A Sonic Lego set is coming

Everyone’s favorite blue hedgehog is about to get his own Lego set. You can thank 24-year-old Sonic fan Viv Grannell and the Lego Ideas program for bringing Lego and Sega together. Over the years, the initiative, which allows fans to submit designs they’d like to see the company manufacture, has produced some truly delightful sets, including a handful of fun NASA-themed ones. Grannell’s design of the Green Hill Zone, based on the excellent Sonia Mania rendition of the level, earned the more than 10,000 community votes a design needs before Lego considers making it into something official.

With Sega’s approval, Lego is now starting official development on the design (so expect the final product to look different than the concept pictured above). Lego didn’t say when the set will go on sale but did mention it will be available globally once it’s ready.

This isn’t the first time Sonic has gotten the lego treatment. You could buy a Sonic pack back when Lego Dimensions was a thing. But the timing of this latest set couldn’t have worked out better for Sega. It’s the year of Sonic, with the franchise celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2021. Sega has multiple Sonic-related projects planned for the future, including an animated Netflix series.

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Finally, I can solve a Rubik’s Cube

The Rubik’s Cube has been around for decades. I’ve toyed with the cube, probably in the very late ‘80s or early ‘90s, but never imagined being able to solve one. But wouldn’t it be satisfying if I could? And if not now, with months of social distancing, when?

Fortunately, the internet makes solving what was originally an architecture puzzle doable for most of us. Even the impatient, like me. The world record for solving a cube has plummeted since 2000 from 20 seconds to under five, as pros and enthusiasts synthesized high-speed solutions and turn combinations (called algorithms) and shared them with the world. (For a good primer, check out this documentary on Netflix.)

While the answers are already out there, a new Bluetooth-connected Rubik’s Cube (and companion app) unravels the terminology and simplifies it all into a guided tutorial. The Connected Cube sadly won’t have me cracking into the world rankings, but I can now, with increasing reliability, solve a Rubik’s Cube from scratch, without any help.

The Rubik’s Connected Cube is $59, making it notably pricier than typical Rubik’s Cubes, which are usually less than $20. You’re paying that premium for an iron-clad way of learning how to set up your scrambled cube, and an on-the-rails step-by-step method that will solve it, barring human error.

The only visible difference from a cube you didn’t solve in your childhood is a cross-shaped recess on the yellow face. This is where you recharge the puzzle so it’s able to connect over Bluetooth. A single charge will last you a good week of attempts to solve the cube. It otherwise looks, feels and moves like any other Rubik’s Cube. The magic lies with the companion app. This is a teacher with infinite patience that can track your every twist and, well, screw-up.

The Rubik’s Connected app is mostly focused on competitive functions and speed-solve timers aimed at experienced cubers, with the learning section for the rest of us, relegated to the final tab. GoCube, the company behind the Rubik’s Connected, has made connected cubes in the past — this is one with some (arguably important) Rubik’s branding. It also makes a more advanced modelthat lights up as you progress. That costs $20 more.

The solution guide includes a detailed course that covers the terminology and the moves used to get you to your first solve. It’s a seven-step process (there are faster, more complicated ways to solve it), and you’ll find some steps more complicated than others. At least I did.

Each step comes with at least one video tutorial, alongside a cheat sheet of the algorithm combinations needed to manipulate the cube. The best part is that the app is able to keep you on track by offering a way to reverse your mistakes, through a series of on-screen twists and rotations, as well as the option to  “program” your cube so you can repeat any trickier steps until you’ve got them memorized.

After I got my first solve — which I was far too proud of — there’s a practice option in the learning tab that offers minimal hints to help you work through the cube. If you need more assistance, a light-bulb icon will offer a video tutorial of the step you’re working on, as well as the turns needed.

I’ve now solved the cube a handful of times, and I’m working to memorize the process. I can typically unscramble the cube in under three minutes. The more complicated final steps still trip me up occasionally, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Sub-ten-second solves aren’t happening any time soon, but if I can solve a Rubik’s Cube, you almost definitely can too.

