Why Are Electrical Plugs Different in Europe?

iStock / RTimages
iStock / RTimages

In a nutshell, plugs and sockets differ from region to region and even country to country because, at the time they were being developed, no one really saw any reason to make them all the same.

First, a little history. When electricity was first introduced into homes and businesses, it was primarily for powering lights. Early devices and appliances that ran on electricity had to be wired directly into a building’s electric system. It was a little inconvenient—you couldn’t easily move, say, a lamp, from one room to another without wiring it in again—and a potentially hazardous task for most people to attempt.

Starting in the 1880s, several inventors patented variations on a connector that allowed the cord from an appliance to be screwed into a lightbulb socket for power. (Thomas Edison was not one of those inventors, and that was a “curious oversight” on his part, says historian Fred E. H. Schroeder, since he “anticipated almost everything that might relate to the incandescent light bulb and its applications.") These connectors made it much simpler and safer to connect an appliance to power. Since they screwed into the socket, dropping the appliance or pulling too hard on the cord meant you might damage the device, the cord, or the socket.

In the early 1900s, inventor Harvey Hubbell improved on the idea with his Separable Attachment Plug. The plug had an inner connector screwed into the light socket and an outer connector (attached to an appliance by a cord) that plugged into that via two prongs and could easily be popped in and out. It was the ancestor of the modern two-prong plug and socket.

Other inventors soon started coming up with improvements and safety features for this ancestral plug (like a third prong for grounding, insulation for the prongs, and plug shapes that ensured the plug was connected to the socket properly). Just like there’s more than one way to skin a cat, there’s more than one way to design a safe, convenient plug. All over the world, inventors, tinkerers, and engineers approached the task with their own spin, and we wound up with a bunch of different plugs and sockets that all started with the same basic idea, but were designed in very different ways.

At the time, there was no real reason they shouldn’t have been different. The world wasn’t as connected as it is today and electrical appliances weren’t as ubiquitous. International travel wasn’t convenient or attainable by most people, and even those that could hop across the pond probably weren’t going to be lugging a lamp or a fan with them. It didn’t really matter if someone half a world away could use the plug you were developing, so different countries and regions did things their own way and developed plugs and sockets according to local and national standards that often differed very much from each other.

By the time travel and appliance portability were at the point where standardization made sense, electrically wired homes and electric appliances were widespread, and switching to new plugs and sockets was an expensive proposition—which is not to say that a global standard doesn’t exist and a switch over can’t be done. In 1986, the International Electrotechnical Commission unveiled a “universal plug,” known as a Type N plug, that they hoped would become a widespread standard. So far, though, only Brazil and South Africa have adopted the design for their plugs and wall outlets.

For the foreseeable future we’re stuck with the hodgepodge of plugs and sockets that we have. If you want to see what different countries use, see here and here. And if you’re wondering if one plug is actually better than the others, Tom Scott makes a pretty good case for the British design.

If you’re abroad, it’s not just the plug and socket that will be different, but possibly the voltage and frequency of household electricity, which differs from region to region. Even if you have a plug adapter for when you travel, the voltage disparity means that your gadgets might not work as well, or could become damaged. The voltage split has its roots in the “War of the Currents,” which is an interesting story.

Facebook Stored Millions of Passwords in Plain Text. Here's How to Change Yours

iStock.com/courtneyk
iStock.com/courtneyk

If you're concerned about online security, you may have already reconsidered your relationship with Facebook. The social networking giant has earned a reputation for mishandling users' data and leaving them vulnerable to hacking. Now there's a new reason to reassess your profile: As KrebsOnSecurity reports, Facebook has been storing passwords in plain text since 2012, meaning they were easily readable and searchable for years for those with access to Facebook's internal workings. Any users should change their passwords as soon as possible.

Over the last seven years, between 200 million and 600 million users had their passwords made vulnerable by the security flaw. The passwords were saved in Facebook's internal password management system in plain text that required no decoding to read. According to Facebook, "hundreds of millions of Facebook Lite [its app for low-power-usage devices] users, tens of millions additional Facebook users, and tens of thousands of Instagram users" were affected.

Tech companies normally encrypt the user passwords they store in their databases. Without encryption, anyone who has access to those files can read that sensitive information without facing any barriers. Facebook's security issue left passwords open to up to 20,000 company employees, and according to KrebsOnSecurity, "access logs showed some 2000 engineers or developers made approximately 9 million internal queries for data elements that contained plain-text user passwords."

Facebook claims to have fixed the problem and plans to reach out to every user who was affected. Because there's no sign that the passwords were leaked or mishandled, the company won't require users to change their passwords. But given Facebook's reputation for security, all users should probably change their passwords as a precaution.

To change your Facebook password, go to Settings and then Security and Login. Go to the Change Password option under Login and select Edit. From there, you'll be able to set a new password after entering your current one. Here are some tips for developing a strong password.

[h/t KrebsOnSecurity]

7 Smart Cleaning Devices to Help Keep Your Allergies at Bay

iStock
iStock

Just because you hate cleaning doesn’t mean you need to live in filth. You may not be able to buy a robot maid straight out of The Jetsons (yet), but there are plenty of automated ways to clean your house, if you’re willing to shell out a few extra dollars for the joy of watching a machine do your work for you. Here are seven pieces of technology that can help you combat dust, dirt, and allergens at home without lifting a finger.

