just enough technology to be a big boy’s toy and the ability to put engineering concepts within his grasp.

The IMDEN set comes with 92 block pieces in square, triangle, and hexagonal shapes. The pieces have embedded magnets that allow them to be easily snapped together to make a virtually unlimited number or geometric shapes. You also get two sets of wheels on platforms and a pair of towers that can be used to build a Ferris Wheel, among other things.

For ideas, there’s a 30-page booklet that contains pictures of more than two dozen creations along with step-by-step instructions to build a car, a helicopter, a penguin and lots of other objects. The magnets allow the pieces to easily join each other.

You can make an elongated rectangle to serve as a tail or a submarine body, or a build a pyramid for a nose or a dome. The magnets shorten the time between inspiration and completed project and and make revisions a snap, literally.

I dropped off the blocks at Luke’s house, then checked back with him a week later to see what he could do with them. He immediately grabbed the wheels and showed me how to build what he called an “animal car” — a Transformer-style vehicle — that he whipped up in about two minutes. You can watch him at work in the video below.

On another occasion, his friends tackled the rotating wheel with only minimal assistance from the instruction. And the girls in the group seems to especially like the letter and number panels that snap into the square blocks, allowing them to name their creations.

I liked the sling bag that comes with the blocks set. It makes clean up easy and keeps all the loose pieces in one place. But most of all, I liked how the blocks let Luke gave his active imagination an easy and rewarding outlet.

The IMDEN Magnetic Building Blocks are priced at $29.99 and are available on Amazon.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Actuators power home and office automation

Many of today’s highly-automated homes feature televisions that descend from the ceiling, curtains or shades that glide into place and wall panels that open to reveal rows of martini glasses or works of art.

How does that happen? It’s the result of unseen little workhorses called actuators.

I learned a lot about actuators when I browsed the website for Firgelli Automations, a company based in Ferndale, WA, that builds and sells a wide range of automation products for use in homes, businesses and industrial applications.

A good example of Firgelli’s products is its lineup of TV lifts. A lift designed to raise or lower a flat-screen TV from a cabinet can hold a TV weighing up to 135 pounds sells for about $600. A wall bracket with an electric swivel costs $90. And Firgelli has a $350 do-it-yourself kit that will drop a small screen down from a kitchen cabinet.  

When I worked for a large publishing company, we had desks that could be raised or lowered by pressing a button. The idea was to let everyone choose the a height that was most comfortable for them, one that would help prevent repetitive stress and back pain.

Some people would raise their disks to so high that they could work standing up.

It was actuators that made those desks work and Firgellialso has a line of ergonomic desks called E-desks. The line includes different leg configurations and a desk that incorporates a treadmill for people who want to walk while they work.

Other Firgelli products include brackets, controllers, motors, switches and slide rails.

The Firgelli website includes a collection of YouTube videos, like the one below, that show their products at work. In one video, a 7-year-old girl installs an actuator to raise and lower the lid on her toy box.

Visitors will also find other actuator projects described in the Firgelli blog and follow the company on Facebook and @FirgelliAuto on Twitter.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

miFon will find and protect lost Android phones

Gizmo Editor Review

Considering how much we love our mobile phones, you’d think we would take better care of them. One report I found said 3 million Americans lose their phones in a year’s time and 2 million more have their phones stolen. The numbers were higher in many other countries.

New phone-tracking apps are helping reduce phone losses, but no app that I’ve encountered takes tracking, security and recovery farther than miFon does for Androids. Developed by a group of Indian professionals working in the UAE, miFon is a collection of utilities and mini-applications designed to keep your Android phone secure, healthy and in your possession.

An example of the miFon features is an option called miVac that scans all of the apps installed on your phone looking for evidence of viruses, malware or other malicious code. Another called xFit weeds out unused and extraneous files to keep the phone working smoothly.

The app will automatically run backups on your contacts and media files and it places an SOS button on the miFon home screen so a user in danger can discreetly send a message to a trusted phone number. That’s four very useful programs, each of which typically requires a separate app, that miFon has packaged under one umbrella.

