Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Researchers show off a working light-based processor


The year has been chock-full of scientific breakthroughs, but the University of Colorado is determined to finish 2015 with a bang. Its researchers have created what they say is the first full-fledged processor to transmit data using light instead of electricity. The design isn't entirely photonic, but its 850 optical input/output elements give it the kind of bandwidth that make electric-only chips look downright modest -- we're talking 300Gbps per square millimeter, or 10 to 50 times what you normally see. The key was finding a way to reuse existing conventional processes to put optics in places where regular circuitry would go.

The design isn't a powerhouse with a tiny size (3mm by 6mm, or 0.1in by 0.2in) and just two cores. However, it shows the potential for dramatic improvements in computing power without having to completely reinvent the wheel. You could have networking gear that copes with massive amounts of data, for example. And there's plenty of room for optimization, too, so the possibilities for this technology remain wide open.

[Image credit: Glenn Asakawa, University of Colorado]


Source: University of Colorado, Nature


The 10 best devices to turn your home into a smart home


The Insider Picks team writes about stuff we think you'll like. Business Insider has affiliate partnerships, so we may get a share of the revenue from your purchase.

Nest thermostatAmazonThe modern “smart home” is still learning. It’s still something we have to put in quotes like that. In the tech world’s rush to make everything Internet-connected, the home seems to be the area with the most potential for change and lasting effect. There are certainly no shortage of startups and corporations trying to make it work.

But for now, only a handful of these experiments look like they’ll bring more convenience than frustration. It’s hard to say that any smart home gadget is smart enough to be essential, but if you have an appreciation for forward-looking tech and a wallet with money to burn, there are devices out there that can help your day-to-day. Give them a chance, and it might be hard to go back. Here are a few we like.

ecobee3 Smarter WiFi Thermostat

ecobee3AmazonThe Nest Learning Thermostat is the face of smart home technology for most, but depending on what your home is like, it’s not blasphemous to say the ecobee3 is superior.

Now, at their cores, both devices carry most of the same benefits. They’re both capable of learning your preferences and schedule, then adjusting the temperature accordingly. They’re both better-looking and more enjoyable to use than the basic pieces of plastic that occupy most households. Their very presence will probably make you more conscious about saving energy. They both can pay for themselves over time. And once you’re able to heat up or cool down your house from your phone, without having to get out of bed, you won’t want to go back.

If you live in a larger household, however, the ecobee3 can be much more convenient — provided you pick up a couple more remote sensors. Yes, it gets pretty pricey at that point, but having those gives you granular control over the temperature in different rooms around your house. By contrast, the Nest’s measurements are largely limited to the area in which it’s installed.

If you live in a condo or smaller place in general, that’s no big deal; the Nest itself is still very adept at taking the work of climate control off your hands. But we also like the ecobee3’s display, which isn’t as vibrant as the Nest’s, but is touch-enabled and more spacious, making it less frustrating when you want to enter a WiFi password, see weather info, access the settings, and so on.

Still, both devices are pretty great. Which one’s best just depends on whether you need a whole-home solution or a more straightforward one. For now, if it’s the former, go with the ecobee.

ecobee3 Smarter WiFi Thermostat with Remote Sensor (2nd-gen.), $245.24, available at Amazon.

Philips Hue

philips hueAmazonThe Philips Hue is just about synonymous with the “smart lighting” concept, but that’s because it works, and it’s fun. While nobody really needs a smartphone app that turns their lights blue, the Hue family of devices make it easy to adjust the mood of a room.

It doesn’t come cheap, though. If you’re curious about the idea of adjustable lighting but don’t want to drop a couple hundred on a starter kit, the Cree Connected LED Bulb might be a better fit. It requires a hub to work and isn’t as colorful, but it can still be dimmed from a phone, potentially saving you some cash along the way.

Philips Hue Starter Kit, $199.99, available at Amazon.

Nest Protect

nest protectAmazonLike the Learning Thermostat above, the Nest Protect spruces and smartens up a device most of us take for granted. The connected smoke and carbon monoxide detector looks nicer than the gray plastic chunk on your ceiling, for one, but it also does its job well, gauging potential dangers, then loudly alerting you if there’s a problem.