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White House monitoring GameStop stock explosion

More On: gamestop Discord bans r/WallStreetBets server over ‘hate speech’ GameStop rally continues as officials raise possibility of foul play GameStop rally is warning that market bubbles have gone mad Top GameStop investors reap billions from dizzying stock surge

The feds are keeping an eye on GameStop’s exploding stock price, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other economic officials in the Biden administration are “monitoring the situation” with GameStop and other stocks that have been pumped up by rookie investors online, Psaki told reporters at a press briefing.

“It’s a good reminder, though, that the stock market isn’t the only measure of the health of our economy,” Psaki said. “It doesn’t reflect how working- and middle-class families are doing.”

Psaki made the remark in response to a question and didn’t say what concerns officials might have about the stock rally. But Barron’s reported late Tuesday that securities regulator in Massachusetts are concerned that GameStop’s unusual trading suggests there is something “systemically wrong” with the options trading around the stock.

GameStop’s share price more than doubled Wednesday and has surged more than eightfold over the past week thanks largely to what appear to be small-time traders on Reddit’s “r/wallstreetbets” forum.

Users on the message board, who refer to themselves as “degenerates,” have been trying to put a squeeze on institutional investors who bet against the video-game retailer, sending the stock price soaring in the process.

Novice traders have also been plowing into other companies whose shares were worth only a few bucks just last week, such as movie theater chain AMC Entertainment, smartphone maker Blackberry and headphone maker Koss Corporation.

Those stocks exploded even as the broader market took a tumble Wednesday. The Dow Jones industrial average was down about 1.4 percent, or 427.42 points, at 30,509.62 as of 2:05 p.m. while the S&P 500 was recently off about 1.7 percent.

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Make money on social media with Koji posts

People with established social media followings can easily make money by getting people to support them on sites such as Patreon.

But what if someone wanted to sell a song, photo, e-book or whatever directly onto the News Feed of Facebook or Instagram or your Twitter timeline?

That’s the problem Dmitry Shapiro and partner Sean Thielen looked to solve with their Koji website, to create a vehicle for the “99%” of social media who don’t have the big audiences “influencers” get. They, too, should be able to “monetize their fandom” no matter how small a group it is, Shapiro says.

Koji has been in beta test mode for the last year but just opened up to the public in October.

“People are making in the hundreds of dollars,” Shapiro says. “Sometimes they get $20, something they see thousands. No one has made millions. Yet.”

More: Did you unbox a new iPhone 12? Here are the first 5 things to try.

More: Are Facebook and Alexa really listening? 6 common tech myths debunked

Koji users include a podcaster who has created a course on how to do podcasts, which she sells chapter by chapter, and a fitness trainer from Venice Beach, California, who takes fitness questions from fans.

The beauty of the Koji format, Shapiro says, is that people don’t have to leave social media to support you, as they do if they go to Patreon or Cameo.

“Most of our stuff happens with one on one or group messages,” Shapiro says. And people are selling things they wouldn’t normally see on other sites. One man offers push-ups for charity.

“Most people on social media don’t have a large following, so they can’t get sponsorships,” he says. “But if you have anybody who likes you, here’s a way they can support you.”

Before Koji, Shapiro worked at Google, where he was a product manager on the now defunct Google + social network, and a top exec at MySpace.

His biggest idea was one that became widely successful, but without him. In 2005, he thought there should be a great video network online, a place where people could share their videos. He called it Veoh, and he began pitching it four months before YouTube launched.

Veoh lasted until 2010. Considering that Google paid $160 billion to buy YouTube in 2006, once it became a smash success, Shapiro isn’t bitter about what came of the video revolution and his potential participation.

“I’m weird,” he says. “I’ve always celebrated YouTube, I love it. I see it as my dream fulfilled. I wasn’t the one who succeeded in it, but the dream is success, and extremely powerful.”

Meanwhile, what’s a Koji anyway? It’s a Japanese word for a substance used to make miso soup. Shapiro and Thielen loved the sound of it, even it did prevent them for being able to buy the koji.com web address. That’s owned by a sushi restaurant in Portland, Oregon.

