Sunday, May 10, 2015

7 Cool Electronic Tech Products You Should Consider Getting

1. Amazon’s Fire TV Stick:  For only $39, you get an HDMI stick from Amazon that connects to your TV’s HDMI port so you can watch over 200,000 movies and TV shows on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, HBO GO, Hulu Plus, and play games, music, and more.

The dual-core processor and 1GB of memory make the video start instantly. A remote control is included to help you search for what you want to see, but if you want a voice activated remote control that costs extra. Some people may figure they do not need this stick if they have their video apps all located on their Xbox One, Playstation 4, or WiiU, but the Fire TV stick has other great features such as the ability to mirror your phone or tablet to your TV so you can play games or view your apps on the big screen. You can also sync photos from all of your devices. Another advantage is that the stick is portable so you can take it with you wherever you go such as hotels or dorm rooms.

2. DropCam Pro Wi-Fi Wireless Video Monitoring Security Camera: Let’s say you are going away on vacation, have a pet sitter coming to your house for a week to take care of the dogs, but you can’t stand not seeing FiFi and FooFoo for so long. If so, the DropCam is a great solution. Just hook it up in the room you want to monitor, set it up (takes 60 seconds), and you can monitor live feeds from the desired location day or night (night vision is included), with a 130 viewing angle, and sharp video quality. If it is a person you need to monitor, 2-way talk is enabled. You can watch the feed from any device such as a tablet, smart phone, or computer. All you need is a Wi-Fi connection.

3. GoPro HERO: Almost everyone has a video camera, but with a GoPro HERO, you get a camera that is extremely durable and waterproof down to 131 feet. It is known for its ability to withstand extreme environments and people who seem to get water all over their electronic devices. It supports microSD cards up to 32GB and has software that lets you share the content.

4. Fuji Instax Mini 8 Instant Film Camera: For people who aren’t worried about immersing their camera and want something small and light for under $75, the Fuji Instax is extremely popular and comes in 5 different colors (black, pink, white, yellow, and blue). You do need to buy film with this camera, which is why it is called Instax. The film can be found here.

5. Sony Pocket AM/FM Radio: This is the least technologically advanced item on this list but it is included because it is a great cheap little radio for under $15 that actually works. I bought one for each of my children and they love it because they can listen to some radio before they go to sleep or take it with them wherever they want. It has a telescoping antennae, a built in jack for an earphone, and a carrying strap. This runs on two AA batteries. It is not for children under age 3 due to small parts (choking hazard).

6. Garmin Premium Soft Strap Heart Rate Monitor: For the health conscious such as runners or joggers, this item wirelessly transmits your heart rate to a compatible device for instant feedback. Once paired with your device, the device recognizes it instantly afterwards. This device is worn around the chest with a soft strap for a comfortable fit with adjustable fittings.  It is light, only weighing 51 grams. It has other features such as a barometer, thermometer, odometer, a backlight, alarm, and it is water resistant.

7. Midland NOAA Public Alert Display and Alarm Clock: Great for people who live near dangerous weather conditions (especially tornadoes and hurricanes), this public-alert certified monitor alerts you when specific counties are threatened (up to 25 counties can be monitored at once). It also provides non-weather hazard warning and warning on civil emergencies. Alerts include a 90 db siren, a voice alert, or flashing lights. You will not always be near a radio or have your TV on so this system provides an added line of security. English, Spanish, and French languages are supported.  An emergency power back-up (3 AA batteries) is a feature of this device.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Review: The Garrett Carrot Pro Pointer AT

As I was preparing for metal detecting season this year, I was watching a metal detecting video online where I heard reference to the new “Garrett Carrot.” Intrigued, I did a little research online and found out this was a reference to the Garrett Pro Pointer AT, nicknamed the Garrett Carrot for its bright orange color.

I am a happy owner of the regular Garrett Pro Pointer and was very curious if the Garret Carrot would be worth the upgrade, especially since it is slightly more expensive than the regular Pro Pointer.