But I installed miFon because I was especially interested in the security and tracking features that it offers. Like other tracking apps, it located my phone as soon as I installed the program and it tags that location, with a timestamp, on a Google map on the miFon home screen.

I wanted to see what tools I could use if I left my phone on a park bench, in the back seat of an Uber, or if it got stolen? I logged into my account on the miFon website and used the miFon Genie to get its “last seen” location with GPS coordinates, directions from my location, and the option to see a satellite view.

Now, let’s say someone is messing with the phone. Using the Genie, I activated the seeKie feature, which caused the access screen on my phone to go black and display a stern notice: “This is a LOST PHONE” with a phone number to call to “contact the rightful owner.”  That’s not exactly accusing anyone of stealing the phone, but their’ll get the picture.

And if you want add some extra punch to that notice, you can deliver it with an accompanying siren. I tried that feature and it spooked the dogs and startled my wife, who was two rooms away from me. It will thoroughly get their attention.

miFon has other weapons in its security arsenal. The Genie will let you remotely change your screen lock code, for example. And a feature called thEfie will snap a photo of someone while they are trying to get past your lock screen. When I entered a few random numbers, thEfie silently activated the phone’s front-facing camera, snapped a photo, and immediately emailed it to me along with a location map. I was impressed by that trick, though not by my unexpected selfie.

All of the tools offered in the miFon app are listed on the miFon website and on the app’s download page in the Google Play Store. The listings are short on details and I had to learn the program using more experimentation and trial and error than I would have liked. But once I got comfortable with miFon, I was convinced that it would be a valuable addition to any Android phone.

Users who download the app for free can use the app’s advanced features such as thEfie for 30 days and can keep them after that period by paying an annual subscription fee.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

How to make passport photos the right way

The last time I renewed our passports, I thought I could save some money by shooting the required photos. How hard could that be? It’s just a head shot taken with a neutral background.

It turned out that the government has some pretty strict rules about what qualifies as a passport photo and I wasted time and money by giving it photos that got rejected. If I wanted do-it-yourself photos, I should have checked out Passport Photo Workshop.

The Windows program is designed for use by amateurs in a home, business or organization. It has a step-by-step wizard interface that walks you through the process and provides dozens of passport photo templates and a set of simple editing tools.

Among the program’s features is an Auto Crop option that will automatically recognize facial features. Cropping can also be done manually to produce photos that meet ISO/ICAO standards.

Users can input images from files, a webcam, SD cards or Canon’s EOS series digital cameras. It also supports a variety of output options.

For more details and to download a free trial version, visit the Passport Photo Workshop

Monday, May 1, 2017

Alexa is a welcome addition to Amazon's tablet

Gizmo Review

What’s the first app you install on a new tablet computer? For me, it’s Amazon’s Kindle app. I have to have my book library close at hand and tablets have become my preferred reading platform. Close behind come Amazon’s music and streaming video apps along with Amazon’s  shopping app.

And now there’s Alexa, the voice-controlled personal assistant that we have added to the household through two stand-alone devices, the Amazon Dot and Tap. Alexa delivers news updates and weather reports, dims the hall lights, plays music and reads my current Kindle book, picking up where I left off.

Clearly, I’m all in with Amazon, which is why I was pleased to get my hands on the Amazon Fire Tablet after Xberts chose me to write this review and provided the product for free. Amazon’s line of Fire tablets are the first tablet devices to include Alexa built into the operating system, making it a tablet you can talk to and one that talks to you.

The Fire Tablet I received is Amazon’s starter model that has a 7-inch high-resolution screen, 8GB of memory and an SD slot for additional memory. It’s the version Amazon sells for $49.99.

How can a tablet with those specs have such a low price tag? One reason is the Fire Tablet contains ads. When you wake the tablet you see a screen selling a variety of products. So far, I’ve seen ads for Band Aids, bottled water, Starbucks’ fancy drinks and a leasing deal on a Genesis, Hyundai’s new luxury car.

But more important than the ads are the myriad offers buy or sample Amazon products like audio books from Amazon-owned Audible or a subscription to The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon’s founder.

