Get Paid in Bitcoin?

A Japanese company, the GMO Internet Group, has announced that starting next year they will allow their employees to elect to receive a portion of their compensation via Bitcoin, the digital currency that is currently in the news nearly every day.

Bitcoin is a decentralized form of currency that is generated via complex computer algorithms that “mine” the coins.  When the currency was first introduced nearly ten years ago by someone who pseudonymously referred to himself as “Satoshi Nakamoto,” mining of Bitcoins was something that could be done on a desktop PC.

bitcoinOver time, the calculations to generate a single Bitcoin have become intentionally more complex, and now it takes hundreds of computers to do this.  Bitcoins are now mined in “pools,” or groups of computers.

It has taken Bitcoin a while to gain acceptance in the real world, as any digital currency only has value if people actually assign value to it.  This has taken time, and at one time, a single Bitcoin was worth a fraction of a U.S. penny.  As recently as 2011, the currency was valued at less than $1 each.

In January, 2017, a Bitcoin was worth about $1000 as interest has grown.  As of today, a single Bitcoin is now worth $17,699.  Fluctuations of hundreds or even thousands of dollars per day are not uncommon.

While Bitcoin has drawn investors, it has been slow to catch on as actual currency.  It’s favored by people who engage in the sale of illegal goods online, as it’s quite difficult to trace individual transactions, but the adoption by traditional retailers has been slow.  Wal-Mart is not yet accepting Bitcoin for payment, for example.

GMO Internet Group has a lot invested in Bitcoin and they are hoping to help spur it along by persuading their employees to accept part of their paycheck in Bitcoin.  In order to encourage more people to participate, the company is throwing in a 10% bonus for any employee that offers to accept.

The company will allow employees to contribute anywhere from ¥10,000 to ¥100,000 (about $90 to $900) of their monthly pay.

bitcoinThere are still a few problems with Bitcoin that might make this difficult for GMO employees.  Bitcoin is still somewhat difficult to convert into “real” currency, which might be a problem for employees who need that portion of their monthly salary in order to pay their bills.

The other problem is the tremendous volatility of the currency itself.  As we said earlier, the value of a single Bitcoin can swing by hundreds or thousands of dollars in the span of just a few hours.  That makes accepting Bitcoin a bit of a risk for many employees, as the value of their pay might fall dramatically the very day they receive it.

It also might increase, and the company is hoping that if enough people participate, with other companies doing the same, that the market for Bitcoin may eventually stabilize.

We’re nearly a decade in to this new currency, and no one is yet certain if it will ever become a useful commodity for daily purchases or if it will ever survive at all.

The End of Net Neutrality?

The Federal Communications Commission is going to vote on December 14 regarding whether they’re going to abandon the concept of “net neutrality,” which became Federal policy under President Obama in 2015.

According to FCC chairman Ajit Pai, eliminating net neutrality will be “getting government out of the Internet,” as though that is necessarily a bad thing.

net neutralityOn the contrary, eliminating net neutrality will be a bad thing, unless, of course, you own a lot of stock in companies that provide Internet service.

At the moment, Internet providers must treat all traffic that they deliver to their customers equally.  That’s the law, and that’s current FCC policy.  But that could change, and it could mean that you may lose some services that you currently get via your Internet service provider.  Or, you might have to pay more money to get those services.

Right now, for instance, you can use the Internet to surf the Web, upload files to your Dropbox account, talk to someone via Skype, or watch a movie on Netflix or a TV program on Hulu.

You get to do all of those things by simply paying one monthly fee to your Internet Service Provider (ISP.)  You might, or might not, be able to do all of those things if the FCC eliminates net neutrality.

With net neutrality gone, your ISP will have a lot more flexibility regarding what they do with data you’d like to send or receive.  If Hulu pays money to your ISP, they might allow Hulu traffic to pass through their networks at full speed, while “throttling” the speed of Netflix, which could lead to lots of buffering problems.

Or the situation could be reversed.  Or your ISP could block both companies’ traffic completely unless you were willing to pay an additional fee each month for watching video.

Your ISP could express a preference for Vimeo over YouTube, or they could block both or charge a fee.

There is definite interest among ISPs for eliminating net neutrality, while there’s virtually none among consumers.  Yet, when the FCC solicited comments on the matter back in August, they received literally millions of comments supporting the idea of eliminating net neutrality.   Most of those comments turned out to be fake, and were submitted by bots.

