ANTI-VIRUS REVISITED

We bow to the mounting evidence and can no longer recommend the free anti-virus program: “Avast.” Too many complaints. And yet, cyber attacks as they’re called, are becoming increasingly common and sophisticated.

Choosing an alternative is tricky. For years, PC World, PC Magazine and other reviewers gave their highest marks to the Russian-owned Kaspersky anti-virus. Then came the accusation that Russian hackers may be using it to conduct espionage against the U.S.; some readers dropped it like a hot potato. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security ordered federal agencies to remove it from their systems.

Avast is based in the Czech Republic, and there’s been some strange behavior recently.  One of our readers said the people who answer the phone sound like scammers who pretend they are from Microsoft and want to charge you an arm and a leg to fix your computer.

“I asked my question and the guy told me Avast was good for three machines,” a reader wrote. “He immediately insisted on helping me pay for the product.  When I told him that I wanted to buy it online he was even more insistent.  I finally hung up to get rid of him. It felt like my call was diverted from Avast support to something else.”

That’s similar to an experience another reader had. He went to Avast.com for tech support and a link on their site diverted him to the company “Nanoheal.” It charged him $119 for installing a free program.  (We called and verified that Nanoheal is in fact part of Avast.) The Nanoheal tech installed the MalwareBytes program, “AdwCleaner,” which stands for “adware cleaner.”

You can get this for free at MalwareBytes.com/AdwCleaner. MalwareBytes has a great reputation and we’ve used their other free products. Some months ago we installed AdwCleaner on one of our computers. The first time it fixed 54 “threats,” all of which were cleaned automatically. Five months later, we tried it again, and it found none. That’s probably because we switched from Avast to Norton Internet Security.

How does all this shifting go on? It’s a volatile business. Companies that we knew about only a year or two ago, get new owners. This can happen so often that they’re not even in the same country anymore. Or they have the same owners but new programmers. Or the same programmers but new testing procedures. It goes on constantly and even the people in Silicon Valley get confused.

Our new recommendation to get Norton Antivirus is a surprise even to us. This used to be one of the worst programs we ever installed; so watch yourself if you try to save some money by buying old versions on eBay. This thing was so bad that they used to send us free versions every year and we finally told a representative to cut it out because it slowed out computers to a crawl. We never heard from them again. That was 20 years ago.

Well, something finally changed. The new Norton is fast and easy on the system. Whoever did it should have their salary doubled. It tells us if a program is using too many resources. (Usually, it’s Google Chrome, so we use Chrome’s free extension “OneTab” to collapse ten open tabs into one.)

Norton’s basic new version is $30, which includes unlimited tech support by phone. The standard version is $40 and adds safeguards for your personal identity info and online transactions. It also comes with a money-back guarantee that your computer will be virus-free. The deluxe version is $50, and can be installed on three devices, including smartphones.

The New Google Phone

Joy loves her Google Nexus phone, even though Bob crushed it while closing the car door and cracked the screen. (Come on, it was an accident; it still works.) But we’re both intrigued by the latest Google phone, the Pixel 2, supposed to be on the market this month.

Two features really got us: One is the squeezable sides. To activate any feature — like taking a picture, just point the phone and squeeze the sides. (Not real hard!) You decide what feature will be triggered by the squeeze. The default squeeze lets you  speak a question.

The other is the catalog. Point the Pixel 2 camera at your books, records, business cards, whatever, and it automatically creates a catalog of your titles. This was previously such a royal pain that we never did it. It will also identify landmarks for you. We hope this actually works. We used to have a star-gazing program that was supposed to identify whatever star or constellation you were looking at. But no matter what we pointed it at the program told us it was the moon.

There’s no headphone jack. If you want headphones, you have to get the wireless kind. If you get the “Pixel Buds,” you can tap your right ear and it will translate a foreign language speaker for you in real time out loud and by displaying the text on your Pixel 2.

One of the Pixel 2’s best features is only available to “Project Fi” subscribers, a service we use. The service plan combines T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Sprint into a virtual network. For $20 a month, you get unlimited talk and text and pay $10 for each gigabyte of data you use, with money back for any part of a gigabyte you don’t use. Extra cool feature: “Look Ma, no SIM card.” Project Fi users can take advantage of an “eSIM” technology that eliminates the need for a physical card. If you don’t use Project Fi, the Pixel 2 uses Verizon.

We’re cheap, so we may not spring for the new Pixel 2 phone just yet. However, the price for either of the two versions — big screen or regular — is going to be about $200 less than the new Apple phones. On pre-orders, the Pixel 2 is $649 and the Pixel 2 XL is $849.

Internuts

  • Netlingo.com  Click on “largest list of chat acronyms.” There are 11 just for “stupid,” such as “ISWAC” (if stupid were a crime), or “DWS” (driving while stupid.) Some are quite helpful, like “JDMJ” (just doing my job). Our favorite so far is “LOL WUSS, which stands for “Laugh out loud, with unintentional snort sounds.”
  • Unusualplaces.org Search on “Zalipie” on this site to see the most decorative village in Poland, perhaps the world. Even the dog houses are painted with flowers.

 

 

A BIT OF BITCOIN

Ever adventurous, Joy decided the only way to really get an idea of what Bitcoin was about, was to buy some. So she bought a bit.

At $4,000-plus per coin, she only bought a little bit of a Bitcoin. She bought $75 worth, which was a little less than two percent. With that little bit she bought a sweater from Overstock.com. It was $19.74. That left $54 worth of Bitcoin. She can go wild later.

So what is this all about? James Dimon, head of J.P. Morgan and Co., the largest bank in the U.S., says “It’s a fraud, a scam.” Well, Mr. Dimon is always worth listening to, but in this situation, he may be talking his book (his own interests), as they say in the investment biz. But the sweater is real and so was the transaction, so that wasn’t a scam. How did we get there?

The first question might be where would you buy a Bitcoin? The other first question is what is it? There are several other first questions, which we will try to get to in the order in which they were perceived. So the first one is she bought her Bitcoin at Coinbase.com. (There are no actual coins involved. Though we sometimes see pictures of coins with a big “B” stamped on the surface, these are artists’ renderings of what such a coin might look like if it actually existed.)

Another first question is: If it doesn’t really exist, what is it? To which we might add — and so we will — “what does this have to do with a column on computers and high tech?” Well … computers create the coins. They do this by solving problems involving blockchain transactions, and solving them first. Does this seem to be getting complicated? That’s only an appearance, like everything else involving money.