I decided to purchase the Garrett Carrot, which came out in 2015, for the reasons listed below:

1. Waterproofing: As soon as I found out that the Garrett Carrot was waterproof down to 10-feet, I immediately decided to purchase it. Although you can waterproof the original Pro Pointer, that involves rubbing all sorts of sticky goop on it (as you can see here), which I really did not want to do. There was a nice shallow stream I was detecting in with my regular Pro Pointer (which is water resistant but not submergible) but I was not able to get into deeper water with it. The Garrett Carrot changes that.

2. Easier to find if lost: The bright orange color makes the Garrett Carrot very easy to find if you drop it by accident or set it down somewhere and forget it, unless you drop it in a pumpkin patch or a carrot farm. Even if you did that though, the Garrett Carrot automatically emits a distress signal 5-minutes after it is dropped. The regular Pro Pointer does not do this. After 5-minutes of warning chirps (that become more frequent over time), it shuts off to save batteries.

3. Six different settings: Another great feature is the ability to set the Garrett Carrot to vibration mode or audio mode. Each mode has settings of minimum, medium, and maximum sensitivity. The vibration mode is good if you are near people and do not want to make much noise, if you are under water, or if you are hearing impaired. The default setting is medium sensitivity with audio. I changed it to maximum sensitivity with audio so I do not miss the target. Some people may decide to set it to low sensitivity for highly mineralized ground environments but I would argue there is no need to do this if you just ground balance the pointer. Beau Ouimette shows how to do this in this great video. I tried it out and it works well. The Garrett Carrot has a quick-press Fast Return function that allows you to narrow the detection field of large objects. One reason why you really may want to switch to the low sensitivity mode is if you have an object in the ground close to a large metal structure (e.g., metal bench, play set) because now you can move away from the large metal structure, come in slow towards the target and only detect the target. If you had one standard setting as on the regular Pro Pointer, the signal from the large metal object will likely interfere with pinpointing the target.

4. Inch/Cm Markings: The Garrett Carrot has inch/cm markings which are lacking on the original Pro Pointer. This is not essential for the experienced detectorist but still a useful feature to have.

5. More sensitive to gold:
Need I say more.

6. Old Features: All features of original Pro Pointer are retained.

Overall, I highly suggest purchasing the Garrett Carrot for all of the reasons stated above. To put it simply, the best pointer on the market just got better and this is not a paid endorsement. I have had it for several weeks now and really enjoy it. The only downside is that because there are multiple detection settings, you may accidentally press the on button too long, enter reset mode, and switch to another setting by accident. Once you use it for a day though and read the instruction manual, this likely will not happen and if it does it is very easy to fix.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

SCORBOT Technology: Efficient Sports Management for Everyone








When I was younger and played in AAU basketball tournaments, out team had no idea who we were going to play until we arrived to the court, we had to rely on our eyes or word of mouth to monitor scores of other games, and we did not know where all games would be played in advance. This was all very inconvenient. Fast forward about 25 years and now all of that has changed as I recently discovered when attending AAU basketball tournaments for one of my children.

Nowadays, tournament directors, coaches, parents, and players can manage their tournament play in real time online and via text notifications through a company called Scorbot. The first people who will use the program are tournament directors, who will submit all of the teams eligible to play in a particular age bracket. The program will automatically create pools of teams that will play in the tournament and schedule the matchups at specific locations.  This is all listed on a specific webpage that SCORBOT creates for each tournament that anyone can follow. Here is a sample page from a recent tournament.

As you can from the sample page, the top left of the page shows a list of schedules divided by age ranges for females and males. Each schedule shows the team names, matchups, standings, and a Team ID. You are able to text the Team ID to a specific phone number to receive instant updates about your team (message and data charges may apply).  The schedule also shows the number of points score by each team and the number of points scored against it, which is used for determining tie-breakers. Brackets are also included to show when and where the upcoming matches are that lead to the championship game.  The bottom left side of the page lists addresses for all of the sites, including a clickable list for directions via Mapquest.  The main part of the page contains specific general tournament information.