So instead, Shapiro sends people to http://www.koji.to or http://www.withkoji.com

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Google brings tab search to Chromebooks with Chrome OS 87

Google is rolling out Chrome OS 87, which includes the recently revealed tab search feature. You can access that from the circular button in the top-right corner or by pressing Ctrl-Shift-A, as 9to5 Google notes. It’s a useful function that will help you find a specific tab across all of your open windows. Tab search will arrive on the desktop Chrome browser later.

Once you’ve updated your Chromebook, you’ll be able to see the battery levels of connected Bluetooth devices, a feature that’s mainly meant for wireless headphones. You can see the battery percentage in the Bluetooth menu and via a notification in the bottom right of your screen when you connect a device.

There are also 36 more wallpapers to choose from, some of which were created with the Chrome Canvas app, along with mouse, touchscreen and stylus input support for the Alt-Tab window switcher. Other features include tweaks to language settings to make life easier for multilingual users, support for switch accessibility devices and the option to rename files and pick folders to store them in when saving to Google Drive.

As ever, it may take several days before the update is available to everyone.

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Instagram and Messenger get ‘vanish mode’ for disappearing chats

Facebook is giving users a new way to chat with disappearing messages. Messenger and Instagram will soon get a new “vanish mode” feature for ephemeral messages.

When enabled — via a swipe up on a chat — messages sent while in vanish mode will disappear as soon as you leave the conversation. And, like Snapchat, you’ll be notified if the person you’re chatting with takes a screenshot of a conversation. Messenger already had disappearing messages as part of its “secret conversation” feature, but it required several steps and setting a timer for each message to disappear individually. For Instagram, vanish mode is the first time users will be able to have the option to have their chats disappear, though it requires opting in to Instagram’s new Messenger-powered chat features.

Vanish mode is available to Messenger users in the US now and will expand to additional countries, and to Instagram, “soon.”

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Get a lifetime subscription to XSplit VCam for $20

Video game streamers and content creators, not too long ago, were the only people who required an at-home video setup. That’s no longer the case in 2020. The rise of remote working, distance learning and social distancing has forced much of the population to spend their days in front of their computers at home. So, although internet personalities may have already had the expensive camera, audio gear and green screen required for an at-home video setup, that certainly wasn’t the case for the rest of us.

Yet, thanks to advancements in technology and the popularity of activities like streaming games, people these days don’t need to dedicate a large amount of cash and space to achieve a high-quality video setup from home. That’s where software likeXSplit VCam shines.

At its core, XSplit VCam offers professional-level background replacement, removal and blurring that’s possible with any webcam and without the need for expensive green screens, complicated lighting setups and tons of space.

For starters, it lets you replace your background with an image, video, webpage or YouTube video. This functionality makes it quick and easy to have the perfect setup for your streaming and video-calling needs. So, whether you want to liven things up for a stream or look professional for a business call, this software has you covered. You can also add a bokeh effect while streaming or on a video call. That means you get a Portrait-style look and feel when on camera, which puts you in focus and blurs out your background. In other words, you can maintain privacy, hide any mess and improve the quality of your video — all with the same tool.

Equally important, this software is compatible with everything you need to or already use in 2020. XSplit VCam works with streaming apps such as Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), Streamlabs and XSplit. Meaning, you can broadcast your streams to every popular platform where gamers come to watch and hang out online, from Twitch and YouTube to Mixer, Facebook and more. Plus, since it integrates with Zoom, Google Meet, Skype and every other video conferencing app you’ve had to download this year, you can conveniently use it for work or when video chatting with family and friends.

Streams and video calls are now part of everyday life. XSplit VCam is a practical solution for navigating this new normal. Typically $49,a lifetime subscription to XSplit VCam (Windows Only) is on sale for a limited time for $20, 59% off its original price tag.

Prices are subject to change.

Engadget is teaming up withStackSocialto bring you deals on the latest headphones, gadgets, tech toys, and tutorials. This post does not constitute editorial endorsement, and we earn a portion of all sales. If you have any questions about the products you see here or previous purchases, please contact StackSocial supporthere.

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At these companies, workers are required to take time off

Unlimited paid time off sounds great on paper.