The person who solves a problem first gets some coins, 12.5 these days. Who gives them the coins? The web. That is, by an interlocking web of computers that acknowledges that someone has solved the problem first. Boom. A lot of computing power is involved.

Using the program that initially established Bitcoins — which are frequently called a cryptocurrency, meaning they’re encrypted currency — a limit of 21 million Bitcoins can be produced. That limit is expected to be reached in 2040, only 23 years from now. Looked at through the lens of classical economics, that would mean the price has to go up. But of course only if the currency is accepted. This seems to be happening: The coins are currently valued at more than $4000 apiece, up from around $600 this time last year.

So who accepts these coins as currency? So far: Whole Foods, Subway, Expedia (travel), New Egg (electronics discounter), Microsoft, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Airlines, DISH network, Intuit, Etsy, Steam (computer games), Bloomberg.com, etc. In all, nearly one hundred companies currently accept Bitcoins as payments. The number keeps growing.

Coinbase.com seems to be the most common source for buying and selling Bitcoins, though there are many others. The transaction fee is commonly about four percent. This may seem high but is only slightly more than the fees charged by credit card companies.

In a real life case, from a TED talk on the topic, a housekeeper in Toronto regularly sends money through Bitcoin to her mother in the Philippines. Before using the digital method, she paid a ten percent fee, and her mother waited 47 days to get the money. With Bitcoin, the money was transferred in minutes, and the fee was two percent. An app on her phone called Abra lets her choose the service with the highest rating. She used to spend five hours a week just doing the paperwork for transferring money but now does it in minutes.

Bitcoin transactions of course are outside government control and ignore national boundaries. Many countries have currency controls, limiting how much money can be taken out at any one time; the limits often being quite small. In the book “The Age of Cryptocurrency,” by two veteran Wall Street Journal reporters, one of the authors describes how he could not have sold his condo in Buenos Aires without ceding most of the profit to the government. He was advised by a friend to use Bitcoin instead. So he went to an unmarked building, nervously agreed to the transaction, and went away without even a paper receipt. When he got home to the U.S., a couple hundred thousand dollars had been transferred to his bank account.

Underlying Bitcoin is the so-called “blockchain technology.” Companies like Wells Fargo, Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel, and JPMorgan Chase have invested in it through the “Hyperledger” project. Barclays, Britain’s largest bank, is already using it. To Bob, whose memory goes back a long way in technology, blockchain seems very similar to the Unix operating system developed for mainframe computers in the early days. In Unix, everything is a file, just as in blockchain everything is a block. It worked well and was hard to crack. We still see its remnants every day in the “dot” used in Internet addresses. The dot is an old Unix command to look through the Internet’s files and find the corresponding “block.”

This is all very sci-fi. What is a national currency worth, many have asked? Only what people think it is worth, is the answer that often comes back.

Internuts

  • How the Blockchain is Changing Money and Business.” Google those words for a fascinating TED talk by Don Tapscott, a Harvard professor. He explains why Bitcoin will bring about more social equality than anything we’ve tried yet. For example, in developing countries where people can’t sell their land because they have no title to it, blockchain could make that happen.
  • How Does Bitcoin Work and Who Actually Pays for the Mining?” Google that phrase to find an explanation on Quora that tells all. It has an error, stating that the number of coins will top out in 2140; it should say 2040.
  • 19 Industries the Blockchain will Disrupt.” Search on those words to find a YouTube video that explains how the technology underlying Bitcoin is changing business everywhere.
  • BitcoinBlockHalf.com is about the rewards of mining. The reward was chopped in half in 2016, and is programmed to halve again. This site estimates when that will happen and gives other statistics.

 

BUYING HIGH AND LOW

We haven’t seen all the features of Apple’s new iPhone, but even without seeing them we’re  impressed by the price. Apparently, a thousand dollars isn’t what it used to be. But what is? Apple has always had high prices but this may be getting ridiculous. So we bought an elderly friend a smartphone for $17. That would be a cost ratio of about sixty to one.

She impressed a fellow resident at her retirement home by whipping out her new phone to call an Uber cab. When she said it was a cheap phone, he figured she meant around  $200, a bargain these days. But the “Alcatel One Touch” cost us $17 from Walmart, and her monthly service cost is just $7 from TracFone. There’s just one problem:  It has very little storage space; add two or three apps and it’s full.

You see these phones in drugstores and supermarkets. There are racks of them. Prices range from the $17 we paid online from Walmart to around $35 at an actual drugstore. There’s nothing fixed about this; there are always sales and prices jump around. For the sake of having a reference point, we figure around $20 will do it.

Memory is insufficient. The iPhone will knock these cheap phones flat. What’s a mother to do? Well you can add a memory card and kick it up nicely.  We bought her a 32 gigabyte memory card from SanDisk, the people who invented them, and that set us back another $12.

So then, for $29 we were up to the level of many smartphones out there. But  there was a problem: It was easy to jump up the memory on this cheap smartphone, you can watch it done on videos on YouTube, but many of them are wrong. Some of these tell you how to “root” your phone, which can turn it into a “brick,” they warn, and expose you to hackers. Ignore all that. No need to root it these days. Just take off the back, remove  the battery, and  insert the card into the only slot available. The phone will immediately recognize the extra memory.  Boom, done.

With all this memory, she could get back her Scrabble game, her driving navigation,  and add all kinds of other apps as well. But loading the apps was kind of slow. Well, while you’re waiting, use the time to count up your thousand dollar savings.

If we had thought about the speed problem in advance, we would have bought SanDisk’s fastest card for $19. But we didn’t think of it. The “SanDisk Ultra” card, for around $12, claims speeds up to 80 gigabits per second. That’s extremely fast, but its average speed according to Techfunology.com is only 25 megabits per second. The SanDisk “Extreme” (around $19 on Amazon for the 32 gigabyte version but selling for about $70 elsewhere) is far better; its real average speed is around 90 gigabits.

Though we didn’t get the fastest, the SanDisk Ultra worked fine in our friend’s phone. She was able to add Uber’s rival “Lyft,” for cab service, and many games. Be sure to look up the storage capacity of your phone before buying one. The Alcatel One Touch can only handle 32 gigabytes of storage space, but that’s more than enough for practically anyone.