It’s unlikely that consumers, who would either pay more money or have services limited by eliminating the net neutrality policy, were behind the fake comments.  In all likelihood, it’s the ISPs themselves who were behind it.

Again, the FCC’s position is that this gives people more “freedom” because government will stop interfering with commerce.  But part of the government’s job is to protect consumers, and clearly, net neutrality has been a policy that has worked in favor of consumers.

We’re in a new era however, and the current administration seems determined to turn everything into something that can be turned into a profitable venture.  Profitable for corporations, that is, rather than consumers, who have now had some 20+ years of using the Internet without interference from their ISPs.

We’ll see how it plays out.

iPhone X is Expensive in Many Ways

Are you one of those people just has to have every new gadget that comes along?  If so, you might have been one of the thousands of people who were waiting in line a few weeks ago when the iPhone X made its debut.

The new Apple smartphone drew a lot of media buzz because of its screen that went all the way to the edge of the unit, it’s new facial recognition software, and a few other features.  Most articles, however, drew attention to the price of the phone, which is far and away the most expensive smartphone ever made, as the basic price for the unit is just a bit under $1000.

That didn’t stop people from lining up to buy it, and stores worldwide sold out their stocks of the new iPhone X within hours.

iphone xIf you think you’re done spending money on the iPhone X after dropping that thousand dollars, you may be mistaken.  Occasionally, you might need to get the thing repaired, as many smartphone owners have discovered that accidents can (and do!) happen with them.  Glass gets broken, and other damage can occur if you happen to drop it.

Apple claims that the glass used in the new phones is ultra-durable, but tests at numerous Websites have suggested otherwise.  You know how it is – when Apple comes out and says “Our new phones have super-durable glass that isn’t likely to break,” there are people who are going to buy the phones for the express purpose of trying to break the glass.

By many accounts, that glass is breakable and apparently quite breakable, at that.  Not a problem, you say – “I’ll just go to the Apple store and have them fix it.”

Yes, they can do that.  In fact, they’ll be happy to do that.  But it’s going to cost you. Apple’s price for replacing a screen on the iPhone X is $279, and apparently, that price doubles to $549 if there is any other damage to the phone.

iphone xThere are plenty of phones that you can buy for less than the $549 that it will cost you to have this one repaired, and rest assured, many people will end up having to have their phones repaired.  You don’t have to, of course, but if the repair happens to leave the phone not working, then you still have a monthly phone bill with which you’ll have to contend.

Keep in mind, too that the iPhone X has glass on both sides, making it all the more likely to break when dropped.  The screen uses expensive OLED technology, and its thinness and a few other things that are attached to it make it quite difficult to repair, so both add to the cost.

Square Trade, a warranty company, as described the iPhone X as the most breakable phone that they’ve ever tested.  That’s not particularly reassuring, and one can’t help but wonder if Apple didn’t make the phone somewhat fragile on purpose, just so they can make a few more dollars on repairs.

Netflix Subscribers Targeted by Phishing Scam

If you subscribe to the streaming service Netflix to get your fix of the latest in TV and movies, you are not alone.  The company, which once earned all of their revenue by shipping DVDs to people in envelopes (they still do that, by the way,) now earns the bulk of their income through streaming.

It’s working well for them, and they reportedly have some 110 million customers who pay them every month.  That’s a lot of revenue, and they use it to create some of their highly-regarded original programming, such as Orange is the New Black, and the recently-canceled House of Cards.

netflixSuccess, they say, breeds contempt.  In the technology world, success also breeds crime.  The Australian cyber security company MailGuard announced last Friday that they had detected a phishing scam that was aimed at Netflix customers.

Wikipedia describes phishing this way: Phishing is the attempt to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details (and sometimes, indirectly, money), often for malicious reasons, by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication. 

In the case of this particular phishing expedition, people have been sending out millions of email messages to all manner of people.  The messages are likely untargeted, as we are not aware of any breaches in the Netflix customer base.  Nevertheless, if you have more than 100 million subscribers, anyone sending email messages to a sufficiently large number of people will undoubtedly see many of them successfully land in the inboxes of actual Netflix subscribers.