1. iRobot Roomba

A robot vacuum skirts the wall of a room with wooden floors.
iRobot

The Roomba has long been the gold standard in robotic vacuuming. While it may not be as effective as the human hand at getting into tight corners and over thick rugs, there’s no better way to clean the entire house while you sit on the couch watching television. You can preschedule cleanings so that your handy helper tidies up while you’re at work, and acoustic sensors help the robot flag particularly dirty patches of floor for extra attention. Newer versions are compatible with the Amazon Echo, meaning you can vacuum your home without even pressing a button. The higher-end models offer even more features: Roomba 900 series maps out its route through your home in the iRobot app to give you precise data on where it cleaned and what areas it spent the most time on, while the Roomba i7+ can empty its own dust bin.

Buy it on on Amazon starting at $270. In addition to Amazon, you can get the budget Roomba 675 from Best Buy, Walmart, or the retailers below:

2. Hoover REACT Vacuum

A Hoover React vacuum
Hoover

Hoover's REACT series of vacuums takes the upright to new heights. Outfitted with FloorSense technology, these smart vacuums know when you move from carpet to hard wood to tile, and can adjust the brush speed accordingly: On carpet, it'll use a faster brush speed to lift out stubborn dirt; when you move from the bedroom to the kitchen, the brush will slow down to prevent dirt debris from spreading. The REACT line is also Bluetooth compatible, so you can connect to the Hoover app in order to customize your FloorSense settings and monitor your machine's filter. The icing on the cake (for the pet-loving Mental Floss staff) is its superior suction and sealed allergen system that banishes pet hair from your upholstery and floor (at least temporarily).

Buy it on Amazon ($174), Walmart ($174), or from one of the retailers below:

3. Braava Jet

A Braava jet mops a hardwood floor while a dog looks on.
The Braava Jet 240

While iRobot’s foray into automated mopping isn’t as advanced as its vacuuming products, the Braava jet mopping ‘bot, first released in 2016, makes a decent pass at cleaning kitchens, bathrooms, and wood floors. Designed for any hard surface, the Braava 240 comes with three different settings—wet mopping, damp sweeping, and dry sweeping—and can be controlled using the iRobot app. The petite cube vibrates stains and dirt away using disposable pads ($8 for a 10-pack or $14 for two reusable pads) specific to the cleaning setting. The pricier, newer model, the Braava 380t, has just two settings—dry or a wet—but it can mop for up to 150 minutes on a single charge and is compatible with Swiffer and other cleaning cloths.

Buy it on Amazon ($170), Walmart ($185), or at one of the retailers below:

4. Everybot

A robot mop navigates around a planter in a living room.
Everybot

Funded on Indiegogo in 2017, the Korean-made Everybot packs more power than the Braava. It’s a little bigger and can’t be controlled by an app, but its dual-spinning mops are designed to tackle spills and tough stains across the house with one touch of a button. It comes equipped with six different cleaning patterns as well as the ability to control its direction manually with a remote control. The mopping pads can be thrown in the washing machine or scrubbed by hand. It can also function as a duster: The robot has a handle on top, and you can grab it and run it over any surface, including windows.

Buy it on Amazon for $304 or from one of the retailers below:

5. Litter-Robot

A cat sits inside the mouth of the Litter-Robot.
Litter-Robot

No one likes a full litter box—not even your cat. So unless you’ve trained your cat to go in the toilet, you could probably use a litter box robot to keep your scooping duties to a minimum. The Litter-Robot looks a little like a kitty rocket ship and can save you some major smells. When the cat steps on the sensor upon entering the box, it triggers a countdown clock to the next cleaning cycle. Seven minutes later, when your cat is long gone, the orb-like litter box rotates, sifting the waste down into a filtered storage bin below. You only need to empty out the waste bin every few days as it fills up, and there’s never a smell—perfect for a house with multiple cats. Some reviewers note that it cuts down on their litter-and-dust triggered allergies, too.

Buy it from Litter-Robot for $449.

6. Awair Air Quality Monitor

Awair air quality monitor
Awair

Get to the root of your airborne allergy problem by cleaning up the air you breathe. Awair tracks the five main factors contributing to the air quality in your home—temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, chemicals, and dust—and provides recommendations for changes you can make in order to improve your air quality. Awair is also compatible with Amazon Echo, Next, and IFTTT, which means it can direct your smart switch to turn on your humidifier if the humidity level drops, turn on the AC if your home gets too hot, or notify you if carbon dioxide levels rise. (The company also makes a smaller version called the Awair Glow that doubles as a smart plug.)

Buy it on Amazon for $163 or from one of the retailers below:

7. GermGuardian 4-In-1 Air Cleaning System

GermGuardian smart air filtration system
GermGuardian

Outfitted with a True HEPA filter, this air cleaning system from GermGuardian captures 99.97 percent of allergens and asthma triggers, including pet dander and pollen, as well as reduces airborne bacteria. Use the corresponding app to monitor and control your home’s air quality from anywhere.

Buy it on Amazon ($148), Walmart ($144), or one of the retailers below:

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