Finally, there is a distinct difference in the quality of the Alcatel One Touch phone’s camera. The expensive phones take sharper pictures. They also have larger screens, higher-resolution video and a lot of other features you may or may not need. Our elderly friend (98 years-old) thought she had to buy an iPhone just for her favorite apps. Not so.

A Treasure Trove of Freebies

Search on the phrase “Chrome Web Store” to find games, word processors, productivity tools and more – all free for use with the Google Chrome web browser. Bob found one of his favorite programs there, called “Writer.” It gives you a black screen and green text, like the old days of using DOS and remote terminals; very easy on the eyes. The editing commands are the same as in Microsoft Word.

When you find an app (short for “application”) you like, launch it, and make it easy to find again by clicking the three dots in the upper right of your Chrome web browser. Choose “more tools” and then “save to desktop.” You’ll have an icon for the program right where you can find it easily. If you’re using a Chromebook, all apps are available from the start menu.

Restaurant Bill Blues

Once a month, Joy has lunch with five other ladies. Splitting up the bill seems to be beyond them and there’s always claims and counter claims. Just to get it over with, Joy ends up paying more than her fair share.

An alternative solution: there’s a free app for Android and iPhone called “Tip N Split.” Put in the number of people, the total, and the tip you want (15 percent, 20 percent, etc.). It tells you what each person owes — with one problem.

The problem, as you well know, is that people order different stuff. (We’ll never forget the time we dined with a couple who ordered over $100 worth of wine, appetizers and other courses and then split the bill down the middle, though Bob  ordered only soup.) To get around this, use the app to lump two or three together if their bills are similar. Handle the Big Spenders separately. In fact, you can handle them all separately. Go around the table and announce each person’s share of the bill after keying in the total amount they ordered, including their share of the tax and whatever tip they want to give. Since it’s done by a computer program, that shuts everybody up. Anyone who objects is thrown out of the group.

 

 

 

 

GMAIL TIPS

Gmail is the most common email service on the planet. We thought we were experts, but a PC Magazine article alerted us to a few features we either forgot or missed in the general flotsam of digital overload.

You can send money to a Gmail recipient, and also request it, similar to PayPal. Just before you hit “send,” look for the dollar sign along the bottom of the email window. They’ll ask for your credit card number if it isn’t already associated with your account. The maximum amount you can transfer is $9,999. Alternatively, there’s an app for that, called “Google Wallet.”

  • Our favorite Gmail feature is “undo send.” If you see an error in your message, and we frequently do, or regret calling someone a something so-and-so, click “undo send.” To activate this feature, click the little gear in the upper right of your Gmail window. Then click “settings” and “enable undo send.” Choose 30 seconds to give yourself the maximum amount of time to think about it. This could have done wonders for some politicians.
  • We also like Gmail shortcuts. To use them, first click on the gear image, then “settings” then “Keyboard Shortcuts on.” Our favorites include tapping the “c” key to write an email and “r” to reply to one. Tap “e” to archive a message. When you want to find it again, tap the  forward slash (/) to put your cursor in the Gmail search box. Tap “f” to forward a message to someone else. For more shortcuts, search on the phrase “Gmail shortcuts,” or “minimalist Gmail cheat sheet.”
  • If you want any other email messages to appear in Gmail, click the gear icon, then “settings,” then “Accounts and import,” and tell Google to “add email from another address.”
  • To block a specific person, or any other sender — like the New York Times — click the little downward facing triangle next to the “reply arrow.” This sounds more confusing than it really is, it’s all to the right of the sender’s name. When you click on the little triangle, you get a drop-down menu. Among the choices is one to block further messages from that sender.

For even more Gmail features, search on the phrase “42 Gmail Features.” It’s a digital jungle out there.

Home Design

Bob used to have every issue of Fine Home Building Magazine, and nearly accepted a job there once. Instead of a washer/dryer in our apartment, he has tools filling two closets. Home design software is a big interest.

With that in mind, he turned to the new “Home Designer Pro 4,” from Ashampoo, a German company. Why is the company called “Ashampoo?” Their original product was so good at cleaning the bugs out of Windows software clean that a user said it was like shampoo.

The new version of Home Designer lets you bring in objects from 3D programs such as Sketchup and Collada. It lets you plan out solar installations. It has 380 new symbols for electrical, gas, water and security appliances. And you can preview your new home in 3D with furniture, light and surroundings. Rearrange the furniture and take a virtual tour. The product is $20 from Ashampoo.com.

 Internuts

  • AmericasLibrary.gov is from the Library of Congress. It’s aimed at kids, but adults may enjoy features like “Meet Amazing Americans,” “jump back in time,” and “join America at play.” We watched one of Thomas Edison’s first ever films from 1898, called “Street Arab.” It shows a man doing break-dancing. Back then, “Street Arab” was simply slang for any street performer and did not refer to actual Arabs.
  • How the Alcohol Industry Lies to You.” Google those words to find an article in ZME Science. Just as tobacco companies deliberately misled us about the effect of cigarettes (Bob used to smoke four packs a day), so the booze industry does it about booze. According to the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, where drinking alcohol is a national pastime, 92 percent of the alcohol industry’s websites surveyed had misleading info on alcohol-related cancer risk. (Sweden, by the way, is the only country we’ve come across that offers a weekend booze cruise. As soon as the ship is sufficiently offshore, the tax no longer applies and booze is cheap.)

TVs Revisited

A reader disagreed with our negative review of 4K TVs. We said they weren’t worth getting until there are more shows available in 4K resolution, or unless you have to buy a new TV anyway.

This guy, by the way, is something of a TV addict. He owns a dozen sets and gave us more information than the Pentagon has about Russia. Incidentally, “4K” refers to a dazzling level of detail, due to the large number of pixels and other wizardry. Among the TVs our reader owns is a 4K TV from Vizio, a 4K HDR (high dynamic range) TV from LG, a plasma TV from Pioneer, and many more. Even without many 4K shows available, you can see fantastic colors and details, he says.

“When I first turned on the Vizio 4K non-HDR, I was bowled over by the difference in picture quality,” he says, “even with regular content.” When he got a 4K TV with HDR, the difference was even more astounding.