If you’re not home when something goes awry, it’ll send alerts to your phone. (And probably cause a few panic attacks in the process.) A handy “Pathlight” feature gives you a light if the Protect senses you walking around in the dark, too. And if you ever get a little too sloppy cooking dinner, you can turn off any non-emergency alarms right from the Nest app, rather than disconnecting the whole thing out of frustration.

Nest Protect, $99, available at Amazon.

Amazon Echo

amazon echoAmazonThe Amazon Echo is technically a Bluetooth speaker, but you wouldn’t buy one just to play music. Instead, it best serves as a Siri or Google Now for your home, a digital assistant that can tell you the weather, crawl the Web for random info, fire up some music, set alarms or calendar events, adjust a growing number of other smart home devices, and more, all upon your request.

Amazon’s done a stellar job of updating and improving the Echo since it launched late last year, and the whole thing is simple to use and operate. Like most of the devices on the list, it’s also something to gawk at. It might bring us closer to a Her-style existence, but as a friendly, hands-free bridge to the Internet, the Echo is nice to have around.

Amazon Echo, $179.99, available at Amazon.

Sonos Play:1

sonos play 1AmazonThe Sonos Play:1, meanwhile, is very much about the music. The entry-level device in the Sonos family of WiFi sound systems, the Play:1 performs well for its relatively diminutive size, and, like other Sonos devices, can easily stream music from Spotify, Google Play Music, Pandora, Amazon Prime Music, SiriusXM, and most other major players.

You need to use Sonos’ app to do that, and really this model is meant to be a gateway to hooking up and syncing with other Sonos devices, but if you’ve ever thought about building such a home audio system, this is where you want to start.

Sonos Play:1, $195, available at Amazon.

Nest Cam

nest camAmazonThe Nest Cam builds off the successes of the Dropcam Pro — the creators of which Nest bought last year — by delivering a functional, high-res, and connected wireless security camera.

It puts out a wide-angle, 1080p stream that you can watch from your phone — not a replacement for a full-on home security system, but useful if you’ve got a child that needs monitoring. It’ll send you alerts if it senses something suspicious — though that’s limited to one every half-hour — and you can also stash and access past footage through the cloud.

Nest Cam Security Camera, $183.48, available at Amazon.

Belkin WeMo Switch

belkin wemo switchAmazonBelkin’s WeMo Switch devices want to make it so you’re never anxious about leaving something plugged in once you’re out of the house. They simply plug into an existing AC outlet, connect to your WiFi network, and then allow you to turn on or off whatever’s plugged into them through a corresponding app.

That app has a reputation for being finicky from time to time, but get past that and you can find a ton of opportunities for home automation here (especially with a service like IFTTT). If you suspect a device is chewing up too much energy, for instance, you could have it automatically shut down once it hits a certain cost for the day.

Belkin WeMo Switch, $39.99, available at Amazon.

Roomba 980

roomba 980AmazonYou probably know what a Roomba is by now, and as we’ve said before, the newest model in the series of semi-autonomous robot vacuums is its smartest yet. It’s shamelessly expensive, but now you can schedule it to automatically start cleaning at specific times, regardless of whether or not you’re near it. It’s tidier at actually doing that cleaning, too, though it’ll still charmingly bash itself into a post every now and again.

iRobot Roomba 980, $899.99, available at Amazon.

August Smart Lock

august smart lockAmazonIt’s a niche device among niche devices, but the August Smart Lock lets you remotely control a door lock. Keys have never been particularly complicated, but the Smart Lock looks good (even if it’s a bit thick), isn’t too tough to install, and, unlike similar devices, goes over your deadbolt instead of replacing it entirely. If nothing else, having your door open and unlock for you without having to touch a thing is just neat.

If you pick up August’s Connect accessory or use a compatible hub (like Logitech’s Harmony Home Hub), you can also dictate the Smart Lock to allow certain people into the house, even when you’re not there. You’ll creep out the cable guy, sure, but if you can’t afford to stay home on the day of installation, this lets you let him in.

August Smart Lock, $199.99, available at Amazon.

