Fraudulent sales of home alarm systems are on the rise nationwide

Fraudulent sales of home alarm systems are on the rise nationwide

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News flash: Some salespeople are jerks and a surprisingly large amount are actual criminals. A new report from the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) finds that door-to-door alarm system sales are a major new source of concern for consumers. The firm’s 2017 Consumer Complaint Survey Report says that alarm system sales initiated by telemarketing, direct mail or salespeople going door to door are a new source of fraud.

“The complaints involve the use of scare tactics and misleading claims, lack of full disclosure about the costs and terms of the transactions, failure to provide notice of consumers’ cancellation rights, and locking consumers into long-term, automatically renewing contracts,” the report reads.

The report lists half a dozen real-world examples of rip-off artists goading or conniving homeowners, often the elderly or infirm, into signing fraudulent contracts. A man in Arkansas agreed to buy an alarm system but didn’t receive his copy of the contract, discovering the price doubled when it arrived. The Arkansas Attorney General’s office negotiated with the company to cancel the contract, remove the system, and refund the $4,927 the man paid.

The Georgia Department of Law’s Consumer Protection Unit obtained a $500,000 judgment against two companies with widespread misrepresentation including falsely claiming the level of criminal activity in local neighborhoods had increased and using handheld devices to make the contracts with consumers electronically.

In Ohio, the Cuyahoga County Department of Consumer Affairs uncovered some fraudsters who were sending letters that appeared to come from the county government, telling nearly 900 new home buyers that their neighborhoods were unsafe because of the “opioid crisis,” and informing residents they qualified for “free” alarm systems as part of a countywide program.

How do these bad actors know which alarm company you have? More than likely, you have it advertised in your front yard or in your window. Alarm companies often place signs declaring that a home is protected by the alarm system, nominally as a deterrent to would-be criminals, but it also makes great advertising.

Don’t get pinched by these idiots. First of all, don’t let these guys into your home. You should never let a salesperson into your house unless you’re interested and you have first asked for and received written information about the offer, including all costs. Door-to-door con artists will often try to convince you that they are working with your current alarm company to “upgrade” your system. Fall for this clumsy scheme and you will just end up getting double-billed by your current alarm company and your “new” one.

Google is your friend. If you’re approached by an alarm system sales rep, run the company through the Better Business Bureau, get references, and contact your local police and fire departments to ask whether you need to register your system and if they’re aware of the alarm company’s presence in your community. At the very least, search for “company name” and “scam,” and you should have a pretty good idea right away who you’re dealing with.

Other danger signs to watch for include salespeople showing up at your door unexpectedly; claims you have been specially selected for this offer or it’s a limited-time offer; the use of scare tactics about crime in your area; and pressure to sign a contract immediately.

Also remember that door-to-door purchases of $25 or more are subject to the Federal Trade Commission’s Cooling-Off Rule, which grants consumers the right to cancel any purchase within three business days, requiring a full refund.

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August 16, 2018 at 05:23PM

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Genetically engineered bacteria paint microscopic masterpieces

Genetically engineered bacteria paint microscopic masterpieces

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Scientists have used genetically engineered bacteria to recreate a masterpiece at a microscopic scale. By engineering E. coli bacteria to respond to light, they’ve guided the bacteria like tiny drones toward patterns that depict Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It’s not artistic recognition their after. Rather, the researchers want to show that these engineered organisms may someday be used as “microbricks” and living propellors.

“From a physicist perspective, bacteria are marvelous self-propelled micro-machines,” Roberto Di Leonardo, a physics professor at the University of Rome who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “We are studying possible ways in which these fantastic micro-robots could be controlled using physical external stimuli, such as light, in order to exploit their propulsion for transport, manipulation of microscopic systems inside miniaturized laboratories on a chip.”

When it comes to pound-for-pound swimming skills, E. coli make Michael Phelps look like an amateur. Using propellors powered by a living motor, E. coli can zoom through liquids, covering a distance 10 times their length in just a second. Though their fuel is usually oxygen, scientists recently discovered a protein that allows ocean-dwelling bacteria to be powered by light. They’ve since passed this trait on to other bacteria like E. coli through genetic engineering.