He says his old plasma TV is still good compared to the kind we have, (LCD TV), but it doesn’t compete with the Vizio 4K. “Even better is an OLED TV from LG.” But both are “simply incredible.” He marvels that people are willing to spend almost a thousand bucks to upgrade a phone, but haven’t considered upgrading their TV. It’s not just the resolution in 4K TVs, it’s also the contrast.

So there you have it. You too can become an awesome consulting neighbor. But beware of 8K hyperbole, he adds. For those, you need a huge TV room, almost movie-theater size, to appreciate it. (By the way, we are among the few who know that the “LG” brand name stands for Lucky Gold Star. That’s because they contacted Bob thirty years ago when they first started. The name was meant to ward off evil spirits and welcome friendly ones. Guess it worked.)

 

POLITICAL DATING SITES

Lisdoonvarna, Ireland, home of the annual matchmaking festival.

Given the current divide in American politics, we decided to investigate dating sites that could eliminate arguments at the breakfast table (and beyond). Here goes:

— A new one for conservatives is TrumpSingles.com, a nicely designed site, with fewer offerings than big sites like Match.com, but more closely targeted. If you can’t figure out the target, it may not be for you.

ConservativesOnly.com is a bare-bones site that’s been around for years and is – how can we put it? – conservative.

— For liberals there are many sites (in fact, most) but for that international flavor they might like to try “Maple Match,” a free  app that “makes it easy for Americans to find Canadians.” (They’re just above us). This may be a good site for those looking for a quick and easy way to move to Canada and get away from it all.

LibertarianPassions.com is not sponsored by the Libertarian Party, which may not sponsor anything, actually, since it would sort of be contrary to their philosophy. Libertarians are conservative on economic issues, but liberal on social issues. Since Libertarians like to be left alone to do their thing, it’s a little surprising they have any dating site. But they like to be left alone together.

— For Socialists there’s BernieSingles.com, aimed straight for the hearts of fans of Bernie Sanders, former Presidential candidate and current senator from Vermont. (Also former college classmate of Bob, but they never knew each other.)

LiberalHearts.com not only lays it all out there but donates $1 to liberal organizations like Greenpeace, for each successful match. This would be good for sea-going Liberals.

For either side, those over 50 may want to peruse Stitch.net or OurTime.com. Anecdotally, we can say this works, since one of Joy’s best friends found true love on Stitch, and her brother has had two serious girlfriends from OurTime.

Another friend prefers Match.com, because it offers so many prospective dates. She’s also using LookBetterOnline.com for her best profile photo. The photo shoot took two and a half hours, involved two changes of clothes, and many poses in hundreds of photos. She had her hair and makeup professionally done. Still looks the same.

Stitch.net estimates there are about 11,000 dating sites around the world, which should be enough to keep anyone in the game. Most sites are free or charge little, like Stitch itself, which is $24 a month. You don’t necessarily get better results by paying more. “It’s Just Lunch” charged a thousand dollars for three months of their matchmaking services a few years ago. Reviews on Yelp had many unhappy campers, but reviews on ConsumerAffairs.com were quite positive.

There are specialized services, like “Linx,” “Selective Search,” “Samantha’s Table” and the “Millionaire Match” that charge $25,000 and up for introductions. Credentials and looks need to be verified.

New Features in Google Maps

Google Maps now gives walkers a sense of how steep their journey will be. This feature was already available for cyclists, but now walkers can have it too.

For instance, if you walk from the Ferry Building in San Francisco to the Botanical Garden, you’ll walk about 300 feet uphill. If you walked from Los Angeles to New York, you’d climb and descend 91,000 feet, reaching a maximum height of 11,663 feet in Colorado. They say it would take 912 hours. That’s if you go three miles an hour, non-stop. No rests allowed.

As always, when you get directions on Google Maps, you can click to send them to your phone. However, we’ve found the directions from the free Waze app are better.

Wood Covers

Joy’s iPad Mini now sports a wood veneer cover (very classy). It has three birds carved into the back, plus a phone number and brief message, should it get lost.

She got the cover from ToastMade.com. It’s mainly for decoration, though it will protect a phone or tablet from minor drops. If your gadget has a major drop, it really will be toast.

Price depends on the order. For an iPad, the basic cost is $39. Add $5 to have a design etched on it. Add another $5 to have words on it. A front panel costs an extra $15. That brought our price to $64. You can also get covers for laptops, phones, and other gadgets.

Internuts

  • Seven TED Talks that will make you Smarter and Happier.” Google those words to find some inspiring talks. The first one, five minutes long, is from a guy who was on the airliner Capt. Chesley Sullenberger landed in the Hudson River; he describes his thoughts on the way down. The phrase “Prepare for impact” got his full attention.
  • JenReviews.com has reviews on dozens of topics. We were interested in “modular kayaks” and drawing lessons. (The kayaks  come apart and  you throw the pieces in the back of your SUV or minivan.)

App Happy

Noise-Planet.org is calling all Android smart phone owners to help with a research project. The idea is to put noises on a map, to help local governments improve noise control. Start by downloading the free “NoiseCapture” app from the Google Play store. Then walk around your environment recording noise. The app sends in the results.

Climate Change: Call Home

If we ever go to the desert or to Alaska, we might get a “ClimateCase” to protect our phone. (Bob has gone both places, but didn’t have a phone. Don’t know how he stood it.)

Extreme cold and extreme heat can damage smart phones. It’s bad enough if your car won’t start, but what if your phone won’t start? Younger readers might go mad. If you refrigerate the ClimateCase for three hours, then put in your phone, it will be protected from Death Valley heat. For Eskimo weather, microwave the case for 25 seconds before putting the phone inside. If you don’t carry these appliances with you, don’t go. ClimateCase costs $35 from ClimateCase.com.

 

BOOK EM

We watched an interview with James Patterson, the best selling mystery writer. (This guy’s office would make a neat freak weep with joy.) He said he insisted his eight-year old son read a book a week all summer. It stuck. Years later he got a perfect score on the verbal part of the SAT exam.

So did Bob. This runs counter to the current millennials and even some earlier gens, who don’t read much at all. What’s a mother, or father, to do? Recent numbers from the Pew Research Center say a quarter of Americans don’t even read a book a year. This is not a reflection on their intelligence; one of the smartest guys Bob ever knew is an Irish guy who only owned two books, both Reader’s Digest condensed versions. That could have been because he couldn’t afford more, but he was loaded, so that wasn’t it.