I have now followed two tournaments in the past 2 weeks via SCORBOT and found it fun and easy to use for parents, coaches, and children alike. We all found ourselves returning to the website to check the scores. The scores are posted when each game is over as soon as the tournament director sends the scores to SCORBOT via SMS (Short Message Service). While I really like and recommend the service, a future improvement would be to find a way to update the scores in real time by instantly sending information from the scoreboard to the SCORBOT website. Although this post addressed AAU basketball tournaments, SCORBOT can be used to configure any type of sports tournament.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The 10 Best Robot Movies of All Time

This is TechFriendly’s list of the 10 best robot movies of all time. This list was created based on a review of numerous other online movie rating systems in the areas of technology and science fiction. Personal opinion of the author also played a role in the ratings based on personal impressions of the movies, consideration of long-term significance of the movie,  as well as popularity. Feel free to share movies you would add to the list in our comment section.

1. Star Wars (1977): This movie and all the sequels it spawned are so famous that not much of a description is needed. The introduction of robot buddies R2D2 (an astromech droid) and C-3PO (protocol droid companion designed to serve humans) significantly advanced the use of robots in movies. C-3PO is more relatable to the audience because of his human form, use of human speech, extensive translation abilities, and knowledge of social etiquette and customs.

2. The Terminator (1984): When this movie came out, it was a groundbreaking thriller, with the powerful Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the role of a cyborg from the future trying to hunt down and kill Sara Connor, the mother of the future John Connor who will form a resistance group against a futuristic machine race. Fortunately for Sarah, John sends back a soldier named Kyle Reese to protect her. The best parts of this movie are when Sarah keeps thinking The Terminator is destroyed but it keeps coming at them and developing more and more of a robot form.  To make it fair for other movies, the other Terminator films are not included here, but they are worth checking out, especially Terminator 2.

3. Forbidden Planet (1956): One of the coolest robot legends of all time (Robby the Robot) was featured in this movie.  This movie is actually the first science fiction film set entirely on another world (Altair IV) and set the stage for future science fiction movies. A spaceship crew travels to Altair IV to figure out what happened to a group of scientists who had landed there decades earlier. The crew meets Dr. Morbius, who created Robby the Robot. Robby has incredible strength and his best feature is the ability to analyze chemicals of any food or item and make it in mass quantities. It’s hard to watch this movie and not wish to have your own Robby the Robot around.

4. Robocop (1987): Technically, Robocop is only half-robot but he’s a robot nonetheless, combining a left-for-dead policemen with a cybernetic frame.  He quickly became a hero to police officers across the country.

5. WALL-E (2008): WALL-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class) the robot never talks during this movie but obtains the sympathy of the audience as the last robot on Earth when later pursuing a space probe named Eve.

6. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): A classic black and white movie about aliens and world peace with the famous robot scenes involving the giant 8-foot robot, Gort, who can vaporize things with a laser that shoots from his head.

7. Metropolis (1927): This is a silent film, and so it may not be one that all modern audiences will like but it is one of the first feature length science fiction movies ever made. In this movie, a crazed scientist creates a female version of a deceased lover. The robot is later transformed into a fake copy of the film’s heroine, Maria, to stop an uprising.

8. Blade Runner (1982): Harrison Ford has to eliminate four escaped Replicants (bioengineered robot beings) that have returned to Earth.

9. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974): I’ll admit that my own personal biases enter in on this selection as a huge Godzilla fan, but it’s hard to deny how awesome it is to see the unveiling of Mechagodzilla as the camera pans up from his toes to his head, how people can walk around inside Mechagodzilla, how he can fly, and how missiles can be launched from his fingertips.

10. Short Circuit (1986): A classic 80s movie about a military robot struck by lightning who becomes more humanlike and explores its new state of being.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Top 10 Computer and Technology Books You Should Check Out








Below is TechFriendly’s listing for the top 10 books related to computers and technology that are worth checking out.

1. Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. This is an unauthorized biography of the man who has given us much of the technology we have today, from Apple computers to iPods, iPads, and iPhones. New details are provided in the book that makes this biography of Steve Jobs different from the others. The book provides a balanced and critical view of Jobs that many will find refreshing, praising him for his accomplishments yet being critical of his failings.

2. Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book that Inspired the Film “The Imitation Game” by Andrew Hodges and Douglas Hofstadter.  For those who do not know, Alan Turing was a famous mathematician who helped save the allies from the Nazis by cracking the German’s Enigma machine code. By doing so, he laid the foundation for modern computer science. This book serves as a biography of Turing, and is considered one of best scientific biographies ever written.

3. The Personal Internet Address & Password Logbook by Peter Pauper Press. This is the modern day equivalent to a telephone address book except this is for keeping username and passwords stored for the many different websites you visit. The book is organized in alphabetic order tabs and has 144 pages in spiral bound format to meet your organizing needs.

4. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: This was the first biography about Steve Jobs published after his death and instantly became a best seller. Jobs helped with the content of this book via more than 40 interviews conducted with him over the last 2 years of his life.  While a great book, if you are looking for a more balanced and thorough accounting, see the 1st book on Steve Jobs listed above.

5. Cracking the Coding Interview: 150 Programming Questions and Solutions by Gayle McDowell. This is the gold standard book to help you prepare for a job interview in the software developer industry. Over 500 pages, this deeply technical book is designed to help you excel at that interview. The author has experience at interviews at Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon and served on Google’s hiring committee.

6. How Google Works
by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. Two Google executives provide an entertaining inside view on how they helped build one of the biggest technology companies and how they focus on innovation. Numerous inside tidbits about Google are shared in this book for the first time.

7. Learn Python in One Day and Learn It Well by Jamie Chan. This book helps you learn Python computer programming language by breaking down complex concepts in simple step by step instructions. The book is designed for novices and is widely regarded as easy to understand such that you can begin coding immediately.

8. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
by Walter Isaacson. Following the Steve Jobs book listed above, Isaacson wrote this book which tells the history of computers and the internet.  Many famous stories are told such as those of Alan Turing, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and Larry Page.

9. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald. This book tells the story of how Glenn Greenwald went to Hong Kong to meet with Eric Snowden, who revealed classified information about U.S. government spying on other world leaders and within the U.S.

10. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone. This book discusses the rise of Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com. This is the first in-dept look into the Amazon business culture based on the author’s access to Amazon employees and family members of Jeff Bezos. The book has been selected as the best of the year by several organizations and is considered a top investigative journalism book.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Review of the Belly App: A Great Way to Earn Loyalty Rewards

If you are like me, there are a few restaurants and businesses that you go to frequently where you live. To reward customers for their patronage and to get them to come back more, many food establishments have their own loyalty rewards programs. This typically provides basic deals such as “buy six sandwiches and get one free” or “buy six coffees and get one free.”

The problem with these sorts of loyalty programs is that they each require you to carry a separate loyalty card around with you and it is typically the same reward every time. What if you could consolidate multiple loyalty reward programs in a single place, with no need to carry around any cards (just use your smart phone), with better rewards dependent on how much you spend?

Enter Belly, a convenient app for your smart phone that helps you accomplish all of the above and more. I first became aware of Belly at a local pizzeria I regularly frequent. Belly works on an iPad that is kept by the cash register such as the one you see below.


Once you sign up (which can be done quickly and for free) on the Belly website or via the Belly app, all you have to do is tap the iPad where it says “Tap to Belly.” Then just scan the square quick response (QR) code from your Belly app onto the screen and it automatically adds points to your account for each visit.