These messages tells the recipients of the messages that their personal information in their Netflix account, including credit card information, needs to be updated, and that they should click on the link within the message to be taken to the Netflix site so that they can log in and do so.

fake netflixThe link does direct to a Website that looks very much like the actual Netflix site, but in fact is simply a site made to look like it.  Once you log in to that site, you’ll find that the people behind the phishing scam have now acquired your Netflix log in credentials as well as your credit card number.

These phishing scams have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years and these criminals have become quite good at making fake Websites look like real ones.  They have also gotten better at faking the URLS of the Websites to which the visitors will be taken, though a careful glance at the URL of a phishing email will usually show you that the site is not a legitimate one.

Often, the fake sites use a subdomain that includes the real name of the site, where the genuine site would not.  For instance, the real Netflix site is netflix.com, but a phishing scam might give you a link to a site such as netflix.zzz.com.  Moving your mouse over the link in the email message will usually give you a clue as to whether the target URL is legitimate.

If you are in doubt, you should simply open your Web browser and type in the name of the site yourself.

Catching the Bad Guy the High-Tech Way

A staple of action films involving law enforcement is the car chase.  Films such as Bullitt, The French Connection, or To Live and Die in LA have long been admired for their action-packed, suspenseful chases, with the cops chasing down the bad guys at high speeds on the streets of large cities.

That’s fun in the movies, but in real life, high speed chases are dangerous.  In the movies, all of the other cars involved know what is happening.  In real life, cars driven by innocent passers-by sometimes get involved in crashes, either in trying to avoid the bad guys or in trying to avoid the police.  These accidents are sometimes fatal, and that can lead to both lawsuits and the bad guys getting away.

starchase gps cannon
StarChase GPS cannon mounted on grille

A relatively new technology called StarChase GPS is making it easier for police to track down suspects.  In fact, they can engage in a low-speed chase and pretty much catch the suspects at their leisure, now that the Virginia-based company’s product is starting to see success among various law enforcement agencies around the country.

StarChase GPS avoids high speed chases by allowing the police to see where the car is going at a distance.  How does this work?  The system uses a compressed air cannon that is mounted to the front of the police car.  This cannon launches a small device called a “tag” that includes a GPS transmitter.  The tag has a sticky substance attached to it, and when the cannon launches it, it sticks to the car being pursued.  Laser guidance systems allow the cannon to be adjusted for trajectory and distance.

The tag can then broadcast the location of the car being followed to a central dispatch office, and they, in turn, can contact other officers to let them know of the location of the car.  This allows the police to slow down and avoid getting into accident with innocent parties.  It also may give the fleeing party the false sense of security.  They may think the police have stopped chasing them and they may slow down.  This, too, can help ensure safety of other drivers.

starchase gps tag
StarChase GPS tag

The system costs about $5000 and up and is being used by a number of police departments around the country.  This week, police in Canton, Georgia were able to successfully apprehend a driver using StarChase GPS.  Police noted a speeding car on Interstate 575 and attempted to make a routine traffic stop, but instead of stopping, the driver drove away.

Police followed and deployed a StarChase GPS tag.  They were then able to follow the driver to a rural location where they were able to make an arrest without incident.

StarChase’s own statistics show that their device allows law enforcement to have an apprehension rate of greater than 80%.  Furthermore, they say that on average, the fleeing drivers tend to slow down to within 10 miles per hour of the posted speed limit within two minutes of deployment.

They also say that large-scale deployment of their device could prevent up to 55,000 injuries per year.

We expect to read a lot more about this device in the future.

Is Apple Too Serious About Security?

In technology, what you know is everything, and sometimes, that means that you need to know how to keep a secret.  We’ve seen with the current White House that keeping secrets is sometimes harder to do that it appears, and apparently, that is also the case with technology.

One thing that the tech world is constantly preoccupied with is wondering what the next i-something from Apple is going to be about.  The company’s security is generally pretty tight, but sometimes leaks come up.  A few years ago, someone accidentally left a prototype of a then-unreleased iPhone in a coffee shop somewhere and the entire world came unglued.

iphone x leak youtube videoThat hasn’t happened this time, but there was a bit of a security leak involving the not-yet-released iPhone X, and that leak ended up on YouTube and an engineer who was employed by Apple is now finding himself looking for work.