But it does bring up the issue that books can get expensive. So how do you get cheap or free books if you’re not close to a library, or it doesn’t have many ebooks for download? If you type “Amazon.com Free Kindle Books” into Google.com, you get a list of hundreds. If you go to BookBub.com, they have links to 68,682 free or cheap children’s books. That should keep the little ones busy at bed time. To put the rest of us to sleep, they have 81,000 titles for adults. Some are free, some 99 cents, on up to $3. Gutenberg.org has 54,000 books you can download for free. Bartleby.com has fewer, but still close to a thousand at least.

On BookBub.com, check off favorite categories for devices like Kindle, Nook, Google Play, etc. You’ll see links to free or cheap books and get more suggestions in a daily email if you wish. By the way: You don’t need a Kindle to read a Kindle book, just add the Kindle app to your phone, tablet or computer; it’s free.

We checked off literary fiction, current events, science fiction and a few other categories. In came several freebies: “My Favorite Husband,” a screwball comedy by Pam McCutcheon,  as well as many best-sellers for $2, such as “The Informant,” by Kurt Eichenwald, a political thriller. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” about food choices, normally $14, was $2.

Handy Windows Shortcuts

Joy often finds some reason to use Bob’s computer, but he says it never works right afterwards. So recently, she signed on as a guest user. You can do this in Windows 10 by holding down the Alt key and tapping the F4 key; you’ll get a menu which includes “switch user.”  In Windows 7 and 8, hold down the “Ctrl,” and “Alt” keys and tap the “Delete” key. Then click “switch user.”

This led us to think about some other handy shortcuts, which are common but we’ve found not everybody knows them.

Win X:  Hold down the Windows key (looks like a flag) and tap the “X” key. This brings up Control Panel, Task Manager, System, Search and many other common functions. (Does not work with Windows XP.)

Ctrl C: Highlight some passage you want to copy by running over it with the mouse cursor, then hold down the “Ctrl” key and tap the “C” key.

Ctrl V: Hold down the “Ctrl” key and tap the “V” key to paste what you copied somewhere else.

Win Prt Scn: Hold down the Windows key and tap the Print Screen key to take a picture of anything on your screen. Use “Ctrl V” to paste it somewhere, like in an email, or Microsoft Word. (In Windows 7 and up, use the Windows snipping tool when you want to capture part of the screen.) Bring it into the free Windows “Paint” program to add comments, underlines, and so on.

Alt Tab: Hold down the “Alt” key and tap the Tab key to switch between an app, such as Microsoft Word, and a website, or between the thing you were working on before and what you’re working on now. This is handy to have a “notes” screen separate from your current screen.

Google Home Calling

At last we can make phone calls with “Google Home,” their new digital assistant device.

Joy said, “Hey Google, call Bob.” And sure enough, his cell phone started flashing, even  though the ringer was off. From across the room, Joy talked to the Google Home speaker and Bob answered.  The call quality sounded a like a really cheap speaker phone, but it could be  handy in an emergency. It’s also convenient. You might be sitting nowhere near your phone, and you can say, “Hey Google, call the nearest Chinese restaurant.” When you’re through,  say “Hey Google, hang up.”

These devices are fun. We often ask things like: “Is the hardware store still open?”  They can also tell you a joke or play quiz games. Recently, Joy had six ladies over for lunch and played a “name that tune” game, by asking Google Home to play music from the 50s, then the 60s, then the 70s. If someone didn’t know the answer, she could ask: “Hey Google, what’s playing?” Amazon’s Echo does this too, but the Google device seems to have better selections.

If you’re lured by one of the 5,000 apps available through Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot, be aware that the small Echo Dot has its own tiny speaker but doesn’t sound as well as the more expensive Echo version. However, you can plug in your own speakers. As usual, prices are coming down: $45 for the Echo Dot, $109 for Google Home. There’s also the “Echo Show,” if you want a screen to see the answers to your questions, and a smart webcam to judge your fashion sense.

Internuts

  • Christiane Vulpius and Goethe

    EDX.org has free college courses from leading universities. We’re trying a world literature class from Harvard, which started by taking us to Goethe’s home in Weimar, Germany and giving us a charming account of his life there. Each video is about three minutes long.

  • Science4fun.info has easy experiments and projects for kids. We like the “Make Your Own Lava Lamp” (without electricity).
  • Pests.org has guides for getting rid of bed bugs, mosquitoes, mice, stink bugs, cockroaches, flies and other pests.

 

 

DUMPING THE STUFF

Nearly two years ago we wrote about an outfit that buys your unwanted CDs, books, movies and other assorted flotsam and jetsam of everybody’s life. To paraphrase a popular expression: “junk happens.”

The relief service is called Decluttr, and its parent company, musicMagpie, sells over one million products on eBay and 700,000 on Amazon. They’re the biggest seller we’ve never heard of, and maybe the biggest buyer. They’ll pay you for almost any used CD, movie, or video game and they’ll cover the shipping. They also buy game consoles, iPods, Kindles, some books and wearables, such as the FitBit.

You start by downloading the Decluttr app to your Android or iPhone, and scanning barcodes or entering whatever information you have about the soon-to-be departed. Using the app is fast and if you change your mind about any item, just click the “x” to delete it from your list.

So Joy started by listing a CD titled “The Best of the Canadian Brass.” She likes it and has no intention of selling it, this was just a test. Decluttr offered 21 cents (I think we mentioned this is a not a way to make big money.) Moving right along, they would give her 20 cents for a double CD of James Taylor’s music, and $1.53 for a new book about working with the Arduino microcontroller.

But then she went to Decluttr’s new store at Decluttr.com/us/store to see they were charging $3.19 for the James Taylor album. That was cheaper than Amazon’s price of $6.27. The Arduino book, by the way, was $25 on Amazon.

That’s a big spread between what you get and what they get and clearly you could make more by selling this stuff on your own. If we still had our old Samsung Galaxy S3, for example, they’d give us $28 for it, about 60 percent of what we got on eBay. So what it boils down to is convenience. As they like to say in Silicon Valley whenever they have a product that isn’t working perfectly but is sort of in the ballpark: “Just move it out the door.” It’s a way to clear space at the warehouse — which in this case, would be your home or garage.