At the restaurant I go to, you get 5 points for each visit. Here is an example of the reward system they use:

15 points: Free fountain soda
25 points: Free topping on a pizza
35 points: Free canoli
40 points: Free slice of pizza
60 points: Free jar of homemade pasta sauce (value $ 4.95)
100 points: Free large pie
200 points: Free entre
300 points:  Dining for two in the restaurant dining room (up to $50).

I started a few months ago and am already up to 85 points. I am waiting to get to 300 points so I can get that $50.00 meal. The points add up pretty fast and it works at making me want to go back there for a slice of pizza or a sub as opposed to somewhere else.

Another cool feature of the app is that it uses a GPS locator to find other stores in your area that use the Belly program. This is provided in map format or you can find a listing of nearby locations.  Each location is listed by a balloon, like this:


Just click the balloon and you are provided with all of the information on the location as well as the reward features. Within 50 miles of my house, there are 10 businesses that use the Belly program, 8 of which are restaurants, one of which is a bowling alley, and another of which is a boutique. Seven of these places are within 13 miles of my house. In more populated areas, I believe you would find many more participating programs. Belly has only been around since 2011 so the fact that they are in as many locations as they are is impressive but they do need to keep working on greater distribution.

The app itself is very easy to use. As soon as you open it, it brings you to the QR code to scan into the iPad. I like this because you don’t need to worry about searching for the scanning code when you are in line. I have never encountered any problems with the code scanning instantly. On the bottom right of the app (as you can see above), there is an icon shaped like a person which you can press to bring you to the “My Stuff section.” This personally organizes all of the locations you have visited, tells you your point totals, and lists the reward features at each location. On the bottom left is a little balloon icon which tells you can press to tell you what places are nearby. 

If you want to access the GPS map to show you the locations, just click the map icon on the top left of the page.  You can also do this on their website. There is also a gear icon on the top right which allows you to do many features such as contact belly, read the privacy policy, manage notifications, rate the app, etc. Overall, I would highly recommend downloading Belly and using it at some local businesses.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Ground Penetrating Radar for Yard Sinkholes?

So you walk into your backyard one day and find a small, medium, or large sinkhole. You step along the edges and more soil falls down into the hole, making the size of the hole larger. You look into the hole and cannot find any immediate cause.

Maybe you have children who play in the yard. In fact, maybe the sinkhole coincidentally occurred right underneath the swings of their play set. As a responsible homeowner and in some cases, a parent, you want to get to the bottom of this (literally and figuratively) to find out what caused the sinkhole and if any other areas of your yard are at risk of imminent soil collapse. Should you hire someone to perform a ground penetrating radar survey of your property? This blog entry will discuss the answer to your question and some solutions but first a few pointers on sinkholes.

In essence, a sinkhole is an area of ground depression caused by a collapse of the top soil layer. Sinkholes can be as small as 3-feet and as large as 2000-feet in diameter and depth but most homeowners will encounter the smaller variety. Nevertheless, even a small sinkhole is unsettling to see and potentially dangerous. Sinkholes can form gradually over time, starting a depression of soil but not an actual collapse. Sinkholes can also form suddenly. If left untouched, sinkholes will typically get larger over time in diameter and depth.

Sinkholes can be formed by natural or artificial processes. In the natural process, there is a wearing away under the ground of supporting soil or underground bedrock, such as from an underground water source (e.g., a spring, accumulation of ground water). When enough of the supporting soil wears away it does not provide enough support for the ground above and the ground collapses. In the artificial process, the water accumulation under the ground is caused by water main breaks or sewer collapses, but this typically happens in urban streets.