Apparently, an engineer for Apple named Ken Bauer had an iPhone X in his possession and he allowed his daughter to make a video of herself using the phone and showing off its features.   This all took place at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, apparently in the company cafeteria.

That alone might not present a problem, but the man allowed his daughter, a young woman named Brooke Amelia Peterson, to upload the video to YouTube.

iphone xBecause people on YouTube apparently have nothing better to do or are so obsessed with all things Apple, the video became, as they say, “a viral sensation,” racking up untold thousands of views before Apple requested that the video be removed from the YouTube site.

Apple also apparently requested that engineer Ken Bauer seek employment elsewhere.

This all seems a bit overblown to us, as the features of the iPhone X are not exactly a secret.  There was a press conference some time ago where Apple not only showed off the phone, but allowed journalists to test it out and examine its features.

That being the case, it’s not as though the phone depicted in the video was unusual in any way, nor is it likely that the phone had any features that will not be available when the phone goes for sale to the public in a few weeks’ time.

It’s possible, we suppose, that the phone being shown in the video was not a production model but was instead a prototype that had other features that are not going to be available in the production models, but there was nothing in the video to suggest that.  It appears to be just the same model that was shown to the press some time ago.

Is Apple taking this to extremes?  Or are they just making an example of this particular engineer in order to stop employees from taking the chance of showing the public something that might still be a secret?  We don’t know.  From our perspective, the whole thing seems overblown.

We’re not sure if this is an example of Apple simply sticking to the letter of the law regarding their company policies, or if they actually have some deep, dark secrets that they’re trying to protect.

For now, it’s all a mystery.

Package Delivery Inside Your Home?

It’s great having packages delivered to your home, and even if you’re not home, it’s nice to come home and find a package waiting for you on your doorstep.  During the holiday season, it’s not uncommon for people to find multiple packages at their door when they come home from work.

It’s also not uncommon to come home and find no packages at all, as thieves are well aware that large companies such as Amazon authorize carriers to leave packages on doorsteps when the occupants aren’t home.   Some thieves just follow the delivery trucks and load up on a packages so they can keep them for their own use or so they can sell them elsewhere.

amazon logoThis is a problem for both delivery companies and Amazon, and Amazon is working on a high-tech solution – leaving packages inside your home.

A lot of people might freak out over the prospect of delivery drivers coming into their homes when they aren’t home, and Amazon believes they have just the solution for that problem.  They’re testing the program in 37 cities and if you are a member of Amazon Prime and are willing to pay a $250 setup fee, you’ll be able to authorize having packages left inside for you.

What you receive for your $250 is Amazon’s Key In-Home Kit, which includes a camera and a smart lock for your door.  When the driver arrives at your home, he or she will verify that the address is correct and then Amazon will send you a notification that your package is about to be delivered.  You will have the choice of not accepting delivery, accepting delivery outside your home, or allowing the driver to enter and leave the package inside.

If you choose the third option, the driver will enter an access code to get inside the house and the camera will record the delivery, which you can watch live, if you like.

Amazon believes that this will work, as a lot of younger people are less paranoid about security than older adults.  They also think that the brand trust that they have established over the last 20 years will allow people to trust both the company and their delivery drivers.

amazon in-home deliveryWhile the cost of setup is expensive, it will allow you to see that the package has been securely delivered and that the driver hasn’t done anything other than leave the package inside your door.  It will also save both Amazon and their hired carriers millions of dollars in lost packages, as the amount of theft encountered each year is staggering.

It also looks like it might be a pretty good program for manufacturers of both smart locks and in-home cameras, too.  The tests will determine how well the program is received, and if it’s successful, it’s likely that the cost of the delivery kits will come down with time and economies of scale.

Wal-Mart is also experimenting with in-home delivery and in parts of California, they are even experimenting with in-home delivery of groceries, complete with having perishables placed inside the customers’ refrigerators.

Transparent Solar Panels Coming Soon?

Getting clean energy at an affordable price is a goal of many people, and wind and solar can go a long way towards achieving that goal.

Part of the problem with solar power, however, is that the solar cells usually need either a rooftop or open land to gather the light necessary to convert it to electricity.  That works better in some areas than others, and limits the ability of solar cells to gather light from all of the areas that are subject to sunlight during the course of the day.