The Fire is not designed to be a multi-purpose tablet computer like the iPad Mini or the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Its job is to help you live inside the Amazon ecosystem where it’s easy to play music from your Amazon-housed collection, stream movies and TV shows from Amazon and shop for things like dog food or kitchen appliances. In other words, all of the things we’ve come to rely on Amazon to provide. And it does that job very, very well.

Setting up the Fire Tablet took a little longer than I had expected. It had previously been registered to someone else - perhaps it was a returned or refurbished item - so I had to start by re-registering with my own Amazon account. That instantly got my books and other Amazon stuff loaded into the tablet.

The Fire Tablet runs Google’s Android operating system, but you would barely know that by looking at it. The home screen is populated Amazon apps and as you swipe left, you drill deeper into your Amazon world.

Each swipe shows pages that display your books, music, videos, games, audiobooks and the digital newspapers or magazines that you have subscribed to. The book or movie you’ve most recently accessed is featured on each page along with related content that Amazon’s algorithms think you might want to purchase.

There’s no Google Play store on the Fire Tablet. To get new apps, you go to the Amazon’s app store where you can download Pandora, Netflix, YouTube and other popular apps.      

That was fine so far, but where was Alexa? The app was not pre-loaded with all the other Amazon apps as I expected. It turned out that the operating system needed to be updated - twice, actually - before Alexa was ready to ready to run.

With Amazon’s Dot and Echo, the devices are always listening for someone to say “Alexa” to launch the service. On the Fire Tablet, the process is slightly different. Alexa appears when you press and hold the Home icon for two seconds. When you hear a chime and see a blue line at the bottom of the screen, Alexa is ready to hear your question or command. You don’t have to say her name to get her attention.

Users who are new to Alexa can use the Alexa app to personalize the service by selecting applets from a library of skills. If you’re already an Alexa user, your library of skills will be linked to Alexa on the tablet. One feature that I particularly like is how Alexa will read any of my Kindle books that allow that functionality. I just have to say “Read 1984” and Alexa picks up where I left off.

Alexa is a welcome and useful addition to the Fire Tablet. It’s an non-threatening introduction to voice control that greatly expands the tablet’s usefulness. Now I have another way to get my daily news briefing, tune in to my local NPR radio station, play goofy music for the little kids and get answers to like “How hot is the sun?” And, of course, buy more dog food.

Friday, April 28, 2017

RayPCB offers fast printed circuit boards

One of the many things I loved about Walter Isacson’s biography of Steve Jobs was the description of how Woz would build circuit boards for the Apple I by hand, twisting wires to connect capacitors and resistors.

PCBs - printed circuit boards - quickly eliminated that arduous hand-wrapping process, allowing anyone who can design a circuit to turn it into a few boards or a few thousand.

That’s what they do at RayPCB. The Shenzhen, China-based company says it can ship a two-layer printed board in 12 hours and a four-layer board in 48 hours.

The finished products are tested using a variety of devices including a Flying Probe Tester, an x-ray machine and automated optical inspection.

In addition to large manufacturers and marketers, RayPCB says it also welcomes small specialized orders from customers such as students and hobbyists who need to fabricate a prototype. And to put the boards to work, the company also offers a variety of assembly services.

For more details, visit the RayPCB website and click Quick Quote for pricing.

Yesgo case protects iPhone 7

Considering how much I paid for my iPhone 7, I sometime think I should keep it in metal box. Since that’s not practical, I’m always looking for a case that can provide maximum protection.

Lately, my phone has been comfortably enclosed in the latest shockproof case from Yesgo.

The case is made with a plastic material that is both flexible enough to wrap around the phone but also stiff enough to give it a solid feel. It adds another layer of protection with a metallic panel that snaps into place on the back side of the case.

The result is a phone that feels good in your hand while maintaining the light and nimble quality of the phone itself.

I had no trouble slipping my phone into the case and the raised power and volume buttons worked perfectly. The edges of the case wrapped around the corners of the phone and Test kit comes with a tempered glass screen guard that is specifically designed for the rounded edges of the iPhone 7.

The case delivered just what I was looking for - a safe and secure home for my precious device.

The Yes case sells for under $20 with free shipping on Amazon. The sample Yes sent me had a gray gunmetal panel but you can also get one with a rose finish.  

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