Should you want to buy more stuff (and who doesn’t?), go to the Decluttr online store. (To find it fast, Google the words “Decluttr store”). They sell iPads, tablets, phones, game consoles and music. For example, a seven year-old iPad sells for $72 when we looked. (Ours was around $500 back in those early days and is still fine for looking at websites and reading books, but most new apps won’t work.)  An iPad Mini 2 like the one we bought four years ago, costs $162, or $245 on Amazon. A Samsung Galaxy Note 5 with Verizon service sells for $365 on Amazon, but $245 on Decluttr.com.

The Best Password. For now.

A few weeks ago, the rules for passwords underwent a big re-think. Well, at least the advice for making passwords. Most businesses, schools, libraries, etc., are still way behind — though we expect them to catch up in a few years.

Back in the mists of time, Bill Burr, a mid-level manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency, wrote an eight-page publication to describe the best way to create passwords. He said you should have at least seven characters, including at least one capital letter, one number and one symbol. We’ve all been doing that ever since and he’s the guy to blame.

Now he says he’s sorry, he made a mistake; a password comprised of a long, easy-to-remember phrase is much harder to crack. How much harder? Well, he figured out the typical password created using his original advice could be cracked by a randomizing computer program in about three days — depending on the speed of the computer, of course. But cracking a password made up of a long, easy-to-remember phrase  — you pick it — would take much longer.

A couple years ago we suggested making a password out of the first letter of each word in a song title, and then made a mistake on our own favorite title. That helps, actually. We mean, as long as you remember the mistake.

A Reader Cruises High Seas

A reader wrote to say: “My wife and I just returned from a cruise. Cruise ships are infamous for obscene charges for inferior phone service.”

Actually, hotels are known for that too. We’ll never forget the $264 we were charged by the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach. Calif., for making just one phone call. “That’s our policy,” they said. Our policy is never to stay there again.

The reader’s Cruise Ship solution was to sign up for Verizon’s international plan. They charge $10 every 24 hours, but only if you use it. “The service is much faster and cheaper than the ship’s rip-off,” he notes. You can skip any number of  days or weeks without incurring a charge. You get a free text an hour before the start of a new 24-hour period. So if you don’t need the Internet that day, change your phone settings to airplane mode to avoid being charged.

Internuts

Tower: “TWA 2341, for noise reduction turn right 45 Degrees.” TWA 2341 responds: “Center, we are at 35,000 feet. How much noise can we make up here?” Tower: “Sir, have you ever heard the noise a 747 makes when it hits a 727?”

More Money

After we mentioned the website unclaimed.org, to track down money owed you, a reader gave us his expert tips. Working for AMC and Loews theaters, he reclaimed over $750,000. Sometimes the missing money hadn’t come in simply because the envelope was wrongly addressed.

His key insight: You have to search states you never lived in. His girlfriend, for example, got a check from California, because PayPal is located there. Chicago, he writes, is “notorious for blocking you from getting money back, and California lost a federal case for not returning money.” MetLife keeps millions from old insurance policies, he says, but his mom got $600 back from them.

His other insight: Go beyond unclaimed.org. They claim to have every state’s database, but they don’t, he says. For instance, they have four listings for Missouri, but the official Missouri website has twice that many.

 

FUN WITH WEBSITE NAMES

We learned some interesting things about websites. For example, the minimum length for a website ending, which refers to the site’s “domain,” is two letters. There are more than one billion web sites and every possible letter combination has been taken.

We went to GoDaddy.com to verify this and searched on tv.tv. Sure enough, it’s taken, though apparently it isn’t being used. (If you go to tv.tv, it just hangs there. It’s sort of a no-show show.) The domain name “tv” is for the Pacific island country of Tuvalu.

Domain name sales are big business. HomeAway.com bought VacationRentals.com for $35 million back in 2009.  You can buy the website name “TV.xyz” for $3,250. “TV.lgbt” is $4000. We know a few people who profited from this kind of sale back in the day. It’s harder now to buy a site name that isn’t already owned by someone. If it isn’t taken, it costs $12 to register. LOL: lots of luck.

You might want a website ending in “TM.” That’s the country extension for Turkmenistan, but it also stands for “trademark.” Some companies use a website ending in “.co,” the country code for Columbia, because it sounds corporate. Instant messaging programs like to use “.im,” which is from the Isle of Man. “Ly” used to be popular; it’s from Libya, but there have been problems.

Fun With Electronics

Robotic Artist

What does a woman really want for her birthday? An Arduino, that’s what. Bob got Joy an electronics kit for her birthday, complete with soldering iron and extra parts. Its core is a microcontroller called the “Arduino Uno,” which is about the size of a business card. Then “The Arduino Inventor’s Book” came in for review. This is an actual micro-controller, as they say, a kind miniature computer, and should you want one it will set you back $20-$30 by itself.

The Arduino controller uses computer programs to make things happen in the so-called real world. Joy’s first project was to make the Uno’s little LED light pulse like a heartbeat. From there, she created a blinking message in Morse Code. The next project involved blinking red eyes on a toy spider. Next, she hopes to weave lights into fabric to make a Halloween costume, or perhaps a mobile advertising board.

Bob bought her a kit: the “Ultimate Microcontroller Pack,” $84 on Amazon, which includes its own instruction book. But there’s a much better one available from No Starch Press: “The Arduino Inventor’s Book.” If you work with that one you’ll want to get the “SparkFun Inventor’s Kit, version 3.3,” which is $100 from SparkFun.com. The book itself is $30 from NoStarch.com.

You can make an electronic turtle that draws pictures on paper, or a simulated greenhouse, a tiny electric piano, an animation machine and more. Remember, you have to put this thing together yourself, so these paragraphs should only be read by kids who are less than twelve years old, or people who are still that old in their hearts.

Fun Buying a New TV

Our elderly neighbor asked us to go TV shopping with her. We did and were surprised at how far behind the curve we were, TV-wise, that is.

We remember when so-called “4K TVs” came out just four years ago. A 55-inch set, which is admittedly pretty big, sold for around $20,000; the very largest still do. Three months later, they cost $7,000. Our neighbor just bought a 43-incher from LG for $427. She was tempted to buy a four-year warranty, but we told her we never buy the extended warranty; they’re  usually not worth it — except for the store that sells it — and anyway: she would be 102 by the time it expired.

Of course it’s worth noting that just as the TV manufacturers measure their screens diagonally, instead of vertically — apparently under the belief that many of us watch television at a 45-degree angle — so they think packing a lot of dots on the screen provides a sharper picture. For most people, the viewing difference is slight, and for some it’s non-existent. But hey, that’s marketing.