One possible solution is the recent development of transparent solar cells.  These cells work just like the more traditional types of solar cells – light hits them, and the light is converted to electricity. The transparent cells, however, offer the ability to add solar collectors to a place where one normally would not want to see a solar cell – windows.

clear solar cellsSince most people want light to pass through their windows, putting a regular solar cell there would block light and the view.  On the other hand, a transparent solar cell would allow light to pass and allow people on the inside of the building to see out through the windows as they normally would.

This technology was developed by researchers at Michigan State University, and so far, the tests seem promising.  The cells make use of organic molecules that can absorb certain wavelengths of light that are ordinarily invisible to the human eye, such as ultraviolet light.  With a bit of fine-tuning, these materials can be adjusted to collect wavelengths of light that can be easily converted into electricity.

There is an estimated 5 to 7 billion square feet of glass surface in the United States, and converting even a fraction of that surface area to solar collectors would be beneficial and help the country become less dependent on fossil fuels for energy needs.

transparent solar cellsAt the moment, the biggest drawback to the transparent solar cells is efficiency.  Standard opaque solar cells aren’t super efficient; they turn only about 15-18 percent of the light they receive into energy.  The transparent cells, at present, are only about 5% efficient, making them less useful.  On the other hand, if you can convert surface area that is currently considered not useful for solar panels, such as windows into solar panels, you’re turning a losing situation into a winning one.

The cells aren’t just for windows, either.  They can theoretically be applied to any smooth surface, such as the top of a car, or the car’s windows, or even on the screen of a cell phone.

Unfortunately, these solar cells are currently only in the development and testing stage, and there’s no word yet on when they might be available for commercial use.  This technology is still relatively new and hasn’t had the time devoted to it that traditional solar cells have.  By the time they’re available for commercial use, they’ll likely be more efficient than they are now.  Whether the technology can be produced in quantity at a cost-effective price remains to be seen.

 

 

Useful Tool, or Theft?

Streaming TV has taken over cable or satellite for millions of people, and it definitely is convenient to go to Hulu or Netflix to watch your favorite shows when you used to have to pay a lot more money to get that content from other providers.

You’re still paying for that content, of course, and that means that the people who own the rights to that content are getting paid for it.  That might not be the case when it comes to TickBox, a new streaming device that doesn’t necessarily grab content from those paid sources.

In fact, TIckBox can seemingly grab content from anywhere on the Internet.  The $149 device is powered by Android and uses the Kodi application to let you view streaming content over your TV.

With this device, the makers say that you can watch pretty much anything that’s downlodable from the Internet.  It’s easy to hook up, with an eithernet connection and multiple USB ports, along with an HDMI port and an SPDIF output for digital audio output.

The TickBox also comes with both a remote and a keyboard.

So, for the most part, the TickBox looks a lot like an Amazon Fire TV or a Roku, or any one of a number of other streaming devices that you can use to watch TV at home.  What’s the big deal?

The big deal, according to Amazon, Netflix, and several major movie studios, is that the TickBox will also allow you to access pirated content over the Web.  While you can use the device to watch Netflix or Hulu or other paid services, it’s not required, and the TickBox Website even says that “we think that within a few days of using Tickbox TV™ you will find you no longer need those subscriptions. But you can add them no problem.”

tickboxIn a complaint recently filed by several companies, the TickBox is basically a device that will allow you to watch stolen content at home.  This includes, but is not limited to, movies that are still playing in theaters, sporting events, and who knows what else.

The makers of the device claim that they’re not actually engaging in copyright infringement, and that they’re just selling a device.  What the owners of those devices do with them, they say, is not within the company’s control.

That may be true, though courts have rarely ruled that way (except, oddly enough, when it comes to YouTube, which has a staggering amount of copyrighted material available for viewing at any time of day.)

There’s a difference between using your computer or tablet to search for copyrighted content on the Web and using the TickBox, however.  TickBox actually has a search feature that lets you search, for example, for films that are “In Theaters.”  That suggests right there that the device knows that it’s looking for content that should not be available for streaming.

Of course, I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t have a pony in this race.  It remains to be seen how this device will be viewed by the courts.  Still, it does seem to have a useful feature that other streaming devices such as the Roku or Fire TV do not have – the ability to search the Web for content.

Stay tuned, as they say.