By genetically modifying E. coli and taking advantage physical properties of the bacteria, Di Leonardo and his colleagues were able to use patterns of light to guide the bacteria toward replicating the Renaissance masterpiece.

“Swimming bacteria, much like cars in city traffic, are known to accumulate in areas where their speed decreases,” Di Leonardo explained. “So if we want to ‘paint’ a white stroke — where bacteria is the paint — we need to decrease the speed of bacteria by locally decreasing light intensity in that region so that bacteria slow down and accumulate there.”

In the study, the researchers shined a negative image of the Mona Lisa, causing the light-responsive bacteria to replicate the iconic image. They also conducted the engineered E. coli to morph between portraits of Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.

Recreating images of famous figures is impressive and all, but Di Leonardo hopes this study can spur some real-world innovation. For example, by using lights as guides, researchers may be able to use bacteria as building blocks and propellors for microscopic devices.

“In physics and engineering applications, these bacteria could be used as a biodegradable material for optical 3D printing of sub-millimeter microstructures,” Di Leonardo said. “On the other hand, dynamical control of bacteria could be exploited for in-vitro biomedical applications for isolating, sorting, and transporting larger cells for analysis or diagnostic purposes on the single-cell level inside miniaturized laboratories.”

A paper detailing the research was published this week in the journal eLife.

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August 16, 2018 at 05:23PM

Engineers have made a new type of lithium battery that won’t explode

Engineers have made a new type of lithium battery that won’t explode

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Samsung’s exploding Galaxy Note 7 smartphone may have been the most infamous example, but plenty of devices which rely on lithium-ion batteries have had their share of combustible incidents. While statistically rare, this is one of the risks of lithium-ion technology; frequently caused by problems with the permeable polyethylene separator that keeps the battery’s cathode and anode components separate.

A new piece of research coming out of the University of Michigan could help make for safer, less combustible batteries, however — and it may do so while doubling the output of current lithium-ion cells, and without taking up any more space.

“We have developed and demonstrated an effective approach to enable a new battery technology that uses a solid ceramic electrolyte instead of a liquid,” Jeff Sakamoto, an associate professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan, told Digital Trends. “This ceramic is unique owing to its stability against lithium metal and high conductivity at room temperature. These two attributes enable the use of metallic lithium anodes, which could double the energy density compared to lithium-ion technology. Historically, lithium-ion performance has increased by a few percent per year over the last two decades. Moreover, lithium-ion performance is cresting at about 600 watt-hours per liter. This battery would enable a 100 percent improvement in energy density.”

In tests, the ceramic electrolyte has shown no visible degradation after long-term cycling, a problem which can eventually kill regular lithium-ion batteries. The technology could also lead to significantly faster charging times.

But could it really do away with the risk of exploding batteries altogether? While it may make a “dramatic” difference, Sakamoto acknowledged that more research needs to be done. “Our ceramic electrolyte is made at 1,000[-degrees] Celsius in air,” he continued. “It is not combustible. However, lithium metal is also reactive, but not flammable. We are conducting tests to quantify the safety of lithium metal-based batteries, and acknowledge that lithium metal may pose safety risks, too.”

The next phase of research involves developing a manufacturing process. It is hoped that this can be demonstrated a little under one year from now, by July 2019. “We hope to have a pre-pilot scale process in place by then,” Sakamoto said. “There are still many challenges, but we are making progress and learning a lot along the way.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the Journal of Power Sources.

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August 16, 2018 at 05:23PM

Doja Cat’s viral hit ‘Mooo!’ is the perfect meme banger about cows

Doja Cat’s viral hit ‘Mooo!’ is the perfect meme banger about cows

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Doja Cat (real name: Amala Zandile Dlamini) is a 22-year-old LA artist who makes music she’s described as “trappy-go-lucky,” and this week she’s scored her latest viral hit in “Mooo!” — where she raps the chorus “bitch, I’m a cow” while dancing around her bedroom in front of a homemade green screen while dressed in a cow costume. The video quickly blew up the internet, earning 1.3 million views in six-ish days.