For backyards, a common man-made source of sinkholes is buried debris such as trees or appliances (e.g., refrigerators). If this sounds like an exaggeration, it’s not. Just take a look at this full free excavated from a backyard sinkhole that was buried 23 years prior by a developer or contractor:


Construction contractors and building developers have a long history of excavating yards (e.g., removal of tress) during the building process, digging 10 to 20 foot pits, and burying the items under the ground. This is done to save the contractor or developer the expense of discarding the trees themselves and they often get away with it because by the time it takes the sinkhole to form (e.g., up to 20 years) it is very difficult for the homeowner to track back who was originally responsible. Also, in many states there was no law in place at the time to ban the burying of debris under the ground. In debris-caused sinkholes, the sinkholes form because the debris erodes over time which causes air pockets in the soil, like this:


Air pockets are also caused when multiple items are thrown on top of one another in the ground, often in a criss-cross manner such that the soil does not pack tightly when the hole is filled in. Over time, these air pockets enlarge, further destabilizing the ground, and the soil eventually collapses.

What many people do when they find a sinkhole in their yard is to purchase dirt and fill the hole in with it. This can cost a few hundred dollars depending on how much dirt is needed and can be pretty labor intensive, especially if you have the dirt dropped off on your driveway and you have to transport it to your yard load by load with a wheelbarrow. Besides the downsides of cost and labor, it is not a good solution to pour dirt over a sinkhole because you are not solving the underlying problem. The ground may look filled in after you pour the dirt on it, but because the underlying problem is still there, the sinkhole will eventually form again.

To fix a sinkhole in the yard, the best solution is to hire a reputable person who operates an excavator to dig out the hole until the source is discovered. This should be done in consultation with the town engineer. If the cause is debris, then the debris needs to be removed by the excavator. You want to be sure that the excavator can go at least 10 feet under the ground. Use of an excavator includes digging some test holes next to the sinkhole to make sure there is no additional debris buried there. If the source is underground water, the town engineer should be consulted for possible solutions. A local geologist should be consulted as well.

One suggestion that a geologist might make is to obtain a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey to determine if the source of the sinkhole could be identified and if there are any other areas of soil at risk of imminent collapse. Ground penetrating radar is a technique in which a large machine that looks like a lawnmower is pushed over the ground which sends radar pulses deep into the ground to detect disruptions in the soil such as large objects or air pocket voids.

If you think that you can do this with a metal detector, think again. A metal detector can only detect metal (e.g., it won’t detect trees or soil voids) and can only penetrate about 1 to 2 feet below the soil (see our entry on how DD metal detecting coils work). By contrast, GPR can detect soil abnormalities about 7 to 10-feet down below the ground. Forget buying one yourself though because the machine costs over $10,000 and requires specialized training to interpret. Renting one would also be expensive. For this reason, you would need to contact a local geologist to find someone in your community who operates a GPR system. This will typically be a large corporation that generally specializes on commercial projects. As such, it may take some convincing to get the company to come to a residence to survey your property but it can be done.

But would GPR of your house actually be worth it? In my opinion, based on personal experience, probably not. The first reason is that if you are really intent on finding the source of the sinkhole, then that is readily accomplished by hiring an excavator who can dig to find the source of the sinkhole. GPR is not needed to do this. For moderately sized properties (less than an acre), a GPR survey of the yard is probably going to cost at least $1000. Hiring an excavator is expensive enough so there is no need to pay for the GPR survey when excavation alone is sufficient.

Where GPR can potentially help you is locating other spots of soil distortion that may not be close to the existing sinkhole. So for complete peace of mind, this is the only reason I can think of that the cost of a GPR survey might be worth it. For example, you may get a report that looks something like this:


However, it is important to keep in mind that GPR may not be able to penetrate as deep as the source of the sinkhole is, providing a false sense of security. Also, GPR is performance is limited in highly conductive soils (e.g., clay and salt-contaminated soil) and soils that contain a mixture of conditions (e.g., soil intermixed with rocks).

Regardless of whether you chose to use GPR or not, remember that the most important aspect of sinkhole remediation is to eliminate the source of the problem, not to put a Band-Aid over it. Lastly, after you removed and/or fix the cause of the sinkhole and fill in the hole with new soil, resist the urge to immediate re-seed the area. This is because you will likely have settling of the soil over the winter. Wait until the spring to top it off with some additional soil and the reseed the area.