You can take as much time as you need. And you don’t have to submit requests, track days or worry about saving time for any unplanned events. But several companies have found that workers often end up taking less time off instead of more.

So some companies are trying a different approach: mandatory time off.

Utah-based photo book company Chatbooks offered unlimited time off since it launched in 2014, but many employees weren’t taking extended time off — especially since the pandemic, said Dan Jimenez, president and chief operating officer. Himself included.

“I was the biggest culprit.”

As a result, “people were having a hard time with their mental and emotional health at work,” he said.

To help, the company, which has about 150 full- and part-time employees, implemented a mandatory paid time off policy: Employees are expected to take five consecutive business days off every quarter.

“It is more about setting a minimum than a maximum,” said Jimenez. “Unlimited PTO on its own just doesn’t work.”

For his first mandated week off, he spent time with his family, and went hiking and mountain biking.

The company still has unlimited time off for things like doctor’s appointments or children’s school events. And if a worker wants to extend their days beyond a week, they can coordinate with their manager to work it out. Currently, mandated days off only apply to full-time workers.

The only time employees can’t take their mandated time off is October 1 through December 23 because that’s the company’s busiest time. Workers can still take a day or two if needed during that period. After the holidays, the entire company shuts down for two weeks.

Making sure everyone disconnects

Airline marketing strategy firm SimpliFlying has been mandating its workers take time off since 2016.

The company, which currently has five employees, used to have an unlimited vacation policy, but some were using it more than others.

“Some people took time off regularly, while others were still working weekends and never taking time off. There was a huge disparity,” said founder and CEO Shashank Nigam.

The mandatory policy initially required workers to take a week off every seven weeks, but that turned out to be too frequent. Employees now must take a week off every eight weeks. Sick days are still unlimited.

As a small company, Nigam had to put a few requirements in place to make sure the vacations don’t disrupt business operations. While two colleagues can be out the same week, they can’t take back-to-back weeks off. “There always needs to be a handover before the next person goes off.”

And here’s how serious the company is about ensuring employees disconnect: If you work during your time off, like checking in on Slack or responding to emails, you won’t get paid for the week. They also give clients at least three weeks notice when someone is going to take time off.

Nigam doesn’t want his employees thinking about work when they are off. “You come back refreshed. You come with smarter inputs and are more creative.”

‘Unplugged Days’

When the pandemic hit and data platform company Cloudera went fully remote, managers noticed workers weren’t taking enough time off, even though the company has an unlimited policy for its US workers.

So this summer, the company started regularly extending weekends to help employees disconnect.

“We realized we needed to be thinking of the mental health of employees and how to give them some additional days off,” said Bob Mahan, Cloudera chief human resources officer.

“Unplugged Days” happen every three weeks. First, employees get a Friday off to make a three-day weekend. After the next three weeks pass, there’s a four-day weekend and after another three weeks, a five-day weekend. And then the cycle repeats.

During Unplugged Days, the entire company shuts down, except for a few employees to handle any customer issues (they get days off at different times). Workers aren’t supposed to send any emails, schedule meetings or perform any other work.

“We set the tone from the top that these are supposed to be completely unplugged days,” said Mahan

To date, employees have 12 Unplugged Days, and 20 more are scheduled between now and April 2021. The company plans to keep the Unplugged Days as long as it is remote.

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Welcome to the hot seat

Zoom has zipped at hyperspeed along an all-too-familiar arc for hot Silicon Valley startups — from a ubiquitous D.C. darling to an object of suspicion and scrutiny.

Just weeks after emerging as the video platform of the locked-down era, where millions of people and some of Capitol Hill’s biggest players are holding business meetings, yoga classes, play dates and happy hours online, the nine-year-old California company faces scrutiny from Congress and elsewhere for a barrage of security and privacy lapses. Those include revelations about leaked videos, undisclosed sharing of personal data, weaker-than-advertised encryption and a disturbing new form of mass harassment known as “Zoom bombing.”