Logitech Harmony Home Control

logitech harmony home controlAmazonLogitech has been the only real presence in the land of universal remotes for a long time now, and its Harmony Home Control is the best value it offers for anyone with a few smart home devices. The included Harmony Companion remote can connect to things like the aforementioned Nest thermostat, Philips Hue lights, or Sonos speakers, in addition to the usual suite of TVs, media streamers, cable boxes, game consoles, and so on.

Using it isn’t constantly seamless, but for something that’s controlling up to 8 things at once, it’s far from unruly. It also ditches the IR blaster in favor of an RF signal, which means you don’t have to point it directly at what you want to control in order for it to work.

While it has areas that could be a little more polished — there’s no backlight, for instance — it still breaks down many processes that’d be complicated without it. Now that it’s dropped about $40, it doesn’t charge an outrageous amount for the privilege either.

Logitech Harmony Home Control (White), $106.09, available at Amazon.



Saturday, December 19, 2015

If you take these 3 tax deductions you have a higher chance of being audited



Getting audited is many taxpayers' worst nightmare, but that shouldn't stop you from taking advantage of the tax deductions you're legally entitled to take. You should just take care to make sure you have the documentation you need to back up your deduction if the IRS decides to take a closer look at your return.

Below, you'll learn about three tax deductions that often raise red flags from would-be auditors.

1. Home office deduction
Self-employed entrepreneurs often work out of their homes, and the tax laws provide for such businesses to deduct the legitimate expenses that are connected with their home-based business. If you meet the requirements for a portion of your home that's used regularly and exclusively for business use, and is your principal place of business, you can usually prorate your overall household expenses by the fraction of your home's total area that your business takes up. In addition, you can deduct in full expenses that are directly linked to your business and aren't shared throughout the remainder of your home for personal use.

Abuse of this provision has led to increased IRS scrutiny. The most important thing to remember is that you need to be able to document the separate area and its exclusive business use, so if your business takes up a large fraction of your overall property, you'll need to prepare to prove it. In addition, ensuring that all claimed expenses are business-related is important in maintaining your credibility during an audit.

2. Charitable deductions
Donations to charity are usually tax-deductible to those who itemize their deductions, and the IRS has paid increasing amounts of attention to charitable deductions in recent years. Gifts by check are hard to falsify, but claiming large amounts for donated items like cars or used clothing has been a frequent area of abuse among taxpayers.

In judging your charitable donations, the IRS will compare your deductions with those of taxpayers in a similar financial situation based on your tax return. If you're on the high side of average, the risk of an audit will increase, and it'll be more important for you to keep good records on what you gave, when you gave it, and how you determined the appropriate value of the property. Fail at any of those tasks, and you could be left unable to support your deduction to an IRS auditor.

3. Unreimbursed business expenses
Most of the time, employees get reimbursed by their employers for any business expenses they pay for themselves. As a result, the IRS looks carefully at unreimbursed business expenses, even though they're an itemized deduction and are only deductible to the extent that they exceed 2% of adjusted gross income.

Many items are potentially deductible, including dues and license fees, subscriptions to trade journals and publications related to your work, tools and supplies, and specialty uniforms. Yet the temptation among many taxpayers is to try to deduct additional items that are only somewhat connected to their jobs. Before taking this deduction, make sure the expenses you're seeking to claim are legitimately business-related, and be prepared to explain in an audit why your employer didn't reimburse you for them.

Finally, bear in mind that any deduction could lead to an audit if it's unusually large compared to what most people report on their tax returns. If you're entitled to a big deduction for any reason, make sure you have the records to prove it in case the IRS comes knocking.

Getting audited is no fun, but as long as you have the required documentation, you should be able to stand up to IRS scrutiny with your deductions intact. Keeping good tax records with these three deductions in particular is a smart move that will keep you from paying extra tax after an audit.

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The Texas professor who lived in a dumpster started a company that's building 208-square-foot, movable apartments


There’s a lot to like about Kasita, a micro-modern-modular apartment building coming up in the heart of Texas. The units are 208 square feet in size: teeny-tiny, but these days, less is more. Especially in Austin, where the population as a whole is booming but where families with children are leaving the urban core in droves.

To help singles squeeze their lives into such small spaces, Kasita boasts tons of interior-design bells and whistles, from modular “tile” shelving to various networked-home features.