Dlamini told Noisey the idea came from one of her regular Instagram Live sessions, where she says she hangs out with her fans to produce and write — “50-60 people” a session, in her words. Some of those people thought her freestyling about cows was funny, and urged her to write a full song. (The costume is for Dlamini’s upcoming tour as Doja Cat in support of her debut album Amala, which was released this March; she was wearing it while making a beat, reportedly, and it led her to rap about cows. “Just, fuck it,” she told Noisey.)

When she’s not dropping (fire) bars about cows, Dlamini is signed to RCA; her first 2014 EP, Purrr! got a lot of press, and established the then-18-year-old as an up-and-coming force in the music industry. The whole episode is trés Internet-in-2018: semi-established artist drops lo-fi video as a joke, goes instantly viral — viral enough to spawn a catchphrase and a dance challenge — just before heading on tour to promote her new record.

Rap is weird now. That’s not to say it wasn’t weird before, because it was, but there’s something about growing up with the internet that changed the game from the inside out. Hip-hop is mostly for the young, and as the kids that grew up constantly connected to the world via high speed internet (as well as powerful digital audio software that could be pirated and stuffed into a laptop) are reaching their teens and early twenties, there’s been an explosion of rap that’s both Very Online and catholic in its interests.

The kids are alright, and they’re magpies: every Soundcloud rapper worth his bars has lines about everything from the iconic anime Dragon Ball Z to Mario (of Super Mario Brothers fame). I mean, even Cardi B name-dropped the red plumber on her massively popular debut album. This year, CupcakKe, another young rapper, dropped an entire drill-infused song about the cartoons of her youth — Scooby-Doo, The Flintstones, and the like. A month ago, Dlamini released “Nintendhoe,” which repurposed the Nintendo Gamecube startup jingle into a beat over which she flowed about the games she enjoys playing. (Sample lyrics: “I ain’t never been poor / Used to play Sims 4.”)

Music is one of the first artistic mediums to respond to shifts in society, and rap moves even faster than that; thanks to the new generation of rappers with a shared set of references and sources that simply weren’t available before the internet, rap’s only going to get weirder — and thank god for that.

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August 16, 2018 at 05:04PM

How to Use Cortana and Alexa together

How to Use Cortana and Alexa together

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Photo: Lifehacker

Just this month, Amazon and Microsoft forced their voice assistants to start talking to each other, and you can now use Cortana to access Alexa, and vice versa, if you’re in the U.S. The newfound friendship opens the door for much simpler organization and management, as you won’t have to jump back and forth between the two to manage your personal or professional life, eventually. (If only all digital assistants could follow suit.)

Right now, Alexa-Cortana connection is fairly limited, with most functions only working on an Amazon Echo device, Windows 10 PC, or Harman Kardon Invoke speakers. However, Microsoft and Amazon have already enabled a few cool functions you can try out right now, with the promise of many more to come. Here’s how to get started:

Connect Cortana and Alexa

Screenshot: Gabe Gurwin

The easiest way to get Cortana and Alexa talking to each other is to use the Alexa app’s “skills” feature. Open the app on your mobile device (Android, iOS) and hit the menu icon in the top-left corner, then select “skills” from the dropdown menu. Search for “Cortana” in the search bar at the top, select it from the results, and select it to enable the skill. From here, just sign in with the Microsoft account associated with your Cortana assistant to link the two together.

Connect Alexa to Cortana

Screenshot: Gabe Gurwin

If you prefer, you can also add Alexa via your Cortana assistant, instead. Unlike the first option, this can’t be done on a mobile device, or even the Xbox One, which has Cortana built-in. To get started, go to your Windows 10 PC, fire up Cortana, and ask it to “open Alexa.” A window will pop up, and you can then link your Amazon account accordingly.

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Also, it almost goes without saying, but you’ll need to perform the linking on both devices to be able to use Cortana on Alexa or Alexa on Cortana. Just linking Alexa on Cortana, for example, won’t automatically connect them everywhere.

Skills to try with Cortana (when talking to Alexa)

When using Cortana via Alexa, the assistant is designed to handle your productivity functions, such as managing your schedule. Once you’ve opened Alexa and fired off the “Open Cortana” trigger phrase, you can ask it questions like, “What’s on my calendar?” or “What new emails do I have?” Cortana will pull up the information as she would if you were using the assistant directly on a PC. You can also ask it to add items to your Microsoft to-do lists.