What amazed us the most was the “4K TV” so highly touted as the most advanced just a couple years ago, is now standard. If you want to see a plain-old high definition (HD) TV, the salesperson leads you into a closet, scornfully chuckling all the way, and leaves you there to grope around in the dark.

A “4K Ultra HD” has four times the picture quality of ordinary HD TV. That’s about eight million pixels, compared to around two million for regular HD. A pixel is a dot. How can they fit in all those pixels? Make em smaller.

It’s so close to the experience of an actual movie theater you might as well stay home, which an increasing number of people are doing. In an obvious effort to reverse this trend, MoviePass.com  is now offering a movie theater ticket a day if you pay $10 a month. You get the tickets on your smart phone. Are there that many good movies? Not a chance.

The big question is, what’s the point of having a 4K TV if there isn’t any 4K content? A 4K TV comes with access to Netflix, Amazon, UltraFlix, Fandango Now, and Vudu, and they all have some 4K content, but not a lot. Netflix’s original series are all in 4K, but you have to pay $12 a month instead of $8 a month to get it; there are 122 of them.  YouTube has about a hundred 4K titles but they are for sale, not rent, and start at $25 each.

Bottom line? No rush. Our Sony TV from 2012 still looks great. There’s not enough 4K content to justify getting a new one. We now expect the usual hate mail from TV makers.

Fun In the Woods

Our nephew just got married and his bride loves camping. So we got them an “Adventure Ultra” for powering up gadgets in the deep, dark forest. It will help find the way to grandma’s house.

The Ultra, $130 from MyCharge.com, can power phones, laptops, fans, lamps, Bluetooth speakers and small LED TVs (32 inches). Plug a TV into its regular outlet and keep it going for three hours. There are four ports for USB devices. How much power do you get? You can charge a smart phone eight times or a laptop twice; weighs a pound and a half.

Internuts

  • 20 Years Ago, Steve Jobs Demonstrated the Perfect Way to Respond to an Insult.” Or so the title says. Google those words (or click the link) to get some advice. First, use silence to collect your thoughts. Acknowledge your adversary’s point. Note that when many decisions are made, mistakes can be made. Say things are much better than they were and your team is working hard. Bob prefers other responses to insults.
  • 23 Awesome Things You Didn’t Learn In School.” Search on that phrase to see short animations of the Pythagorean Theorem, a baby’s face forming, and a cheetah’s tail balancing the animal’s angular momentum as it turns at top speed.

 

 

 

THE NEW PAINTER

It’s summertime and art shows have sprung out all over. Every time we go to one we see paintings that might have been done with a computer program. Some of them they are, and they’re often the best in the show.

One artist whose work we liked said she used Ulead PhotoImpact, an old program you can find for about $5 on the web. We like it too and have used it for many years. On the other end of the scale is the new Corel Painter, which sells for $429, for Windows 10 or Mac.

This is the program to get if you want the kind of effects professionals get. You can recreate brush strokes, palette knife smears, colors that drip or wash out — for those special casual watercolor effects, and it’s all digital. Check out examples by Googling the phrase “Corel User Galleries.” The examples are knockouts. You can try out some yourself at Learn.Corel.com, where you can  download a 30-day free trial and paint along.

When you watch painters painting with a computer program, it looks like they are using brushes dripping with paint, but they’re using only a stylus. Painter’s new “thick paint” lets you carve into, scrape, and push around paint using the digital equivalent of palette knives. (The Italian for this scratching technique is “Sgrafitto,” and it’s been around since ancient times; it’s the common technique for decorating ancient Greek vases.) Add thick layers or nubby texture to a two-dimensional picture to make it look three dimensional. You can change the lighting as you paint, to produce effects like parts that seem to be shining. We watched an artist digitally painting on top of a photograph that was showing beneath the surface of his screen. That kinda makes it easier to do someone’s portrait.

Now there will be the usual spontaneous protest demonstrations by purists. And to them we say: Before the 18th century artists mixed their own paints and made their own brushes; now they go to the store. Times change. When Beethoven composed his sonatas and concertos, the piano was a new instrument; the word was short for “piano forte,” meaning it could go either soft or loud, unlike its predecessor, the harpsichord, which has only one level. The piano was the modern synthesizer of its day. Times change; art is up to the artist.

 Find That Phone

One of us (we dasn’t say who) is always misplacing her cell phone. (Oops.) We can call its number from another phone or ask Alexa to do that if we can’t find another phone or are just feeling too lazy to look for one.  But what if the lost phone is off? Aye, there’s the rub.

For Android phones, go to google.com/android/devicemanager, sign in, and ask your phone to ring. It will ring even if you’ve silenced the ringer. Unfortunately, it won’t work if your battery is dead or the phone is off. Nothing can be done about that; dead phones are dead.

For iPhones, go to icloud.com and put in your user name and password. Click  “Find my iPhone.” When a map comes up, click “devices” in the upper left, choose your device and click “play sound.” Unfortunately,  you have to have the “Find My iPhone” app set up on your phone first. For instructions on that, go to YouTube.com and search on “How to Use Find My iPhone.”

Safe Travels

A reader pinned us down about a travel router we wrote about recently. To avoid unsafe WiFi networks in hotels, we suggested using the “RavPower FileHub Plus,” to share your phone’s cellular connection with other devices. That turned out to be expensive and well, let’s face it: wrong.

It turns out that the $40 FileHub shares either a WiFi or wired connection, not cellular.  That’s actually a good thing, because a cellular connection gets expensive fast as you eat up data. But it begs the question: Is using a so-called “travel router” any safer than using the hotel’s naked Internet connection? You bet.

Yes, an extra layer of security is added because you’re prompted to use your own password. Hackers are unlikely to be able to listen in, unless you’re one of those people who choose “password” for your password.

But the manual for this thing is a hundred pages long and far too tech-y. Our reader said the real instructions start on page 44 and he wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing — even though he’s a retired Information Technology guy! But the travel router did create a more secure WiFi connection for all of his devices. (Years ago we used to complain about the people who write tech manuals but it was like whistling into the wind and we gave it up.)