The furor has already brought a class-action lawsuit in California, investigations by attorneys general in states such as Connecticut and Florida, and pressure from members of Congress to tighten its practices. It also increases the odds that whenever the Capitol returns to normal, Zoom — a company with up to now little-to-no Washington lobbying muscle and almost no history of campaign donations — will join industry giants like Facebook and Google in the hot seat of D.C.’s tech backlash.

The speed of Zoom’s political rise and fall has been dizzying, considering how many years it took for much larger tech companies to see their popularity curdle in Washington.

“There’s a new thing almost every hour,” Justin Brookman, consumer privacy and technology policy director for Consumer Reports, said of the stream of damaging Zoom revelations.

“It’s like if Facebook had operated for 10 years under the radar and all the questionable project decisions that they made kind of got baked in, and then all the sudden they became wildly famous and then it all came to [a head] at once,” he added.

Zoom Chief Executive Eric Yuan, who founded the company in 2011, chalked up its latest woes to the sudden glare of the spotlight, writing this week that “we did not design the product with the foresight that, in a matter of weeks, every person in the world would suddenly be working, studying, and socializing from home.”

The company said the peak number of daily participants on its conferences has multiplied more than 20-fold from December to March, soaring above 200 million a day. Zoom has also quickly become a staple on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Silicon Valley’s own Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) publicly using the service for meetings and Q&As with reporters.

Yuan promised to focus the company’s resources over the next three months on addressing the regulatory and consumer concerns. But lawmakers and other government leaders said they’re not letting up until the company takes meaningful steps to fix its flaws.

“My concerns have not been allayed at all,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Thursday in an interview, referring to the use of “Zoom bombing” to spread hate speech and pornographic content in settings like online classes. “A blog post is no substitute for action and the vile hate groups are continuing to harass Zoom users, intruding on their meetings and spreading their abuse, and I want to see Zoom actually protect its users, not just try to message the problem away.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said Zoom’s security lapses could disrupt efforts to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

“As so many American businesses depend on video conferencing services to keep our economy going during this pandemic-forced new normal, we cannot risk complacency in our online privacy and security,” Blackburn said in a statement. “Zoom must do more to enact stronger security standards and immediately halt unauthorized data sharing with third parties.”

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Why are we hiding our personal finances from loved ones?

While romance may be brewing ahead of Valentine’s Day, so are some dirty secrets.

About 44% of U.S. adults admit to hiding a bank account or debt, or to spending more money than their partner would be comfortable with, according to a new study from CreditCards.com, which surveyed 1,378 adults who are married, in a civil partnership or living with their partner. That number was included in a survey of 2,501 adults from CreditCards.com.

So why are people committing financial infidelity? More than one-third say they do it for privacy or a desire to control their own finances.

“Money is such a taboo,” says Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com. “People would rather talk about other uncomfortable topics like religion or political views than money. This is really unfortunate because hiding that kind of a secret can hold back your financial future and undermine trust.”

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Roughly 34% of the 1,378 respondents say they believe they’ve spent more than their significant other would tolerate.

About 17% of those surveyed have kept a secret account (10% credit card, 9% savings, 8% checking) while 12% have carried some amount of hidden debt.

Americans between the ages of 24 and 39 in relationships are much more likely than Gen Xers and baby boomers to have committed financial infidelity with their partner, the study shows.

One reason why: Millennials are more likely than Gen Xers and boomers to have divorced parents, which has likely caused them to be more protective of their own finances, according to experts. Overall, 57% of these millennials have committed financial infidelity compared to 45% of Gen Xers and 37% of boomers.

Over one-quarter of adults say that financial infidelity is worse than an affair. That was out of a larger pool of respondents regardless of relationship status.

Men (47%) were slightly more likely than women (43%) to admit to keeping a financial secret.

About 21% of respondents say they have kept their finances hidden in case a relationship ends poorly.

Those in the highest income bracket, making at least $80,000 a year, were much more likely (39%) than those in lower-income brackets (20%) to say they kept secret finances because they were “embarrassed” about the way they handled their money.

“An awful lot of people are keeping financial secrets from their partner,” Rossman says. “But these topics don’t have to be scary, intimidating or embarrassing. If you’re sharing a life with somebody, it’s something you need to talk about.”

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