Skills to try with Alexa through Cortana

There are quite a few more features you can try with Alexa through Cortana than there are the other way around. On your Windows 10 PC, say, “Hey Cortana, open Alexa,” and you’ll be greeted with her voice.

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From here, you can ask Alexa many of the same things you would on an Echo device. Try asking Alexa to adjust your thermostat at your home while you’re out and about, and your temperature will be changed when you’re home. You can also order groceries this way, assuming you’ll be around to pick them up later, and you can turn on the lights in your home remotely or check on an Amazon order status.

Alexa (through Cortana) can also be used to check things not directly tied to your Amazon account, such as the weather or sports game times, and you can even try out games like Jeopardy, as well.

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August 16, 2018 at 04:51PM

How to make béarnaise, the king of steak sauces

How to make béarnaise, the king of steak sauces

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Photo: svariophoto (Getty Images), Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Béarnaise falls into the category alongside caviar, truffle oil, and creme fraiche: a rich accompaniment that takes your already rich food and makes it all the richer. Béarnaise is the sauce equivalent of the phrase “go big or go home.” It is gout’s favorite condiment.

Béarnaise is terrific with a filet mignon or sirloin, but where it curls toes is with well-marbled beef. My preferred steak is a ribeye charred to a medium-rare, and I’ve got this habit of saving the crescent-shaped ribeye cap until the end. Then, I slowly savor this last piece of beef, the experience augmented with a gentle dab into this most splendiferous of sauces.

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What does it taste like? Well, it’s a butter sauce. Then it gets thickened with egg yolks. And there’s a sharpness from the shallots and white wine vinegar, and a sweet anise warmth from the chopped tarragon. It’s herbaceous, vinegary butter, and it’s a knockout.

There are two resources I turn to for béarnaise. First is the 2017 update to James Peterson’s magnum opus Sauces, one of my favorite cookbooks from last year. It is, dare I say, the definitive recipe (14 steps!) of preparing proper béarnaise. The one problem is it’s rather a pain to make—calling for clarified butter, liquid lecithin, and for best results, cooking the infusion sous vide for an extra hour. This recipe is really meant for professional kitchens or the very advanced home cook, but Peterson is the sauce authority. There are, however, easier methods.

The one I prefer comes from my favorite cookbook, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book. (Just buy the book sight unseen.)

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Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe clocks in at a pithy two paragraphs in length, but it’s reliable and easy. I’ve adjusted the recipe to fit my needs (I’d rather not open a whole other stick of butter). This will be terrific on fatty cuts of steak, or over fish and lobster.


Photo: svariophoto (Getty Images)

Béarnaise Sauce

Adapted from The River Cottage Meat Book

  • 1 stick of salted butter
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 3 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 shallot, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig of tarragon, plus 1 Tbsp. chopped tarragon
  • Salt and pepper

In a saucepan, add vinegar, along with minced shallots, tarragon sprig, bay leaf, and a few cracks of pepper. Turn stove on over low heat and bring to boil. Stir the saucepan—you’ll want to reduce the vinegar by a little over half. Turn off heat, and let the saucepan hang out while you add an egg yolk into a large bowl. Strain the vinegar from the saucepan (a little over a tablespoon) into the egg yolk.

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Separately, take a stick of butter and cut in two, then place both halves into a microwave-safe measuring cup. Heat in microwave for 30 seconds, then 15 seconds at a time until the butter is melted. Slowly drip this warm butter into the egg-vinegar bowl, and start whisking. You’re looking for a loose consistency, not too liquid-like, but also not mayonnaise. Then add chopped tarragon and mix well. The butter is already salted, so taste to see if it requires additional salt. Add a few cracks of pepper. Serve immediately. Doesn’t really save in the fridge well, sadly.

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August 16, 2018 at 04:51PM

Tesla allegedly covered up drug trafficking and spied on employees at the Gigafactory, whistleblower says

Tesla allegedly covered up drug trafficking and spied on employees at the Gigafactory, whistleblower says

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A former member of Tesla’s in-house security team has told the Securities and Exchange Commission that the company silenced internal investigations into alleged criminal activity at the Gigafactory in Nevada, according to a summary of his formal complaint. Those investigations focused on claims of massive theft and “substantial drug trafficking.” The complaint also includes allegations that Tesla spied on employees’ electronic devices.