Another option is the “Nano Travel Router” from TP-Link, $25 on Amazon. It’s so small, it could fit in your glasses case. (You should get one of those tracker stickers so that later you can find your glasses.) Like the RAVPower, it creates a secure WiFi hotspot so that all of your devices can get on the Internet safely in a hotel or other public environment. The RAVPower FileHub gets higher ratings, possibly because it also stores a lot of movies. But Amazon recommends the one from TP-Link.

Ancestry.com versus 23andMe

Joy was disappointed when Ancestry.com said she had no Cherokee Indian heritage. According to her grandmother, her grandmother’s father was a full Cherokee.  So she sent a DNA sample to  23andMe and got a health report to boot.

Unfortunately, this report also showed zero Native American heritage. The  best explanation she could think of was that some whites were captured by Indians or joined voluntarily and grew up with the tribe. Ben Franklin once complained about the large number of colonists who chose to leave civilization for the life of the tribe. So perhaps Joy’s ancestor lived as a Cherokee but had no Cherokee blood.

The basic 23andMe report is $99, and if you order a health report too, the total is $199.  It’s full of info. Joy’s dad had Parkinson’s disease, so she was happy to learn that she had no genetic variants for Parkinson’s. She has a 30 percent chance of getting Alzheimer’s after age 85, though diet and exercise can prevent it, even when the odds are much higher. The report has dozens of oddball observations as well, such as whether you have the elite athlete’s genes for sprinting. (Joy does not.)  It said she was likely able to handle more caffeine than most people. (Not true.) They also said she was likely to weigh more than the average woman of her height. They said the average American woman who is 5’6″ weighs 167 pounds, but Joy weighs 118. So the bottom line (so to speak) is that the current fashion for having your DNA read does not produce infallible results.

 

BACKING UP AND BEEPING

We recently mentioned using “File History” in both Windows 10 and Windows 8 because it backs up changes you make to your files. You can find it by typing the name in the Windows search box. Another solution is “Google Backup and Sync.” It’s free and somewhat simpler and works for both Windows and Mac. It automatically backs up all your files, or just the ones you mark; it also keeps tracks of the files you delete.

We were deleting some old stuff recently and Google Backup  popped up with a message to ask if we wanted to also delete them from our Google Drive account, which is online storage. This is also free and if you use Gmail for your email service, you get the Google Drive storage automatically with it. We said yes. Whether you use Gmail or  some other email service, like Outlook or Yahoo, you’ll want to get the backup-and-sync program  by going to Google.com/drive/download.

If you need to find a file or photo you deleted accidentally, go to Drive.Google.com and type the name of the file in the search box. If you can’t remember the name, look through the list of everything you’ve stored there and hopefully you will recognize it when you see it.

Fun With Numbers

Let’s have some fun with techno-numbers. If we’re going to save things to Google Drive, and ask questions all the time, how much data does a giant data handler like Google hold?

Well, does anyone still remember punch cards? Plenty of people probably do. We used to feed these paperboard cards into IBM card readers, and that told their ridiculously expensive huge air-conditioned computer what to do and how to do it. You can still see this in action in some old movies; it’s done to convey a sense of modern technology at work.

An educated guess is that Google has a storage capacity of 15 exabytes, which is 15,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, each byte representing a letter or number, or what they call a character. A punch card can hold about 80 of these characters. So15 exabytes would require enough punch cards  to cover  all of New England to a depth of about three miles. This would definitely depress property values

How many servers does it take to handle that much data? Well a server is a term used for a very powerful computer but not a supercomputer, say one that’s somewhere between ten to a hundred times more powerful than what we have on our desks. In actual use, the only part of that computer they use is a circuit board with all the requisite chips on it — no need for a screen or keyboard or any of that extra stuff that humans need — and they stack those boards up on racks  It’s estimated that Google has at least one million of them; this number is constantly increasing. Amazon probably has about two million servers. Very impressive. Not easy to compete with that. Facebook probably has about 70,000 to 80,000 servers, which is enough to handle a billion or more people at a time sharing photos, updates and snaggy remarks about politicians.

Most of this stuff is what we would call “guesstimates,” but it won’t be that far off. The amount of electricity required to keep the wheels turning, so to speak, may be as a much as one percent of world output. But it’s worth it, and much more productive than lighting night ballgames.

Facebook Tips

We get a lot more birthday greetings on Facebook than we ever remember to give out. Guilt, guilt, guilt.

How come everyone else is  on the ball? We discovered their secret, and it’s simple. On Facebook.com, click “Events” from the list on s the left. Then click “birthdays.” You’ll see a list of who has a birthday this week and later on.

Here’s another tip: To chat back and forth with a Facebook friend, click “Messenger” in the top left under “News Feed.” If you can’t find your friend in the list on the left, just type their name in the search box at the top. Click “Message”  to send them a private message. This is  similar to texting on a phone.

Internuts

  • PlaneteEBook.com has over 80 classics available for free download. Joy has read so many classics, there are only 12 she hasn’t read yet, like George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” and “Ulysses” by James Joyce. You can read them online or download to your phone, tablet or computer.
  • EWG.org/skindeep lets you check the ingredients in cosmetics, lotions and other products to find out if they’re cancer-causing or otherwise unsafe. We expected to find a lot of scary stuff listed in “Cetaphil,” a lotion our dermatologist recommends but it wasn’t too bad. Sure enough, the cyclopentasiloxane, ceteareth 20, benzyl alcohol, farnesol, sodium hydroxide, sodium polyacrylate and  phenoxyethanol carried a modest risk, but the other 17 ingredients seem OK. Hey, beauty has its price. (Bob hates cosmetics.)

Central Casting

We cast movies from our phone to our TV screen using Google’s $35 “Chromecast.” A reader wondered about the $69 “Chromecast Ultra.”

“Chromecast Ultra” is like the Chromecast, but offers a richer looking picture. Like the Roku player, and the Amazon Firestick, it brings in many channels: Netflix, Hulu Plus and Google Play. But unlike Roku and the Amazon Firestick, it can’t bring in Amazon Prime video. Apple TV is another way to mirror the contents of your phone or iPad onto the TV.

If you have the original Chromecast, you may want to move up a generation, to the $35 version. We recently looked at our friend’s TV using an original Chromecast, and the picture was muddy. But you don’t have to go all the way to Chromecast Ultra, unless you have a 4K TV and want the best picture possible. We helped our friend install the regular Chromecast in its latest version and the picture improved dramatically.