And then there’s Professor Dumpster, aka Jeff Wilson, the former dean of Huston-Tillotson University who once made his home in a 33-square-foot dumpster as a teaching exercise. He’s the brain behind Kasita, and he’s assembled a diverse team of designers and executives to build his dream in Austin and at least nine other cities. Kasita has raised at least $645,000 in private investment so far (and more is promised).

But Kasita also raises two questions. And on these points, the project risks running awry.

The first concern is, unfortunately, key to the whole Kasita concept: The prefab housing units are all ‘apodments.’ They can be moved from one city to another, presuming there is a vacancy in the destination Kasita. Think of them as modular storage drawers that you might buy from the Container Store (but much cooler looking).

Kasita Apodment Micro ApartmentKasita

It’s a solution in search of a problem. Sure, moving’s a pain in the ass. The apodment doesn’t get you out of moving, though. It just makes the process that much more difficult. A resident who lives on the third floor of Kasita is going to need a crane or a truck to get her pod down and on to the truck that will carry the pod to its next location. It’s bound to be less expensive to hire two movers for an hour—how much can it cost to pack up a 200-square-foot apartment?—or do it the old-fashioned way by paying friends for their labor with beer and pizza.

“Request a move across town or across the country with a tap on your phone,” the site reads. But who would ever do this? The tech triumphalism is off-putting. Moving is stressful because it’s important. It’s supposed to be stressful. And broadly speaking, permanent housing isn’t something that begs for branding across cities, like hotel chains or Lyft.

The second issue is the cost. Dumpster/Wilson has said that the units will rent for $600. The company has two lots in downtown Austin, where rents go for much more. Rents downtown range from around $900 to more than $2,000. Depending on where the Kasita lots are located, the median rental housing cost might be more than three times the asking rate for a Kasita unit. (I’ve emailed the Kasita team to ask about the location and will update when I get answers back.)


There’s a popular misconception that modular housing necessarily means cheaper housing. The high costs of housing aren’t driven by the manufacture of homes. They’re driven by the high price of land in places like Austin, one of the finest cities on this planet (and my former home). In a city where Millennial residents are allegedly holing up in “stealth dorms” in order to escape high rents, the queue for a $600 downtown apartment—even an utterly tiny one—would run like the endless line to Franklin’s on a sunny Saturday during SXSW. The same goes for Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and other cities where Kasita plans to expand. After all, here’s what $600 gets you in Bushwick.

“Through partnerships with local entities, Kasita will rent units at about half the market rate of a studio apartment,” the website reads. Maybe that will work. Call me skeptical.

There is a solution to high rents in Austin, though—and it’s staring us right in the face: The rendering of Kasita depicts in the background various types of housing in the Live Music Capital of the World, including tall residential towers, several of which have gone up in the city in recent years. More buildings like these, with a greater variety of unit sizes and formats—and, crucially, the zoning that allows for high-density residential construction—is just what the doctor ordered.

NOW WATCH: New York City's first micro-apartment is 302 square feet... and costs $2,750 a month


Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Mozilla launches an iOS 9 content blocker, Focus by Firefox


Even Mozilla is getting into the iOS 9 ad blocking arena with Focus by Firefox, a free content blocker for Safari on Apple's mobile OS. Just like the early batch of blockers, it can keep your mobile browsing experience free of ads, as well as web analytics and social media trackers. But Mozilla says it'll also be transparent about how it's blocking content. It's using Disconnect's open source block list, which also powers Firefox's Private Browsing on desktop platforms, and it'll inform users as it builds on Focus by Firefox. In addition to making your mobile browsing more private, the blocker can also speed up performance by blocking things like web fonts. Ironically, Focus by Firefox isn't yet compatible with Firefox on iOS, because Apple doesn't allow content blockers to work with third-party browsers.

"We want to build an Internet that respects users, puts them in control, and creates and maintains trust," Mozilla's chief business and legal officer, Denelle Dixon-Thayer, wrote in a blog post. "Too many users have lost trust and lack meaningful controls over their digital lives. This loss of trust has impacted the ecosystem -- sometimes negatively. Content blockers offer a way to rebuild that trust by empowering users."

Source: Mozilla