It’s the second known whistleblower complaint from a former Tesla employee filed with the SEC this summer. The news was first reported by Jalopnik.

Karl Hansen, the former employee, claims that Tesla was told in May by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Storey County Sheriff’s Office Task Force that “several Tesla employees may be participants in a narcotics trafficking ring involving the sale of significant quantities of cocaine and possibly crystal methamphetamine at the Gigafactory on behalf of a Mexican drug cartel from Sonora Mexico.”

By June, Hansen had “corroborated connections between certain Tesla employees at the time and various alleged members of the Mexican drug cartel identified in the DEA report,” and that he “urged Tesla to disclose his findings to law enforcement and to the DEA task force.” But Hansen says the company “refused,” and he was informed that Tesla planned to use “outside vendors” to follow up on the claims. Hansen believes Tesla never followed up, according to the summary.

Representatives for Tesla and the Storey County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Hansen also says his team discovered that, from January to June of this year, $37 million of copper and other raw materials were stolen from the Gigafactory. But the company “instructed [him] not to report the thefts to outside law enforcement,” and told him to shut down his investigation, he says. Hansen claims he was fired in July as a result.

Hansen is represented by Stuart Meissner, a lawyer who specializes in SEC whistleblower complaints. Meissner also represents Martin Tripp, the former Tesla employee who Elon Musk claimed was responsible for “sabotage” inside the company earlier this summer. Tesla sued Tripp in June for allegedly hacking and disseminating trade secrets to “third parties,” as well as spreading false information to the media about the company’s inner workings.

Tesla also allegedly engaged in unauthorized surveillance of its employees, according to the summary of Hansen’s complaint published today by Meissner. Hansen claims that Tesla installed “specialized router equipment within its Nevada Gigafactory designed to capture employee cell phone communications and/or retrieve employee cell phone data” after Tripp was fired. Hansen and Meissner also claim that Tripp was surveilled by Tesla even after the former employee was fired.

“I never expected that my employment with such a major public company would lead to uncovering such issues, and am disturbed by Tesla’s highly unusual response to those like me who investigated them,” Hansen said in a statement. “I am also very disturbed by Tesla’s failure to respect the privacy of its own employees. In my opinion, Tesla’s actions have placed investors, the public, and Tesla employees at risk. I hope that shining a light on Tesla’s practices will cause appropriate governmental action against the company and its management.”

Like Hansen, Tripp has maintained that he was simply trying to publicize problems he saw at Tesla’s Gigafactory. He claims the company allegedly used damaged battery cells in some of its Model 3 cars. He’s also said the company produced and mishandled an abundance of scrap material. (Tesla has denied both claims.) He filed a counterclaim against Tesla in July, alleging that he was defamed by Musk and the company. In that claim, he argued that he did not hack the company’s software and that the information he shared with reporters was true.

This week, Tripp shared photos and screenshots of internal Tesla documents and emails, and lists of customers’ vehicle identification numbers (VINs) on Twitter in an attempt to further corroborate his claims about the company’s use of damaged batteries and production of scrap material.

Tesla has faced similar claims in previous lawsuits. One former employee made similar claims about unreported auto part theft earlier this year, while another claimed in February that the company knowingly sold defective cars.

But it’s notable that Hansen and Tripp chose instead to file formal complaints with the SEC. Tesla is under increased scrutiny from the commission as of late — Musk’s recent surprise effort to take Tesla private has reportedly kicked off an official probe into the company. The SEC previously investigated Tesla over potential false statements about the Model 3, but decided against any action.

Musk’s plan to privatize Tesla has also sparked no less than five lawsuits from shareholders who claim that the CEO’s erratic and apparently unplanned announcement manipulated the company’s stock price to their detriment. The company is reportedly “bracing for billions of dollars in potential liability” from these shareholder lawsuits, according to Fox Business reporter Charles Gasparino.

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August 16, 2018 at 04:50PM